A few carefully chosen words delivered with warmth, which search for answers, and which champion choice, might be worth more than many mouthfuls of busy and often premature action talk.

Coaches, managers and sportspeople have conversations, sometimes brief, sometimes longer, some planned, others spontaneous. They influence outcome, for better and worse. Conversation is the fuel that drives progress through the world of action.

Motivational interviewing? What might it offer? In one sentence it might be this: communication skills to increase motivation and encourage behavior change. It is based on the idea that when facing conflict or uncertainty about a change, a person will be more motivated if helped to resolve this for themselves, aided by the communication techniques of a skillful and expert guide.

Motivational interviewing skills have been honed in the medical and social care world, where the stakes are often very high. How to enhance motivation to improve and change lies close to the heart of many fields.

We have learned ways of having change conversations from our clients and patients, studied these, then refined and simplified the guidelines for good practice. Put simply, in motivational interviewing one avoids the almost automatic use of the righting reflex (see a problem in someone and set about fixing it for them). This often leads to the person telling you why change is a problem, the very opposite of what is helpful for them and you to hear. Instead, you help them to say for themselves why and how change might come about, and their motivation to change increases in front of your eyes, as does the likelihood of actual change in behavior. There have been over 200 controlled trials of this method in various settings.

Can we use these skills to increase flexibility and refine what good coaches do on a daily basis? Avoid the more clumsy use of the righting reflex; improve personal engagement with a player; and bring out their internal motivation to change. To solve a problem without engagement will be looking for trouble. Rapid engagement is a skill that can transform even very brief conversations.

These skills when learnt and practiced can also quickly change a team environment, as they have done in prisons, wards and challenging environments throughout the world.

 Anyone in a helping role, including players themselves, can learn to bring about change in a constructive way. This could not only help with the obvious prevention of personal difficulties like addiction and other stress-related problems, but also for sporting technical changes, to help players work out for themselves how and why they might change. That’s the essence of MI.

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