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UK Coaching Participation Team
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Coaching Skills

Behaviour Change Strategies

Suggests useful resources to help coaches understand and implement behaviour change strategies

Understanding behaviour, and the strategies you can create to encourage people to make more positive behaviour choices when it comes to being active, is important for coaches.

The resources outlined here show how coaches can go about creating and inspiring behaviour change through things like the environment, building confidence and relationships, setting goals and creating inclsive sessions for people to participate in.

Creating the right environment for change

How coaches create a welcoming environment is just as important when helping people change their behaviours as what coaching and meaningful activities are delivered for people to take part in. It’s not just what you do, but how you do it that can make the difference and keep your participants coming back week after week.

Creating a warm, friendly and welcoming coaching environment includes your body language, the tone and style of your coaching, and all of the communications that surround your session including online and through social media. Check out the following suggested resources:

This TedTalks video from social psychologist Amy Cuddy suggests that body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. She suggests that changes to our body language, such as adopting a "power posing" can boost feelings of confidence, and might have an impact on our chances for success.

How coaches create a welcoming environment is just as important as what coaching and meaningful activities are delivered for people to take part in. Its not just what you do, but how you do it that can make the difference and keep your participants coming back week after week.

Creating a warm, friendly and welcoming environment includes your body languace, tone and style of your coaching and all of the communications that surround your session, including online.

Part of being welcoming means remembering the 'human factor' and making people feel good about themselves and your session.

Remember, participants are likely to tell more peoeple about a bad experience at your coaching session compared to if they have had a good experience. So the aim is to create a buzz and and a real welcoming feel about your sessions that helps keep participants coming back for more.

Here are some top tips to help you create welcoming sessions for participants:

  • Make a good first impression when you first meet; make eye contact, say hello and smile, use people's names and have open body language.
  • Making eye contact with people every time you see them helps people feel acknowledged. Don't feel the need to look just at their eyes, but their whole face too. Obviously try not to make too much eye contact, which could come across as staring and a little confrontational or intimidating.
  • Use your body posture and the movement of your body to show you are paying attention. For example, nodding is good to show you understand, especially if you don’t want to interrupt what people are telling you and open hand gestures are more gracious and a softer way to point to a person or object. Distance and personal space is also important, be cautious of having people too close or far away from you too often as it can put them outside their comfort zone.
  1. nodding is good to show you understand, especially if you don’t want to interrupt what people are telling you 
  2. turn your whole body to whoever is talking to you
  3. open hand gestures are more gracious and a softer way to point to a person or object
  4. consider how to positively use personal space; aim to talk to people when they are in the ‘personal’ zone:

Intimate = 0–2 feet or arm’s length. Used for family and close friends. Getting too close can be threatening and embarrassing for people

Personal = 2–4 feet. A good range for developing good relationships with your people

Social = 4 or more feet. Be cautious of having people too far away from you too often as it can put them outside their comfort zone when developing a coaching relationship as part of a welcoming environment. 

  • A welcoming environment starts when someone sees you, not when you see them. Be aware of what you are doing when people might be arriving. Look out for anyone who looks unfamiliar with the venue or people, they are probably new!
  • Look like the person in control of the session. Research shows that women and girls like to know that a coach is organised and in control of the session. The impression of how organised you are as a coach starts from the very first impression you make.
  • Your facial expression as a coach tells people how you are feeling. Avoid letting your stressful day show and try to keep a relaxed facial expression. You are always able to choose how you respond to your day and what’s happening in your session. Ask yourself throughout the session: ‘What is my attitude and how am I feeling right now? Is it helping the people have a great experience? Is it helping me create a welcoming environment?'
  • Do something extra that meets an unstated need. Have you done something special, over and above the usual or memorable for any of the people who attend your session?
  • Provide a warm farewell. Let people know you are looking forward to seeing them again and, if possible, make it personal to each person. It is important that the end of your session doesn’t become a low point in the session. Aim for having everyone finishing on a positive, meaningful or memorable moment. 

