Thesis presented by

Tom O’Leary

for the degree of

Masters in Personal and Management Coaching

University College Cork



Study after study has showed the positive benefits of incorporating play into adult life. It has been specifically shown to allow adults to see things differently and have fresh insights. Existing research into the use of play in coaching, although limited, offers great encouragement. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with eight professional coaches who use playful approaches to explore the case for play in coaching, what it looks like, the attributes of playful coaches and the specific benefits and limitations. The research also explores the individual play history of the participants to get a sense for how they came to be playful coaches. It also offers two definitions for play in a coaching context.

Key findings include a carefully constructed case for play, greater insights into how play unfolds, what forms of play are commonly used, what it offers both client and coach, that almost any coach can be playful along with the potential limitations on play. Specifically for practitioners, it provides a series of pointers for those looking to bring more play into their practice, arming them with insights to reflect on their own play history and their current relationship with play. It also provides them with insights on how to further cultivate that relationship. It builds on previous research to provide a stronger case for play including potential benefits for both coach and client and for the coaching process itself. This might allow coaches to be more forthright in making the case for play. Within sessions, it provides practitioners with a sense for how to gently invite their client to engage in a playful activity whilst also offering some ideas as to what types of activities are possible. It also brings awareness to the limitations on play that they or the client(s) might bring into the relationship.

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 Why Not “Play in Coaching?”

What is it that coaching is trying to solve? The Global Coaching Mentoring Alliance’s answer is to “help [clients] see and test alternative ways for improvement of competence, decision making and enhancement of quality of life.” (“Global Coaching Mentoring Alliance (GCMA) – EMCC Global”, 2020)[1]. From a coach’s perspective this might be expressed in question form as “How can I help my clients see and test alternative ways for improvement?”. A coach laying out all coaching theories, models and approaches on the table like Lego pieces would find endless combinations to suit the needs of a particular client. The question that might be asked is whether play might be one of those go-to pieces?

Despite having a key role in human development, play is poorly understood and poorly defined. For example, the Cambridge Dictionary defines play as an “activity that is not serious but done for enjoyment” (Cambridge Dictionary, n.d.). This seems to imply a certain triviality of the kind children are typically perceived to engage in with no real purpose. Nevertheless, anyone who has observed children at play will attest to how serious they seem to take it. Adult play is often maligned, being viewed as non-serious or frivolous, meaning that it can be hard for adults “to play outside of certain highly constrained settings” (Walsh, 2019, p. 1). And yet, a glance at the conceptual model underpinning the Adult Playfulness Trait Scale (APTS), an empirically validated playfulness measurement scale (see Shen, Chick & Zinn, 2014b), paints a more complex picture with multiple core cognitive qualities associated with playfulness.

Figure 1. Hierarchial APTS conceptual model
Figure 1. Hierarchical APTS conceptual model (Shen, Chick, and Zinn 2014a)

It is hardly controversial to observe that for the average person playfulness, and hence “fun-seeking”, “uninhibitedness” and “spontaneity”, tends to reduce as they establish themselves in adulthood and seek to set aside their childish ways. Does it have to be this way? The literature would suggest that it doesn’t and that adults do play but that “most frames for adults are inherently non-playful based on previous experience” (Walsh, 2019, p. 2). To overcome these, they may thus need the necessary permissions (alibis and excuses) to escape the potential embarrassment of play (Walsh, 2019).

And what is the cost of diminishing adult play? Brown and Vaughen argue that “when play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.” (2009, Chapter Two, The Drive To Play, Para. 4). Contrast this with Brown & Vaughan’s view of how play impacts us: “It energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities” (Brown & Vaughan, 2009, Chapter Two, The Drive To Play, Para. 4). So conceiving play in adulthood as a spectrum from less to more we have “losing our sense of optimism” on one end and “opening us up to new possibilities” at the other end. In a coaching profession predicated on seeing and testing alternative ways for improvement isn’t seeing possibility a cornerstone to any improvement? Increasing clients’ ability to be accepting of possibility by being creative with themselves and with the world allows them to add layers of flexibility to whatever they are facing. What if play could have a role in that? Sutton-Smith certainly thought so, arguing (in a non-coaching context) that “[p]lay is typically a primary place for the expression of anything that is humanly imaginable” (Sutton-Smith, 1997, p. 226).

1.2 What is the Research Trying to Uncover?

Echoing the above discussion, the central research question is “Should play be taken seriously in coaching?” Short and succinct though it may be it is nevertheless a broad question requiring a large number of blocks to be brought together. Before playing with those blocks it is worth examining the rationale for this question. What is it that drives this research? Aren’t the existing models and approaches enough? Is play really appropriate in or really serious enough for a coaching process? In formulating this question, the researcher had in mind a profession that had traditionally seemed to work from the neck up. In more recent times more embodied practices and approaches have made themselves available in recognition of the fact that the brain only has some of the answers. The researcher has taken a reflexive approach to this research and as part of that commitment has reflected on having grown up in a very playful family and culture. He has retained some of this playfulness in adulthood and felt that excluding the possibility of play from coaching relationships (leaving it outside the door so to speak) was serving neither coach nor client. Having the possibility of play in the field – all dependent on the client accepting the invitations – would at the very least allow the researcher to be authentic. Part of that authenticity is not being overly concerned with perceptions of seriousness and much more focussed on what might serve the client in the moment. If play might help that and the client consents, why not bring it in? And yet it is the “might” in that question that was problematic. Without an evidence base to turn to, there was a tension between what the researcher felt would benefit the client and what might actually benefit them. And it is that tension that ultimately drove this research so as to attempt to settle the “might play help?” question and move on to exploring “how can play help?”

1.3 How will the Research Achieve This?

The existing research base, whilst relatively light, has laid a wonderful foundation, allowing the researcher to at least tentatively answer “it might”. Firming that up is felt to be key in increasing the confidence of coaches in using more playful approaches. The journey towards “how can play help?” involves a whole series of intermediate steps. It specifically involves exploring these four research aims:

  1. Explore the case for play in coaching
  2. Explore what play in coaching looks like
  3. Identify the attributes of a playful coach
  4. Explore benefits vs. limitations in the use of play

These research aims are felt to comprise key building blocks that, when combined with the existing research, will establish a firm basis for the use of play in coaching and provide something on which future researchers and practitioners can build.

  1. As indicated above, the case for play in coaching underpins all else. It is only when this is solid that the rest of the work may proceed. This work begins in Chapter 2 and really involves rebuilding the case for play in adulthood from first principles, starting with its theoretical and philosophical This is followed by looking to establish that the old division of work and play makes little sense in a world in which the benefits of play are being increasingly called for in professional life. Having looked at play through the lens of the work done in adult learning and development and organisational development, we then examine whether play can jump across into the coaching sphere. In short, this is looking at what play offers from a big picture perspective and funnelling that into “Why does play deserve to come inside the session?”
  2. Once the case for play has been established, it is important to get inside the coaching process to see what play in coaching looks like. As explained in Chapter 3, along with other components of the methodology employed (qualitative approach, online interviews, thematic analysis, reflexivity…), this involves eight semi-structured interviews with professional coaches using playful approaches in their practice. This is primarily to get a feel for the whole process: how we start playing (invitation) , what forms of play might be possible and what play feels like. The findings from these interviews are set out in Chapter 4 and should give practitioners clear insights into the play process and the various factors to consider.
  3. We then swivel around and shine the light back on the coach to get a sense for their own relationships from childhood along with their broader traits. The subplot here is the question “can anyone be a playful coach?” Pieces of the answers to this question can be found in the findings in Chapter 4 with further discussion being warranted in Chapter 5.
  4. The final cornerstone is examining the specific benefits for clients and any limitations of and limitations on play. For the purposes of this research, limitation is understood as anything that might restrict the use of play in coaching, thereby including “barriers”. The key findings are summarised in Chapter 4 with the more subtle aspects further discussed in Chapter 5.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

The purpose of this section is to connect the modern use of play in adult learning and development and the helping professions with some deeper theoretical and philosophical underpinnings. Even though theory and philosophy live in the abstract, there are enormous practical implications (Jackson & Cox, 2009). The hope is to weave some of that wisdom into the foundation underpinning the use of play in coaching. Two themes in particular will be explored as they are felt to be key to the normalisation of play in adulthood: Play Beyond Childhood and the Distinction Between Work and Play. The literature on play in adult learning and development, and more recently in coaching, also examines the myriad benefits of incorporating play alongside potential limitations. The researcher also felt it important to acknowledge and explore the definitional challenges surrounding play. Despite being omnipresent, play has both pre-verbal and non-verbal qualities that make any definition only part of the story.

In line with best practice and to add replicability to the research, the literature search has been fully documented (Jackson & Cox, 2009). To this end, the researcher carried out a comprehensive review of relevant peer-reviewed literature across all disciplines, documenting each query in terms of search criteria (search term, database, filters…) and number of results. This was done via the UCC Library and connected databases (EBSCO databases, Academic Search Complete, APA PsycInfo, APA PsycArticles). The researcher also had recourse to a number of items from other sources (e.g. Coaching at Work database, Google) and all such searches have similarly been documented, as have books and other material used by the researcher. As indicated above, every effort has been made to use peer-reviewed material. There are obviously limits to this as, for example, books are not typically peer-reviewed. Where articles are not peer-reviewed this has been documented.

The search was complicated by the fact that both “play” and “coaching” are attributed a whole series of meanings in a wide range of contexts. Both are, for example, used together in sports contexts. Play is also widely used in titles (“What role does X play…” / “State of play”) meaning that no matter how the search criteria were refined the hit rate (% of relevant articles) remained low. This called for certain refinements during the search process. Depending on the search, this included:

  • Filtering for certain disciplines;
  • Excluding certain disciplines;
  • Requiring a search term to appear in the title;
  • Only using certain databases.

Even then, this made it necessary to scan through thousands of articles. Due to the volume of results to some queries (e.g. searching for “play” and “coaching” in One Search found over 53,000 peer-reviewed journal articles), some relevant material may indeed have been missed. This was, for example, the case of Wheeler’s 2020 study, which to the researcher’s knowledge did not appear in any of the searches and was subsequently referenced by the author herself. Having reviewed the references of this and other recent articles specifically dealing with play in coaching, the researcher is confident that the literature review fairly reflects the current state of knowledge although cannot guarantee that it is comprehensive.

2.1 Underpinnings of Play and Definitional Challenges

“For many years the conviction has grown upon me that civilization arises and unfolds in and as play” (Huizinga, 1955, Foreword, Para. 2)

Huizinga’s assertion that play is not only central to human development but transcends the individual and impacts the very development of civilisation is contentious to say the least. Less so is that humans have had a complicated relationship with play throughout the ages. Whilst more recently play has acquired certain transcendental qualities as a pathway to creativity and self-discovery this is neither the consensus now nor has it been over time. From Plato to H.G. Wells, philosophers and writers alike have warned of the excesses of play. Writing two millennia apart, both worried about where play may lead. And yet, as is evident from ancient Greek culture, games and rituals were central to it and the later Roman world that underpin much of modern-day Western thought and culture.

In fact, two of the major themes surrounding play that modern philosophy and societies are still grappling with, and that are arguably key to its wider use in coaching, can be found in the pages of the ancient Greek philosophers. These are the role of play beyond childhood and the distinction between work and play. Whilst separate, both revolve around the duality of play potentially having serious implications and yet being somehow unserious and an artefact of childhood (D’Angour, 2013).

2.1.1 Play Beyond Childhood

Interestingly, the word paizein used by Homer to describe athletics, sports, dancing and singing is etymologically linked to pais meaning child (D’Angour, 2013)[2]. The implication is that these are in some way childlike activities. Plato was so concerned about the impact of play on children that he argued for its regulation. By allowing children to invent new games he sensed they learnt to value the new above the old, potentially undermining society. In Plato’s eyes, advocates for creative play failed to realise that “if children introduce novelties into their games, they’ll end up as adults who are quite different from the previous generation” (D’Angour, 2013, p. 300). Plato thus clearly saw the power of play to foster change!

And yet, although play may have been primarily construed as preparing children for adulthood (and hence losing its purpose at adulthood), it is clear that play followed Greek children into adulthood. In fact, it was commonplace in the arts through myriad competitions, in the intellectual sphere through debating and word play and in the more serious political and military realms. Plato recorded in his dialogue Laches how some Athenian Sophists took a playful approach to warfare, essentially reducing it to a game. There is little more serious for humans than life and death and yet this tendency to treat war as a game hints at the potential dark side of adult play where real life consequences are somehow abstracted within the confines of a game.

This continuation of play into adulthood and its centrality to the creative process was explored by Freud in his 1907 talk on Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming. Freud asserted that “the creative writer does the same as the child at play” (Person, Fonagy & Figueira, 2013, p. 27) in creating a world of phantasy. In Freud’s view, childhood play morphed into phantasy in adults. Phantasy is by its nature internal and less visible than the more obvious childhood play. Seeing as play is viewed through a social lens, the sense of invisibility of adult play may perhaps have been a function of his society rather than a given.

