What's in a name? That which we call a Coach by Yvonne Thackray

A 3 part series that briefly explores how coaching came into being. I trace its history starting from the 16th Century as a mode of transport, through to its usage in sport in the 18th and 19th Century, and to its present day usage as a management concept in the late 20th Century. 

Part 1: The Semantic History of Coaching

Traveling in France or Le départ de la diligence Drawing by George Cruikshank (1818).A black box surrounds coaching, especially around how the word ‘coach’ transformed from being an object i.e. a carriage or ‘kocsi’ that was first used to describe a new kind of vehicle that was Kocs, a place near Buda in Hungary, to its current representation of a skilful expert who works alongside management to ‘unlock a person’s potential [and] maximise their own performance’. The noun ‘coach’ stems from the Latin curro, ‘to run, to travel, to hurry, to speed, to move, to proceed, to traverse’.

Placing coaching in its historical context, Stec (2012: 232) identifies four distinct but overlapping phases, which is also complicated by the issue of payment and professionalism:

  1. A technology that was a medium of transportation (fifteenth century to present day);
  2. An object capable of conferring status (eighteenth century);
  3. A character in sport (nineteenth century to present day); and
  4. A management concept (late twentieth century).

The coach, in the context of carrying people from one place to another, has moved from horse pulled coaches to describing how much an individual is willing to pay for space and comfort on modern transportations. During the 18th and 19th Century, prestige was associated with the passenger (typically the aristocrats), and the coach driver who was capable of driving the horse and carriage with impressive speed, skill and responsibility for self and others. Coach drivers were admired for their impressive performance; and the gentlemen (amateurs) ‘sought coaching’ to drive a team of horses that pulled the coach that included rules of dress i.e. wearing the appropriate attire and the time before requesting coaching.

Within the 18th Century, references to a sport coach became firmly associated with athletic competitions via rowing, who were members of the working class like coach drivers. This was also a period of the revival of the cult of sport, Pierre de Coubertin and the Olympic games, in which the athlete symbolised ‘the key figure of ancient somatic idealism’ and ‘demonstrated an epochal change of emphasis in practice behaviour’ (Sioterdijk 2013: 27). In addition, educational reforms in 1870, particularly in England, increased the number of children (1.25-5million) attending school. This in turn required access to more sport coaches (retired professionals) because sports were an integral part of the curricula for achieving social control (Stec 2012a).

The coach (object/technology) represents two things: a contraption that carried its passenger from place to place, and something that needed to be controlled and skilfully steered by the coach driver who needed to understand the assemblage (team of horses, carriage and its suspension, road conditions, acceptable comfort levels to the passengers versus speed). Accepting that technology (the coach) comes before the driver, he only becomes foregrounded after he has demonstrated his capabilities. Whilst in sports, the coach who was previously a professional or had credible experience in that game is now being paid to ‘coach’ others, from their experience, to improve athletes’ own performance in preparation for competitions and to watch from the sidelines[1].

In the 18th and 19th Century, professionalism tainted sport because it was viewed to be the equivalent of prostitution as professional sportsmen used their body to earn money (Stec 2012b).  Furthermore there was a mixing of class, and regardless of the values being promoted in sports, the aristocrats were not particularly interested in competing with others though it was important to maintain ‘the rules … the de facto removal of the labouring class from eligibility’ (Harper and Hammond 1977: 124 cited by Stec 2012b). Against the changing national landscape and the clashes of class and language, coaches persevered, and they are now integral to individual and team sports.

Moving into the twentieth century, sports coaches continued to thrive, and with the change in management techniques (post Taylorism and post Fordism) and an increase in leisure time and an affinity to sports, managers turned to books published by sports coach for inspiration.  This is also why business writers and executive coaches frequently draw upon the experiences of athletic team coaches of ‘bringing the best out of the individual and team’ to describe what they do in coaching but in a workplace context.

[1] We should caution though that not every professional sportsman can be a coach either. 


Sioterdijk, P., 2013. You must change your life on Anthropotechnics, Polity Press.

Stec, D., 2012a. The personification of an object and the emergence of coaching. Journal of Management History, 18(3), pp.331–358.

Stec, D., 2012b. Using history to comprehend the currency of a passionate profession. Journal of Management History, 18(4), pp.419–444. 

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