Creating the right atmosphere for sessions to keep everyone taking part happy and coming back is a big challenge for coaches. People want to attend sessions that make them feel welcomed, valued and important. Coaches who are able to create this atmosphere in their session will, alongside excellent coaching, be more likely to see people valuing the session and keep coming back.

Specific communication challenges can arise if for example a participant is deaf or has partial hearing loss. Enhancing and being aware of how you communicate can make your sessions more inclusive, not only for people who have lost their hearing, but in general.

Albert Mehrabian, an American professor, talks about effective communication making up 7% spoken word, 38% tone of voice and 55% body language. Some top tips for effective communication include:

  • Always ask!- Don’t just guess or make an assumption about how a person would like you to communicate with them, as everybody is different. As a result of you asking, the deaf person is likely to feel more comfortable and will appreciate that you are keen to support them. They might even give you some handy tips!
  • Demonstrate, demonstrate, demonstrate- All good coaches should demonstrate. Demonstrating is especially useful for deaf people as it supports visual learning. 
  • Talking while demonstrating- Talk clearly while demonstrating an activity, and try and face the group when doing so. Don’t forget to check for understanding and clarify if necessary. Don’t single people out when checking, but ensure anyone with additional support requirements has heard and understood you.
  • Positioning- When you are giving instructions or speaking to your players, ensure you are in a position where everyone can clearly see you. Good communication also relies heavily on facial gestures, lip reading and body language. Make sure your face is fully visible, many deaf people are efficient lip readers and may be able to fill in anything they don't hear by watching you talk
  • Stand still- As much as you may want to move about constantly to convey energy and enthusiasm, where possible stand in one place when delivering instructions.
  • Equipment- Use it! Tactics boards are a fantastic way of getting your ideas and instructions across, not just to deaf players, but to all of your players. Use flags, bibs and cones to convey visual instructions and to start and stop activity.
  • Encouragement and praise- Praising participants for good effort or success is an important element to any coached session. Think about visual ways of delivering feedback; for example, the traffic lights system or a good old fashioned thumbs up/thumbs down approach.
  • Interventions- Making interventions to develop players while allowing the activity to flow is vital. Consider how you will make these coaching interventions when working with a deaf person or group.
  • Involving everyone in conversations- Questions and answers are important in
  • developing your players. It can, however, be difficult for a deaf person to understand a group conversation fully. Ensure people talk one at a time and that you, as the coach, clarify everyone’s understanding. 
  • One at a time!- Ensure people do not talk at the same time; lip-reading or trying to follow more than one person at a time is impossible for everyone.
  • Learn some basic British Sign Language (BSL)- BSL is a language in its own right. It is a visual language using handshapes, facial expressions, gesture and body language to communicate. It is great if you are able to learn some basic BSL to aid communication. There are lots of resources available to help you.
  • Use your voice- Speak clearly and naturally, as this will benefit the whole group. A deaf person’s preferred communication method may be lip-reading and listening. Even if a deaf person is predominantly using BSL, lip patterns are an important part of this.
  • Try to talk away from background noise- This includes wind which can be disorientating and make if even more difficult for people with hearing loss to understand what you are saying. Echoey spaces such as sports halls and swimming pools can also be problematic so be aware, and check that all of your instructions have been heard.
  • Use others to help get the message across- On some occasions, deaf participants may ask others in the group, or team mates to repeat your instructions. Making sure others in the group are aware of any additional communication needs can make this easier. Similarly in some instances, allocating buddies to check everyone has heard what is going can also be a solution, especially if individuals are not confident in asking you to repeat multiple times.

Read More

Find out how you can improve your communication in our 'Quick Guide to Efffective Communication'

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Recreational sport is the same as other coached sport in that there is a recognised person in charge and that participants have a desire to improve.

Where it differs from traditional sport is in how and when this development occurs. In recreational sport the participant is the master of their own development. They instigate when improvement happens and progress at their own pace rather than when a coach thinks they should.

Recreational sport represents a challenge for coaching. It requires adopting the important existing knowledge to suit a new style of participant. Someone who wants to learn but wants to do so in a flexible and fun way.

In these settings the coach takes a back seat and lets the participant lead. (Interestingly such an approach has been shown as a vital part of coaching medal winning athletes in the Olympics.)

