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Coaching Mental Performance: Motivational Interviewing Techniques for Resistant Athletes

“All-change is ultimately self-change”
~William Miller, PhD Substance Abuse Counselor

Resistant athletes are often those that believe that they know better or they do not realize the way they are playing. To roll with the resistance of our athletes, we can educate them on what they may want to do better and/or differently, and we can also evoke a response from them that helps them clarify and understand their motivations for change.

Motivational Interviewing is a lens through which to look at behavioral change that has been well-utilized within the addictions-counseling world that can be modeled for coaches seeking to facilitate change within their teams. When adapted for the sporting world, it is an athlete-centered language for enhancing an athlete’s intrinsic motivation to change by exploring and resolving the athlete’s uncertainty surrounding change. Through this lens, collaboration is utilized to resist their natural defense mechanisms and treats resistance as a part of interpersonal relationship (as opposed to just a human trait).

The foundation of Motivational Interviewing revolves around these four skills:

1. Open-ended questions

“Tell me, what were you looking at?” “What other shots could we have hit?” “Who else could we have set on that play?” “What did you see the other team doing?”

2. Affirmations

When it is done sincerely, affirming your athlete’s choices promotes self-efficacy. By affirming, you are saying, “I hear, I understand,” and allows your athlete to feel confident about marshaling their inner resources to take action and change behavior.

3. Reflective listening

This one’s challenging, but it involves you demonstrating that you have accurately heard and understood your athlete’s communication by restating its meaning. That is, you hazard a guess about what the athlete intended to convey and express this in a responsive statement. It strengthens the empathic relationship between you and the athlete and encourages further exploration of their problems and feelings related to their performance.

4. Summarize

Periodically you will want to summarize your conversation with your athlete so that you can reinforce what has been said, show that you’ve been listening carefully, and prepare the athlete to move forward. Summarizing the positive and negative outcomes of trying a new technique or skill can facilitate an understanding of ambivalence and promote their views of discrepancy.

Furthermore, there are certain frames from which you can work through to help guide your words when talking with your athlete:

1. Feedback – This is our art form. Speak objectively and without judgement, and appropriate to their stage of learning.

2. Responsibility – Understand that ultimately the athlete is responsible for their own change, and that each choice either moves them closer or further away from change.

3. Advice – Advice may be easy for us to give, and athletes may be specifically looking for it. The older the athlete gets, the more we need to be giving advice with their permission. Understand that advice takes away the athlete’s autonomy.

4. Menu of Options – Give them options and/or alternatives to help guide their decision-making process.

5. Empathy – Work to accurately assess their emotional state to help guide your words/direction of feedback.

6. Self-Efficacy – Situational-specific types of confidence referring to the athlete’s expectation of succeeding at a specific task or meeting a particular challenge. Whenever appropriate, empower/encourage their behaviors! The athletes want to believe that how they are training is going to elicit the change they want to see in themselves on the court.

Check-out this handout for specific ways to work with your resistant athletes and evoke a response that helps them better understand themselves!

Passmore, J. (2011). Motivational interviewing: A model for coaching psychology practice. Coaching Psychologist, 7(1), 36–40.

Additional Coaching Mental Performance Resources:

Effective Feedback During Training

Developing Rapport

The Neurobiology of Development

View more mental training resources

About the Author

Rob Samp is the Mental Performance Coach for MOD Volleyball, a JVA member club in Chicago, Illinois. He currently holds the title of LPC within the State of Illinois, utilizing EMDR and Brainspotting to work with complex PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety around Cook County, IL.  Samp has nearly a decade of coaching experience at the junior and collegiate level. He is grateful to be continuing his pursuit for facilitating performance excellence within MOD, as well as the universities around the Chicagoland area. Click here for Samp’s contact information and website.

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