Writing not long afterwards, Jung moved play from Freud’s cognitive space to the lived experience when he wrote of re-establishing contact with his 11-year old self whom he realised was still alive and possessed a creativity that the older Jung lacked. He found the gateway to his 11-year old self through the child’s childish building games. In what he described as a turning point, the building game provided the opening to release a stream of fantasies that offered him a way through his struggles (Storr, 1998). This was a recurrent theme in his life with Jung claiming that the door to his creativity that was opened, and subsequently nourished by other “rite d’entrées”, was the basis for his later ideas and works (Storr, 1998, Part 3 The Development of the Idea of the Collective Unconscious and of Archetypes, From “Confrontation with the Unconscious” MDR, pp. 167-74/172-81, Para. 10).

The theme of creativity was picked up by Winnicott, who argued for the centrality of play in human existence. Winnicott was a man of stark views and no less so when he asserted that “it is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (Winnicott,1971/2005, p. 72).

2.1.2 Distinction Between Work and Play

So even if adults do phantasise in Freud’s view or are given permission to play more visibly, can play be truly brought into serious settings? Ancient Greek texts tended to use “play” in opposition to “work”, which at the time was primarily manual in nature (D’Angour, 2013). Aristotle went further by placing play below work, initiating what Nagel has argued is the “the malediction of play in Western thought” ( 2002, p. 1). Nagel further argues this made the pursuit of play in thought and action ideologically suspect in later Western culture. Whether or not there is cause and effect this view is still prevalent in Western thought. In fact, the researcher has noted how researchers on play often seem to feel they need to address past or future criticism of their work on the grounds of being somehow not serious (e.g. Nagel, 2002, “serious scholars typically ignore play…” (Burghardt, 2005, p. 6)).

And yet, might the serious / non-serious debate not perhaps be missing the point? In observing a child at play Freud points out that it would be wrong to think that the child is not taking the play seriously and expending a large amount of emotion. Anyone who has observed young children at play can attest to this. Freud further argues that “the opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real” (Person, Fonagy & Figueira, 2013, p. 28). So, to reframe Freud’s view, play offers the opportunity to shift from what is real and imagine what might be (phantasise). Furthermore, the whole serious / non-serious continuum only seems to make sense as a psychological construct where specific outcomes are desired. In the absence thereof, notions of productivity and indeed efficiency are “replaced by the pleasure of taking the circuitous route (March, 1976 as cited in Ibarra & Petriglieri, 2011, p. 13).

2.1.3 Definitional Challenges

“We all play occasionally, and we all know what playing feels like. But when it comes to making theoretical statements about what play is, we fall into silliness. There is little agreement amongst us, and much ambiguity” (Sutton-Smith, 2001, p. 1)

Perhaps more than Aristotle’s curse, what has plagued researchers on play is how to define it. Even Freud’s above definition is negative rather than positive. Sutton-Smith’s assertion that we “all know what playing feels like” may be correct but this should not be construed as “I know it when I see it”[3]. How then to be inclusive of forms of play one has never encountered or doesn’t consider playful and yet develop some form of definition or test that might help reduce the ambiguity? There is also the deeper question of the role of a definition. The argument might be made that, in scientific inquiry, the role is not to distil some essential truth but rather to help further understanding (Burghardt, 2005).

The core issue with play is, as Sutton-Smith (2001) stated above, that there is much understanding to further. This can be seen from the rich literature of contrasting and indeed conflicting views and definitions. It might be best expressed as a continuum from:

  • “play, like idleness, is not only wasted time, but is also a process leading to the neglect of study and work” to
    “play underlies all creativity and innovation” (Burghardt, 2005, p. 7).

These and the myriad other views reflect differing historical and political worldviews but also different experiences and traditions of play which impact how a particular writer sees play[4]. Somewhat exasperated by such discussions, Hyland (1984, p. xxii as cited in Burghardt, 2005, p. 8), pondered that “even if play could be defined, a definition is not ‘needful”. Whether or not needful and no matter how imperfect, some definition is helpful as a guide and we will circle back to this later.

2.2 Play in Adult Learning and Development

“We are designed to find fulfilment and creative growth through play.” (Vaughan & Brown, 2009, Chapter 1, The Promise of Play, Para. 39)

The myth surrounding the separation of work and play began to slowly dissolve in the late 20th century. This also coincided with technological and political developments that forced companies to innovate to stay competitive. They thus invested heavily in learning and development programmes ranging from traditional training to more exploratory playful activities. In many cases, these playful activities came in as “serious play”, top-down programmes to achieve work-related goals through the controlled use of play (Spraggon & Bodolica, 2018). Some researchers took serious play as space for participants “to ‘play’ with elements of their ‘serious’ work” as a way to safely explore ambiguity and complexity in their organisations (Holliday, Statler & Flanders, 2007, p. 129). The “serious” thus tends to refer to the expected outcomes rather than the seriousness of the play. However, “ascribing an aim to a playful activity places a certain functionalist and productivist pressure on what is achieved” (Bogajewski, 2018, p. 591), something that is arguably incompatible with the very nature of play. Other researchers focussed on play as extension of work, play as continuation of work, play as creation, play as meaning-making, play as authenticity, managed play, and even on more organic forms of informal play (Spraggon & Bodolica, 2014; 2018).

Whilst many such activities take place outside the work environment there are even now examples of play being brought into the workplace itself. The most famous example is perhaps Google Labs, which in 2011 had as the number four reason to join: “work and play are not mutually exclusive” (Mayer 2010, p. 70). There is a sense of Aristotle and Plato shifting in their graves. Indeed, echoes from their graves can be found in the literature with some scholars criticising this trend as transforming work into a series of “quasi Narcissistic interventions”, with “work on self [appearing] more important than work on work” (Costea, Crump & Holm, 2007, p. 163). Regardless of whether the criticism is justified, the deeper question is why are these companies investing in play? In essence, what are they seeing and might there be lessons for coaching?

2.2.1 General Benefits of Play

“Play, in the sense of developing a spirit of freedom, curiosity and exploration, is necessary for the ‘growth of a healthy self’.” (Livingston, 2001, p. 15)

Study after study continues to build the argument for adult play. At its broadest level, playfulness creates a virtuous cycle of positive emotions (joy) leading to the urge to play, push the boundaries and be creative (Fredrickson, 2004). This on its own has resonance for coaching but scholars, particularly within the organisational sphere, have found a whole series of positive benefits that may be relevant for coaching. These include communication of new insights; development of shared understanding; coping with ambiguity and paradox; increasing commitment and overcoming psychological defences (Statler, Heracleous & Jacobs, 2011). It has also been shown more broadly to positively impact creativity, improve motivation and increase innovation in uncertainty (Dodgson, 2017). With specific relevance for coaching, it has also been found that a playful attitude correlates with stress-reduction and coping strategies with playful people more likely to have more “adaptive coping strategies” (Lockwood & O’Connor, 2017, p. 59).

2.2.2 Specific Benefits in Leadership Development

Leadership Development plays in the same sphere as executive coaching so is of direct relevance for coaching. Hardly unsurprisingly, play in leadership development has received significant attention with substantial literature on how play can contribute to the various components of leadership development:

  • Identity development;
  • Cognitive and conceptual abilities;
  • Personal growth;
  • Skill development (Kark, 2011).

Of the above list, identify development and cognitive and conceptual abilities jump out as two areas of direct relevance for many coaching interventions.

Identity Development

The literature shows that leadership is a claimed and granted identity (Kark, 2011). This means that the leader asserts their leadership in some direct and indirect way (claiming) and the followers acquiesce (granting). This can be challenging for new leaders moving up an organisational ladder who may not yet see themselves or be seen as leaders at a particular level (e.g. good manager but not C-suite material). Play is thus a “good opportunity to test and experience claiming and granting dynamics” (Kark, 2011, p. 513). This is in line with research around identity play by Ibarra and Petriglieri. They argue that identity play is about creating future possibilities, breaking free of ought selves and inventing and reinventing oneself based on one’s own motives (Ibarra & Petriglieri, 2011). Like Freud, they note that while work takes place in the real world, “play’s context is the threshold between current reality and future possibilities” (Ibarra & Petriglieri, 2011, p. 11). This echoes the work of Piaget, Vgotsky and others who suggested that “playful behaviour is the underlying mechanism animating transitions between past and future identities” (Kark, 2011, p. 514). Kolb and Kolb also found examples of play allowing for the development of a sense of “communal identity” when used in group settings (Kark, 2011).

Cognitive and Conceptual Abilities

The pace of technological and societal change is such that leaders need to be willing and able to learn from mistakes, revise assumptions and beliefs with a view to adapting and innovating. And yet, as Mezirow notes, “one of the most important things adults learn is that they can learn” (Fitzpatrick, 2020, p. 11). This requires an ability to analyse our own cognitive processes (how we frame and resolve problems) and refine them as required, an area in which play has been shown to be beneficial (Kark, 2011). There is a sense even of rediscovering a “child’s mind”, nourishing the inner child through play (as Jung did) and viewing the world with the awe we once did. Winnicott asserted that play provided an opportunity to think spontaneously, to use our imagination, replacing reality with a world of action and adventure, ignoring missing information and being creative when faced with complexity and unpredictability (Winnicott, 1971/2005). Mainemelis and Ronson argue that play at work enhances five processes connected with creativity: “problem framing, divergent thinking, mental transformations, practice with alternative solutions, and evaluative ability” (2006, p. 93). All of this is echoed by the enhanced understanding of brain function brought about by neuroscience, which has shown the impact of play on information processing with early suggestions of improved acquisition of new knowledge and the synthesising of concepts and memory development (Brown & Vaughan, 2009). Ultimately, play in leadership development can help leaders “tap into their imagination and ‘inner child’ to facilitate flexibility, contribute to cognitive processes that boost ongoing learning, creativity and innovation” (Kark, 2011, p. 518).

2.2.3 Play Spaces and Thresholds and Limits of Play

Like coaching, play typically only works in a safe space (i.e. play spaces from Freud’s spielraum). Such play spaces allow players to try out (“test”) new ways of being or doing. The importance of such play spaces is clear from the literature. In anthropological terms, the play space is defined as a liminal zone in which the normal constraints of society are lifted (Turner, 1974 as cited in Kark, 2011). As Turner notes, it is in this liminal zone that people play with aspects of the familiar and defamiliarize them. Through this, “[n]ovelty emerges from unprecedented combinations of familiar items” (Turner, 1974 as cited in Kark, 2011, p. 511). The concept of liminality was popularised by Dutch anthropologist Arthur Van Gennep. It is derived from limen in Latin meaning threshold, giving rise to the idea of movement “from the outer world to the inner world (and back) as people leave behind one role or status and prepare to take on a new one” (Drake, 2017, p. 44). For the threshold to emerge so to speak, Kolb and Kolb have noted that the space must be hospitable, respectful, safe, supportive but also challenging (2010, p. 45). Such spaces are in essence a recreation of the safe space created for the child by the mother (Ibarra & Petriglieri, 2011). A play space lacks external assessment and is akin to the holding environments discussed by Winnicott and Bion, providing both

containment and opportunity for interpretation. When players feel somehow coerced or constrained (e.g. by management, a board…) that sense of play space is violated and can lead to “cynicism, alienation and resentment” (Spraggon & Bodolica, 2014, p. 524), where people almost feel they are forced to play. Indeed, this has led to research into “play as resistance” (Spraggon & Bodolica, 2014, p. 530). It also impinges upon one of Huizinga’s three central characteristics of play, namely that it is freely entered into (cannot be coerced) (Huizinga, 1955). Play is therefore something one invites another to partake in, a theme that came up repeatedly in the research.

2.3 Play in Coaching

2.3.1 Play in Practice

As Wheeler notes in her exploration of playfulness in coaching, there is “sparse direct empirical research on adult playfulness in coaching” (Wheeler, 2020, 44). She set about remedying that with interviews of 14 coaches to reflect upon their experience of playfulness in their work. The interviews provided the reflective space to expand upon their concept of playfulness with 12 of the 14 subsequently noting “how much playfulness is part of their coaching approach, with some struggling to differentiate it from their coaching” (Wheeler, 2020, p. 48). Wheeler identified nine key factors for effective playfulness revolving around the themes of relationship, authenticity and presence. Of the nine, only one felt specific to the use of play, namely “fostering capacity for playfulness’ (Wheeler, 2020, p49), while the others are inherent in the coaching process. Wheeler’s research created a distinction between a coach who uses their innate capacity for playfulness in the coaching and using play as a coaching tool. Indeed, Wheeler (2020) found that almost none of the 14 coaches she interviewed had specifically reflected on their playfulness prior to being interviewed even though most did indeed take a playful approach.

