The notion of “coaching” as a method of one person helping another goes back almost two centuries when it was first used in the early 19th century to describe a tutor at Oxford University who could carry a student through an exam, and it was first used in the context of sport several decades later in 1861 (Harper, 2014), and the term has been primarily used in the context of athletics since that time. Over the last several decades, the definition and the way we think about coaching has begun to evolve more rapidly, particularly with the rise of “evidence-based coaching” over the last decade since the First Evidence-Based Coaching Conference, which took place in July 2003 at the University of Sydney, Australia. This essay seeks to define and understand evidence-based coaching as well as discuss the strengths and weaknesses of an evidence-based approach to coaching.
Defining Evidence-Based Coaching
In order to understand the definition of “evidence-based coaching” we first need to explore more basic definitions of coaching, and then we need to better understand what the implications of basing the practice on evidence mean.
What is coaching?
The term “coach” originated from a name to describe a large type of carriage from the village of Kocs in Hungary, dating back to the fifteenth century (Harper, 2014). From about 1831, as mentioned above, the term began to be applied to a person who helped another person accomplish a goal (e.g. pass an exam) or improve performance, as in sport.
Over the last century, coaching has been primarily associated with sport and athletics, but since the early 1990s the term has been used increasingly applied to improving human performance and wellbeing more generally, and the number of practitioners has multiplied dramatically. In 1992, Whitmore (p. 18) defined coaching as “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance.” And several years later Hudson (1999) defined a coach as “a person who facilitates experiential learning that results in future-oriented abilities.”
Using empirical research, based on observation or experience, as a scientific approach to guide clinical or practical applications, in medicine and psychology, for example, is not new. Using clinical trials to justify and define medical treatments dates back at least to the 1940’s (Crofton & Mitchison, 1948), but the term “evidence based” appears to have evolved more recently, in the 1990’s in medicine (Eddy, 1990; Seshia & Young, 2013). It appears that the rise of an evidence-based approach was about standardization and to some degree a higher degree of professionalism, moving away from a more individual practice-based approach that incorporated individual experience a consensus of group experience based on individual and group clinical practice, to an approach that also includes “the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.” (Sackett, Rosenberg, Gray, Haynes, & Richardson, 1996) In their paper, Sacket et al. defined evidence-based medicine as “the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients.”
An evidence-based approach in psychology did not formally emerge until after 2000 (Bauer, 2007; Goodheart, 2005), when the APA Presidential Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice defined evidence-based psychological practice as “the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture, and preferences.” ("Evidence-based practice in psychology," 2006, p. 1)
Based on the literature from the time, it appears that the push for an evidence-based approach may have arisen from a more corporate or institutionalized approach to medicine, which demanded more evidence for clinical treatments, and it may have also been driven by the emergence and development of technologies to make broader empirical research and clinical trials more feasible and to more easily share and disseminate the results (e.g. via the internet), allowing practitioners to become more information-literate (Gibbs & Gambrill, 2002).
It also appears that at the time, there were individuals in the professions who were accustomed to following a more and who resisted the incorporation evidence from more rigorous research and testing into their practice. But it is difficult to argue against an evidence-based approach. Why would a profession based in the life or behavioral sciences reject such an approach, given that their fields are based on evidence gained from experience? As long as an evidence-based approach includes both empirical data and professional experience as part of the delivery model, it is hard to argue against an evidence-based approach, because it leverages the best of both sources of professional and clinical knowledge.
Applying "evidence-based" to coaching
Drawing from, or in alignment with, the discussions in medicine and psychology, Grant (2005, p. 7) argues that evidence-based coaching is “the intelligent and conscientious use of the best current knowledge in making decisions about how to deliver coaching to clients and in designing and teaching coaching training programs”. This approach aligns with approaches put forward in both medicine and psychology, and is our next subject of discussion.
Why evidence-based coaching?
Over the last several decades, the field of life and workplace coaching has exploded, but with few professional standards and without any real governance. Individuals can call themselves a “coach” without any certification or training, and they can use whatever approach they choose. Organizations like the International Coach Federation and the Association for Coaching have emerged as interest groups and certifying bodies, but they lack the legal recognition that medical and psychological associations do. In most developed countries people can’t legally claim to be medical doctors or psychologists unless they are certified by a professional governing body or licensing entity, but the same is not true for coaching.
In order for coaching to mature into a credible and reliable field and proactive, we must leverage and evidence based approach, using supporting evidence from the four key domains that directly relate to coaching: business and economic science, the behavioral sciences (including psychology and sociology), adult education, and philosophy (Grant, 2005). An evidence-based approach to coaching is important to the field and to coaching professionals both because it adopts an informed-practitioner model (Grant, 2005) that helps coaches to better predict the outcomes of our interventions, making us more effective, and this effectiveness, in turn, enhances our credibility.
Toward an evidence-based approach
Critics of an evidence-based approach in medicine have objected because they claim the approach denigrates clinical experience, ignores patients’ values and preferences, and that it promotes a “cookbook” approach based on ivory-tower concepts (Stober, 2006, p. 4). But these objections appear to be more based on a fear that the “art” of the practice and the personal and shared experience would be lost in clinical practice, a fear of change, and a fear of learning new skills. But these concerns have failed to clearly justify real weaknesses in the evidence-based approach, unless, of course, practitioners become too rigid and lose site of the importance of individual and group experience as part of the equation. And evidence-based approach doesn’t mean that everything approach must be supported by an empirical study, it just means that coaches need to make best use of the information currently available, and some of that will only exist in their own experience.
It is understandable that coaches already in practice would react the same way, especially given the historical dearth of coaching-related literature upon which they can base their work, and based on the highly personal nature of their work. But the available literature is growing. Grant’s (Straus & McAlister, 2000) survey showed that there were 2-3 times more coaching-related peer-reviewed papers published in the 1990’s (41 papers) than any prior decade, and this century started off with even faster growth with 52 such papers published by 2003. A similar but informal review of the literature using PsychINFO now shows 520 such papers published since 2000. So it appears safe to say that both the available evidence for coaches is growing rapidly and dramatically, and that there is a growing trend toward a more evidence-based approach.
If the trend is toward an evidence-based approach in coaching, what do coaches, coaching associations, and academics need to do realize an evidence-based coaching industry? It appears that there are 3 primary things that need to be done. First, more training programs need to embrace the approach and train their students to use evidence-based methods. This is beginning to happen. Second, the coaching associations (ICF, AFC) need to include evidence-based approaches in their certifications of coach training programs (given the current state of the industry, with many coach training programs not addressing evidence based approaches, this may need to be phased in over a number of years). And finally, more needs to be done to educate potential clients of coaching about evidence-based approaches and why it works, in order to stimulate more demand for evidence-based coaching, which will in turn, drive demand for more evidence-based education and certification programs.
Based on the discussion above, we now understand more clearly what an evidence-based approach to coaching is, what the rationale behind the approach is, and what the relative merits of the approach are. We also have a better understanding of what the current state of evidence-based coaching is, and what steps the industry would likely need to take to more fully adopt this approach.