History of Coaching

Where coaching came – an explanation of how coaching got here

Welcome to the history of coaching where you will discover how coaching as a practice has evolved from sports roots to academic to sports and today business. Let us begin this journey where else but Ancient Greece and the Olympics where we find the first coaches (they weren’t “coaches” but they did the same role – we’ll get the origins of the word ‘coach’ once we get to the 1500s and Hungary).

Origins of the Word and Role

Ancient Greece and the Olympics – Agonistarchs – first coaches

Picture the scene – it’s 8BC, a hot August day in Olympia, Greece and Zeus and his mate Pelops is looking down on you as you take to the track for some good old chariot racing or simple fighting (you wouldn’t know it’s 8BC or August but we’re trying to place you in time). It’s a big day as you’ve had to wait four years or more specifically an olympiad for this chance to prove yourself. To make sure you are in the best shape you have assistance through an agonistarch (translated from Greek to Latin to mean contestant-leader or combatant-ruler) who has helped you be ready before you compete. Through good fortune you are victorious in the games and become a celebrity for the next olympiad. The agonistarch retires until the next competitors asks for help.

The specific role and responsibilities of an agonistarch is not clear with no details on what one did. The translation of the greek “agonist” meaning combatant or engage in struggle with “arch” meaning ruler or commander as in monarch) creates “combat ruler” (remember this is Ancient Greek to ancient Latin to English so translations are tricky) suggesting someone having experience in the event the competitor was going to compete in. Therefore it’s not a stretch to see these people as the first coaches as we know them from a sporting content.

Carrying on our storyline your first games set a standard that created a generation of Olympians until 394AD when the Greek games were banned by Roman emperor Theodosius along with all other pagan festivals. Just in case your great, great… grand children though about competing anyway Theodosius the Second in 426AD destroyed all the Greek temples just to be sure so. With the banning of the games the need for agonistarchs goes away and with it the history of coaching disappears for about 1500 years where our story continues in Hungary making wagons.

Side Bar – Mentoring

Whilst we are talking about the Greeks and what have they done for us it’s worth taking a small detour into the origins on mentoring. Famous poet and author Homer followed up on this first best seller ‘The Iliyad‘ with ‘The Odyssey‘ carrying on the tales of Odysseus trying to get back home to his wife and son. His 20 year old son Telemachus is supported by Mentor who is supposed to help Telemachus but is frankly a bit rubbish so Athena Odysseus’s protector comes to the rescue stopping his wife carrying on with some other suitor. So even in Ancient Greek mentors were not that great but it does give us the origins of the word mentor to support from experience even if not very effective.

Wagons to People Carriers

Our next stop on our journey finds us in a village in Hungary today called Kocs. During the reign of King Matthias Corvinus in the mid-15th century the wheelwrights built a horse drawn vehicle that had steel-spring suspension called a “Kocsi szekér” or Kosci four wheeled waggon. Four wheeled wagons where not new but the idea of adding suspension was a game changer as it meant that people (rich people as creating the suspension wouldn’t have been cheap) could be carried from one place to the next instead of purely on horse. The idea of Kosci waggon transporting people took off across Europe promoted by the royal families creating new versions which like the Kosci waggon has location based names however the original Kosci is the root of the modern word for coach coming through German (Kotsche now Kutsche), French (Coche) and English (Coach).

The idea of a coach physically carrying people was created. The next step is for people to carry people and we move from Hungary to the spires of Oxford University.

Student Carrier

The third step on our journey to understanding coaching combines the first two steps: 1) helping or training someone (angiostarch) and 2) carrying people (coaches). From the quiet wheelwrights of Kocs who made the coaches for royalty and wealthy we carry through time to around 1830 and on pull up to a fine college where we find a student preparing for his exams (no women allowed at the this point). Oxford and Cambridge Universities operate a college based systems where all students are first members of a college who make up the University through facilities like history, English or sciences. The colleges provide housing, catering, sports and other communal activities and support functions. One of these support functions are weekly tutorials where students are helped to work through lecture based challenges. Students had help through their studies perhaps only at exam time through a “coach” by supporting or carrying the student through the/to their exams like a mechanical coach would transport someone from point A to B. This the first time that we see a reference albeit not detailed of a coach supporting a person in their performance in this case an exam.