And yet the use of play is openly acknowledged in segments of the coaching profession. For example, LEGO Serious Play, which is used by coaches and others to stimulate ideas and creative thinking, quite often in group environments. Interestingly, while the process and outcomes may be playful it doesn’t necessarily call for the coach to be playful. Another example is Narrative Coaching which is described as serious play by its founder David Drake (2017). Drake is a major advocate of play for people of all ages. In a coaching context, he argues it can be used to allow clients to experiment and make mistakes in safety, generate immediate feedback, ask questions they might not otherwise, try on new identities and stories, challenge the status quo and increase their joy and freedom (Drake, 2017). Echoing Winnicott’s mantra that a therapist must play, Drake argues that “a non-judgemental stance and commitment to serious play are important [for coaches] in making it safe for people to try out new aspects of themselves, see how those new stories feel in action and prepare for bringing them into their world” (Drake, 2017, Chapter 2 How we Form Identities, The Role of Play in the Dance, Para. 4).

Beyond this, play is scattered across the profession. For example, Gestalt approaches (drawing perhaps on Gestalt Play Therapy) can explicitly incorporate various forms of creative experimentation. The idea is to stimulate experiential learning and “the best experiments are a product of imagination and intuition and can utilize metaphor, fantasy, visualisation and symbolism” (Cox, Bachkirova & Clutterbuck, 2018, p. 75). Imago in Transactional Analysis where toy boxes, sweets or other assorted items may be used to symbolise, play with, rearrange some set of relationships in the client’s life is akin in many ways to a young child playing soldiers (Cox, Bachkirova & Clutterbuck, 2018). These and other techniques are used across the profession but not necessarily referenced as the playful activities that they are. This means they tend to remain at the level of a tool within an approach rather than potentially be embodied in most coaches. Given that this research is reflexive in its nature, it causes the researcher to reflect that seeing as play is present to varying degrees in gestalt, narrative coaching and other coaching approaches, might there not be room for it to be unchained from any one approach and used more freely?

2.3.2 Benefits Versus Limitations in the Use of Play

The various benefits and some potential limitations of using play in adult learning and development more broadly have been explored above. This section is specifically concerned with the benefits and limitations identified in the literature regarding bringing play into the coaching process. As indicated above, the research to date has been sparse but interesting nonetheless. For example, the coaches in Wheeler’s (2020) research identified a whole series

of potential benefits of playfulness as can be seen from the following table.

TrustExplorationShifts in perspective
SafetyOpenness and flexibilityPositive emotions
Range of playfulnessNon-judgmental curiosityBalance
CompassionVulnerabilityDifferent energies

Table 1: What might playfulness add to coaching? Themes and subthemes (Wheeler, 2020, p. 50)

In addition, Lockwood & O’Connor argued that “playfulness can be incorporated into coaching practice in order to pursue higher value goals and foster well-being” (2017, p. 59). Furthermore, the authors interestingly pointed out that coaching interventions could cultivate playfulness without necessarily themselves being playful (for example merely recalling a client’s past experiences of playfulness, keeping a playfulness diary…). This might, they mused, allow clients to “potentially benefit from the advantages [playfulness] offers” (Lockwood & O’Connor, 2017, p. 60).

Equally interestingly, as seen in the table below, Wheelers’ research (2020) identified a whole series of potential barriers[5] to the use of playfulness.

Lack of confidenceNeurodiversityOrganisational culture
Fear (credibility)Potential need for therapyBroader cultural constraints
Personal constructsGroup identityGender (potential misinterpretation of intent)
Perception of playfulness as trait

Table 2: Potential barriers: Themes and subthemes. (Wheeler, 2020, p. 53)

Lockwood & O’Connor also pointed out some broader considerations impinging on the use of play in coaching. Firstly, because of the “serious tone” required when scoping out coaching engagements in corporate settings, that coaches should have a “clear understanding of the evidence base supporting [the] application” of play (Lockwood & O’Connor, 2017, p. 61). The point being made is that clients may be sceptical about its use and hence be drawn to other approaches. There is no evidence one way or another regarding the potential impact on coaching outcomes. Secondly, the authors argue that the lack of a robust evidence base means that coaches should be prudent in how they employ play in coaching. This research is designed to help build such an evidence base.

Although limited, the existing research provides some interesting pointers and is a strong basis on which to build. Whilst also addressing other questions, part of this research also involves covering some of the same ground and provides an opportunity to add to the earlier research.

2.3.3 Attributes of a Playful Coach

It is important at the outset to distinguish between a coach who is co-creating play with a client and a coach who, for example in Lego Play style, is creating a playful experience for clients but is not themselves necessarily involved in the play and hence not necessarily being playful in that moment. There is nothing to suggest that any coach mightn’t be fully capable of creating the latter experience. It is nevertheless clear from the literature that the co-creation of play might not be for everyone. Lockwood & O’Connor argue that coaches “would need to be “quite flexible and adaptive (or even playful) in how they express their own playfulness” (2017, p. 61) to ensure they are attuned to their client’s play experience. Indeed, Wheeler (2020) noted that nine of the fourteen coaches she interviewed described their approach as “eclectic”, which the researcher reads as meaning playfully drawing from their crucible whatever would best serve the client in that moment. Indeed, some of the themes and subthemes identified by Wheeler (2020) are instructive in this respect.

Fostering capacity for playfulness

Table 3: Key factors for effective playfulness: Themes and subthemes. (Wheeler, 2020, p. 49)

These build up a picture of a coach who for starters is comfortable with their own playfulness. It thus points to inner work done by the coach in terms of self-acceptance and self-belief but also the importance of taking a non-judgemental and compassionate approach to both self and to the client.

2.3.4 Review of Definitions of Play in Coaching[6]

It is clear from the history of play research both in psychology and outside that there have been many missteps and dead ends. There is in fact little empirical evidence for the various theories regarding playfulness as somehow inherent, genetic or an unchanging personality trait. If it were the case for its use in adult learning and development would be limited. How play is conceived is critically important and directly impacts how it is studied and defined.

Following an extensive review of play and playfulness in positive psychology and definitions of play from multiple fields, Lockwood & O’Connor proposed a two-step definition of i) playfulness and ii) play. They defined playfulness as “a cognitive attitude towards being intrinsically motivated and uninhibited, supported through a behavioural orientation towards fun-seeking and spontaneity” (2017, p. 58). Play followed as “the thinking, actions, and activities, which express, facilitate and promote feelings of playfulness” (Lockwood & O’Connor, 2017, p. 58). Wheeler, who built on the work of Lockwood & O’Connor seemed unconvinced, proposing her own fun-free definition:

“Playfulness in coaching may be understood as a quality of thought and interaction unlimited by associations with fun which emerges from and deepens the coaching relationship, is rooted in authenticity and mindful presence and encompasses a cognitive attitude towards exploration, supporting shifts in perspective” (Wheeler, 2020, p. 53).

The researcher would agree with Wheeler’s express renunciation of the forced link between play and fun. Indeed, recent research shows that playfulness in adults does not necessarily correlate, for example, with humour and is often as highly correlated with such factors as wit, cognitive spontaneity and critical thinking (Lockwood & O’Connor, 2017). Beyond that, the definition, while comprehensive, does not necessarily truly isolate playfulness from other experiential states. The researcher will propose his own working definitions in a later section.

2.4 Conclusions from the Literature

“Play is a state of mind, rather than an activity.”
(Brown & Vaughan, 2009, Chapter Three, We are built for play, Play in Adulthood, Para. 5)

Despite just scratching the surface on the writings on play over the ages it should by now have at least become clear that play stirs deep emotions. Indeed, for many cultures, organisations and adults play has been pushed firmly into the shadow (not considered serious), requiring justification and explanation before being accessed.

And yet, as is clear from the literature on play in adult learning and development, play has myriad benefits beyond childhood including in working environments. This started to become clear in the late 20th century as companies looked for any edge to stay ahead of their competitors. Study after study has painted a similar picture, namely positive benefits from incorporating play within the organisational sphere. These include: increased creativity and innovation; better communication; improved stress-reduction and coping strategies, identity development; enhanced cognitive and conceptual abilities; personal growth (Fredrickson, 2004; Statler, Heracleous & Jacobs, 2011; Dodgson, 2017; Lockwood & O’Connor, 2017, Kark, 2011). These are all areas addressed by coaching so the researcher would submit from this alone that the literature strongly supports the case for incorporating play into coaching.

It is thus more a question of what play might look like in coaching and what specific benefits and limitations might accompany it in a coaching context. From a foundational perspective, it is clear from the literature that the building blocks required to create play spaces (in plain terms safety, trust and respect) are fundamental to coaching. Without them there is arguably no coaching space not to mind a play space. Despite the scant literature on play in coaching there are, as discussed above, examples of play being called on as more central or secondary characters across the profession. Nevertheless, from an empirical perspective, much work remains but Wheeler’s (2020) research provides a solid basis. She found potential positive impacts on the relationship and the creation of a space and lightness conducive to a journey of exploration. On the flip side, both Wheeler and Lockwood & O’Connor point to possible limitations (or barriers) to the use of coaching, which coaches would be well advised to consider.

So should coaches consider using play in coaching? Whilst being mindful of the aforementioned limitations, there is strong support both for benefits to the coaching process and to the client from the use of play. Should all coaches consider using play in their practice is perhaps the more pertinent question. Using play as a tool to create a playful experience does not necessarily call for playfulness in the same way as one doesn’t need to be a comedian to tell a joke. Going beyond them and co-creating play (i.e. playing) with the client may call for a different profile. Indeed, the literature paints a picture of a coach who has done inner work in terms of self-acceptance and self-belief but also takes a non-judgemental and compassionate approach to both self and to the client.

Chapter 3: Methodology

3.1 Introduction

For the central research question (Should play be taken seriously in coaching?) and the resulting research aims set out in the Introduction to be explored using a quantitative approach the researcher would argue that the following would need to be true:

  1. There would need to be sufficient understanding of the use of play in coaching to know what might be amenable to number crunching; and
  2. The participants would need to have the answers to hand.

With regard to point i): Given the current state of knowledge regarding play in coaching (and indeed what may be knowable in that respect) the questions the researcher felt needed answering involved core concepts that still need to be better understood and explored.

With regard to point ii): After interviewing 14 coaches on playfulness in their practice, Wheeler (2020) concluded that prior to being interviewed the coaches had not really reflected upon playfulness and many didn’t even realise they were using playful approaches. It was only in the reflective space offered by Wheeler that they were able to tease out their own playful practices. Whilst the participants in this research already have some more awareness around the playful practices in their coaching, the sparsity of research in this field once again means that the richness is in the depth of their answers. Because of the foregoing, the researcher felt that a qualitative approach was more suited.

The researcher has noted a subtext in the literature that certain researchers may gravitate to a qualitative approach because of a preference for interviewing people and deconstructing their stories (Creswell & Creswell, 2018) or a fear of statistics. Neither is true in this case. The researcher is perfectly comfortable with a quantitative approach (often doing surveys) and had initially considered using a mixed methods approach.

3.2 Qualitative Research

The researcher acknowledges taking a constructivist approach to this research. For starters, as discussed in the Literature Research there is no single agreed definition of play or even a hint of consensus as to its purpose or place. This doesn’t mean there aren’t or can’t be facts but it does mean that, even when the play is manifested in the physical world, “[i]ndividuals develop subjective meanings of their experiences” (Creswell & Creswell, 2018, Chapter 1 The Selection of a Research Approach, The Constructivist Worldview, Para. 1). This research is centred around such experiences, in this instance the use of play in coaching. From an experiential perspective, coaching is similar in many respects in that “the important features of what is happening in coaching are available for understanding mainly from the first-person perspective” (Bachkirova, Rose & Noon, 2020, Introduction, Para. 2). The researcher’s task is thus to draw out and create meaning from such varied personal and individual experiences. In many instances participants have never reflected in a structured way specifically on their use of play in practice, being in many instances intrinsic to who they are as opposed to a tool they use. The threads of the story are only drawn together as a result of the reflective space afforded by the research. This is wholly in line with one of the core assumptions of constructivism cited by Crotty (1998 as cited in Creswell & Creswell, 2018), namely that “human beings construct meaning as they engage with the world”. (Creswell & Creswell, 2018, Chapter 1 The Selection of a Research Approach, The Constructivist Worldview, Para. 2).

As is clear from the central research question, the researcher, whilst acknowledging a hope that play has a place in coaching, is not seeking to defend a theory or position but rather to “make sense of (or interpret) the meanings others have about the world” (Creswell & Creswell, 2018, Chapter 1 The Selection of a Research Approach, The Constructivist Worldview, Para. 2). This then feeds into the researcher’s pragmatism, which is concerned with what works rather than with building lofty philosophical platforms (Creswell & Creswell, 2018). This process allows the researcher to move beyond the individual experience of a particular participant and to inductively generate meaning from the data. This meaning can then be shared with other coaches not as fact but as possibility – what experiences they might create in their coaching practices and to what end. For all of the reasons set out in this section and in the introduction, the researcher feels that qualitative research is best suited to answering the question at hand.

