Celebrating 20 years of coaching psychology: Five minutes with Anthony Grant

28 January 2020
Milestone marked with coaching psychology conference
2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the Coaching Psychology Unit, founded by Professor Anthony Grant. We catch up with Professor Grant about his journey from training as a carpenter to developing a world-first program.
Professor Tony Grant

Where did your interest in psychology come from?

After leaving school before the age of fifteen I trained as a carpenter and worked as a builder for about 10 or 15 years. During the 1970s and the 1980s I started attending various psychological and self-help groups and experimenting with ‘alternative lifestyles’. My parents had been very early adopters of transcendental meditation and I grew up in an atmosphere of self-enquiry, practical philosophy and applied psychology.

In 1988 I came from the United Kingdom to Australia on a holiday and absolutely loved the place! I wanted to study psychology and be involved in mentoring and supporting others in their personal development journey, as I had been supported and mentored. However, I didn’t want to be a counsellor or psycho-therapist. ‘Coaching’ had not yet emerged as a methodology for facilitating intentional positive change.

I managed to enrol as a mature age student at the University and much to my surprise I won the University Medal in the fourth year Psychology honours program. I had always been the one who came 31 out of 32 at school, so this was a massive shock!

How did the Coaching Psychology Unit come about?

In 1993 coaching was starting to become popular, but it seemed to me that nearly every program I went on was not evidence-based. I enrolled in the Macquarie University combined Clinical Masters and PhD program and completed my thesis titled Towards a Psychology of Coaching: The Impact of Coaching on Metacognition, Mental Health and Goal Attainment. The thrust of my argument was that an evidence-based approach to coaching could provide us with a reliable real-life experimental methodology for exploring the factors involved in the processes of purposeful intentional positive change.

My associate supervisor at that time was also Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney. During a supervision meeting I mentioned the idea of starting the Coaching Psychology Unit and offering postgraduate programs in Coaching Psychology. There was no other such program in the world at that time. This led to a meeting with Professor Ian Curthoys, then Head of School (Psychology), who proved to be an invaluable supporter, guide and mentor. Without his foresight and support we would not be celebrating 20 years of the Coaching Psychology Unit in 2020.

Can you explain what coaching psychology is?

Coaching psychology is simply the psychology or behavioural science that underpins coaching. The practice of coaching involves a relationship formed between a coach and the coachee for the purpose of attaining valued professional or personal goals and outcomes (Spence & Grant, 2007). So coaching is essentially a goal-focused activity, whether it is focused on building skills, improving performance, or facilitating personal or professional development.

As it is an activity that is essentially about developing solutions and facilitating positive intentional change, some aspects of the whole existing field of psychology are a better fit with the aspirational aims of coaching. This is what makes the challenge of researching and developing the sub-discipline of Coaching Psychology so interesting and so appealing to our students, fellow researchers and clients.

What are you most proud of in relation to the work of the CPU?

The fact that we’re still here after all this time. I never thought that myself and the team of Dr Michael Cavanagh and Dr Sean O’Connor and all the other passionate Coaching Faculty members that I am so proud to have worked with over the years, would have kept the ball rolling for 20 years.

The work of the CPU team, the teachings that we’ve developed here over the years, the way the team here has managed to form a validated psychological foundation for the practice of coaching – have genuinely touched the hearts of our students. We’ve lost count of the number of times students have told us that the Masters program has literally changed their lives. And this is more than mere hyperbole. You can see it in the students’ eyes – a passion for understanding self and others, a veracious appetite for more and the creation of deep and enduring friendships.

The Coaching Conference will be held in February – what are you aiming for participants to get out of the program?

Participants will hear the latest research from the world’s leading researchers, as well as leading practitioners discussing best practice. One great thing about this conference is that there will be many chances for delegates to engage in discussion with the presenters. We’ve structured the conference so people can genuinely share ideas. This conference is a conference in which intelligent, critical self-reflection and the sharing of information about coaching are the central focus.

Find out more and register for the conference.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

There are several: 

  • Just for today – take life one day at a time – especially when it all feels too much.
  • Accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can and develop the wisdom to know the difference.
  • Don’t take any of this too seriously. Let go of resentments. Live a joyous life. Make real friends that you can be yourself with. Remember, everything ends. Each day could be your last. Savour it.