The article studies the present status of Coaching and Coaching Psychology. It examines the unprecedented exponential expansion of coaching on one hand while simultaneously, the mixed attitudes by the public at large, and the skepticism within the academy.  It is suggested that the main essence of Coaching Psychology is the Humanistic Psychology aspiration towards self-actualization integrated into a short term and practical strategy for achieving it. It is argued that both, coaching and psychotherapy serve to restore impaired learning process of the individual. The learning process becomes disturbed when blocked by maladaptive, outdated paradigms of meaning which are no longer relevant (gremlins, success blockers, defense mechanisms) and which were relevant in the past. The maladaptive paradigms impair the assimilation of new experiences and their transformation into well- adapted paradigms. The restoration of an efficient learning process enables reparation of deficient functions (in psychotherapy) and self-actualization (in life coaching). Theorization of a revised approach to Existential/Humanistic Coaching Psychology suggests that this approach is sustained by other disciplines which are based upon scientifically valid research methodology.


Key words: Existential Psychology, Existential Coaching, Coaching, Coaching Psychology, Existential Coaching Psychology.

The coaching profession has enjoyed during its 20 years of existence, a phenomenal success, but at the same time reluctance and lack of confidence from large parts of the public and especially the academic community.

Despite its short life, it could be said that life coaching has an undeniable footprint at the 21st century’s culture; In a survey quoted in “Psychology Today” (2010) it was found that coaching had been the second most rapidly growing profession after the high-tech professions.

Despite the extraordinary development of the coaching profession we encounter remarkable confusion among professionals when they try to define their practice and delineate its boundaries. A survey conducted by the International Coach Federation ( 2004. D. Brennan, D. Matthew Prior) among leading coaches revealed that no consensual definition of coaching could be formulated by scholars and practicing coaches. Moreover, there had almost been a consensus among practitioners that a universal definition would do no justice with this new expanding field. There were suggested definitions of particular coaching types: Health Coaching, Business Coaching, Couple Coaching, etc. It seemed, that it was easier for the practitioners to do well what they have been trained to do rather than to define it, and sometimes to deeply understand the process occurring during their action.

The formal definition of ICF tries to define coaching as a partnership between the coach and the coachee stimulating thinking and creative processes to maximize personal and professional potentials.

Some definitions of prominent scholars (Whitmore 1992 in Palmer and Whybrow 2007)  suggested that  “coaching is unlocking the person’s potentials to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them – a facilitation approach”

“Coaching is the art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another – a facilitation approach.” (Downey 1999 in Palmer and Whybrow 2007)   We could be on solid ground when we say that most of the definitions accentuate: Facilitating relationships (coach/coachee) of partnership that germinate in the coachee maximization of potentials.

Beyond all these definitions there is the famous premise

adopted by ICF and most coaching schools that “the agenda and the solutions are within the hands of the coachee”. The coach only provides the facilitating relationships of partnership to encourage self-learning of the coachee.

We might suggest that the premises underlying coaching definitions originate in misinterpretations of certain psychological concepts:

The concept of Facilitating relationships is wrong in this context because unlike in facilitating relationships the coach tries to generate a genuine process of change. According to Winnicott (1996) the environment, when good-enough, facilitates the maturational process.  .  The Winnicottian notion of “facilitating environment” derives from an assumption that the infant has the inborn capacities to develop in the right way if he is not disturbed to do so. This assumption is invalid in coach/coachee relationships. The coach generates change in the coachee’s life by proactive change -producing- procedures as applied in solution focused coaching, in Cognitive-Behavioral Coaching, and other active techniques. The clinical use of facilitating, good-enough, holding environments are often productive in the treatments of disorders of the injured self rather than in Life coaching.

At the same time the notion of partnership implies mutuality but not equality as many coaches interpret. The coach is not a full equal partner but a disguised mentor.

The coach does not have the answers but he has the questions-whether a Socratic form of dialogue, a Buberian concept of genuine relationships, or power questions. Owing the questions makes him a disguised mentor who maintains the agenda. The idea of “the coachee has the solutions and the agenda” and “coaching is performed at eye level” is also a wrong interpretation of Bugental’s humanistic psychology approach (1965). The revolution of humanistic psychology in the 20th century has been expressed in the neglect of the medical model which considered the therapist as the “Savant” the one who has the secret knowledge that could heal. Bugental’s approach was a bold innovation contrasted with the medical model in which the patient was considered deficient, dependent, neurotic or mentally ill. His approach was grounded by a deep respect to the client as a human being and he encouraged together with Carl Rogers  (1951) an attitude of partnership but not of equality, mutual responsibility for the therapy process but not symmetry and equal responsibility.