This desire for participants to get better at their own pace leads us to an almost "consumer" centred version of sport. It is about improving when I want to rather than following someone else’s plan. This affects the role of the person in charge who is more likely to use hints and tips for individuals rather than group drills.

Ultimately what we are seeing is a new definition of coaching for the modern world which takes far greater account of what participants want, not just what the coach thinks is best for development.

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For more information on how you can promote confidence building in your sessions read 'Coaching Adult Recreational Sport'.

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Connecting with others and building relationships

Evidence shows that helping people connect with other people, developing social relationships and the local community around them contributes and is important to improving people’s wellbeing and likelihood that they will have a ‘stickier’ sporting and physical activity habit. Coaches need to be experts at being ‘people people’. Check out these suggested resources:

This Magic relationship ratio video from John Gottman puts an interesting spin on how coaches could look at building connection betweenthemselves and people who attend their session as well as considering how this ratio could positively change how and when feedback is given.

When welcoming new people to your session, it is important to think about them as individuals with individual needs and motivations. Your role as coach can influence people’s successful engagement and return attendance. The following top tips are provided as a suggestion to assist you in better meeting the needs of people new to your session.

Develop connections

Evidence shows that helping people connect with other people, developing social relationships and the local community around them are all important to improving people’s well-being. Coaches can create strong social relationships by being supportive, encouraging and meaningful.

Ways to help people connect include:

  • Introduce people each time someone new joins your session and learn names quickly. Name stickers might be helpful if it is a completely new session and no one knows each other at all.
  • Provide phone/email/messaging/social media details for people to get in contact if they need to. Encourage people to use these to communicate with you and each other outside sessions.
  • Plan time into your session for socialising; consider making this part of your recovery and rest periods. Take part in this socialising time yourself and use the time to get to know your group. Encourage people to stay and chat after the session. Don’t rush off – if you have the time, stay and chat.
  • Think about having regular family and friends’ sessions to include people’s ‘circle of influence’. It is also a great opportunity to recruit new people to your sessions, as well as celebrating the success of people who already attend with people who are important to them. 

Establishing competence and helping people get better 

Getting better at what people choose to take part in is commonly listed as a reason for why people take part. It may not be the first reason for getting involved but it is common for people once they are feeling more confident to want to get better and improve what they are able to do.

Ways to help people get better include:

  • Skill development – some people will be happy to just get started without any new skills being taught at the beginning of the session. Others will like to have something small each week to focus on. Many will want to have an individual or small-group demonstration or explanation. Consider how you will manage these different styles within your session.
  • Be able to explain the main concepts (the big picture) of your activity/game. Not all people will want to know all the specific rules straight away. Think about how you could explain the key areas of the game so everyone can start playing together as soon as possible.
  • Try including FUNdamentals for low-skilled groups. FUNdamentals aren’t just for children and can easily be adapted and included in sessions as part of warm-up activities or skill development sessions.

Getting commitment to sessions

To build an active nation, coaches need to be able to help people develop a ‘taking part’ habit. Building a new habit takes time with no quick fixes or easy solutions. Coaches need to regularly look at what they are doing that helps people stay involved as well as come back after a period of non-attendance.

Ways to help people commit include:

  • Offer low commitment and drop-in-style sessions with minimal paperwork or registrations to be completed before starting the sessions.
  • Help people set goals that match up with their reasons for attending sessions. Encourage people to share these with family and friends.
  • Provide meaningful feedback. Avoid having junk feedback or praise. Feedback needs to be specific to the individual and their goals and aspirations.
  • Reward and incentivise people to take up and continue positive and active behaviours. Find out what rewards and incentives people would like and be creative in how you provide them. They don’t always need to be a ‘thing’ but could be an inhouse event, a private compliment or a public thank you.
  • Have people put your session in their diary – paper or electronic – as it helps people plan and commit to attending your session. Remind them at the end of session when the next session will be and what you might be doing in the session.
  • Update any social media used as part of your sessions with a brief summary of the session. This will help people who haven’t attended due to illness or work commitments to still feel connected and encourage return attendance.
  • Get in touch with people if you haven’t seen them for a few sessions. Sometimes providing this little spark of encouragement means someone feels more comfortable in coming back, especially if they think that they won’t be as good as everyone else as they’ve missed a few sessions. Know that lapsing is common and normal, and that it is the role of a coach to support people to make the activity lapses shorter and less frequent.

