performance coaching

Performance coaching & Motivational Interviewing: Empathy is key to success

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Always going, always growing.

Growth mindset at the center of psychological skills training

As a coach, be it for athletes, executives or any other field or position, you are an example. One type of mentality that successful high performance coaches follow is a excellence mindset. That requires constant self development, skill development, growth generally as a person and specifically to your field. As I am entering the elite athletes world as a psychological skills trainer, I know there is lot of learning to do. I also know that I have already received a good command of many skills and I have a strong belief that sports psychology works. Nevertheless, as I am practicing my skills with athletes I was happy to follow a professors suggestion to learn more about Motivational Interviewing as a tool to work with athletes and trainers. I attended a workshop by Sebastian Kaplan and Jeff Breckon. Here are some of the thoughts I will take with me to my work with performance psychology training with athletes.

What is behind the success of an athlete and how a performance coach supports that

  1.  Building engagement. I think this is a key with working on psychological skills strengthening. Who likes to admit that they actually can’t set goals right, that they fear of failing, that sometimes they are not keen in going to the training and that they talk badly to themselves? When you have nobody to tell that, you are left alone and it becomes much worse. The relief you get when you find somebody to trust, who is neutral yet allows you to engage in the process and choose your own tempo, is beautiful. I realized how three concepts: engagement, neutrality and (non)judgement are really tightly together in sports psychology coaching. They each have a role but it is important to keep all three in focus. You as a coach don’t go in there as an expert, you go there to help the athlete figure out that he/she is the expert. It is your role to keep the focus, though, and be on point about what is the session really about.
  2. It is about the person. Technical and tactical issues follow. I think it is not news anymore that technical, physical and tactical solutions are there for the takers. It is the mental part, the psychological ability and how the person has set him/herself for the success or failure. It is about the person foremost. You can work on technicals brilliantly, but if an athlete is not ready, doesn’t want to, then the results and foremoste, the growth and enjoyment will not be there.
  3. You as a coach are a stress to your athlete if you let it. Coaches, parents, the Nation, media somehow think they have the right to expect success from the athlete. That puts a lot of stress to the athlete and not all are able to deal with that. And surprise-surprise, if you as a coach continue pressuring the athlete to “fulfill his/her potential” that you know he/she has without giving them the tools to manage stress or supporting their OWN reasoning WHY they do the sport, then get ready for failure. It is not yours to win. It is not yours to choose. Even if the athlete has potential, it is his/hers to decide what she/he wants to do with it.
  4. One thing I did not agree there was the question about WHO YOU WORK FOR? I always work for the athlete. Or the trainer if he wants to train his/her psychological skills. I might get paid by the manager, the federation, but if I work with the athlete, she/he is the boss and her/his well-being is the most important. I know a lot of experts seem to think that the one who pays money is the boss, but in a field where you deal with well-being, it can’t be. That goes for HR people, coaches, psychologists, etc. It should be in their work ethic that they should never go for “Company” goals over the person’s goals. I suggest you as a coach then work on your argumentation, reputation and convincing skills and work on the leaders, the employees, the sport coaches so they understand why you need to do what you need to do. Leave the job if necessary. Because that is where the TRUST comes. The athlete can’t trust you when she/he knows that your aim is to please the federation, not to helo him/her. And you know that without trust there’s no cooperation and without cooperation there is no betterment.
  5. Balancing safe and challenge. We did an exercise where I got to play the athlete who is afraid of going to the next competition because of an injury. I noticed that though the sports psychologist who “worked” with me was doing a great job, it was too safe. I believe that athletes have an innate need for challenge and that reminded me that however much I want to safeguard my athlete, I must always offer just a tiny bit of more challenge they are willing to accept at this moment. It goes together with my own experience that sometimes when I feel not ready at all, just a small remark from someone who truly believes in me can make me rethink about my own limits.
  6. And now something from Motivational Interviewing skills (most of the previous points are general knowledge for sports psychologists): ask-tell-ask. You ask a question, you reflect it back and ask for deeper information as a follow-up and to get the point with which you can move forward. Athlete is a great resource for this.
  7. Ask for permission. I like to provoke. I know I am good at that but it is a fair point that one should ask for that permission. This way you get more engagement and it will not scare the athlete away (natural fight-flight). I liked the sentence they used: “We don’t raise the bar high enough. Do you need me to push it?”
  8. Accepting ambivalence. Oh, this is a big one. I see that with executives and entrepreneurs I work with who want to build personal brands and also who want to work so hard on the field they are. The two do not seem to go together and they get stuck. Anyone who wanted to have seemingly opposite things, know that. And accepting that it is there is the first step to taking action.
  9. Language of change. For me motivational interviewing is about language. Words you use, questions you ask. It was a great point that you first need to use the “language of change” and you can notice how an athlete wills tart using it.  “Language of change predicts change happening”. So there’s desire, ability, reason, need and commitment, activation, taking steps that you want to see.
  10. Don’t fall into “praise talk”. You want to celebrate when the athlete has done a good job, but again, always keep in mind that it is just one step, and the goal is constant betterment. Yes, it seems tiring, but that’s the job growth-mindset folks have taken. So when success happens, go deeper. “How do you like yourself now that you are like that (something that you were reaching for)?” “How do you feel about that change you notice?”.
  11. It is the athlete who needs to make the change. Read that again and ask yourself: Who wants to change in your athlete-psychological skills training/sports coach relationship. The athlete or the coach.
  12. ENgagement and empathy gets to challenging mood. What I loved most about the workshop is the way the guys upheld hemselves as an example of empathy-talk. I know I still have a  lot of expectations towards myself so it was refreshing and educating to see full empathy towards oneself as a coach and towards the client/the athlete. And I think when all else fails, when you feel you don’t know what to do in a situation, when you have no theory to follow, EMPATHY wins every time. All in all, you care for the athlete, you care for yourself and you feel that all is ok. However it is, and we can work with it when we have empathy.
  13. More Motivational Interviewing theory: The Trellis Analogy: 1. Exploring, 2. Guiding, 3. Choosing.

The athlete is in charge

Elite athletes are there for a reason. They have had the motivation and they have had the consistency and effort to get further. There are always moments where questions arise, ambivalence gets the better of them. We as coaches, be it a spots/physical training coach or psychological skills trainer, can prepare them mentally to grow as a person, as an expert, as an elite athlete. It takes knowledge, it takes rapport, it takes trust, and it takes empathy. The theory is there, but can you as coach be there and use the theory to support the athlete and guide him/her so that the brutal field of sports seems little less brutal and that no matter the result, there is always a sense of joy, challenge and growth in the trainings?

Let me know what you think and if you are an athlete, a trainer looking for the edge you have not yet used but that is inside you, contact me and lets do some psychological skills training!

About the Author


Performance coach, blogger and activist.

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