We know today that there is no secret knowledge. Not in the hands of the therapist or the coach but certainly not within the hands of the coachee. Certainly, there is no secret wisdom, but the coach possesses the knowledge of “what to do”. The coachee provides the contents which are his/her latent vision, motivations and repressed desires but the coach maintains the agenda for the structure of the process. New learning emerges in the interaction between the coach and the coachee, new conduits, new insights and new paradigms but these originate in the process led by the coach.

Doesn’t the coach make the coaching contract ? doenn’t the coach formulate the ground rules for the coaching alliance ? and doesn’t he/she collect the payment at the end of the day ? Are these actions devoid of agenda ?

Shouldn’t we suspect that transferring the agenda of the coaching process to the coachee does not originate in an apprehension from the mighty task of dealing with the most sacred part in the human mind: his self-actualization, his realization of his life vision and beyond ?

After this short visit to the domains of life coaching let us have a look at the field of Coaching psychology. While we spoke of the difficulties to delineate and define the coaching process I see the difficulty to define coaching psychology as even greater. Basically, coaching psychology has to distinguish itself from psychotherapy and from life coaching. From psychotherapy it is much easier. Usually coaching psychology deals with non-clinical populations and it does not aim at reparation of clinical states or disorders as happens in psychotherapy. The distinction from life coaching is less obvious. It seems that the most qualified definition for coaching psychology has been suggested by the main authors in the field Grant and Palmer (2002 in Palmer and Whybrow 2007)  as follows: “Coaching psychology is for enhancing well- being and performance in personal life and work domains, underpined by models of coaching grounded in established adult learning or psychological approaches” (adapted from Grant and Palmer, 2002). This definition certainly describes what we are doing in coaching psychology, when we compare it to the ICF definition of coaching we notice that there is no substantial difference between the two. Coaching psychologists claim to do about the same job as life coaches but with well-trained skills of psychotherapy techniques and psychological knowledge.

J. Passmore in his new book (2012) says it loud and clear that coaching psychology is the scientific study of behavior and that it is aimed at deepening our understanding and enhancing our practice within coaching.

Putting coaching psychology as the scientific academic form of coaching is one way of seeing it. Before we observe this option let us see what are some other possible forms to define and delineate coaching psychology.:

• Coaching psychology is often suggested as a sub-discipline of psychology

• Coaching psychology is often seen as applied positive psychology .

Let us explore the possibilities:

Passmore’s  suggestion makes sense. Psychology is an academic discipline, with a long history of methodological research. The alliance between coaching

and coaching psychology could help to constitute coaching as a scientific discipline.

However, I believe that this option would be neither valid nor practical: Life coaching evolved from the roots of psychology but grew in foreign gardens of sport, business, management, and philosophy. It has been organized in influential organizations of apt professionals that come from academic fields and seriously are working to develop valid methodology and ethical code.

The next two questions considering coaching psychology as applied positive psychology or a sub-discipline of psychology are intertwined. There is no doubt that coaching is deeply rooted in psychology. The whole idea of realizing personal potential and self-fulfillment are the pinnacle of the third force – humanistic psychology that ruled during the 60′s of the 20th century. In addition, most of the techniques used by coaches are user-friendly adaptations of psychotherapy techniques and psychological models.

The roots of coaching in psychology and the close relationship between coaching and psychology gives a good sense of bringing coaching psychology to become a psychology sub-discipline.

Still there is a catch here. Although coaching is based mainly on psychology and sports coaching, we suggest that it should not become a psychology sub-discipline neither in practice nor in essence. We mentioned that the vast majority of Coaching developers and practitioners are not psychologists. Of course we may claim that Coaching psychology is a different discipline and as such it could be defined as a psychology specialty. In fact, even if we decide to separate coaching psychology from coaching and define it as a psychological practice we will be separating coaching psychology from its natural developmental context. Let us not forget that a familiar psychologists’ claim  about coaching (personal communication) – is that coaching is a profession which is not aware and does not refer to its broad background and origins in psychology. If this is our claim we do not want to pay back with the same coin and separate coaching psychology from coaching.

It also seems that neither psychology nor coaching psychology gain from considering coaching psychology a psychological specialty. As a specialty, coaching psychology does not bring any new annunciation to psychological science. Coaching psychology suggests a conceptualization that overlaps the fields of psychological counseling, sports psychology, clinical psychology, organizational psychology and health psychology. Coaching psychology also overlaps psychotherapy approaches such as: Solution Focused Therapy, short-term therapy, CBT, etc. So what would be  coaching psychology’s contribution for these therapeutic models and practices? Not much. Coaching psychology would be diminished and absorbed into the existing knowledge in Psychology.

