Using Life-Coaching Approach in
Sport Psychology Consultation

Roy Chin Ming Chan, Ph.D.


Sport Psychology as an Academic Discipline has a relatively young history, and for the first forty years, much effort was put into forming a body of knowledge, prompting efforts in research to build the blocks of knowledge as we know it today in Sport Psychology. In Applied Sport Psychology, where Sport Psychologists work as consultants to teams and athletes, most early works are focused on performance enhancement, with some works concentrated on Socio-psychological developments of individuals in sports settings.

Today's emphasis on holistic development of a person prompts Sport Psychologists to adopt a broader scope in consultation, taking a position that sport psychology is "the use of sport to enhance competence and promote human development throughout the life spaní psychologists are as concerned about 'life' development as they are about athletic development (Danish, 1992) ." Indeed, Begel (2000) mentioned that "An athlete who chokes may be suffering from other anxiety and phobic symptomsíKíK...When the extent of a problem is not known and the problem is mistakenly thought to reside primarily in the realm of sports, reassurance that the situation is a normal one for athletes may be given prematurely." Hence, if athletic performance deficiencies were treated only within the realm of sport related psychological intervention without probing for possibilities that issues may lie outside of sport, the intervention might not be successful. In other words, the sport psychologist might be shooting at the wrong target.

In consulting with athletes and teams, it is not possible to isolate athletic performance from evolving life experiences. Whatever happens in an athlete's life quite probably would affect his performance in the athletic field. Moreover, taking a stance closer to the Consultant's comfort zone than the client's, as limited by his own experience, carries a danger that the real issue of the client is bypassed, albeit unintentionally. These considerations bring into focus of this article's topic on using Life-Coaching Skills in consulting with athletes.

Sport Psychologists use sets of skills such as goal-setting, imagery, concentration training, arousal regulation etc. to help athletes get better results in their athletic pursuits. The diagnostic procedure is very much like a clinical setting in the medical field. For some instances, this became a formulistic way of consultation. Could there be some hidden agenda in the client's psych that was not noticed in the consultation process? Was the real issue being recognized and dealt with? Was there a critical life event change taken place that affected the athletic performance (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974)?

As Danish et al. (1993) mentioned, life events do not occur in isolation, the more events being experienced simultaneously, the more difficult the adjustment. Sports Psychologists need to be certain that the real issue that deals with the core wants of the athletes was being addressed. Life Coaching is designed to unearth the hidden wants and needs of a person. Through collaborative conversation, queries and creating changes together, the coach and the coachee (i.e. the person being coached) would create positive changes together, and reach goals set together (Starr, 2003).

What is Life Coaching?

Life Coaching is a legitimized profession, and in some countries there were certification process to recognize formally trained Life Coaches. It is a practice with the aim of helping clients determine and achieve personal goals. Life coaches use multiple methods to help clients with the process of setting and reaching goals.

Life Coaching is sometimes used synonymously with Executive Coaching and Personal Coaching; though each works in a slightly different context. Although Life Coaching is derived from Sport Coaching, their nature is quite different. Sport Coaching involves teaching, mentoring, commanding and directing, not unlike a military set-up. And indeed, ancient sports derived much of its origin from military combat. Life coaching emphasizes more in partnership, collaboration, guidance, holistic development, and creative problem solving (Martin, 2005).

Some Principles in Life Coaching (Starr 2003, Martin, 2005):

  1. Life Coaches adopts the principle that the person being coached probably knows more about their own situation than the coach does.

  2. The coach believes in the ability of the individual to create insights and ideas needed to move their situation forward.

  3. The task of the coach is to use advanced skills of listening, questioning and reflection to create highly effective conversations and experiences for the individual.

  4. At least 75 percent of the action plan comes from the coachee, whereas in a mentoring type of consultation, 75 percent of the plan of action comes from the consultant. Life Coaching helps clients to find the answers rather than answering for them.

  5. The Life Coach finds gaps of disjointed logic in the coachee's thinking process by using penetrating questions that eliminate wayward thinking, fears, limiting beliefs and misunderstandings.

  6. Life Coaching is not therapy, although some of its effect is therapeutic. Life Coaching primarily deals with creating a viable and better future, not curing some illnesses in the past.

These principles are not all inclusive of Principles held by all Life Coaches, as indeed there are many different streams of Life Coaching Methodologies, but these are the most widely help principles in the Coaching circle.

Using Life Coaching skills in Sport Psychology consultation

Although much more can and need to be written about what and how Life Coaching is, this however, is not the purpose of this paper. Nor is it feasible to detail how it works, with the limited time and space of this forum. The main point of this discussion is why it is a legitimate and powerful framework to adopt in sport psychology consultation.

Athletes come for psychological consultation when something performance-wise is not working well, or not getting the desired results. Sometimes they do not even have a true identification of the real issue at hand, instead focusing of side-tracked but common issues such as pressures of winning and losing, competitive jealousy, anxiety in competition etc. While quite legitimate, these issues might be "symptoms" rather than core issues.

The Coaching process (Eaton & Johnson, 2001) strives towards self-discovery and holistic development of the person (Fig. 1). Thus eliminating the probable pitfalls of putting blinders on while pursuing athletic excellence, but in the process suffers huge loses in areas such as career, relationships and health. It also serves as a solid platform to create trust and a format of communication between the Life Coach and the Coachee.

Life Coaching is not eliminating the traditional Applied Sport Psychology Consultation tools. On the contrary, it serves as a framework in which these tools and skills can be applied with the best interest of the Coachee in mind, realizing that the issues that were singled out were the real core issues that the athlete faces. And since the Coachee is the one who initiates and chooses the course of action together with the collaboration of the Coach, the success of the actions planned are much enhanced.


Figure 1.   The Coaching Process.

In each step of the Coaching Process, there are numerous skills that can be used. These skills, while not applied Sport Psychology Invention skills, were necessary to clarify goals, avoid secondary loss, keeping goals and results ecological to self, and generative in terms of creative problem solving. In particular to the last point mentioned, this simply is a great learning process for the concerned athlete. It is simply a more viable way to explore the best options the coachee can choose for himself.


  1. Begel, D. (2000). Psychotherapy with the performing athlete. In Begel, D. & Burton R. (ed.) Sport Psychiatry. (p. 191-205). New York: Norton.

  2. Danish, S. J. (1992). The coach as sport psychologist: Bridging the gap between sports and life skills. Invited lecture, University of Virginia, Sport Psychology Institute, Charlottesville.

  3. Danish, S. J., Petipas, A. J., & Hale, B. (1993). Life development intervention for athletes : Life skills through sports. The Counseling Psychologist. 21, 352-385.

  4. Eaton, J. & Johnson, R. (2001). Coaching Successfully. New York: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.

  5. Martin, C. (2005). The Coaching Handbook: Everything you need to be an effective life coach. Connecticut: Crown House Publishing Ltd.

  6. Walzlawick, P., Weakland, J., & Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York: Norton.