3.3 Data Collection

3.3.1 Best Practice

Data collection and data analysis are the two key components of qualitative research. It is thus clear that “rigorous data collection procedures are the main factors that influence quality and trustworthiness and critically influence the results of the study” (Kallio, Pietilä, Johnson & Kangasniemi, 2016, p2955). To imbue the research with the necessary rigor the researcher followed best practice at every step. This includes specifically using the five phase framework suggested by the above authors in developing the interview guide as well as being mindful of the most recent recommendations in doing online interviews. This also extended more broadly to carefully reflecting on the 32-item checklist proposed by Tong, Sainsbury & Craig (2007, p. 352)[7].

3.3.2 Focus Group vs. In-depth Interviews

A focus group is “in important respects different from an in-depth interview” (Finch, Lewis & Turley, 2003, p. 212). Not only do participants present their own views and experiences but they get to hear from others. This thus leads to additional input as participants pose questions, comment and reflect on what they have heard (Finch, Lewis & Turley, 2003). Whilst potentially generating stimulating content, because of their nature they lack the depth of one-on-one interviews. The central research question and research aims are looking to deep dive into each coach’s relationship with play, its use within their practice and specific insights around how play presents itself in sessions. As can be seen from the interview guide in the appendix, this calls for depth as the researcher spirals down from more general questions to the highly specific. In a focus group, however, the researcher can become a bystander at times with the group essentially taking over the role of interviewing each other (Finch, Lewis & Turley, 2003). For these reasons, in-depth interviews in which the researcher could guide the conversation onto the areas being researched and spiral down as required were felt to be better suited. Furthermore, as indicated, part of the research involves understanding the coach’s relationship with play including aspects of their own play history going back to childhood. Both interviews and focus groups “can stir emotions” (Cox, 2020, 3. Summarising the theoretical framework, Ethics, Para. 5) so the researcher has an ethical duty to consider this when designing the research. Whilst the questions and probing are not prima facie sensitive subjects they may trigger memories that had been buried for some time. Finally, asking participants to delve into their own coaching sessions and explore examples of the use of play with clients clearly raises confidentiality considerations. This echoes Cox’s point that “focus groups are typically best used for topics that are less sensitive, where loss of confidentiality is not a substantial risk” (Cox, 2020, 3. Summarising the theoretical framework, Ethics, Para. 5). The researcher thus felt that a one-on-one setting might provide a safer space as well as more time in which to delve into such matters and address anything that might come up. All of this fed into The Evolved Risk of Potential Harm Model discussed in Section 3.9.

3.3.3 Semi-Structured Interviews

Interviews are the most commonly used data collection method in qualitative research (Taylor, 2005) with semi-structured interviews being in turn the most “frequently used interview technique” (Kallio, Pietilä, Johnson & Kangasniemi, 2016, p. 2955). The key attraction of semi-structured interviews is the flexibility offered. Whilst all qualitative interviews can be described as “conversation[s] with a purpose” (Holloway, 2005, p. 37), the semi-structured interview gives the interviewer the freedom to add follow-up questions and truly explore points of particular interest to the research. Moreover, given that the research involves play and the interviewing of playful practitioners the researcher felt that a highly structured interview would overly restrict the possibility to bring some playfulness into the interview itself. No two interviews will be the same, nor should they be. The purpose is ultimately to capture each participant’s subjective and unique account (Taylor, 2005).

The researcher is very aware of the responsibility not to abuse the freedom afforded by the semi-structured approach to collect information that, no matter how interesting, is not absolutely necessary for the research (Kallio, Pietilä, Johnson & Kangasniemi, 2016). In the researcher’s view, following the five-phase framework proposed by Kallio, Pietilä, Johnson & Kangasniemi (2016, p. 2954), which has been cited over 200 times in academic articles, offered the necessary rigor to make the most of the flexibility afforded while mitigating potential downsides[8]. The result, in the researcher’s view, was a considered and robust interview guide[9]. Indeed, aside from the opening and closing questions, all questions were mapped to research aims during the drafting process and those that couldn’t be mapped were deleted.[10]

3.3.4 Online Interviews

Under applicable UCC Covid guidelines, researchers were prohibited from doing face-to-face interviews. The researcher therefore had no option but to use an online platform. For the purposes of replicability, it is nevertheless worthwhile exploring the use of online interviews in the data collection process.

Covid 19 has brought online meetings of all kinds into the mainstream. In essence, with a proper web camera and microphone, interaction is similar to face-to-face except that the view is often limited to a “head shot”, thereby reducing the physical field and the opportunity to observe a greater range of body language (Janghorban, Latifnejad Roudsari & Taghipour, 2014). Overall, however, participants have reported online interviews (specifically using Zoom, which the researcher chose) to be a positive experience with some key strengths being identified:

  • Convenience & ease of use;
  • Accessibility;
  • Time-saving (no travel required).

(Gray, Wong, Rempel & Cook, 2020)

In terms of accessibility, Zoom is available on all computer devices with internet connectivity and a camera and doesn’t even require the participant to download an app. All they need to do is click on the link provided by the researcher. This gives Zoom an advantage over many other competing platforms that do require the downloading of some software. The process has become sufficiently seamless that no difference was found in the quality of interviews between face-to-face and online interviews and “online participants were [in fact] more open and expressive” (Gray, Wong, Rempel & Cook, 2020, p. 1294). The fact that participants are able to so-to-speak meet the interviewer was also considered a positive by participants in one study compared with more traditional phone interviews (Gray, Wong, Rempel & Cook, 2020).

Potential technical issues are the only real concern in terms of the actual completion of the interview. In their 2020 review of the use of online communications for data collection, Gray et al. created a 10-point checklist of recommendations that the researcher followed to mitigate possible issues[11]. From an ethical perspective, the issues are also the same as face-to-face interviews provided the participants are made aware of the fact that the interview is being recorded. In fact, online interviews make it easier for participants to withdraw should they so wish by simply clicking the “Leave” button (Janghorban, Latifnejad Roudsari & Taghipour, 2014).

3.3.5 Participants

This research didn’t call for either a random or provable representative sample. In fact, the participants were chosen because they had “particular features or characteristics which will enable detailed exploration and understanding of the central themes and questions which the researcher wishes to study” (Richie, J, Lewis, J., Elam, G., Tennant, R.& Rahim, N., 2003, p. 113) thus representing a purposive or criterion-based approach. The members of the sample were thus chosen specifically because they were practicing coaches who use some playful approaches in their coaching. In light of Wheeler’s (2020) research where most participants were not aware of their playful approaches it was felt that such prior awareness would be beneficial to delve deeper. There were no other selection criteria in terms of minimum training, number of years of coaching or research background because any such criteria were felt to make the sample less representative of practicing coaches as a whole. There was also no desire to balance or skew the sample in any way other than a desire to have as broad a geographic spread as was reasonable for the researcher given the limitations of the research.

The researcher used email and LinkedIn to contact potential participants. Of the thirteen people contacted, nine pretty readily embraced the research and signed up to participate. Some did question whether they were sufficiently playful and that led to some reflective conversations around the nature of play. Following this, one withdrew. To that extent they were “self-selecting based on the information provided” (Cox, 2020, 3. Summarising the theoretical framework, Phoebe, Para. 3).

Six of the participants are female and two male. The 6:2 gender balance is simply a factor of who agreed to participate in the research. Of the original thirteen, six are male and seven female. All but one of the participants is a native English speaker. They all have many years of professional coaching experience ranging up to 20+ years. There is no sense of any obvious skewing aside from being primarily focused on the anglosphere and within that to the British Isles in particular (five of the eight participants but only eight of the original thirteen). The interviews produced close to eight hours of recordings and some 70,000 words in transcriptions.

The researcher makes no comment as to the sample size as this was essentially set as part of the research guidelines. Nor does the researcher make any claims regarding data saturation. There is a sense, however, that while additional interviews would inevitably create a richer data set and potentially some new insights, that the only research aim that would have truly benefited from further interviews would be “Explore what play in coaching looks like”. This is due to the fact that each coach brings their own spirit of playfulness, which manifests itself in different ways within their coaching practice. That said, the research is primarily designed to further open the door to play in coaching so that such conversations can be had.

3.4 Data Analysis

3.4.1 Transcription Process

On the face of it transcription seems almost a mechanical process with the sense from the literature on qualitative interviews that speech is the primary data and it is thus a matter of simply transcribing the words (Bengtsson & Fynbo, 2018). Such mechanistic practitioners would argue that more attention to detail must surely result in a better transcription. However, the primary questions for any researcher are surely ‘What is the purpose of the transcription?’ and ‘What data am I seeking to represent?’ (Collins, Leonard-Clarke & O’Mahoney, 2019). The purpose of this research is to share the stories of coaches using play in their practice. So, whilst the researcher endeavoured to ensure an accurate transcription in terms of noting down the actual words said by the participants, the key was ensuring that their story was properly represented. To this end, the researcher used Otter transcription software to generate a rough transcription, which was subsequently edited in line with the principles set out in this section.

The researcher was guided at all times by a desire to give the reader some sense of being an observer to the interview. To this end, where factors such as hesitations (disfluencies such as “uhm”…), repetition, paralinguistic information (“mhm”…), non-linguistic interjections (laughter, crying, other somatic information) were relevant to remind the researcher what was said and what was meant they were added. Where they weren’t, they were omitted and the sentences were broadly formulated as the researcher felt the participant would have liked them to read (deleting repeated words…). The same applied to the researcher’s own words.

Given the importance of silence in coaching it was also important not to overlook it in the transcription process. Indeed, from the literature it is clear that silence is often ignored in qualitative research interviews, being seen as somehow “problematic” and “something to avoid” (Bengtsson & Fynbo, 2018, p. 20). With a view to hearing any voices within the silence (hesitation, reflection….), the researcher thus noted noteworthy silences by participants to honour the silence and incorporate it in the analytical and interpretative process.

The researcher nevertheless acknowledges that transcription “is itself a form of decision-making” (Collins, Leonard-Clarke & O’Mahoney, 2019, p. 663) in terms of what to include and what to exclude. The resulting transcripts, whilst frozen in time, are not viewed by the researcher as static or as representing some form of absolute truth but rather the dynamic product of the conversation with the participant (Perera, 2020). Another conversation with the same participant may have produced different outcomes. A number of “raw” transcripts (i.e. prior to coding) can be found in Appendix G.

3.4.2 Thematic Analysis Why Thematic Analysis?

Thematic analysis is “a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns (themes) within data” (2006, p. 6). An analysis by Carrera-Fernández et al.(2014) of some 35 data analysis methods used in qualitative research found thematic analysis as the 7th most popular (9th in psychology), well behind approaches such as content analysis, grounded theory and discourse analysis. So many other equally valid approaches could have been chosen and the researcher does not see the benefit of defending or overly explaining why thematic analysis is somehow more appropriate to this research. In fact, the researcher voices no opinion on this. The researcher was influenced by the fact that the approach is not overly attached to any particular theoretical or epistemological approach and by Braun & Clarke’s argument that it “should be seen as a foundational method for qualitative analysis” (2006, p. 4). Above all else, however, the researcher chose thematic analysis because of its flexibility and its ability to “provide a rich and detailed, yet complex account of data” (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 4). If any defence of the decision is to be made it is perhaps that the central research question involves a very poorly researched area and the chosen research methods above all need to be accepting of possibility rather than overly prescriptive. It must be admitted, however, that there is a sense in the literature that “flexible” is code for “anything goes” (Braun & Clarke, 2006) and, whilst guarding this vaunted flexibility, the researcher nevertheless followed a series of guidelines to endeavour to ensure utmost rigour. Choosing Themes

Themes are the bedrock of thematic analysis and capture something essential from the data in connection with the research aims and “represent some level of patterned response or meaning within the data set” (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 10). The term does imply that it has some level of prevalence across the data set but the researcher has not set any strict rules in this regard. Themes are as such only important insofar as they contribute to furthering the research aims and answering the central research question. Themes will inevitably be present in the dataset that are outside the scope of the research and are thus ignored by the researcher. It is in choosing themes that the researcher perhaps has the most influence. One of the major concerns around thematic analysis is clearly the sudden “emergence” or alternatively the voicing by the researcher of certain themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006). It is clear that such emergence or voicing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. This is where reflexivity can play a role in helping make such choices explicit. This also applies to choosing “semantic” or “latent” themes. The former are explicit in the data set, the latter a matter of construction or interpretation. This research is really about exploring coaches’ stories as they tell them so is primarily at the semantic level. Guidelines Followed

As Silverman points out, good data does not equate to good research but rather “everything depends on the data analysis” (2017, p. 145). Best practice is thus essential. In bringing thematic analysis in from the dark, Braun & Clarke suggested a series of flexible guidelines to be followed in an effort to give some structure and rigour to the process. As the authors noted, “they are not rules, and […] will need to be applied flexibility” (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 16)[12].