So what about coaching psychology as applied Positive Psychology ?

There is no doubt about the fact that the main objects of inquiry in life coaching such as: search for meaning in one’s life, study of personal and universal values systems, of the authentic identity, of personal strengths, are not to be found in the mainstream of psychology excluding positive psychology.

So why not consider life coaching as a form of applied positive psychology as many suggest ?

Doubtlessly, the emergence of positive psychology is a meaningful development in psychology. Positive psychology continues the gradual separation of psychology from the medical model. Its subjects of inquiry such as: the search for happiness, resilience, personal strengths, validity of value systems etc. are almost a daily concern of practicing therapists who encounter these subjects much more than the oedipal conflict.

Positive psychology took the challenge of treating these issues with scientifically based methodology. By so doing, positive psychology substantially contributes to respond to the large public’s demands and to the zeitgeist of the beginning of the 21st century.

So could coaching psychology be considered applied positive psychology ?

Coaching psychology is rooted in humanistic psychology and the existential

approach and it seems to possess quite broader vision and boundaries than Positive Psychology. As Grant (2006) has put it, certainly positive psychology can cooperate with coaching psychology in the research of certain aspects such as happiness, resilience, personal strengths etc.

Yet, is seems that positive psychology cannot provide the over-arching, higher order competencies required by this new science. Coaching psychology uses a variety of change-producing psychotherapy techniques such as pacing and leading, mirroring, anchoring, re-framing, etc. which usually are not related to positive psychology’s practices. Unlike positive psychology coaching psychology also uses psychotherapy approaches such as cognitive behavioral coaching, NLP, solution focused coaching, system approaches, and psychosocial dynamics. In addition, coaching psychology places as first priority the coaching alliance, rapport creation, and coaching relationships. Coaching psychology often uses psychological knowledge to distinguish between coaching and psychotherapy and to understand the coaching and therapeutic needs of the coachee. None of these practices account among Positive Psychology’s practices or research.

The gap between the 2 fields goes far beyond the difference between theory and practice. Coaching psychology aims at enhancing self-actualization which is a much more complex concept than the concept of enhancing what is positive in life in contrast to negative. Coaching psychology, having its roots in humanistic and existential psychologies may consider also human suffering as a possible lever to self-actualization and not only the goodies.


So far we argued that central premises of the coaching profession derive either from misinterpretation of some basic psychological conceptions or from an ingenious way to adapt the coaching practice to non-psychologist practitioners.  We also discussed the different options of coaching psychology to define itself and its boundaries regarding psychological science, psychotherapy and life coaching.

Certainly, the destiny of coaching and coaching psychology is not to be determined here, within this debate and by this paper. The future development of coaching and coaching psychology is probably to be the function of professional and political powers, creative intellectual productivity, public relations and research funds that can determine its ascension (like in the case of positive psychology) or demise. More than everything the fortune of coaching psychology would be determined by the crowd’s choice. The crowd wisdom may be right or wrong but the crowd’s choice is decisive in the rising or falling of organizations and intellectual movements.

What we do want to point here is the great potential of coaching psychology to become the next generation of psychological intervention methodology.

We mentioned that coaching psychology is rooted in humanistic psychology and the existential philosophy. Elsewhere ( Levy 1998; 2006 )  we suggested a revised existential approach based on the following principles :

  1. The human being has been developed in nature as a vulnerable creature that survived due to his learning capacities through constant formation of paradigms of meaning.
  2. A revised existential/humanistic approach studies the formation of paradigms of meaning not only from a philosophical outlook but from different scientific approaches: developmental psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary theory, complex adaptive systems and not only from a philosophical outlook.
  3. The objective of existential coaching psychology is to restore impaired learning aptitudes that have been arrested by outdated maladaptive paradigms of meaning (e.g. success blockers, defense mechanisms etc).
  4. An Existential Coaching Psychology approach may become a new behavioral science of subjectivity.


Existential Coaching Psychology – a new behavioral science of subjectivity.


We are at the point where we can create a new coaching discipline which is multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary with a psychological spinal cord. This new discipline may be the next generation of psychological intervention methodology by providing us with practical and theoretical tools to enhance within a short term strategy the goals of coaching and psychotherapy. It could realize the humanistic psychology ambition for self-actualization and also contribute to the existing forms of psychotherapy. The vision of Existential Coaching Psychology is consistent with Kohut’s (2005 ) vision of the cohesive healthy self, characterized by three axis:

1. Grandiosity- creating a stable sense of self-esteem, healthy ambitions, and sense of self-value, assertiveness, self expression, and we may add: attainment of freedom, authenticity, and the capacity to commit oneself to the realization of his value system.

