Sports psychology: how to motivate your athletes to help themselves

Improve your Motivational Skills to encourage Athlete Behavioural Change

Getting your athletes to change an old habit or adopt a new behaviour is often crucial to whether they will achieve their goals or respond correctly to a treatment. Success depends not only on what happens when the athlete is with you but also on what happens when he or she are on their own, looking after themselves.

The following examples should illustrate the point. You coach an athlete who trains very well, achieving all your planned sessions. However, his eating habits are poor and even though you have told him what to eat many times, he doesn't seem to want to change his diet. Or, if you're a therapist, you treat an injured client who needs to do some rehabilitation exercises, such as stretches, at home on his own as well as when he visits you for treatment. Although you've instructed him what to do, he doesn't carry out the exercises regularly to get the benefits required. So what's the solution? Improve your motivational skills. To help you do this, I want to discuss some social psychology research that could give you an insight into bringing about positive behavioural change.

Increase the readiness to change
In 1983, two researchers called Prochaska and DiClementi introduced the Transtheoretical Model of Behaviour Change (TTM). The TTM very simply describes how people go about changing their health or lifestyle behaviours by defining five 'stages of change'. The TTM suggests that, for people to make positive change, they must go through a process of increasing their readiness to change. In other words, before a new behaviour or action can occur, the individual must have the right attitudes and beliefs to embrace it. Each of the five 'stages of change' depicts a distinct level of attitude and action for behaviour change. For example, the following are the five stages applied to changing eating habits:

1. Precontemplation: not changing diet and not intending to start to change.
2. Contemplation: not changing diet, but intending to change.
3. Preparation: making some changes, but not fully, though intending to change fully.
4. Action: achieved all diet changes regularly for less than six months.
5. Maintenance: maintained all diet changes for longer than six months.

What the TTM tells us is that the type of strategies needed to get people to change their diets, for example, will depend on their current stage of change. If you give an athlete or client a diet sheet to follow, they will only adopt the new diet if they are at the preparation or action stages. At these stages they would be ready to respond to this 'action-oriented approach'. If, however, the athlete or client is only at the precon-templation or contemplation stages, they will be unlikely to respond to the new diet. So with individuals at these stages of change, the strategy is to motivate and persuade them that changing their diet is important, beneficial and achievable. In short, increasing their readiness to change by taking them on to the preparation stage.

Getting shot of pasta and chips
At these lower stages, the strategies used are not 'action-oriented', such as the diet sheet, but more motivational and attitudinal. To progress from the lower stages, an individual must believe that the new behaviour is important and worthy, and that the 'pros' for adopting it outweigh the ‘cons' of changing. This is called 'decision balance' and the strategies used in the lower stages must aim to shift the decision balance in favour of the 'pros'. For instance, the pros for changing diet such as feeling better and losing weight must counter the cons of not being able to eat pizzas and chips every night.

A person must also believe in him/herself to be ready to make a behaviour change. This is known as 'self-efficacy' and is the individual's belief in him/herself to perform a task successfully. Often, individuals at the lower stages have low self-efficacy regarding their behaviour. For instance. they don't feel confident about changing their diets. To progress through the stages, strategies to build self-efficacy must be used to help trigger the change.

Research with the TTM suggests it can be used across a range of health and lifestyle behaviours and that the strategies it supports are effective in helping individuals to make positive changes. For example, Marcus et al (1992) found that people in a group became more active when they received motivational materials relevant for their stage of change. Prochaska et al (1992) studied why it was than in a worksite weight-loss programme there was an 80 per cent dropout rate. They found that the weight-loss programme had been action-oriented, involving exercise classes and diet plans, and yet most of the participants were still precontemplators and contemplators. Thus the strategy used in the programme didn't match the readiness for change of the participants. More recently, Project Active (Dunn et al, 1998) showed that 121 sedentary males and females were successful in increasing their daily activity levels and fitness during six months of interventions involving only group-motivation meetings based on their stage of change. This group received no formal fitness instruction but instead were persuaded to fit more activity into their lives. From these studies, it seems that when we match the strategy to the individual's stage of change, we are more likely to alter that person's behaviour.

The theory plus the strategies
So the reason why the athlete won't change his diet, or the patient won't follow stretching instructions, or the fitness client doesn't train by himself is that they are being given 'action-oriented' instructions that don't match their readiness to make that change. The beauty of the TTM is that, unlike other social psychology models, it not only describes the theory behind how behavioural change occurs but also gives us the practical strategies to use at each stage of change. The athlete that won't respond to the diet instructions needs first to have explained to him the benefits of changing his eating habits. Pointing out to him that his performance will improve, that he will recover quicker from training and have more energy for training if he eats correctly. will help shift the 'decision balance' in favour of the 'pros' for changing diet. Discussions about how to make healthy but tasty meals, what to buy from the supermarket instead of unhealthy snacks, and about how other athletes eat well will help build 'self-efficacy' about changing to healthier foods. These discussions may need to take place over a period of time and the messages should be reinforced with handouts or articles about the benefits of proper nutrition. How long it takes to progress to the higher stages will depend on the athlete's initial readiness to change and his/her ability to take on board the new messages. In general, though, the strategy for getting the athlete to change involves education, persuasion and practical advice.

Building up self-efficacy is obviously important for the patient who doesn't do the rehab exercises at home or the client who doesn't train alone. It may simply be that the exercises in the rehab programme, say, are new or difficult and the patient may have low self-efficacy about performing them alone. In this case, it is worth spending extra time teaching all the exercises involved in the programme, providing clear instructions and demonstrating the techniques so that the patient can remember the exercises and how to perform them. Writing out the programme clearly and providing pictures should be useful in helping build the patient's self-efficacy towards performing the exercises alone.

Make the workouts achievable The same goes for the athlete who is unable to do solo workouts. In this case, simply providing a fitness plan to follow isn't enough to help the individual achieve his training sessions. The athlete with low self-efficacy about training alone will find it hard to surmount the normal obstacles that make exercising harder, such as bad weather or finding the time. Such an individual must be helped to plan when he can train alone so that it fits easily into his lifestyle - for example, before work or at lunchtime. At the same time, make sure that the workouts you plan are practicably achievable. If you compile complex workouts that take over an hours to perform, the athlete may be put off attempting the session. He will feel more confident about performing simple, short workouts on his own. You also need to teach the solo workouts in full. Your clients are unlikely to perform something alone that they have not first performed with you at least once. For example, you may decide that the athlete should do a 40-minute run on his own and a short run plus some resistance exercises when he is with you so you can supervise the technique. This is a reasonable decision, but you may find that unless you spend at least one training session doing the long run with the athlete he will not have the confidence to perform it alone.

I hope these examples help illustrate the TTM and the process of changing behaviours. The key message is that the strategy for change you use and the individual's state of change must be matched. Those at the lower stages need motivational, thinking strategies that boost their self-efficacy and promote the 'pros' of change. Those at higher stages will respond to action-oriented instructions and programmes.

Raphael Brandon

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