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Behavior Change Science and Coaching Athletes

BY Andy Kirkland

Hitting a communication roadblock with an athlete? Maybe this strategy will help you make the gradual, painless breakthrough you've been searching for.

The aim of coaching is to enhance the performance of our clients. To achieve this they must change the way they behave in a way that makes a positive difference. However, many coaches share the underlying assumption that they need to dictate exactly what their clients need to do to improve. If they comply, then success should be assured. If they don’t, then they only have themselves to blame. But it’s not that simple. 

In this article, I’ll introduce you to behavior change science, a systematic way of understanding why humans behave the way they do and effective ways to change behavior. By doing so, I hope that I encourage you to think a little bit differently about how you coach, help you gain more insightful feedback and hopefully improve your client retention rates too. 

What is Behavior Change Science?

Behavior change science emerged from the health sciences in recognition that the adoption of evidence-based scientific research by doctors, nurses, healthcare practitioners and patients was a very slow and inefficient process. Research evidence coming from carefully controlled environments usually didn’t work in practice and it wasn’t influencing the behaviors of people as well as it could. The key message is a very simple one: telling others to do something, even if it is in their best interests, rarely works. As coaches, we face very similar issues and are often not very effective in changing the behaviors of our clients. This is because to change behavior we must:

  1. Understand why people currently behave the way they do.
  2. Understand what behaviors we want them to change and why.
  3. Identify barriers to change and ways to help them to overcome these barriers. 

Why Does This Matter to Coaches?

Behavior change scientist Susan Michie and colleagues demonstrate that there are three behavioral drivers which interact in a complex fashion to explain why people behave the way they do: 

  • Capability refers to an individual’s knowledge, skills and physical abilities. 
  • Motivation not only relates to goal-orientated behaviors, it relates to emotional regulation and conscious decision-making. 
  • Opportunity relates to social factors including interactions with others than influence behaviors. 

I have adapted their model to illustrate how it can be applied to the coach-athlete relationship. In short, our coaching behaviors are dependent on our capability, motivation and opportunity. Through developing an effective relationship with our clients, we gain insight into their behavioral drivers and this insight will help us identify coaching strategies that are likely to work. This is illustrated in the figure below.

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What Kind of Coach Are You?

That being said, we cannot begin to understand others without reflecting on what drives our coaching behaviors. We must accurately appraise our own coaching capabilities. What motivates us and what opportunities do we have to be a better coach? I recommend you read ‘Where Are You on the Dunning-Kruger Wiggle’. This will help you self-assess your coaching capabilities and find out what your typical coach-athlete power dynamic is. 

Do you simply expect athletes to comply with your instructions because you are the expert? Or is your coaching more about a partnership? Coaching capability does not suddenly surface when we attend our first coaching course or anoint ourselves as coaches. Rather, it begins soon after birth. Knowledge and skills develop through our education, early exploration and through our interactions with others. In short, our life journey influences how we think, behave, solve problems and interact with our clients. 

How Does This Translate To Your Athletes?

Additionally, the key to being an effective coach is recognizing that others do not always think the same way as we do. Rather, clients will have unique life experiences that have shaped their knowledge, values and beliefs. This will influence their interactions with you and what they expect from coaching.

It is common for coaches and athletes to have different viewpoints or hidden assumptions about training too. Important factors that relate to training are often left unsaid. Athletes may choose to exclude things like injury, life stress, or hormonal changes from the conversation. This may be due to a fear of sharing sensitive information, a belief that the information is unimportant or an inability to communicate effectively. An effective coach will strive to find out what drives their clients’ behaviors by asking the right questions and then use appropriate tools to influence them positively. 

I need to know what drives their behaviors and they need to trust my coaching capabilities as well as my motivation to help them be their best. I need to also consider how their training environment influences what opportunities they have to develop. What emerges is an approach that comfortably allows athletes the autonomy to make their own choices. My job is to inform these choices in which changes in behavior may be slow, but sustainable. 

Try It Out

Here are a few tips for great coaching fueled by behavior change science. When implementing these, remember to have patience for yourself and your athletes. Behavior change is a gradual but rewarding process.

  • Have a credible rationale for everything you ask your clients to do. That means understanding the ‘whys’ of your coaching, not just the ‘what’. 
  • Admit to yourself what you don’t know before applying what you think you do. 
  • Consider the likely outcomes, desirable and undesirable, of all your coaching behaviors. 
  • Ensure that there’s clarity in what you’re asking clients to do and in what type of feedback you expect back. 
  • Co-create training programs and workouts with your clients. What works for them may not match your ‘model’ of coaching so you need to adapt. This means getting to know your clients and what drives their behaviors. 
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About Andy Kirkland

Andy Kirkland Ph.D. is a Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Stirling, delivering on the MSc. in Performance Coaching programme. He is an expert in endurance performance an active triathlon coach and a Chartered Scientist. He worked for British Cycling for 6 years as a coach educator and is a TrainingPeaks certified coach. You can find out more about Andy on his website.

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