One point not covered in these guidelines is “when” and “where” something is said. Holstein and Golbrium argue that researchers should not simply catalogue what participants say but rather “carefully consider what is said in relation to how, where, when, and by whom narratives are conveyed and to what end” (Holstein & Golbrium, 2016 as cited in Silverman, 2017, p. 152). As has already been acknowledged above, the researcher views the interviews as in essence a co-construction (or social interaction) between interviewer and participant. The analysis thus embodied this same sense of social process and at the very least considered the when and where.

While no process can guarantee fair and rigorous research, the above steps should at the very least clearly convey how the research was undertaken and make plain any flaws and limitations. Some excerpts from the coded transcripts can be found in Appendix H.

3.5 Bias

Consistent with the constructivist approach acknowledged above, the researcher viewed the interviews as conversations and to some extent “a site for co-construction, for shared knowledge and meaning-making” (Jacobsson & Åkerström, 2013, p. 718). Thus, whilst the researcher is not really sharing his thoughts or experiences with the participant, the researcher is clearly not outside the door. His voice can be heard in the very fact that the interview is taking place and that those specific questions are being asked. That cannot be ignored and to that end the interviewer’s participation in the interview is included in the raw transcript to ensure full transparency on this front. The researcher also acknowledges that the participants are not value neutral. Nor should they be. They use play as part of their coaching and it would be natural to want to have that validated. All the researcher can realistically aspire to is not that the participants will provide some absolute truth but rather that they will answer the questions to the best of their ability and knowledge at that point in the interview.

3.6 Validity

The researcher would submit that it is not for researchers to claim that their research is valid. The responsibility of the researcher is to follow best practice, do the research to the best of their ability and leave such judgements to others. In line with the commitment to best practice throughout the research process, this researcher had regard to various frameworks for assessing the validity throughout the research process. Kvale’s “Validation at Seven Stages” (1996, p. 237) was helpful in this regard. Ultimately, however, the researcher was more drawn to Yardley’s “core principles for evaluating the validity of qualitative psychology” (2015, p. 243). In fact, the table below briefly outlines how the principles were applied in the course of this research.

Sensitivity to ContextThis research reviewed a host of relevant literature from neighbouring fields and all available research in coaching while also exploring the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of play. The research aims were designed to explore at the edges of previously mapped territory before heading off into uncharted waters. Indeed the research aims were tweaked in the course of the literature review to ensure the research aims were broadly novel.
Commitment and RigourThe researcher is fully committed to the realm of play and trusts this is evident from the text. The data collection was thorough in the sense that the interview questions were designed to further the research aims and answer the central research question. The one area open to criticism is the number of participants and the inevitable geographic and cultural limitations this implied. It is nevertheless submitted that such criticism is somewhat muted by the fact that the researcher does not claim that the findings are generalisable. The findings are simply the findings.
Coherence and TransparencyThe dissertation and appendices show an absolute commitment to transparency and replicability. Everything about the process that could be documented has been documented. The reflexivity section also echoes this. The researcher also did his utmost to ensure a clear and powerful argument throughout.
Impact and ImportanceThe core idea behind the research was to produce work that others could use. To ground the reader through the theoretical and philosophical before ultimately taking them into the practical by providing a sense of what play can look like in coaching. The researcher’s view is that play offers an avenue to a client’s creativity, potentially opening the door to different perspectives and helping them along their journey. The hope is that the research bolsters this view in the eyes of readers.

Note: The left table column is taken from Yardley 2015, p. 243.

3.7 Reflexivity

Reflexivity is an approach to critical thinking designed to articulate the factors that shape “the processes of doing research and subsequently the knowledge that is produced” in the hope of making explicit, amongst other things, the limitations and implications of approaching the research in this way (Lazard & McAvoy, 2017, p. 160). Lazard & McAvoy see it as a type of Socratic questioning, namely “the persistent questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions through conversational processes or dialogue” (2017, p. 167) and reference the view that the researcher should become irrelevant and ultimately interchangeable with any other researcher. The researcher feels that in terms of the current research that is simply not realistic. Indeed, as Lumsden argues, there is a sense that “[t]he best way to proceed is not to pretend to be value neutral, but to be honest about one’s perspectives and beliefs […] and then seek to represent the data in as objective a way as possible” (Lumsden, 2013, p. 5).

Merely acknowledging potential blind spots, whilst not on its own enough, is a start. The researcher thus openly acknowledges wishing play were more widely used in adult learning and development and specifically in coaching contexts. That said, the researcher would also like such usage to be increasingly evidence-based in service of clients. If coaching is serving anyone or anything other than the client what use is it? At the same time, “the researcher must remain constantly alert to avoid projecting own experience and using it as the lens to view and understand participants’ experience” (Berger, 2015, p. 230). To avoid this, Berger (2015) suggests a number of techniques to create distance between the researcher experience and the participant’s experience. One that resonated with the researcher was allowing time to elapse between analysis and review. The researcher, in fact, created two such pauses, the first running for at least a week after each interview just to be able to come at them with fresh eyes. The second after the initial analysis was intended to offer “an opportunity to view the same material through ‘new lenses’ and identify where one’s own experience interfered with accurately understanding [the] interviewee’s report” (Berger 2015, p. 230).

It is thus in terms of the overall process that the researcher is looking for some level of objectivity. Continually asking the question “Am I, as researcher, negatively impacting the research in a way another researcher wouldn’t?” has been helpful. The purpose of reflexivity in this respect is to make explicit for all readers how the researcher may be influencing the research process and in particular the conclusions so that the stories of the participants are not unfairly coloured to fit some preconceived ideas thereby making it “difficult to see [an] alternative interpretation” (Lazard & McAvoy ,2020, p. 173).

3.8 Limitations

All research has limitations. That is even more true of this research in that only eight participants were interviewed. The purpose of the research was ultimately to provide a glimpse into what is possible in terms of bringing play into coaching so as to inspire other coaches. Even were the sample size twice as big the same criticisms could be levied. Furthermore, whilst broader than some other studies, the participants were primarily from the Anglo-sphere, limiting its geographic reach. That said, the researcher is making no pretence that the results are generalisable or indeed that they should be. The whole point of the study was in truth to explore the “heterogeneity of knowledge” (Kvale, 1996, p. 289) regarding play in coaching.

Furthermore, the research only looked at the coach’s experience. This is only one part of the coaching relationship, with the most important component (the client) being excluded. There would thus obviously be scope for research into the experience of clients in working with playful coaches, which might then be compared with other research findings.

3.9 Ethical Considerations

All research, no matter how seemingly benign, raises intrinsic ethical issues. As “Iphofen (2009) points out, all research intrudes on participants’ lives to a greater or lesser extent and so it is very important that the research is what he calls a ‘justifiable intervention’” (Cox, 2020, 3. Summarising the theoretical framework, Ethics, Para. 1). In the course of drafting his research proposal, the researcher thus carefully reflected on whether the research was felt to be sufficiently important to impose on the lives of the participants. Quite apart from the researcher’s conclusions, the participants who agreed to participate were very eager to be involved. They thus understood the purpose of the research (all having received the information sheet and consent form) and were completely free to decide whether or not to participate. They were given multiple opportunities to withdraw plus there was no conflict of interest by virtue of which they may have felt coerced to participate. They clearly felt that the research was worth the effort on their part. It also provided an opportunity for them to reflect on their own practice and in a sense afforded an opportunity for reflexivity (Perera, 2020, p. 144). This is something they may not have otherwise done.

Furthermore, great care was taken designing the interview guide to ensure the best use of their time and to only enquire after matters of direct relevance to the research (question mapping referenced above). Given this, and the research aims and the participants, the researcher did not encounter any red flags in the course of the interviews. Whilst personal details and stories were shared, the focus of the research was primarily on their work and research. All data collected was fully anonymised, each participant being assigned a random letter, thereby protecting their personal and professional reputations.

The researcher found the visual model proposed by Doyle and Buckley really helpful in this regard. The following figure pulls together all of the above considerations reflecting that each participant gave full consent, was exposed to very low risk, had their identity kept confidential and, given the sample size, made a large contribution.

The Evolved Risk of Potential Harm Model

Figure 2. The Evolved Risk of Potential Harm Model (Doyle & Buckley, 2017, p. 110) adapted by the Researcher for the purposes of this research.

Chapter 4: Findings

4.1 Introduction

The researcher set out to establish whether play should be taken seriously in coaching. The primary research explored this question through interviews with eight practicing coaches using playful approaches in their work. This research has never sought to establish absolute truths but rather to explore the experience of playful practitioners. Nor does the research make any pretence to be comparative (play vs ….) because there is no claim that play is a model but rather a way of being, resource, approach or set of tools that is available to both coach and client(s) throughout their relationship. The transcripts were analysed (coded, themes and sub-themes identified) using Thematic Analysis and specifically Braun & Clark’s six phases[13].

The researcher struggled with how much playfulness to bring to this presentation. Because all the themes and sub-themes are but different characters in the story it felt like it would make sense to bring them all on stage together and let them play out the story. The researcher ultimately realised that certain characters might not get the limelight they arguably deserve. Instead, because the questions were tightly linked to the research aims, all major themes fell into four broad categories and will each get their own scene in the overall play.

Thematic Map

Figure 3: Thematic Map

4.2 Case for Play in Coaching

It was apparent right from the outset of the research that there would be some overlap between the Case for Play and the Benefits from Play discussed further down. In the researcher’s mind, the distinction is that the Benefits relate specifically to what play offers coaches and clients (micro) whereas the Case for Play relates to the bigger picture (macro). That bigger picture comprises three major themes:

Case for Play in Coaching: Themes

Figure 4: Case for Play in Coaching: Themes

4.2.1 Key Role of Play

From this macro perspective a dominant theme that was verbalised by virtually all participants was the key role for play in adulthood and specifically in coaching. The overall sense was that increasing the client’s capacity for play was almost a core coaching task that would then allow the client to access all the qualities and benefits of play within and beyond the coaching process.

Key Role of Play: Snapshot of Theme

Figure 5: Key Role of Play: Snapshot of Theme

4.2.2 Qualities of Play in Coaching

While the participants advocated for a whole series of qualities, four qualities stood out in terms of their importance for the coaching process.

Qualities of Play in Coaching: Sub-themes

Figure 6: Qualities of Play in Coaching: Sub-themes

As can be seen from the above graphic, those qualities of play can directly impact the nature of the coaching relationship, changing the field, empowering the client, all the while creating a lightness around what may be very serious matters.

LightnessEmpoweringChanges FieldPlay can be serious
Not feeling constrainedRecognising people have choices and agencyPaying more attention to themselves as human beingsPlayfulness can be there even if the subject matter is very serious
Lightening upAllowing people to experimentDifferent quality to the rest of the sessionPlayful can be serious
Letting goFreeing peopleField becomes more playfulExperimentation of a serious matter
Lightness of beingEmpowering clientsClients more relaxed

Table 4: Qualities of Play in Coaching: Exploration of Sub-themes

4.2.3 What Play Offers

These qualities on their own arguably serve multiple purposes but are in themselves merely in service of bigger pictures as “there’s probably always going to be some purpose, even if the purpose is to let go of the purpose” (R). It is this bigger picture that the coach is seeing or sensing when they make the offer to play. Specifically, in the presence of the aforementioned qualities of play, participants were particularly vocal about what play offered the coaching process.

What Play Offers: Sub-themes

Figure 7: What Play Offers: Sub-themes

Opportunity for co-creationShifting perspective
Joint experimentationAbility to find surprise and delight in the world
Play as co-creationExperience themselves differently
Opportunity of co-productionDifferent perspective
DisruptionEnhanced coaching presence
Sense of challengeDevelop presence, adaptability and spontaneity as a coach
Mixing things upNot fixated on outcomes
Disrupt somethingMore in service of the client

Table 5: What Play Offers: Exploration of Sub-themes

4.3 What Play in Coaching Looks Like

As shown in the above section, play offers a whole series of qualities and benefits to the overall coaching process but dropping a little deeper into the session, how might it manifest itself? What does it really deliver and what specifically does it look and feel like? The participants spoke with passion and eloquence around four core themes.

What Play in Coaching Looks Like: Themes

Figure 8: What Play in Coaching Looks Like: Themes

4.3.1 Invitation to Play

Play starts with an invitation to play (an offer in improv terminology). It was pointed out by one participant that the invitation to play may come from the coach or the client, which creates an interesting power dynamic. Permission came up for many participants in many forms at multiple levels.