Good communication doesn’t just increase coaching skills but also impacts directly on the player. If someone is to learn, then they need to understand what they are being told.

Everything a person does or says can be considered communication. For that reason, it is important to look at both verbal and non-verbal (visual) communication. In addition to this, different people are likely to look for, and respond to, different forms of communication. This all increases the repertoire of skills a coach must have to communicate well, and explains why good communication is linked to expertise.

Male vs female communication

  • Researchers have studied the different communication traits of different genders in a number of different settings. Key points from the research in relation to sport, and coaching in particular include:
  • The biggest differences between the communication styles of male and female athletes were found to be the differences in communication during a game and, in particular, what they felt was the the fastest way to get a message across. 
  • For male athletes, this could be either verbal or visual communication, but female athletes showed a preference for visual communication.
  • As a result, the use of special signs and gestures would be a good communication strategy for coaches of female athletes. Conversely, increasing the use of such signs will have less impact on male players.

Team vs individual communication

  • Researchers also looked at the different communication dynamics of people in team and individual sports. Key points from the research include:
  • When athletes were asked who they communicate with most frequently, those in team sports said their coach, but those in individual sports said their teammates. (Although these results are again probably influenced by the nature of the sport, with athletes in individual sports (such as swimming) unable to communicate with their coach during a race). 
  • There was no real difference between team and individual sports in terms of communication styles. 
  • Preferences for verbal or visual communication do not vary by type of sport as they do by gender.

Read More

If you are interested in finding out more about the research behind communication styles and preferences, read 'Communication Preferences and Styles'.

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In this video Celeste Headlee shares 10 useful rules for having better conversations, including the importance of honesty, brevity, clarity and most of all, listening.

Building Confidence

Confidence is having belief in yourself and that you can do things. Low confidence can mean that people in your session are unwilling to try new things and engage in your session. Achieving success helps people build their confidence. This includes small steps of success and improvement, not just the achievement of big goals. Check out these suggested resources:

What is confidence?

Confidence is having belief in yourself and that you can do things.

Why does it affect people taking part?

Low confidence can mean that people in your session are unwilling to try new things and engage in your session. Achieving success helps people build their confidence. This includes small steps of success and improvement, not just the achievement of big goals.

What can coaches do?

Understand that confidence is not linear or constant and that it can increase or decrease between people attending your sessions due to things happening in their own lives. As a coach you will need to help people achieve regular small successes to maintain confidence to help them to continue to enjoy the sessions and keep them coming back.

  • Have a system where people who already attend your session ‘buddy’ new people. This helps by easing the anxieties of new starters and contributes to your existing group members feeling helpful, valued and part of something. 
  • It is better to show someone learning a skill rather than doing the skill competently. This helps people understand that not being perfect and learning is part of the process.
  • Recognise small steps in progress, especially those linked to people’s motivations and goals.
  • Praise your participants often and in a meaningful way. Everyone likes to be told they have done well or achieved a target or goal. Try praising an individual quietly as well as enthusiastically to a whole group. Remember to praise achievement of an individual’s personal goals as well as praising team or group achievements. A dip of confidence in the middle of a session is fine. People should leave your session feeling confident, so plan for success at the end of your session.
  • Finish sessions when confidence is on the ‘up’. Avoid the temptation of introducing new and difficult skills at the end of a session that could negatively affect confidence.
  • Support personal goal setting within your sessions – each person’s goals and success criteria are personal to them. These goals and success indicators may change over time or very quickly depending on the individual and their motivations. Spend time having conversations with people to understand what is important to them. 

Understanding basic psychology essentials helps coaches to be better tuned in to people’s behaviours and feelings.

