Coaching psychology: strength in diversity

It’s the 10th anniversary of the inauguration of the Society’s Special Group in Coaching Psychology. We hear from some of its members.

The members of the Society’s Special Group in Coaching Psychology (SGCP) committee have hugely varied backgrounds, reflecting how coaching psychology appeals and is relevant to many different disciplines. To give a feel for this diversity, our freelance writer Ian Florance spoke to the group’s current Chair, Sarah Corrie; and, in the boxes on these pages, the group’s Chair Elect, Dasha Grajfoner, and the Past Chair, Mary Watts, tell us about what brought them to coaching psychology.

From dance to diversity
Sarah tells me that she trained for eight years to become a classical ballet dancer, before her career was ended prematurely by injury. ‘I taught ballet, then retrained as an actor, where I joined a company which aimed to bring theatre to schools and community centres. That taught me how to engage and work with people who were living with the realities of economic and social deprivation – a world away from the type of audiences I had encountered in the ballet world! A number of life experiences started to coalesce – my own experience of recovering from injury, training young dancers, and working with communities who believed their prospects for the future were bleak. I wanted to learn how to make a difference, although I had no clear of what that meant, or where to start.’

Sarah hadn’t had much formal education. ‘In those days, if you were a dancer everything else came second place to dance training! But I was lucky to meet a psychologist who was to become a lifelong mentor. I was thinking of going to college to do A-levels when I had a life-changing conversation with Professor David Lane of the Professional Development Foundation, who suggested that I might study for a bachelor’s degree.’

After being awarded her first degree at the University of Surrey, Sarah worked as an assistant psychologist and was then accepted on to clinical psychology training. ‘After qualifying I worked as a clinical psychologist for the NHS, but as my role developed I encountered new opportunities to apply psychological methods. Being one of the founder members of the SGCP enabled me to become part of a community who could see the potential of coaching psychology – a potential which has yet to be fully tapped.’

Sarah now works for the NHS, in private practice and for Middlesex University, where she is a visiting professor. ‘My roles span coaching and clinical psychology practice, training, clinical and research supervision and consultancy. Coaching psychology supports the development of the services that I offer my clients across all sectors. And 20 years later David Lane and I still work together and collaborate regularly.’

I asked Sarah how coaching psychology differs from other psychological specialisms. ‘Coaching psychology focuses on enhancing the well-being and potential of individuals, systems and organisations. This is not to say that other applications ignore these issues – of course they don’t. But one of the strengths of coaching psychology is its diversity. Its practitioners train in many areas, work with different populations and  embrace the work of other disciplines within applied psychology.’

At the intersect
‘If psychology is a Venn diagram, coaching psychology is where a number of the shapes overlap,’ Sarah says. ‘Its intellectual roots lie in theories of human and organisational development, management and leadership, education and counselling and psychotherapy. Its uniqueness lies in a conscious drawing together of these different disciplines. It shapes them to meet the needs of those professionals who need to deliver psychological interventions in new ways, in new settings and for an increasingly diverse range of clients. The SGCP provides a forum where this specialist activity can flourish.’

Many coaching psychologists practise in other areas as well. Sarah, for instance, is both a clinical and coaching psychologist. Is it sometimes difficult for her to decide which hat to wear with  a particular client? ‘People’s issues cannot always be neatly categorised. Figuring out a client’s needs and what type of intervention is needed is the first step of any psychological engagement. Being both a clinical and coaching psychologist actually helps me to retain clarity about where the boundaries lie. I consider the extent of a client’s well-being, stress and ability to function; issues relating to risk (to self or others); and whether we need the involvement of colleagues from other disciplines or with other specialist skills.’

I had arrived at the interview with the simplistic view that coaching psychology is concerned with building on strengths, while clinical psychology is in the ‘rectifying problems’ category. Sarah quickly set me straight but also touched on a point that recurred throughout the interview: ‘There is a real danger of psychology becoming too “silo’d”. Coaching psychology is a clear example of a discipline that brings together theories, models of practice and approaches to inquiry to create novel interventions for the clients we seek to serve. For this reason we believe that our work should be of interest to all member networks across the Society. It’s easy to focus on distinguishing coaching psychology from other applications, but the essence of the area is collaboration.’

Coaching has a much longer history than I’d thought. ‘In 1926 Coleman Griffith’s book The Psychology of Coaching looked at its application in sports management. Around this time business coaching started and in the 1960s and ’70s the human potential movement gave more impetus to the idea of building on strengths rather than simply addressing problems.

‘The interest group, on the other hand, is a fairly recent phenomenon. A Coaching Psychology Forum was formed in 2003, partly driven by a concern about the growing number of individuals who claimed to be offering coaching and about whose credentials, qualifications, knowledge-base and skills little was known. There was also a growing recognition of the need to support the systematic development of coaching for psychologists who wanted to use this approach. The forum created a working group, which proposed the Special Group to the Society. This was inaugurated in 2004 so this year is our 10th anniversary, and we have a special conference in December: Changing Lives, Changing Worlds – Inspiring Collaborations (see’

The need for communication
The group now has around 2200 members, and close relationships with a large number of European and international coaching psychology groups. Sarah talks of the need for a structure that supports the identity and contribution of coaching psychology in the marketplace. ‘One important element is communication. We need to promote coaching psychology as a specialism both within and beyond the Society. Psychologists have not been particularly good at this sort of self-marketing – a skill which is going to prove critical to the future of all the applied psychologies.’