  • Permission that the coach gives themselves to try something that might fall flat and to think “if this fails completely it’s fine. It’s not a reflection on my intrinsic worth” (A).
  • Permission the coach seeks from the client to create a playful space; and
  • Finally the client may need to “be given permission and give themselves permission” (F).

The invitation from the coach to the client comprises two elements. There is the actual invitation, which in a number of cases may even be issued and accepted as part of the upfront contracting process. However, for virtually all participants it was expressed as a check-in involving gentle “little steps” (L), almost like a dance that starts slow and picks up speed if and as the partner (the client) responds. Some examples of these gentle invitations can be found below. Interestingly, for most participants the invitations don’t involve references to play or playing.

Invitations to Play: Examples of Gentle Invitations

Figure 9: Invitations to Play: Examples of Gentle Invitations

There is then the actual content of the invitation – the invitation to do what? The coach must judge what play might be appropriate based on ‘intuition’, ‘cues’, building confidence through ‘little steps’, ‘offering that little glimpse’ or indeed ‘modelling. The invitations may be accepted or rejected. Such rejections may relate to a lack of desire to play (now) or to engage in a particular form of play. Rejection was scarcely mentioned and seen as part of the relationship dance: “just offering perhaps a little glimpse of something a bit more playful, and seeing if they take the bait” (E). Indeed, “[g]enerally, people are always open to try something nice. […] I think once you have rapport with somebody, and they feel safe, people go with my stuff” (F). Moreover, in a coaching context where everything is information a “rejection” may simply add a further layer for the coach and client to explore: “there’s been times [….] where I’ve perhaps offered […] an option or two different ways you might explore something, and people perhaps recoiled a bit from the slightly more playful one, which in itself is something interesting to explore with clients” (E).

4.3.2 Forms of Play: Infinite Possibility

Given the co-creative nature of play the only limit to what is possible (always assuming an ethical practice) truly is the imagination and willingness of coach and client(s), particularly in group settings as epitomised by this example: “I’ve played with people in coaching on and off for years, because we might go through a roleplay, we might do a drama, we might, you know, turn the tables and I might become you know, the person that they want to manage their projections with” (R). That said, there were certain recurring themes:

Forms of Play: Examples

Figure 10: Forms of Play: Examples

The relative sizes of the top shapes reflect the popularity of these approaches. The ‘playing with’ section is much more personal and diverse and merely offers a snapshot of the personal preferences of the participants. Every coach and indeed client will be drawn to different parts of the above figure. Of them all, Improv is the approach with the widest appeal with half of the participants Improv devotees. In many ways, Improv epitomises the use of play in coaching because of its open and accepting nature (for example, “Yes, And”) and present-moment immersiveness (“flow”) meaning “you’ve got to be 100% present in the moment for an improv game to be effective. And there’s no agenda. There’s no ego. There’s no planning for seven steps ahead. It’s what’s happening right now” (T).

4.3.3 Play in Action

Play in Action was one of the richest areas of the research and the hardest part of the story to tell because it can’t be readily summarised. Many aspects of Play in Action have already been covered in earlier sections (Qualities of Play, What Play Offers) so in this section the researcher will offer an example of play in action. Beyond the above forms of play, individual coaches continue to innovate and push the boundaries of their playfulness in service of their clients. The researcher could have chosen stories from any participant but one of the techniques and stories that resonated most with the researcher was around Voice Dialogue. The approach was mentioned by a number of participants but let’s take the example from Participant L who playfully employed it over Zoom to help a client who was struggling as executor of her father’s will and specifically maintaining and selling an old family house within the estate.

Coach: How do you feel in relation to the house?

Client: Well, my father always said that I’m the dutiful daughter so he entrusted me with the estate. But to be honest, I don’t feel like I’m the dutiful daughter anymore…. Actually I’m more of a guardian.

Coach: OK. So, can you go and talk with the house from your being a guardian of the house. So swivel left on the chair – you are talking to the house. Swivel right – you are the house talking to the Guardian.

Note from coach: So the Client went into a complete dialogue. I didn’t have to do anything. She resolved the whole thing. Everything got relaxed, like, okay, the house has a voice of his own. It said, “Why are you worried about me? I’ve been here for 100 years. Do you think one more winter will kill me – course not – relax!” So those kinds of things. And then she became – “Okay, that’s fine. And, by the way, I always also wanted to say to you house, that I appreciate all the memories you gave me as a child.” And, you know, she started to remember things about the house and how she lived in it as a child. So there was gratitude, for example. And so she thought, I can step into that place of being the Guardian, and I have to really take care of this house. So I need to be with it. I need to go and be with it. Be with the memories, and then see what emerges. And then from being a thing to get rid of, the house became something to be cherished, and to make sure that it ends up in the right hands.[14]

The above example shows how the play was central to the coaching and encompasses all the sub-themes of What Play Offers explored above (Opportunity for co-creation, Shifting perspective, Disruption, Enhanced coaching presence). The invitation to talk to the house allowed the client to channel all her thoughts and feelings from both her own and the house’s perspective. The coach simply stepped back and held space for the conversation that needed to be had, feeling that simply talking about it wouldn’t have resulted in the same shift as the experience of playing it out. This was wholly based on what the client was presenting with and echoes other participants, namely that the play should “tangibly relevant to what they’re doing” (E) and “I have found myself in coaching making up totally new exercises, like based on what that person is coming forward with or needs” (F).

4.3.4 What Play Feels Like

As Sutton-Smith noted “we all know what playing feels like” (2001, p. 1) so the question here is what comes up for coaches as they bring play into their work with clients. What does that feel like? The responses of participants, whilst very rich and insightful, were highly individual from an experiential perspective. Relational aspects were very much present (trust, connection, rapport, reciprocity, sharing, energy field) but the sense was that they were the building blocks for the play that unfolded. Indeed, the one thread that ran through them all was around freedom both individually and in relationship and encompassing both freedom from and freedom to. This was verbalised in a host of different ways. Because we resonate differently with different words and expressions it feels important to share them.

Freeing the Mind and SoulFreedom from Structure
No projection or shadowUnstructured
Reducing rigidityUnscripted
Not move into judgementNot sure what’s going to happen
Letting goNot knowing where it is going.
No resistanceNot prescriptive

Table 6: What Play Feels Like: Exploration of Sub-themes

4.4 Attributes of a Playful Coach

A question floating around much of play in coaching is who can be a playful coach? To this end, the research explored the relationship of participants with play from childhood and how they nourished their playfulness in adulthood. In the course of this exploration a further theme came to the fore, namely their traits (characteristics, behaviours).[15]

Attributes of a Playful Coach: Themes

Figure 11: Attributes of a Playful Coach: Themes

4.4.1 Relationship with Play

As has been discussed earlier, the concepts of child and adult are very entrenched in human developmental theories with play often relegated to the domain of the “child” and then only allowed to seep into certain clearly defined aspects of adulthood, if at all. The idea being that playful adults are simply more in touch with their inner child than less playful ones (dance between Senex and Puer in Jungian archetypes). The research thus sought to test this and explore the origin of the participants’ playfulness with a view to establishing whether playful adults were necessarily playful children. The researcher considers this issue critical to the development of more playful coaches because if playfulness is not necessarily a reservoir built up in childhood but something that perhaps any human adult can nourish then any coach can potentially be a playful coach. Perhaps surprisingly in light of the developmental theories, over half of the participants actually claim they are more playful now in adulthood than they were as children. For some, childhood was either largely devoid of play (“there wasn’t much space for playfulness” (A)) or consisted of highly structured competitive play (“play as a child was about competition” (H)) that left lasting negative memories.

Snapshot of stories around childhood play

Figure 12: Snapshot of stories around childhood play

4.4.2 Nourishing Play

Indeed, a recurring theme across all the participants was the way in which they actively nourish their playfulness as adults. For all participants play and playfulness are now intrinsic (the researcher’s word) to their way of being in relationship with others, although not universally on their own. The forms of play were as varied as the individuals, particularly when playing alone: board games, toys, literature, music, art and nature. Perhaps of more interest was that the three dominant forms of play primarily involved other people. It is thus not only their playfulness that is being nourished but specifically playfulness with others.

ImprovMusicInteraction with


What you can generate together (improvised comedy)SingingPeople in our company
Dance with the people you’re improvising withDancing (also alone)Joy comes from others
Energy and connectionPlaying music (also alone)

Table 7: Nourishing Play: Exploration of Sub-themes

4.4.3 Traits

Each participant naturally had a whole series of unique traits. The work of the research is to identify if there are any common threads across most or all participants. Traits are complicated by in many instances being implied rather than openly asserted by the participants. For clarity, the figure below separates those traits most participants openly acknowledged from those implied by the researcher from the broader context.

Traits: Snapshot of Sub-themes

Figure 13: Traits: Snapshot of Sub-themes

4.5 Benefits vs. Limitations

4.5.1 Benefits[16]

All participants saw multiple diverse benefits for their clients that coalesced around two major sub-themes: “Freedom and Hope” and “New Ways of Being”.

Freedom and HopeNew Ways of Being
Think and feel that things could now be differentEmbody new ways of thinking and feeling
Lift the moodLearn through experience
Stop beat yourself up cycleRelinquish judgement of yourself
DisruptionBecome more themselves
Relieve stress and tensionAccess parts of themselves that have been forgotten
Heaviness of the situation leavesExperience themselves differently
Release the shacklesConnect with higher qualities
People lower defencesModerating behaviour
Builds resilienceDifferent perspectives

Table 8: Benefits: Exploration of Sub-themes

In a sense both sub-themes are but different facets of the same experience, epitomised in this quote: “And I think the beauty of play is, people let down their defences. And then they become available to engage and be in relationship” (H).

4.5.2 Limitations

When looking at limitations the researcher had initially imagined discussions as to the “limitations of play” (when and where it may be appropriate) but quite a lot of the focus of participants was on the “limitations on play”. These are the limitations placed by the players (coach and client) or the preconditions before play can emerge.

PreconditionsThe preconditions primarily coalesced around creating a safe boundaried non-judgemental space: “Got to be safe, or within sort of ethical and moral constraints or guidelines”(R).

This safe space is as much for the coach as the client in that “you’re creating a space where it’s okay to fail” (A). Exploring the concept of “safety” is beyond the scope of this research but there was a sense broadly from the participants that they were less comfortable playing online (via Zoom) than in the physical world while at the same time noting that some clients felt safer because they were physically in their own homes.

– By Clients
As has been discussed above clients are free to accept or reject invitations to play. This is part of the normal relational dance in the same way as a client may agree or not to explore a certain theme or answer a particular question. The stories around limitations by clients were more related to their sense of safety and their playfulness (current ability and style). This reflects the fact that play is “a bit of a personal journey of interpretation” (T) meaning that each person has to find what play works for them.
– By Coaches
In the case of coaches, two aspects of coaches’ mental models of the world were highlighted:

What the coach feels the client is ready for: This relates to what the coach feels is “appropriate” for the client and is an inevitable judgement call. The dance seems to be between pushing the boundaries of what the client is ready for and not “shoehorning” (A) play in as succinctly expressed by one participant: “it’s not like I’m looking for opportunities to be playful. It’s just what feels right in the moment” (L).

What the coach is ready for: Internal barriers to play were raised by most participants with inner critics (self-doubt, imposter) often having a prominent voice and at times preventing some or all play. This will be explored further in the next section.

Table 9: Limitations: Exploration of Sub-themes

Chapter 5: Discussion and Analysis

5.1 Introduction

The table below shows how the findings cover a mix of new ground and some tending to existing shoots. This chapter will thus look to weave in the new findings whilst, to the extent appropriate and necessary, adding a layer of critical analysis and interpretation. Not all sub-themes will be covered where they are novel and there is little to add beyond the findings.

CategoryThemeEchoes in:Discussed here
LiteraturePast Research
Case for Play in Coaching
Key Role of PlayYesYesSection 5.3.1
Qualities of Play in CoachingYesYesSection 5.3.2
What Play OffersYesYesSection 5.3.2
What Play in Coaching Looks Like
Invitation to PlayYesYesSection 5.3.3
Forms of PlayYesSection 5.3.3
Play in Action
What Play Feels Like
Attributes of a Playful Coach
Relationship with Play
Nourishing PlayYesSection 5.3.4
TraitsYesYesSection 5.3.4
Benefits & Limitations
BenefitsYesYesSection 5.3.1
LimitationsYesYesSection 5.3.5

Table 10: Categories and Themes: Findings relative to literature and past research.

Nevertheless, before discussing those findings and presenting the final acts of the play it feels appropriate for the researcher to reflect on how the research process has affected him and perhaps he the process.

5.2 Reflexivity

In the course of writing the research proposal, I sat with not only potential biases and values but also with how my journey in life might influence the research. Play and fun are central to my life and in essence intrinsic to who I am. I thus came to the research with the hope that play and playfulness might also have a home in coaching. I nevertheless tried to come into this research with as open a mind as possible and continually reflected on all the various decisions at each stage of the process to identify potential biases. Reflecting back on how I viewed the research aims at the outset compared to now might offer a sense of how my views have evolved.