Common themes to understand include motivation, confidence, anxiety and mindset. Being better able to coach people understanding these basics means that coaches are able to provide meaningful and inspiring experiences.

Psychology in sports coaching also extends to Growth Mindset (the belief that your abilities are not fixed entities but that with practice they can improve), Emotional Intelligence, and general mental health and wellbeing.

Key messages for coaches coming from the research on the impact of psychological factors in recreational sport include:

  • Coaches require skills that reflect inter-personal (relationship) qualities and communication skills such as being trustworthy and respectful as well as listening and understanding.
  • Coaches require competence in the sports they coach. They need a sound appreciation of the basic principles of their sport (technical, tactical, physiological, bio-mechanical) as well as capable of providing a well-structured training session that incorporates challenge, variation and continuous feedback.
  • Goal setting emerged as an important aspect of recreational sport participation. Participants anticipate and prefer coaches to be aware of their intentions or goals and plan their training and development accordingly. Coaches must be aware of the importance of goal setting in recreational sport and use it effectively as part of their coaching programme.

Read More

For more information on psychology in coaching, including an in depth look at key themes for coaches read 'Psychology Essentials'

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Goal setting emerged as an important aspect of recreational participation. Prefer coaches to be aware of their intentions and too plan sessions accordingly.

Jowett and Felton, The Role of Psychological Factors in Recreational Sport, 2013

Goal Setting and Feedback– Helping People Progress

Traditionally, goal setting is associated with improving a particular skill or becoming a better performer in a sport. However when people are just starting out on their journey to being more active their goals may be focused on attending regularly, increasing the amount of time they are active in the session or being able to manage a health condition more easily.

When coaching people to be more active, informal and more formal goal setting can help to:

  • Give focus in helping people to reach their overall activity goal – something to aim for, by breaking it down into manageable steps (short term goals)
  • Maintain and enhance motivation to achieve each short term goal.
  • Increase confidence each time a goal is achieved, or people can see the progress they are making.

Check out these suggested resources:

Traditionally, goal setting is associated with improving a particular skill or becoming a better performer in a sport. When coaching people to be more active, goal setting is still important, as it can help to:

  • give focus and purpose
  • maintain and enhance motivation to achieve (and attend sessions)
  • increase confidence each time a goal is achieved, and allow people to see progress which can act as an incentive to set and reach new goals.

Goals may be focused on attending regularly, increasing the amount of time people are active in the session or being able to manage a health condition more easily. Below, there are three models that you can use to help people set and achieve goals that are important to them, the conversational model, the STAR model and the SMART model.

Consider which method best suits the people you coach and the time you have available in and around your session. People with different reasons for attending your session may want to set goals in different ways. The three examples of how to set goals allow you as a coach to decide how informal or formal the process is and how long you have with people to help them set appropriate goals for themselves.

Have better conversations

Make time to talk to people in your session. Keep it conversational in style rather than a series of questions that are too formal and process orientated. Examples of where you could start a conversation include:

  • What would you like to get out of, or feel about, each session?
  • Do you have any longer-term hopes you are working towards?
  • What does success look like for you?

STAR – An informal way of goal setting

  • Set a Target: through targeted questioning.
  • Achieve: support achievement of goals through delivery.
  • Recognise: celebrate when goals have been achieved.

SMART – A commonly referenced way of goal setting

Specific

Make it as precise as possible. What is it the person wants to achieve?

Measurable

Can you both monitor the progress?

Achievable

Is this participation goal achievable within the time frame and are the resources available?

Realistic

Is this goal challenging whilst still being practical (might be based on the current starting position of the participant)?

Time- framed

Make it time-framed.

General top tips

  • Break big goals into smaller chunks, but not too many!
  • Connect people who have similar goals in and around your session.
  • Encourage people to refresh goals regularly. Know when people are likely to achieve their goal and talk to them about what is the next thing they would like to work towards.
  • Discuss when the most likely relapse points could be, as these can interrupt progression towards goals.
  • Be proactive in noticing, recognising and rewarding people meeting their goals.

