Why the Origin of the Word “Coach” Matters

Executive coaching and life coaching are popular ways of helping people achieve their goals. But everyone means something different by the term “coach.” The history of the word is instructive. Here is the story…

It all began in the Little Hungarian Plains of northwest Hungary in the village of Kocs. The name may have come from the word for ram, but the village is famous for an invention that changed the world.

In the 15th century, the village of Kocs made its living from building carts and transporting goods between Vienna and Budapest. Around this time, “an unknown carriage maker in Kocs devised a larger, more comfortable carriage than any known at the time. It was called a Koczi szeter, a ‘wagon of Kocs,’ which was shortened to kocsi,” writes Robert Hendrickson. [Author note: ‘wagon of Kocs’ is better translated kocsi szekér.]

Over the next century the kocsi  became popular and was copied throughout Europe. The name became kutsche in German, coche in French, and coach in English. “From the name of the English horse-drawn coach came all stagecoaches, motor coaches, and finally air coaches,” according to Hendrickson.

Coach as a Metaphor

Our modern use of the word “coach” is actually a metaphor. “Coach” was applied first in education, not athletics. In 18th century England, the term was used as a verb by students of tutors preparing them for exams. The slang reference for tutors became “coach” because tutors quickly and comfortably carried students to their goal of passing their exams.

Athletic coaches were known as “coachers” until the late 1880s, when the name transformed to “coaches.” For many people today, a sports coach yelling out instructions and corrections, comes to mind when they think of a coach. But this image equates more to an army drill sergeant, than a comfortable carriage.

What A Coach Does

I define a coaching as: an ongoing intentional conversation that empowers a person or group to fully live out their calling. In practice,

  • A coach focuses on the agenda of the client. The client decides which goals or problems to work on, not the coach.
  • A coach uses powerful questions to generate new learning. The coach does not teach or advise, but asks questions and listens.
  • A coach encourages action. The client develops his or her own action steps, not the assignments of the coach.
  • A coach supports change. A coach follows-up to support personal learning, growth, and change.

Through ongoing conversations, coaches facilitate personal growth and goal attainment quicker, easier, and more comfortably than going it alone.

Clients are figuratively “carried” to their desired result by the coaching process. That’s what “coach” really means.

Question: Share your thoughts on “coach” as a metaphor. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Reference: Hendrickson, Robert. (2000). The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (Rev. ed). New York: Checkmark Books. p.155.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    7 thoughts on “Why the Origin of the Word “Coach” Matters

    1. Keith, this is fascinating. So interesting to hear the actual history of the term “Coach” and to really think about what we mean as we use the term. Thanks for posting this!

      • Thanks Brian! The significance to the word really is that we are “carrying” people toward their desired results (not ours). Then the big question: What are the best ways to do that? That’s what my book The COACH Model for Christian Leaders is all about.

    2. I appreciate the actual history of the term, but it still doesn’t resonate with me. The idea of the coach comfortably carrying the coachee to the coachee’s desired destination always conjures a far too passive a role to me for the coachee. Reflecting on your article did raise the thought that rather than the coach carrying the coachee, it is the nature of the coaching process itself that needs to be comfortable and to carry the coachee forward. Thanks!

    3. Sorry Keith the argument you use for coaching is flawed. As you said the origin of the term is through education namely guiding students through exams. This inherently means the teacher having knowledge and understanding of the subject in order to help. What you describe, like John Whitmore, is counselling or facilitation where there is no need for technical knowledge of the subject. Why then not call it counselling? The example of the sports coach you give I do not recognise. It fails to address a large part of coaching which is athlete centred not barking instruction. I can live with coaching as a term used in sport but not yours for use in business.

      • I agree with you that some sports coaches, especially at elite levels, do coach in athlete-centered ways. I’m not addressing sport coaching here, but business coaching. Language is dynamic. The term “coach” has morphed into the business practice I describe. You may not recognize the current business practice of coaching, but it has been around for more than 20 years, with 28,000 members of the International Coach Federation, and has become a $2 billion industry globally.