Case for Play in Coaching

The journey has been peppered with surprises. My hope has been transformed by the literature and the amazing participants I had the joy to interview into a conviction that play has a key role to play in coaching provided it is relevant, congruent and honest. That isn’t to say there weren’t frustrations, particularly around the marginalisation of play in our society, but it gradually dissolved as I took renewed energy from reading Freud, Jung and Winnicott. They truly helped me see play through different lenses and gave me a sense of its true power. Jung’s description of how returning to childhood play had been life-changing was profound. Freud on Creative Writing early on in my research really gave me the sense that I was on to something. At the time I noted down how “The creativity engendered by play is the door to major shifts”. The only area that continues to trigger me is the argument that play is not serious. The issue is not play being serious or unserious but the framing of the discussion as if being serious is somehow a benchmark. I resonate much more with Freud’s idea of play being opposed to reality as opposed to seriousness.

What Play in Coaching Looks Like

I had a reasonable idea of what might come up but was excited in each interview at how creative and innovative each participant had been. It helped me grow my own confidence now that I am armed with the knowledge of what is possible, what has been tried and particularly to not attach oneself to outcomes, thereby allowing for greater openness to experimentation.

Attributes of a Playful Coach

Right from the first interview I found myself surprised by what was being revealed. After years of indoctrination in human developmental theories I had assumed that play is anchored in childhood and the challenge is staying playful as we age along the lines of the “Every child is an artist” quote attributed to Pablo Picasso. And yet, surprisingly for me, this was not what I was hearing. I can clearly remember how I felt when the first participant told me about a childhood largely devoid of play. That participant’s story was about actively working on their playfulness as an adult and bringing the voice of play closer to the centre. That story and its echoes in later stories really exploded how I view playfulness. I have now come to see it not as a reservoir built up in childhood but as an innate part of us all that, to use the terminology of Thích Nhất Hạnh, we choose to water or not at various stages of our lives.

Benefits & Limitations

The exploration of the limitations around play was also very much eye-opening. My sense of what might appear in terms of limitations was much more 2D as compared with the complex and nuanced picture that was ultimately built up. I had anticipated the discussion around limitations being around boundaries – play works here but not there – whereas what came up for the participants was “limitations on play” rather than “limitations of play”.

5.3 Bringing the Threads Together

5.3.1 Broad Strokes: Case for Play (in Coaching)

If anything, the findings presented earlier significantly underplay the case for play articulated by the participants. Although not expressed in these terms, the research plays in the sphere of the philosophical by implicitly exploring the two larger debates regarding “role of play beyond childhood” and the “distinction between work and play” primarily through the lived experience of the participants and their clients. One theme that was common to all participants was how they nourish their playfulness in adulthood as they openly acknowledged the major role play has not only had in their lives but in their work. There are, however, still remnants of the ancient debate along the lines of the unseriousness of play and the “fear (credibility)” and “broader cultural constraints” as identified by Wheeler (2020, p. 18) in her research.

Although primarily focussed on play in coaching, the experience of the participants does echo the earlier conclusions from the literature regarding, for example, personal growth, reduced stress and increased creativity in terms of the five processes discussed by Mainemelis and Ronson (2006). The example presented in the findings further shows how play can help with identity development and clients crossing thresholds, in that case literally. The researcher could also specifically see Winnicott in many of the stories and findings around play helping us to think spontaneously and use our imagination to creatively dissolve problems. Moreover, although angled differently, some of Wheeler’s (2020) findings directly overlap on a number of her sub-themes including “Shift perspective”, “Lightness”, “Fostering capacity for playfulness” and “Lack of Confidence”. There is certainly nothing in the findings that undermines the case for play and on the contrary there are interesting new perspectives building on from the previous research and literature. The researcher would submit that, based on the previous literature and research and these findings, the more productive discussion is around how play shows up in coaching rather than whether it should.

5.3.2 Discussion Around Other Aspects of the Case for Play

Moving from the realm of the general into the coaching process there are a number of areas where it feels important to consider how the findings fit with and build on earlier work.

“Play as intrinsic” vs. “Play as tool”

Wheeler’s research pointed to a distinction for coaches between “playfulness” and “play as a coaching technique or intervention” (Wheeler, 2020, p. 48). Whilst some participants in this research found such a lens helpful, others didn’t and the overall sense was that their playfulness was part of who they were and that the play emerged from that in relationship with the client. Whilst play (for example a game) could obviously be employed by a coach in a non-playful way this is not how the participants viewed or lived it, particularly given the high degree of openness to co-creation expressed. It is also inevitable that when co-creation is going on, the coach is also involved in the play so it can be difficult to distinguish between intrinsic playfulness and play as a technique or intervention. Indeed, arguably in co-creation they are one and the same thing.

Co-creation: “Why not let people experiment?” (R)

The reality is that many coaching approaches are designed by coaches for coaches and led by coaches for clients. It was thus interesting to find that the co-creation offered by play can change the power dynamic and was a dominant theme across six of the eight participants. The level of co-creation obviously depends on the nature of the activity and whether the coach offers a “game”, channels a game that is in the field or actively co-creates some activity with the client. In the latter instance, it is “not just us experimenting with a model that I’m giving you. It is like we’re both experimenting to see what’s going to work here” (A). It is not necessarily intended to empower but one of the consequences of “joining the person in their play” (R) is that you “kind of really co-create it with them, [a]nd give them quite a lot of license over what they then obviously came up with” (T). This means that “the play may not look as you envisaged it might have looked, but actually you’re being playful together. [….] But we also have to give up that control” (E). So the consequence of empowering the client to co-create the play is that the coach has to be willing to give up some level of control over the play.

Shifting Perspective

Wheeler (2020) references this in her research and it is a common theme in the literature reviewed so merits further exploration. As Ibarra & Petriglieri noted, play can be found at “the threshold between current reality and future possibilities” (2011, p. 11). As indicated in the findings, play in coaching provides the client with an opportunity to experience themselves or their stories differently because “we want to disrupt something, we want to shift something” (A). It can thus be “massively useful to give people experiences, and of being themselves in different situations and playing with things and trying things out” (F). Play can also “allow[..] people, even the people that have a fixed mindset, to have the qualities of a growth mindset” (H). It also allows the coach to bring a “sense of perspective and not get[…] sucked into the reality of what’s going on” (A). Standing outside the day-to-day lived reality with a sense of lightness (also a sub-theme identified by Wheeler (2020)) and an openness to experiment allows both coach and client to either physically or metaphorically shift perspective.

Enhanced Coaching Presence

Wheeler identified presence as the third cornerstone for effective playfulness (2020). Its centrality is echoed across the participants with a sense of being in service of the client and the moment and of not being overly concerned with what comes next: “[t]his whole sense of spontaneity and creativity and working what’s here in the moment, and building on what’s around you, to me, that’s really part of playfulness” (A). This is the nature of play itself and more broadly the experimentation and improvisation displayed by all participants. The result is that “as you become more adept at developing those skills, and working in that way, actually it opens up a whole world of opportunity in terms of what you can generate together” (E). As another participant put it, being in play equates to being in the moment with a lighter and more playful coach better in service of their client. The more the coach is in the moment, the less they concern themselves with technique and method and the more scope for truly listening to and being with their client and the less of a feeling that coaching might become “a sort of paint by numbers experience or a formulaic process” (E).

5.3.3 Discussion Around What Play Looks Like

Past research and literature is particularly light in this area but two areas that are covered are felt worth addressing because the findings offer some different lenses through which to consider them.

Invitational Nature of Play

One of Huizinga’s (1955) central characteristics of play is that it must be freely entered into, meaning for our purposes that it is invitational by nature. The above findings show in perhaps exaggerated detail how that invitational dance works for the participants. Lockwood & O’Connor (2017) argued that coaches should be prudent in their use of play, something that is inherent in that dance. There is also the ongoing conscious and unconscious assessment of a “client’s readiness for playfulness” as identified by Wheeler (2020, p. 48) with the dance in itself providing an opportunity to further assess and gently test that readiness.

As well as being freely entered into, the assessment of readiness continues throughout, with the coach monitoring for signs the client wants to stop playing. This can be glimpsed through how some of the participants invited their clients to end a play activity when they felt it wasn’t working for them:

Examples of invitations to end play

Figure 14: Examples of invitations to end play

Improvised Play

Lockwood & O’Connor wondered about the potential benefit in coaching of activities such as improvisation that “require a greater level of spontaneity and the disruption of everyday thinking” (2017, p. 60). As shown in the findings, improvisation, conceived more broadly than just Improv, is clearly the dominant form of play used by the participants. Specifically regarding Improv, many of its devotees spoke in glowing terms of its benefits for both their personal lives and their coaching.

Benefits of Improv

Figure 15: Benefits of Improv

Further echoing Lockwood & O’Connor, one participant even argued for a module on improvisation to be included in coach training.

5.3.4 Discussion Around the Attributes of a Playful Coach

The purpose of this research aim was to get a better sense for playful coaches. Whilst much of this is summarised in the research findings it feels helpful to tie a few points back to the literature.

In their work, Lockwood & O’Connor had postulated that “coaches may need to be quite flexible and adaptive (or even playful) in how they express their own playfulness” (2017, p. 61). The overriding sense from the research is that the play journey of the participants had arisen from or created a sense that life shouldn’t be taken too seriously. This is epitomised by a willingness of virtually all participants to take “risks” (i.e. experiment), namely that comfort zones are for leaving, thereby showing some degree of flexibility and adaptability.

Lockwood & O’Connor also mused that playfulness might perhaps be an “inherent human trait, and thus one which may be cultivated in many, if not all, populations” (2017, p. 62). The researcher expresses no view regarding “all populations” but the experience of both the participants individually and with the clients is that it can be nourished and cultivated. Nor should this be surprising. Jung had been writing decades earlier about the transformational nature of rediscovering play in adulthood with Winnicott also being a strong advocate noting that “[i]f the patient cannot play, then something needs to be done to enable the patient to become able to play, after which psychotherapy may begin (Winnicott,1971/2005, p. 72). Whilst Winnicott had preceded this with a rejection of therapists who cannot play, the research findings clearly show that the path to increased playfulness is open to practitioner and client alike.

5.3.5 Discussion Around Limitations

The question around potential negatives of play had been covered in Wheeler’s (2020) earlier research so this research focussed on limitations to the use of play. These broke down into three areas:

Preconditions: The preconditions (key factors for effective playfulness) were covered in some detail in Wheeler’s research (2020) with echoes in this research in terms of the centrality of safe play spaces. Without this, the consensus is that there can be no play.

Limitations – By Clients: Whereas Wheeler (2020) identified multiple sub-themes around potential client barriers, in this research it was more around their sense of safety and their current level of playfulness. For most participants, that current level of playfulness was something they could invite the client to play with rather than seeing it as a barrier or limitation as such. There was a sense that this is where the coaching work is at the threshold between how playful the client currently is and how playful they might be.

Limitations – By Coaches: The research also reaffirms Wheeler’s findings regarding barriers erected by coaches. She identified three sub-themes (Lack of Confidence, Fear (credibility) and Personal Constructs). Whilst limitations are conceived and presented differently in these research findings more as “limitations on play” a very similar narrative appeared. The storyline might go something like this: coaching is serious business, the stakes are too high and play is risky and might make me less credible. Confidence was thus a key limitation many participants flagged: “And that goes back to their confidence as a coach that, you know, if you don’t feel safe, you’re not going to be authentically playful” (A). For many this was a journey: “I think have the confidence then to be more playful, which might be about giving yourself permission” (E). Even amongst some coaches who were well on their coaching journey and had built up significant experience and confidence, play was still almost viewed as a sort of a secret weapon out of concern for how clients might react if presented upfront.

5.4 Where Does This Leave the Definition of Play in Coaching?

Given the experience of past researchers, the researcher has resisted the whole idea of weighing in on the definition of play not out of a concern for “fall[ing] into silliness” (Sutton-Smith, 2001, p. 1) but rather out of a sense of futility. Not only do we all have individual experiences and concepts around play but “at its most basic level, play is a very primal activity. It is preconscious and preverbal—it arises out of ancient biological structures that existed before our consciousness or our ability to speak.” (Brown & Vaughan, 2009, Chapter 2 What is Play? I hate to Say, Para. 2). How then to put words on it?

And yet in light of these research findings there is a sense of a duty to light the path, even poorly, for other coaches. For starters, “just becoming a more and more vocal advocate for play and not stopping playing is so important for those of us that want to carry this baton” (T). However, coaches will need to have some sense of what the baton looks like if they are to pass it on. The researcher thus playfully offers two definitions, a stepping stone for coaches who are not yet comfortable with using play in their work (written from the brain prior to the interviews) and a definition for playful practitioners (written from the gut and derived from the interviews).