The next step is not a very close hop to many of the schools that provider students to Oxford, Cambridge and other universities in the mid-19th century along with a change in the working conditions and timings of working-class people as the United Kingdom expands it’s Empire.

Competitive Sports – fun and free time

We started this journey in sunny Olympia looking to compete in the games with the help of an angiostarch or trainer/coach. After picking up the word coach meaning to help someone in a defined outcome we return to sports where most people are familiar with the word. This part of the coaching story comes from the formation of inter-school games and the creation of leisure time.

Public School Sports

We are still in the 1830s but in a public school were children are sent away to be educated paid for by their parents. To the non-British reader in the United Kingdom public schools are private, paid for, schools not to be confused with schools where the public go which are state schools). At this time things in the United Kingdom notably England had started settled down for a bit after many years of pro-longed fighting with the French (Napoleon was finally defeated in June 1815 at Waterloo) and the country continued to grow due of mass manufacturing industry starting back in 1760 (now known as the industrial revolution). This peace and prosperity meant those that had the time could afford to spend some of it at play and when you have schools full of young men a lot of these games involved chasing or carrying some form of ball from one location to the other generally through rough contact. These schools like Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester etc had similar games due to teachers moving from one school to another. Although similar the games were not the same due to local variations from kicking the ball to picking it up and running with it giving us football and Rugby football as it came out of Rugby school who codified their rules.

As the schools got bigger and the introduction of the railways in the 1830s (more on that later) meant that schools could start to play each other common rules where needed. The need for common rules across the countries of the United Kingdom meant that school competitions could be set up and shared. By the late 19th century many of the common sports we see today had a set of rules and a governing body of some sort. This was the first part of creating competitive, national sport which people could compete in. The second change was in allowing the vast majority of the country and ability to play and watch games.

Working Time for Working People

The First Industrial Revolution (1760s to 1830s) had dramatically change the societal, environment, and economic workings of the UK based on big changes in manufacturing due the development of the first powered factories. Development and then performance improvements in power generation allow for greater volume and variety of goods including weapons, textiles, iron production and many more. One the big consequences of the industrial scale of the changes was the creation of towns and then cities where large concentrations of people lived very closely together working in tough conditions for most the week generally six days a week for over 12 hours a day. Most people didn’t have the time or energy for leisure and certainly not sports.

If the first Industrial Revolution brought people into towns to work in factories the Second Industrial Revolution (1830s – 1917) was going to create a global market place. One of the most notably end points to the first and starting points for the second was changes demanded in factory working conditions especially for children who has been drawn into the factory working conditions as they would work in cottage industries. 1833 the British Government passed the first act to improve working conditions in factories called the “Factory Act“. Through the 19th century child education was introduced to all along with changes to working conditions and hours for women and children. The changes allowing some relief from work and the start of more time away from work with the first idea of a weekend seen in 1879 as a voluntary agreement between factory owner and workers allowing the factory to close down from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning.

The combination of consolidation of sporting rules and some free time for workers created the creation of professional sporting organisations and amateur competition on national and international level: 1863 the Football Association (FA) was founded, 1871 first rugby International between Scotland and England, 1872 first tennis club followed by 1877 first Wimbledon, 1888 British Lions tour Australia and New Zealand. Finally 1896 the modern Olympics. All these sports had an idea of someone to help the individual or team with a ‘sports coach’ recorded in 1861 as sports became more popular, International, with high stakes on winning. From Mount Olympus and the first games to serious (not yet professional) sports as we know it today completes our first idea of coaches helping people. But only in sport. To see how coaching developed in business we need to understand how modern business was formed and it’s another journey to get to modern business coaching.