Another priority Sarah describes is identifying demarcated training routes to become a coaching psychologist. The Special Group’s website – – provides a useful Q&A on how to join, the process involved and training. ‘There are now a number of courses including PhDs which encourage a primary focus on coaching psychology research and practice. We’ve worked to develop CPD events and publications to support the needs of our members as well as of our profession. That the Society has actively welcomed the introduction of a Post-Qualification Register for coaching psychologists indicates that coaching psychology is coming to be accepted as a distinct application and area of expertise.’

Talking to Sarah, it’s clear that coaching psychology has been strengthened by growth in positive psychology and in applications such as sports science. ‘There’s been a move to medicalise human distress. To some extent we offer a counterweight to over-enthusiastic medicalisation.’

I’ve never interviewed a coaching psychologist who was less than friendly, informative, a good listener and, above all, open to ideas. It may be these very qualities that, as Sarah puts it, will ultimately enable applied psychologists to revise any unhelpful and outdated tendencies towards silo-based thinking.

Box: ‘My interdisciplinary interests are now definitely an advantage’

I was always interested in human and animal behaviour. After completing a nursing degree and social science undergraduate studies in Slovenia, I decided to study for an MSc in Animal Behaviour and Welfare and stayed for a PhD in differential psychology at Edinburgh University.

I became curious about the interaction between individual differences, resilience and change management, and this led towards coaching psychology. I thought that coaching was really about managing changes and transitions. To put that to the test I designed and delivered a coaching course for a group of people facing the most radical changes in their life. I was fascinated, as a practitioner and as a researcher, with how effective those simple interventions were and what a difference they made to the participants.

I went on to design and run several coaching courses using various approaches. Lately I have been doing research, particularly into compassionate and mindful leadership and animal-assisted coaching. My interdisciplinary and diverse interests that seemed to hinder me at the beginning of my career are now definitely an advantage. For me coaching psychology epitomises this diversity, that is progressive, exciting and fun, and incredibly beneficial to end users by integrating a variety of psychology-based theories, research and practice. The SGCP is a very active group celebrates and supports this, so I am very proud to be a part of it.

I am currently based at Heriot-Watt University, where I lecture in coaching psychology and leadership. I am also the Director of the Centre for Business and Coaching Psychology at HWU. I still keep strong personal and professional links with Slovenia, where I regularly lecture at the University of Maribor, and lead the Centre for Anthrozoology.

The growth of coaching and mentoring – terms for different sorts of relationship which are at times used interchangeably – has been obvious to anyone who works in a commercial organisation, who watches or plays sport and who works in the arts. The Special Group functions as a resource rather than having a policing function, and we don’t wish to promote a message that coaching psychology is ‘better’ than coaching. But I would certainly argue that good coaching, whoever is delivering it, needs to be underpinned by psychological principles. We can contribute research into its effectiveness and promote good psychological underpinnings.

Dasha Grajfoner, Chair Elect of the SGCP

Box: ‘I’m using every bit of psychology I ever learnt’

Reflecting back on over 40 years of working, initially in the NHS, then in the university sector and now as an independent practitioner, I realise how many, varied opportunities to learn professionally and academically I’ve had. I’ve loved my work and learnt from clients and colleagues. This has continued even since retiring from my university job as pro-vice chancellor and professor of psychology. Soon after I left the psychology department to become the university PVC Learning and Teaching someone said to me ‘Don’t you miss being a psychologist?’. My response was that I’m using every bit of psychology I ever learnt in creative ways in this new role to bring people on board and to lead change across the university.

I started my working career as a graduate sociologist and nurse specialising in oncology, and then moved into mental health as a nurse behaviour therapist in the specialist unit at the Middlesex Hospital. Later I became a nurse teacher. Questions relating to psychology, behaviour change, personal and professional learning, counselling and health drove me to further study and a move into the world of psychology at City University, London. I developed and taught masters and doctoral programmes in the health and counselling psychology areas.

It was the transition from full-time psychologist to PVC that led me to think and read more deeply about coaching and related psychology and to support the development of the Interest Group and then the Special Group in Coaching Psychology. I was a founder member of the SGCP and also chair of the first annual conference. Maybe it is the richness of collaborations and the diversity of areas of research and practice that enables me to feel so at home in the world of coaching psychology. I remain emeritus professor of psychology at City University, have completed a business coach training and now practise independently, drawing on all of my professional and academic learning experiences of over 40 years. My interest now is to collaborate widely to facilitate, with others, the further development and drawing together of the significant and diverse body of knowledge which is coaching psychology.

Mary Watts, Past Chair of the SGCP



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