Learn MI Effective Approach to Coaching in Sport

See what I did- MI effective approach to coaching? I.e. my coaching! Well no it probably doesn’t work unless you recognise MI as the acronym for motivational interviewing…

Motivational interviewing was born out of treating psychological problems and has also more recently, become a frontline approach for helping people change in health and social care settings. Now it is gaining serious  traction in sport coaching in the UK. A common question is ‘does it work for…?’ (fill in the space with any behaviour change you want) and the answer is yes. The point being that MI is less about focusing on a problem and more about effective conversations/ an evidence based approach to helping get good behavioural outcomes.

Some good coaching examples are acute situations (e.g. half-time in the changing room) and chronic situations (e.g. in training sessions). Coaches who have utilised coercion, threat and fear to get behavioural outcomes from players are likely to get mixed results with the fear/coercion sometimes working in the short-term and often not working at all. It may work when there is already a strong-relationship between player and coach and it is well-timed (See Steve Rollnick’s excellent blog on MI and sport for more detail: https://stephenrollnick.tumblr.com/ ) fear and coercion may also get a very negative response- a sort of ‘reactance’ where the player under attack feels frustration/anger/shame and a need to defend themselves rather than act positively in response to the fear/coercion… 

MI first came to my attention when I was promoting physical activity, teaching sport science and working around nutrition in sport. My work involved working with a lot of athletes as well as students with work focused on getting performance outcomes via improved nutrition and behavioural support for football players, boxers, triathletes, rugby players and track and field athletes- we also carried out work with elite level strong men competitors and track cyclists. What I noticed was that very often advice, however well supported scientifically, needed ‘buy in’ from the athlete to actually be enacted. What do we buy into? We buy into messages that we feel we have come to ourselves more than we do from those messages delivered to us- even the most enigmatic coach needs the internal buy-in of the athlete to get consistent behavioural outcomes.

Very often coaching will naturally focus on the technical aspects of performance and these are of course crucial.  As an athlete myself I had lots of experience of different coaches, different sports and different coaching styles. Think about the best coach you ever had, whether they were high-school physical education teachers, local sports team coach or professional staff at an elite sports club. What was it that stands out to you about that person? How were they- and what made them a great coach?


At the top of my own list is empathy. The coach, I have in mind, had great technical knowledge and experience but it was his empathy that I remember as making the greatest impression on me, he was effective at quickly and accurately understanding what I was experiencing and using that to: a) show he understood me and: b) to facilitate me in moving on/improving. For example, in response to me fudging passes with a rugby ball he said: ‘you are great at passing left and struggle with passing right, what do you think you should do?’ This exchange is a great example. I hadn’t said anything, I was just looking frustrated, compare:

I’ve told you- you have to practice on the right!’   (demand, imperative, chastising)


‘You are great at passing left, and you struggle with passing right. What do you think you should do?’ 

(My estimation is it takes him three seconds to perform this statement and yet he has produced three skillful outputs: 1) he affirmed me: ‘you are great at passing left’; 2) made a reflection: ‘and you struggle passing right’; and 3) asked an open question: ‘what do you think you should do?’  

It was over 30 years ago and I remember the exchange (delivered in 3 seconds!) word for word today.  Affirmation needs to be accurate (you can’t just make it up) but it really helps when people have the positive attributes they possess noted and stated back to them. The reflection is the same, it works well, when delivered accurately, most especially because the athlete knows what they have done/said has been understood. These microskills are not exclusive to motivational interviewing but they can be learnt in a workshop and are great examples of a number of skills inherent in the approach of MI.

Use Elicit-provide-elicit

There are many more MI examples that fit both within chronic and the acute coaching scenarios and I cover these at length and accompany them with practical exercises in the Motivational Interviewing for Sports Coaches workshop. In my own practice- technically I might be explaining how to (or whether to) carb-load or what represents the ideal pre-game meal or recovery meal or discuss the efficacy and safety of certain supplements- but whatever it is I am delivering, I get much better dividends by checking in with my athletes to make sure they want to know/will benefit from what I am going to say and b) how well they have received information- It is easy to learn and really effective by thinking about the acronym: E-P-E which stands for elicitprovideelicit– so my first question/elicit is: ‘do you want me to explain how X works?’ followed by very carefully listening to what the athlete says- sometimes even when they say ‘yes’ it is followed by a ‘but…’ which in turn means no! – If i have the green light based on their response- I may then go and explain (e.g. efficacy/ safety of creatine) so that is my provide– but I then always go on to elicit again by saying something like: ‘what do you make of that?’ again followed by careful listening, this is crucial because it lets me know how well the message has been received…

Speak less, say more

In other, acute situations, it is interesting to note that in between sets of tennis, or rounds of boxing or halves of a game- coaches often speak really fast – in an effort to get maximum impact- and sometimes they also say the most important thing they have on their agenda – first then followed by lots of other instructions… What we tend to do is hear/respond to the last thing that was said to us and so the most important item has been lost. Sometimes a very few well-chosen words are effective whereas a whole load of high-speed gabble is just a waste of so much hot air. 

Dr Trevor Simper is an MI trainer, coach, researcher and University lecturer and delivers Motivational Interviewing Training in Perth.  If you would like to read more about Trevor and his workshops on Essemy click this link.