Lawn mower

One sport that wasn’t mentioned that is older than the previous sports is golf. Golf was formed around 1764 with the first competitive big tournament in 1860 now called The Open (not the British Open!). The big difference between golf and the other games is grass. Golf didn’t need to have a flat surface or even grass to play on. Tennis started indoors due to outside playing conditions. This all changed with the first lawn mower in 1830. This small but essential tool allow grass to be played on as sports surface. It may not be the most famous invention of the industrial revolution but it literally created the grounds on which sports coaching was founded.

Modern Coaching – Coaching in Business

With the origins of the coaching word and the coaching role defined as one that helps a sports competitor how did coaching move into non-sports arena (pun-intended) of business coaching. We start the story where the role of the sports coach started – the railways (pun also intended) in the United Kingdom as the railways of Britain created the first of the modern businesses with respect to organisational structure, accounting, and strategy which are the three things coaches are looking to improve.

The First Modern Business

Before we head straight into the formation of the first modern businesses and from that coaching we need to set the context from which these organisations where created. If you’re not interested in the historical context then simply skip to the section on First Business Coaches.

1. Peace and the United States of America

Britain was at last at peace with itself and Europe after many years of conflict notably with the final defeat of France and their leader Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo (1815). This stability within United Kingdom allowed for the government and people to turn to domestic matters before things kicked off again in the Crimean war the first war to involve big guns generated from the engineering from the iron industry and fighting in foreign countries as part of the Empire.

Peace in Europe was a welcome relief for banks and the Bank of England in particular having to control the investment and costs of the country especially for businesses that had invested in the expansion of North America. The expansion of North America from first English arrivals in 1607 (times just after Francis Drake (1596), William Shakespeare (1616) and printing of the King James Bible ), followed by the Dutch, French has already seen the creation of an independent country on the July the 4th 1776 through the creation of the United States Declaration of Independence from English and other country rule. After the formation of United States (of America) or US, it very quickly expanded west-wards driving out native Americans and the settlement of very large cotton, tobacco, and sugar production in the southern states that included the devastating use of slavery.

The expansion of the US lead to heavy investment from Britain to build the factories that had been already built in Britain. Everything was ok until the Panic of 1837 where the economics of Europe, problems in US harvests and other factors caused a large financial crisis. This caused the US investments to be revalued and a pause on production in Britain. This recession allowed things to cool down a little and create the strongest companies that survived into the next set of technologies notably the railways and telegraphy. For that we needed large amounts of high quality wrought iron and skilled manufacturing.

2. Increase in Iron production and Mass manufacturing

By the end of 1820s Britain was the world’s leader in useful iron production (cast, wrought) through significant improvements in production. To get to this point there had been significant improvements. Abraham Darby I (the elder) had developed a way of using coke (from coal) instead of charcoal (from wood) as a fuel for smelting iron ore within a blast furnace which blasted air through the iron ore and charcoal to create very hot temperatures allowing mass producing of iron for the first time (around 1714). The combination of using easily accessible fuel (coal -> coke), and a blast furnace to very hot temperatures allowed for the mass production of many objects that were expensive to make in small batches notably metals (pots, pans) and ceramics (tiles, bricks, crockery).

The big chemistry of iron production was starting to level off due to the power needed to blast the air through a blast furnace: bigger furnace -> more air -> more power. This problem was solved by the combination of a expert in iron production and an expert in power. John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson as the name suggests was mad on iron production (1728 – 1808). He had many blast furnaces and wanted them to be bigger and better but lacked a power source for the air. James Watt, inventor (more precisely an efficiency master) and engineer want to improve the power of conventional steam engines but lacked the metal work to be able to build his engines with the needed precision. In 1774 Wilkinson invented a boring machine that could bore through blocks of iron that created the cylinders that Watt needed (and the cannon’s the British Navy wanted). With cylinders of the quality Watt needed Watt created his and the first commercial steam engine that was vastly more efficient than current models due to need a fraction of the engine to run them. Watt’s steam engines allowed for Wilkinson a hydraulic blowing engine (1775) to create bigger furnaces and more iron and more madness. During this time Abraham Darby family had further improved the process of producing iron. The circle of coal, coke, iron and engines came together in 1781 when Abraham Darby III (grandson of Abraham Darby I) built the first (cast) iron bridge commissioned by John Wilkinson showing how far iron production had came. Iron and steam power had created mass manufacturing and created the ingredients for mass transportation through the railways. The creation of the British railways would lead to the creation of the first modern business due to the complexity of the network of things due to the speed of travel.

