Applying Research in Coaching:
Understanding Theoretical Frameworks

Lisa Joy Tuttle, MA, BCC, CSS |

At this year’s ADHD Professionals Conference we were fortunate to have three breakout sessions from members of ACO’s Research Committee, on how we can better understand and incorporate research into our coaching practices. Casey Dixon, Roxanne Fouché, and Rebecca Toney presented on The Power of Research to Transform Coaching; Liz Ahmann and her son Micah Saviet presented research findings from their literature search on Sleep and ADHD; and Ron Bashian and I presented on Self-Determination Theory as a Valuable Approach for Coaches. To put that theory in context, I kicked off the presentation with an introduction to theoretical frameworks.

I’ve been curious about what makes people tick for as long as I can remember. Once I was old enough to engage with the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Albert Ellis, and other innovators in psychology, I recall being struck by how differently each of them viewed human nature. In grad school, I was invited to not only evaluate the many “ways of seeing” of these and other theorists, but also to imagine what my own model of optimal human growth and development would be and how it might be applied in practice. Doing so was an empowering experience and I encourage my fellow coaches to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and develop models of your own.

Just as metaphors help us explain something novel by comparing or contrasting it with something known, theoretical frameworks provide a mental map or frame within which to view and describe the phenomena we observe, to test our theories, and to explain the relationships between and among the various elements.


What do we mean by “evidence-based coaching”? The term was coined in 2003 by Dr. Anthony Grant and his colleagues at the Coaching Psychology Unit in the University of Sydney, Australia, to make a distinction between coaching that was “explicitly grounded in the broader empirical and knowledge base versus that developed from the pop psychology and personal development genre” (Grant, 2016, p. 75).

Grant goes on to broaden his definition of evidence-based coaching as the “intelligent and conscientious use of relevant and best current knowledge integrated with professional practitioner expertise in making decisions about how to deliver coaching to coaching clients and delivering coach training programs” (emphasis in original; p. 76). I like this broadened definition because it takes into account what we coaches observe and “know” from experience as well as what can be measured—combining our individual and collective experience working with our clients, and empirical evidence from both coaching-specific research and coaching-relevant research—the latter being research from other fields that can positively inform our coaching.


Theoretical models typically posit a core set of basic assumptions that both explain the rationale for the model and the concepts or variables under examination. For example, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) assumes that there are three basic psychological needs that we human beings strive to fulfill, namely the aim to experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the important areas of our lives. “When these three needs are supported and satisfied within a social context, people experience more vitality, self‐motivation, and well‐being. Conversely, the thwarting or frustration of these basic needs leads to diminished self‐motivation and greater ill‐being” (Ryan, 2009, p. e848). You’ll learn more about SDT in Dr. Ron Bashian’s report in the Research column of next month’s Circle!

As you read any research or theoretical article, see if you can identify the basic assumptions being made and the conclusions at which the researcher or theorist wants you to arrive.


In early 2016, my ACO buddies Liz Ahmann and Sarah Wright and I were curious to discover how many studies had been published examining outcomes of ADHD coaching. We did a literature search, looking at many factors, such as the training of the coaches, the ages of the clients, whether the coaching was done one-to-one or in a group, and what, if any, positive outcomes the researchers had seen. We also wondered if the authors employed a particular theoretical framework in putting together their coaching programs (Ahmann, Saviet, Tuttle, & Wright, in press; Tuttle, Ahmann, & Wright, 2016).

Using the keywords “coaching,” “ADHD,” and “executive functions” in several databases, our search revealed 19 outcome studies, and among these we identified six frameworks, used singly or in combination. In order of frequency, these frameworks are: (1) executive functioning, (2) cognitive-behavioral theory, (3) emotional intelligence, (4) psychoeducation, (5) social learning and self-efficacy, and (6) self-determination or empowerment.

Keep a lookout in the future issues of this column for research reports from ACO’s Research Committee members highlighting these six frameworks and others that are useful in ADHD coaching! You can learn about a good number of them in the valuable set of books listed at the end of this article.


As we gain an appreciation for and proficiency in reading, understanding, and applying research to our coaching, we strengthen our capacity to demonstrate our Core Coaching Competencies, especially those in the domain of Facilitating Learning and Results.

In sum, the better we ADHD Coaches understand the frameworks applicable to coaching, the more competently and confidently we will support our clients’ motivation, self-regulation, implementation, and self-actualization.


Ahmann, E., Tuttle, L. J., Saviet, M., & Wright, S. D. (In press). A descriptive review of ADHD coaching research: Implications for college students. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability (JPED).

Grant, A. M. (2016). What constitutes evidence-based coaching? A two-by-two framework for distinguishing strong from weak evidence for coaching. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 14(1), 74–85.

Ryan, R. (2009). Self-determination theory and well-being. WeD Research Review, 1, e848.

Tuttle, L. J., Ahmann, E., & Wright, S. D. (2016, January). Emerging evidence for the efficacy of ADHD coaching. Poster presentation at the 2016 APSARD (American Professional Society of ADHD & Related Disorders) Annual Meeting, Washington, DC.


Some Relevant Articles

Gloss, E. J. (2012). A hint of this and a pinch of that: Theories that inform coaching and consulting. Graduate Studies Journal of Organizational Dynamics, 2(1–13). Retrieved from

McMahon, G. (2007). Understanding cognitive behavioral coaching: A historical perspective. Training Journal, 53.

Spence, G. B., & Oades, L. G. (2011). Coaching with self-determination theory in mind: Using theory to advance evidence-based coaching practice. International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring, 9(2), 37–55.

Good Books Highlighting Theoretical Frameworks Used in Coaching

Cox, E., Bachkirova, T., & Clutterbuck, D. (2014). The Complete Handbook of Coaching. London, England: Sage.

Passmore, J. (Ed.). (2015). Excellence in coaching: The Industry Guide. London, England: Kogan Page.

Passmore, J. (Ed.). (2014). Mastery in coaching: A Complete Psychological Toolkit for Advanced Coaching. London, England: Kogan Page.

Passmore, J. (Ed.). (2012). Psychometrics in Coaching: Using Psychological and Psychometric Tools for Development. London, England: Kogan Page.

Stober, D. R., & Grant, A. M. (Eds.). (2010). Evidence-based Coaching Handbook: Putting best practices to work for your clients. New York, NY: Wiley & Sons.

Wildflower, L., & Brennan, D. (2011). The handbook of knowledge-based coaching: From theory to practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Three Peer-reviewed Coaching Journals

Coaching: An International Journal of TheoryResearch, and Practice
Christian van Nieuwerburgh, Editor. Publisher: Taylor & Francis, Philadelphia

International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring
Elaine Cox, Editor. Publisher: International Centre for Coaching and Mentoring Studies at Oxford Brookes University Business School, Oxford, England

Philosophy of Coaching: An International Journal
Julian Humphreys, Editor and Publisher