5.4.1 Suggested Stepping Stone Definition

As has already been established from the writings of Freud, Jung, Huizinga and others, play can be utterly serious. Even though the mechanisms are still imperfectly understood, we have also seen from countless studies across multiple fields that there are real benefits to adult play. The first two parts of Huizinga’s “test” seems to the researcher, at this early point in the development of play within the coaching profession, to be a very helpful framework in creating scaffolding around the use of play. Huizinga’s third characteristic of play being bounded in time and space seems uncontroversial in a coaching context but nonetheless essential.

Huizinga’s first characteristic of play is that it must be freely entered into. Creating expectations as to outcomes arguably violates the very nature of play. Once again, we see the fluidity of play. Play must be an end in and of itself. That end may, by for example increasing the client’s capacity for creative thought, become a means of deepening the coaching relationship as Wheeler noted or generating any of the other benefits identified in this research. Coaches are also encouraged to reflect on the findings around the invitational nature of play as almost something to have available and bring out when helpful.

Huizinga’s second characteristic of stepping outside the bounds of reality is arguably the key test in terms of whether play is occurring and is intended to be inclusive rather than prescriptive. The idea is that play is recognised at some levels as not being part of ordinary life (Huizinga, 1955) and yet “not completely alien to it” (Bogajewski, 2018, p. 595). In the researcher’s view, within a coaching context, play may thus be defined as follows:

Play represents a threshold for clients between current reality and future possibility where different rules, attitudes and behaviours apply compared to the player’s experience in ordinary life.

This is in essence a reformulation of Huizinga’s idea of stepping out of oneself and so to speak imagining one is somehow more daring or dashing. As Drake argues “play captures people’s need for structure and freedom, experimentation and consolidation – in order to learn and develop” (Drake, 2020). The researcher is aware that the proposed stepping stone definition is unsatisfactory. As Brown and Vaughan note, all definitions fall short because they cannot really be understood without also remembering what it is like to play (Brown & Vaughan, 2009).

5.4.2 Suggested Definition for Playful Practitioners

So let us thus move out of the head and remember what it is like to play. There is that “freedom for the person to be to really be themselves” (H), to be in the moment, to connect to “higher qualities” (R) but ultimately sitting with all the definitions and descriptions with a blank mind this definition is the one that resonated most from the perspective of play in coaching:

Play is the ability to find surprise and delight in the world” (T)

This almost child-like definition positions play as an ability that can be nourished throughout our lives and is accepting of all individual experience of play. It also has strong echoes of Jung and his rediscovery of a “child’s mind” through play.

Chapter 6: Conclusion

6.1 What Conclusions Could be Drawn Prior to the Research?

For starters, it is clear from the literature that there is a strong evidence base to support the use of play in adult learning and development. To the researcher’s mind, the literature settled the ‘play beyond childhood’ debate by clearly showing demonstrable benefits for adults. The “distinction between work and play” has also been further blurred with evidence from organisational development of play offering increased creativity and innovation; better communication; improved stress-reduction and coping strategies, identity development; enhanced cognitive and conceptual abilities; personal growth all within the work environment (Fredrickson, 2004; Statler, Heracleous & Jacobs, 2011; Dodgson, 2017; Lockwood & O’Connor, 2017, Kark, 2011).

The question for this research was thus whether there were lessons for coaching and specifically whether play should be taken seriously in coaching. As discussed, play has popped up in various areas of the coaching world but its voice is to say the least marginal. As noted in Wheeler’s 2020 study the existing evidence base was light, perhaps somewhat explaining the reticence on the part of practitioners to bring play (or in many cases openly acknowledge bringing play) into sessions. Lockwood & O’Connor rightly advocated for a “clear understanding of the evidence base supporting [the] application” of play (2017, p. 61). In this respect, Wheeler’s (2020) ground-breaking research opened the door further by painting a broadly very positive picture (see table in Section 2.3) whilst also acknowledging potential barriers to its use.

6.2 What Has the Research Contributed?

Building on the earlier work, these research findings have advanced the case for play in coaching, delved inside the sessions to see what play in coaching looks like, looked at the playful practitioner to distil the attributes of a playful coach and further explored the benefits and limitations. As shown in the table in Section 5.1 this has involved deepening existing work whilst also covering truly novel areas.

6.2.1 What Has Been Built Upon?

As indicated above, it was already clear from the literature and research that there was a case for play. A key point is that people forget how important play is until they start playing again (T). By reintroducing it into people’s lives they are being provided with a tool they can carry in their back pocket no matter where they go. If they get nothing else out of coaching they’ll have that, a precious gift in itself. The findings have thus brought this front and centre to the coaching process and almost advocate for making increasing the client’s capacity for play a core coaching task. The research also reaffirmed some of the qualities that play brings to the coaching process in terms of lightness, positively impacting the field and enhancing coaching presence. Whilst Wheeler’s (2020) research looked at the benefits in greater detail there were also significant echoes in terms of shifting perspective and letting go of judgement. Similarly, the findings reaffirmed the barriers (limitations in this research) Wheeler (2020) identified that coaches can erect to their own playfulness (e.g. lack of confidence, fear…). Indeed, limitations on play by coaches played a prominent role in this research. The conclusion from this is that as practitioners it is worth reflecting on what stories we are telling ourselves about our practice. What are we giving ourselves permission to do and what is not allowed? Ethical considerations aside, should our aspiration not be to recognise our internal narratives and release ourselves from them in order to fully serve our clients?

6.2.2 What Novel Conclusions Does the Research Offer?

Thanks to the generosity of the participants in sharing their insights and experience a whole series of novel areas were covered. They can be found across the research but the key conclusions in the researcher’s view are summarised below.

All play starts with an invitation. As shown in the research this is paramount in the sense that play cannot be coerced. The findings thus show in some detail the various aspects of this process, addressing concerns in the literature around a coach being aligned with a client’s playfulness (Lockwood & O’Connor’s (2017) prudence and Wheeler’s (2020) assessment of readiness). This invitational dance allows that alignment to take place, with the coach meeting the client where they are comfortable. Clients are wholly free to reject the invitation and likely because of this the participants struggled to think of “negative experiences” as clients are ultimately always in control of whether they step in or out of play.

The research also took a deeper look at what happens within the session once an invitation has been accepted. Basically, what does play inside a session look like? The improvisational nature of many of the techniques used really stood out, which is probably not surprising because of their in-the-moment and invitational nature. And yet, as seen from the example of play in action, the form of play used in coaching is really only limited by the openness and imagination of coach and client. What is clear is that for the participants, empowering clients and in many instances creating opportunities for co-creation are central to their coaching processes. When using play, they are not following a specific model but much more focussed on being with the client in the moment and playing with what is. In fact, participants repeatedly referenced back to play offering a sense of freedom at multiple levels (Freeing the Mind and Soul, Freedom from Structure) for both coach and client. This allows the client to let go, be lighter and more open to what might be while the coach is in turn letting go of any sense of shoulds and more present in the now.

Another key finding is that the participants did not necessarily have playful childhoods. A traditional view of human development (and seen in the development of other species) tends to be that children are playful, with adults losing much of the ability over time (some more than others). Whilst we all intuitively know there is some truth to this in broad terms, in terms specifically of the participants this did not hold true. The conclusion from this is that any coach and indeed any client might have the ability to nourish or “recover” their own playfulness.

What also emerged is that the participants continually and actively nourish their playfulness as adults. Interestingly, their chosen forms of play were primarily play with others, which brings up the idea of we are what we practice. We practice playing alone so we play alone. We practice playing with others so we play with others. Coaches wishing to bring more play into their practice might thus consider practising forms of play involving others. As a result of this active nourishment, many participants reported being more playful now than as children. Unsurprisingly, given a willingness to work in an unscripted manner, the participants expressed a willingness to take risks and of not taking life too seriously. This may provide a reverse test for coaches looking to bring play in: how comfortable are you taking “risks” within your coaching? What stories are you holding that might prevent this?

Whilst there were echoes of the same benefits as earlier research, they were expressed in some interesting ways. Reflecting in essence the work on identity play by Ibarra & Petriglieri (2010), participants talked about play allowing new ways of being. This is Turner’s liminal zone where aspects of the familiar are played with and defamiliarized, resulting in new ways of being with the world. Equally importantly, participants talked about freedom and hope. Surely this is core to the whole coaching process? The more a client can think and feel that things could be different, surely the more likely change is to happen and be sustained.

6.3 Suggestions for Future Research

Any research that serves to expand the evidence base for the use of play in coaching would be welcome. Within that, further exploration of play in action (i.e. what play looks like inside the session) would certainly be of practical benefit to practitioners looking for ideas or approaches that might resonate with their own or their client’s sense of play. Further exploration of the limitations on play by coaches and clients is also merited. Nevertheless, for the researcher the key gap in this and previous research is the client perspective. The coach is at most one half of the coaching relationship and in group settings much less so. What insights might thus have been unlocked had the researcher had access to the various clients who populated the interviews? If he had had the opportunity to explore their experiences? That this was outside the scope of the research goes without saying but the researcher feels that there is real merit in a research study that takes a small number of openly and self-described playful coaches and looks to explore the perspectives on the use of play in coaching from all sides of the coaching relationship (what it feels like, what resonated most, perceived benefits and limitations…). There is a sense that hearing client voices would help reduce the limitations on play and build confidence amongst practitioners and commissioners alike.

6.4 Final Thoughts

I started this research from a reflexive perspective with a general sense that life tends to get rather serious for adults. I wasn’t surprised that this was reaffirmed by the participants with this comment really resonating: “I’m a genuine believer that kind of being an adult kind of swats the playfulness out of you and, and therefore, swats a lot of the imagination out of you” (E). My sense is that coaching offers a wonderful opportunity to break people free from the stories that are cutting them off from exploring their full potential. And yet a look through any coaching journal will quickly paint a picture of a profession that takes itself seriously and equally wants to be taken seriously. The question I am holding is whether this desire to be taken seriously is holding practitioners back from using approaches that might be perceived as not being serious enough. Play is one such approach. It offers the opportunity to reinject imagination into a client’s life and shift perspectives in wonderful ways such that they can break open the shells holding them in. My hope is that the coaching profession will reflect on the stories around seriousness and ask in whose interest these stories are being held.

This then feeds into coach training. I would strongly urge all coach training to consider incorporating some form of playful activity (improv classes would be a start). This would benefit them both as individuals and practitioners in being able to be and respond in the moment in complete service of the client. It would also serve to give them permission to hold the “serious professional” story lightly and allow them to bring themselves more fully into the client relationship.


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[1] This definition covers both coaching and mentoring.

[2] Much of the commentary in this section about ancient Greece was inspired by D’Angour, 2013.

[3] Famously uttered by Justice Stewart’s in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964 when deliberating on obscenity.

[4] Sutton-Smith (2001) proposed seven traditions: Progress; Fate; Power; Identity; Imaginary; Self; Frivolity.

[5] As indicated in the introduction, for the purposes of this research limitation is being construed as anything that might restrict the use of play in coaching, thereby including “barriers”.

[6] For the purposes of this discussion it is important to note that “playfulness is integral to play” (Lockwood & O’Connor, 2017, p. 56).

[7] The completed checklist can be found in Appendix E: Consolidated Criteria for reporting Qualitative Studies (COREQ): 32-item checklist.

[8] A breakdown of the five phases can be found in Appendix C: Interview Guide Development Phases.

[9] The full guide can be found in Appendix A: Semi-Structured Interview Guide.

[10] A diagram mapping the interview questions to the research aims can be found in Appendix C: Interview Guide Development Phases.

[11] 10 Recommendations suggested by Gray et al. (2020): (1) Test Zoom ahead of interview; (2) Provide technical information; (3) Have a backup plan; (4) Plan for distractions; (5) Provide a direct link to the meeting; (6) Consider storage needs; (7) Hardwire computer to Internet; (8) Uninterrupted Internet connection; (9) Create a visual reminder; (10) Manage consent processes.
The researcher printed these out and referred to them prior to each interview.

[12] The six phases are outlined in Appendix D Braun & Clarke Thematic Analysis Guidelines including a brief commentary on how the researcher acted in each phase.

[13] Further details of the Researchers’ journey through the six phases of these guidelines can be found in Appendix D Braun & Clarke Thematic Analysis Guidelines.

[14] Edited version of transcript.

[15] A fourth theme around Play and Clients, the give and take of the relationship so to speak, was felt to be amply covered elsewhere (letting go of control, willingness to experiment, authenticity, in service of the moment, confidence, fear).

[16] In addition to benefits for the client, participants pointed to benefits for the coach and indeed the profession but the researcher feels that echoes of these can be found in many of the other findings so this section will be limited to the benefits for clients.