4. Railway Lines, Telegraph lines

At the end of the first industrial revolution a lot had changed across the world with the growth of the British Empire, United States, and Europe due to the mass production of workable iron, efficient steam powered engines, and centralised workforce into towns and industrial cities. The businesses that created these epic changes were of a similar structure: single or related industry owned and lead by one boss who had deep experience in the industry. These businesses produced physical assets that could be traded and transported relatively easily by canal or ship. By the 1830s the affects of the iron and steam power were profound but isolated. Things moved slowly and were relatively easy to control. Two things changed that from the 1820s onwards: 1) Railways (people and products) 2) Telegraph (information).


The expansion of the railways started in 1804 with the first railway to transport coal from mines to refinery or factory via the first steam locomotive by Richard Trevithick . It wasn’t until 1820s where John Birkenshaw‘s invented a process of rolling wrought iron bar to 15 feet. The generation of long, strong rails for a railway were crucial as without them the steam locomotive was heavily restricted in length of track due to cost and strength as cast iron rails couldn’t support a heavy engine preventing the size of the train and railway. Birkenshaw’s rails provided the foundations for the first railway from Stockton to Darlington also known as the Stockton and Darlington Railway (1825) which was built. George Stephenson (1781 – 1848) and his company built the steam locomotive engine for the Stockton and Darlington railway called the Locomotion. The Locomotion steam locomotive was the first to carrier passengers and freight a first for the Britain kicked off the start of the railway industry. The second railway line was from Liverpool to Manchester connecting the port of Liverpool to the mills and factories of Manchester in 1825 powered by Stephenson’s famous steam engine The Rocket. The Liverpool and Manchester railway (L&MR) was the first real railway line having a schedule timetable, standard track going in both directions, signalling, and many of the components that future railways would have to have in order to work.

The steam powered railways had a dramatic effect on Britain and the world due to the speed of travel with engines travelling at 16 miles an hour for freight and 8 miles an hour for passenger. To give you an idea on what this meant Liverpool to Manchester was 31 miles so it took less than two hours for freight and four hours for passengers (today it takes just over 30 minutes). Due to this speed and the acquiring of the land needed to build the railways other networked technologies and industries were formed notably the telegraph the first mass use of electricity (more electro magnetism).


Transporting people and freight at the dizzying speeds of 8mph to 16mph creates a few challenges notably how to communicate faster than this in order to control the network. Transporting information at across long distance started in the military with the need to communicate to and from front lines, and between ships and shore. These signals where picture that transmitted a code that needed to be translated where the transmitted and receiver had to be present to read the signals. With the railways a new method would be needed. Fortunately at the time of the railways (1825 onwards) a new science was emerging one that would define the start of the second industrial revolution – electricity, magnets and their connection called electromagnetism.