2. Idealization – the ability to create and maintain goal-setting ideals, personal vision, ideal value system, and we may add: the fulfillment of meaningful life.

3. Healthy relationship with the selfobject and environment – the ability for intimacy and communication of feelings to significant others, and we may add: the inherent need of the self to transcend beyond its personal being.

Kohut studied mainly the injured self but in the few instances where he described the desired vision of the self he constitutes a destination towards which we want to bring our clients in coaching or in psychotherapy.

The golden era of psychology and psychoanalysis have been by the time  when Freud gathered in Vienna around him brilliant psychoanalytic colleagues like: Carl Jung, Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, sandor Ferenczi, Alfred Adler, Fliess, William James, Ernest Jones  and others (2008) that stimulated  the intellectual climate of the 20th century and created a period of inspiration and integration of  psychoanalysis with other disciplines such as Anthropology, Sociology, Biology, Literature etc. Existential coaching psychology studies authenticity, meaningfulness, value system and self -actualization subjects that are at the core of the existential human condition. As a behavioral science of subjectivity it could earn in theory and practice from the knowledge accumulated by the practice of coaching together with knowledge from research and pactice in psychology and psychotherapy and contemporary relevant disciplines. Relevant disciplines could be for ex. Ethology to study animal behavior comparable to human value systems (eg. altruism research in nature versus in human cultures) comparative culture studies (eg. research of meaning creation and value systems in different cultures), Developmental psychology (eg. To study the development of the cognitive/emotional attitudes), neuro-science and evolutionary theory to study the reciprocal inter-relations between the functioning of the self, the human brain, and coaching practice.

Let me illustrate this point: Every therapist or coach notices that certain experiences during coaching produce a response which is not always predictable but which has the power to produce reorganization of paradigms in the coachee. This phenomenon probably occurs since the self, as well as the human brain function as a complex adaptive system.

As such the self as the brain tend to possess self-regulation and self-organization that create the new reorganization during the coaching process The study of these functions and others in the brain and the self, enhance our understanding about the coaching psychology process.


Let me summarize here in stating that for the last 100 years, psychology and psychotherapy have been construed upon the medical model and were subjects of research in models borrowed from natural and social sciences. In Kuhn’s (1962) terms we suggest that there are many evidences to paradigm anomalies in psychological science. The goal to unveil  the unconscious and to reveal the truth, the goal for excessive social adaptability, the hermeneutic model and the mental health model, change gradually into search for authenticity, meaningful life, creativity, self actualization and individuality (Levy 2005) (Mithchell & Black 1995). No wonder our psychological science and psychotherapy practice `seem to be in crisis and on the defensive and are frequently threatened by alternative therapies, neuroscience and pharmaceutical progress, new age and coaching practices. No wonder APA president advise that psychology is at the verge of a paradigm shift (S. B. Johnson 2012).   .

Existential Coaching Psychology provides us with the opportunity to start to create a new behavioral science of subjectivity that would respond to the ethos, needs, values and vision of the 21st century person.

The contemporary individual does not aspire to expose the truth hidden within his unconscious but to generate transformative experiences which are authentic, meaningful, and unique (Mithchell & Black 1995). He expects these experiences to take place within a focused and time limited process. There is no other approach in Psychology that can better respond to these needs than the happy marriage between coaching, psychology and contemporary relevant research methodologies and disciplines.

Existential Coaching Psychology has the potential to create an integrative revolutionary approach in psychology combining methodologies, ideas and scientific concepts from multiple disciplines. The rapid rise of this fascinating field may indicate that the need of the modern person, of the psychologist and the coach coincide here to create a new behavioral science of subjectivity that should inspire us to continue to explore.



*This paper is based on an invited lecture for the 3rd international Congress of Coaching Psychology held in Rome, Italy, Frentany Congress center, May 16-17th 2013.


**Arnon Levy Ph.D, clinical psychologist, psycho-anthropologist, and coaching psychologist, former chair of the Israel Association for Psychotherapy, and founder of the coaching studying program at Tel Aviv University. Levy is the founder and chair of: IACP – Israel Association for Coaching Psychology & the founder and academic director of  CPA – Coaching Psychology Academy.

© All rights reserved to Arnon Levy PhD..





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