Goal setting theory has its ultimate roots in the simplest type of self analysis that can be performed by anyone. It assumes that having a goal will impact on your actions by directing attention, mobilising effort, enhancing persistence and leading to new strategies. Initially, goal setting proved itself in the business world, and it was not long before sports psychologists started to take an interest.

Here are some of the key points to consider when setting goals with athletes

  • Goal setting is dynamic and ever changing- A coach needs to be flexible with the goal setting process, understand why some ideas don’t work and therefore be willing to think of new ideas to meet the goal. 
  • The relationship with the player is crucial- The success of goal setting depends on the interaction between individuals setting the goals. A coach needs to be able to talk to a player to understand their needs and therefore what goals they should set.
  • Goal setting takes time- Often it takes multiple conversations and some time to understand the problem and come up with a suitable and effective solution.
  • Players need to be self-aware- In both setting goals and evaluating progress, players need to be able to give an accurate assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Making sure your players have the correct self-reflection skills before you work with them to set appropriate goals can help with this.

Read More

If you are interested in find out more about creating goals for athletes read 'The Art of Goal Setting'

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Including everyone in your session

Including everyone in your session can be a challenging task for coaches. Especially if there are lots of motivations, behaviours, adaptions and considerations to understand and include.

Selling being more physically active to women is so much more than knowing your activity or sport. It’s about knowing the women in front of you. Coaches can boost women's confidence, overcome their fear of judgement and make them feel that this particular activity is suitable for ‘women like them’? 

In coaching terms, an ‘inclusive coach’ has the ability to positively and effectively coach a group of people who may have very different needs. This is not specific to coaches working with disabled children, players and athletes – good coaches will always be working inclusively because they want everyone to have fun and improve.

Check out this suggested resource:

In coaching terms, an ‘inclusive coach’ has the ability to positively and effectively coach a group of people who may have very different needs. This is not specific to coaches working with disabled children, players and athletes – good coaches will always be working inclusively because they want everyone in their session to have fun and improve.

An inclusive coaching session cannot be planned without knowledge of the individuals that make up the group. You can make changes to your session as it runs – don’t be afraid to change things to make sure everyone is involved and having fun.

There is no magic formula for inclusive coaching. The key is to keep communicating with everyone taking part and being confident to change the activity either for the whole group or individuals to make their experience of being active as positive and fun as possible.

The Inclusion spectrum 

The Inclusion Spectrum consists of five approaches to the delivery of physical activity programmes, ranging from fully open activities to totally segregated participation. The focus is on what individuals can do rather than what they can’t. Each approach aims to encourage and empower everyone in your session, irrespective of their ability, in order to enhance the quality of their involvement.

The type of delivery should suit the needs of everyone in the session, and all the approaches covered are valuable ways of delivering high quality and meaningful opportunity in sport and physical activity.

STEP framework

The STEP formula provides a framework for coaches to make changes to their coaching, in the areas of space, task, equipment and people. The changes can be made for the whole group or just an individual who uses different equipment, new to the group and needs some initial extra support, or likewise someone who has been coming along for a while and needs to be challenged further to keep them engaged. Some examples have been included in the table below, but this is not an exhaustive list.

Space
  • Increase or decrease the size of playing area.
  • Vary distances covered to suit different abilities.
  • Use zones to match people of similar ability.
Task
  • Break down complex activities into simpler parts.
  • Ensure appropriate time for people to learn new skills as an individual and in pairs before including in larger group activities.
  • Be prepared to slow down an activity if the athlete is not as flexible, or can’t move as quickly, as other athletes (eg increase the time the ball can be held in netball to allow a wheelchair user to get into position to shoot or pass).
Equipment
  • Changing the size of equipment can make things easier or harder.
  • Provide a variety of equipment that suits different needs and preferences.
People
  • Consider how people are partnered or grouped – similar ability, different abilities, friendship groups, similar motivations or goals.
  • Teams could have unequal numbers to develop skills or maximise participation and activity levels of different people.

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Find out more about making sessions inclusive in 'Including Everyone in Your Sessions'.

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Related Content

  • Understanding Motivations

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  • Psychology Essentials

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  • Understanding Behaviour Change

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UK Coaching Participation Team