Side bar – Summary Electricity and Magnetism before 1820s

People had known about a strange invisible force that could be left and on stormy nights seen. Magnetism was a play thing until the need for way to better navigate. 1600 was not just the time of Shakespeare but also of William Gilbert (1544 – 1603) who wrote a paper on magnetism and how the earth was like a big magnet explaining my compasses point north rather than by be attracted by the North or Polaris star that is 430 light years away). Gilbert created the word electricus meaning “of amber” from the greek word elektron for amber as rubbing amber with animal fur created a magnetic static effect. This would by change to electricityMany people worked with magnets as the force could be created by rubbing materials or using magnetic rocks containing iron and other ferrous metals. Experiments with electricity was limited to working with lightening famously by Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) and his kite flying in storms. Things really kicked off with Luigi Galvani (1791 – 1798) and his discovery that frog legs jumped when a touched by metal probes. Galvani discovered animal electricity and the idea of current that Alessandro Volta (1745 – 1827) clarified that it wasn’t the animal that had the electricity by the properties of the metal probes of zinc, copper and an acidic (conductive) solution. The combination of these metals in stacks created the first battery or Voltaic Pile in 1799 as it was a pile of copper and zinc plates in sulphuric acid. Volta’s pile (battery) created a stable source of electricity for the first time.

Volta gave us the battery that allowed for experiments with electricity to start and be studied. Before this the idea of force was restricted to gravity and Isaac Newton’s physics. With electricity a new force was being discovered first by Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (1736 – 1806) who discovered that electrical charges create forces of attraction and repulsion (unlike gravity which is only attract) and Andre-Marie Ampere (1775 – 1806) who studied in detail the relationship between electrical current and magnetism that proved an electrical current can create an attractive and replusive force over a long distance (Couloub showed the force dropped off at the square of the distance from the source) by having wires. The transmission of force down a wire was the fundamental properties of the electro-telegraph that Ampere invented.

The work of the Volta, Coulomb, and Ampere was in an age of revolution (British “Glorious Revolution”: 1688, American War of Independence: 1775 – 1783, French Revolution: 1789 – 1799, Napoleonic Wars (Britain against France): ) and discovery notably the idea of atomic elements through the work of Humphrey Davy (1778 – 1829). Davy was a chemist who worked with gases and how they reacted inventing the miner’s safety lamp (note: George Stephenson of our railway story also invented a safety lamp for miners and had a fair old battle with Davy (a well established public figure) and himself (northern engineer) as to who in invented what and when and which was the best). Davy was limited in his work of study of gases and elements due to the difficulty of getting pure samples to test. Again it was the application of Volta’s battery and it’s ability to act as an elementary magnet separating out elements base on their positive and negatively charged characteristics in a process Davy’s student Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) called electrolysis. Davy was able to not only separate out elements but also calculate the power (voltage) needed in effect working out the electric bound of the starting compound. Electrolysis allowed for the creation of very pure elements both solid and gas for study and use (including nitrous oxide the first gas anaesthetic used in small surgeons like dentistry). It was in the study of one of compounds that brings to the forefront Davy’s assistant, Faraday, as Davy was injured in the study of a very dangerous discovery – nitrogen tricholoride (NCl3) – which in an accident exploded leaving Davy temporary blinding in one eye and Faraday’s fingers injured. After a second accident with NCl3 Faraday took over more of the practical work with Davy supervising. Starting with Davy’s use to the battery to test elements Faraday continued the work of chemist in discovering new compounds and elements and extended the knowledge of electromagnetism.

The growth in the understanding It was Faraday’s work that gives us many of the words used in electronics today: electrode, cathode and ion. Ion, a particle with a charge brings us back to the work of Coulomb and electrical currents generating force. Levy wasn’t the only person working with Volta’s battery. Many scientist were running experiments producing lots of information. The information coming from experiments was being processed by mathematicians of the day to allow further experiments to prove how nature works. One the other people that was running experiments and noticing things (to put it mildly and far too simply was Hans Christian Ørsted (Oersted) (1777 – 1851) who observed that when a current goes through a wire it can move a needle. The direction or the force on the needle was related to the field the current in the wire generated just like Gilbert said about the compass needles and the Earth but the field direction could change depending on the direction and strength of the current passing through the wire. The discovery of Ørsted proved a relationship between electricity, magnetism and force direction.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879)

3. Workers’ Rights – Factory Act (1833)

First legislation of working rights in factories for children (under which would set the stage for employer and employee relations (Trade Unions legalised in 1872)


First Business Coaches