5 Coaching Definitions Better Than The Dictionary
Updated: May 3
I believe the dictionary definition of coaching is wrong.
What you'll notice from this definition is its focus on advising, instruction, and teaching.
What I've come to learn, though, is that effective coaching has a very different set of qualities.
I've gathered 5 alternative definitions that better describe the qualities of coaching. I also explore these definitions in this video
The first coaching definition comes from the world of sports. We typically associate coaching with that vision of the coach at the sidelines shouting instructions to the players on the pitch.
The reality, however, for elite sports coaches, is that it's not about shouting instructions from the pitch. It's actually a different kind of coaching that is focused on unlocking the potential of the team.
The best coaching definition in the sports world comes from Timothy Galway, the author of the Inner Game of Tennis.
"Coaching is unlocking a person's potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them."
- Timothy Gallwey
You'll see from this definition, it's less about telling and instruction. And it's more about a journey of self-discovery, and helping someone to learn rather than teaching them.
I've examined many sports coaches to understand how to coach at the highest level. In particular, England Rugby Head Coach has been a source of inspiration. In this article, I dissect his coaching approach which reinforces the idea that coaching, even in the sporting world, is primarily not telling people what to do.
The next coaching definition is professional coaching. The coaching industry at large is not well, regulated or understood. The International Coaching Federation is one of the professional bodies that aims to uphold the ethics and standards of the industry.
Here's the definition of coaching from the International Coaching Federation (ICF).
Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain and complex environment. Coaches honour the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole.
- International Coaching Federation
You'll notice from this coaching definition, that again, it's not about instruction or advising, but it's really about self-discovery. It is helping the person explore their potential and that belief that they're the expert. It's the coach's role to unlock their potential through providing professional coaching.
The next definition is especially helpful for managers in organizations. If you are a manager, it's likely that you're expected to do some form of coaching. But what kind of coaching is that?
Many managers believe the dictionary definition is what they should be doing. They should be telling people what to do, they should be advising, instructing, and teaching.
However, if you're a manager that wants to unlock the potential in your team, it's unlikely that that kind of coaching is going to result in good outcomes. Instead, I believe there's a different form of coaching that could be more effective for managers in the workplace. A better definition of coaching for managers comes from John Whitmore, the author of Coaching for Performance.
Unlocking people's potential to maximize their own performance.
- John Whitmore
This definition is again contrasted to the dictionary definition. It's grounded in this belief that the individual holds the answers to unlock their performance. The coaches responsibility is not to provide all the answers and direction. Instead, a coach will use powerful questions and listen well, to help a person find their own way forward.
John Whitmore also popularized the framework called the Grow Model, which is especially helpful for managers who want to coach in the workplace.
If you work in a technology or product organization, you're probably very aware of this role. Now this definition of coaching is slightly similar to that of the dictionary. Agile Coaches often do provide instruction, advice and teach the team. I believe that Agile Coach is better described as Agile Mentor as many focus mainly on the advice part of the role. Great Agile Coaches however realise that it's not just all about advising, telling and instructing. There's also an important part of coaching in the role.
Lyssa Adkins, the author of Coaching Agile Teams shares this agile coaching definition as:
In the context of agile teams, coaching takes on the dual flavor of coaching and mentoring. Yes, you are coaching to help someone reach for the next goal in their life. You are also sharing your agile experiences and ideas as you mentor them, guiding them to use agile well. Coaching and mentoring are entwined for the sake of developing talented agilists so that more and better business results arise through agile.
- Lyssa Adkins
The final definition is Life Coaching. Perhaps the most general and broadest type of coaching. Life Coaching really looks at the person's whole experience. It seeks to explore what can unlock a person performance in many different facets of their life.
This type of coaching has been popularized by many self-help gurus. If you spend a few minutes googling life coaching, you'll come across an endless number of programs courses that aim to say they'll change your life in a matter of days, if not hours. The problem with life coaching is again because coaching is an unregulated industry. The quality and experience of these life coaches across the industry are very mixed. Some may have taken a professional route and taken the proper training, others may have just pretty much paid for a certificate and downloaded it off the internet. So life coaching can be again another area that's very widely misunderstood.
One of the most popular and well-known life coaching gurus is Tony Robbins. On his website, he shares this Life Coaching definition:
The life coach definition is someone professionally trained to help you maximize your full potential and reach your desired results. They are like a supportive friend and a trusted adviser rolled into one. They’re someone who will push you to identify your goals, hold you accountable and provide encouragement throughout your journey to become a better version of yourself.
- Tony Robbins
You'll notice again in this definition, it's not a focus on advising, instruction, and telling. It's using techniques to unlock the person's potential, and help them realize what's possible.
So to conclude, these are five definitions of coaching that I believe, encapsulate the power and the quality of coaching better than the dictionary definition.
The key takeaway is that coaching is not primarily about advising, telling or instructing. The key thing about coaching is really about self-discovery.
The role of the coach is really to use techniques that enable a person or a team to self discover the answer.