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Learning behaviour change strategies will ensure your athletes keep coming back for more

Avg: 4.83 / 5 (1votes)

Behaviour Change Tactics

Tennis Activator and ConnectedCoaches member Suzzi Garnett discusses how behaviour change tactics have boosted her drive to get people of all ages playing tennis.

  • Behaviour change concentrates on making a series of small steps that lead to big results over time.
  • A feature of behaviour change is 'nudge tactics', whereby coaches learn handy tips for nudging participants back on track when their level of activity lapses.
  • It is important to remember that there is no quick fix to breaking patterns of inactivity. Those who lack the motivation or the confidence to exercise may have been stuck in a rut for years and, as the saying goes, old habits die hard.
  • Behaviour change focuses on sustainability: helping participants adhere to their new healthier lifestyle.
  • You must value human interaction and get to know the person behind the activity in order to understand their individual motivations and goals.
  • The misconception is that adults who join sports clubs or exercise classes do so to lose weight or to get fit. Actually, for a lot of people, forming social connections is the main driving force for getting active.

An ingenious tactical approach is needed to tackle the inactivity epidemic that has a vice-like grip on the nation.

Behaviour change techniques offer a potential remedy to the crisis.

They have the capacity to effect cultural change, and utilising them as part of an influential coaching framework will maximise their power.

The hope is that, as the use of behaviour change techniques increases in popularity and becomes a staple part of a coach or activator’s practice, it will coincide with a corresponding rise in physical activity levels among our increasingly inert and obese society.

As part of the sports industry’s offensive on making inroads into reversing the devastating effects of sedentary behaviour – which costs the country an estimated £7.4billion a year in health and social care – UK Coaching has launched an eagerly anticipated ‘Behaviour Change Tactics’ workshop.

The workshop, for coaches, activators, instructors and anyone working in sport and physical activity who is responsible for getting more people active and staying active, will equip exercise leaders or coaches with useful strategies and innovative techniques that do just that. 

If the proliferation of statistical studies into the health risks associated with physical inactivity is the 999 call, then behaviour change tactics, in collaboration with the coaching workforce of the country, represent the emergency response unit, ready to deliver the kiss of life to a nation that currently favours slouching on the couch to runs for fun.

The power of nudge

Seeking a long-term solution is the only way to tackle the crisis.

A quick fix is rarely a satisfactory fix and so behaviour change concentrates on making a series of small steps that lead to big results over time.

And coaches must carefully supervise and nurture the process to prevent any relapse into inactivity.

It is common for people to ‘fall off the wagon’ in their exercise habits. By learning behaviour change tactics, coaches will be equipped with some handy tips for nudging participants back on track.

Being attentive to the needs of every individual is at the heart of behaviour change philosophy, and it is also the mission statement of Nottingham-based Tennis Activator Suzanne Garnett.

She attended the sports coach UK course when it was piloted last year and will have a key part to play in promoting the workshop when it is rolled out across the Midlands this autumn.

She liked the coaching framework’s simple guiding principles, which can be easily mastered and enforced to influence behaviour and ensure participants maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The group set up after the ‘Behaviour Change Tactics’ workshop still meets once a month as part of an ongoing informal learning process.

Suzzi summarises what she learnt from the workshop

Understanding people’s journey

In her role as Lawn Tennis Association Community Tennis Officer, Suzzi is currently 18 months into a two-year project focusing on engaging people aged 14 years and above in playing tennis.

She explains: ‘The project has engaged around 6000 people across coordinated events, community sessions and club membership offers. It has engaged 600 people in terms of grass-roots participation, with 100 of those having transitioned to regular participation in six clubs. The target is 200, and there are six months to go, and I think that figure is achievable now the project is in full swing.’

Suzzi says that if you are going to encourage people to change their behaviours and make better choices, you must first of all identify at which stage of their personal journey people are.

‘In a lot of the sessions that I’ve done, because they are very informal sessions, you’re dealing with people who have not really played tennis before,’ she says.

‘For a lot of these people, tennis was never on their radar. It was really a by-product of another motivation, which was usually to get fit or the opportunity for social experiences.’

Coaches must be aware of the barriers that may exist in preventing participation, or which may potentially scupper lasting behaviour change, in order to create individually tailored strategies that persuade people to take those first steps, and to continue making strides thereafter.

Understanding people’s motivations

It should go without saying that, in order to influence people’s behaviour, you must also get to know their individual motivations.

Suzzi will look to tailor content around each participant’s goals and aspirations.

There is a tendency for some grass-roots coaches to use their own motivations as a foundation for the sessions, which should be avoided at all costs.

‘Everybody is there for different reasons,’ she says. ‘They might be looking for you to offer a piece of technical information, some gentle encouragement, or want you to engage in a bit of banter, talking about their life outside of sport.

‘I think everyone comes to get that little nugget from the coach. You have to figure out what their motivations actually are.’

A coach must also be on the lookout for any dips in motivation. If the reasons for taking part become less important to somebody over time, the coach will need to employ a gentle nudge in the right direction.

These nudge tactics can take many forms, but one of the most effective is smart use of social media platforms.

‘I have set up Twitter and Facebook pages, and I encourage volunteers and participants to join,’ says Suzzi.

‘So if someone has a question they want to ask me, such as the details and times of the sessions, they can just put it on Facebook. It’s a great way of keeping the lines of communication open.

‘And it provides a good nudge as you can post a reminder for people to come to the sessions, or if there are any issues that need addressing, you can identify them and get them resolved, eliminating potential reasons for them not turning up.’

Behaviour Change Tactics 3

The personal approach

The best thing about social media: it’s instant.

‘You send someone an email, and you might get a reply in the next five days, but if you send them a WhatsApp, you can tell whether they’ve read it immediately,’ says Suzzi.

‘I try and personalise things a bit more now too. So instead of using [email marketing services] to send out generic emails, I will send back personal emails, thanking people and asking for feedback.’

The simplest nudge tactics are often the most effective.

Just saying as a gentle reminder, ‘See you next week’ can make all the difference between people turning up and not turning up for the next session. Reinforcement is a powerful tool, whether vocal or through the written word.

‘In the free sport programme that I work on, we’ve started texting too,’ says Suzzi. ‘People get a text before they come to a session, beginning, “Hello, my name is Suzzi and I will be your coach for this week’s session”, and going on to ask if they have any questions. Then they will receive a text after the session, asking if they enjoyed it.

‘If they didn’t come, we will send a text saying, “We notice you signed up but didn’t make it. Is there a problem I can help you with?”’

The dialogue can be extended in time to, ‘Wear this, bring this, you don’t need to book, you don’t need to have played tennis before’, which is a great way of removing barriers preventing their attendance and encouraging people to establish a commitment to their particular sport or activity.

Helping people connect

For a lot of people, forming social connections is the main driving force for getting active.

In Suzzi’s case, tennis acts as the vehicle for helping people socially engage. It is the coach’s role to then facilitate the process by instilling a sense of belonging into the sessions.

‘Particularly with the over-50 age group I work with, a lot of it is about the social experiences,’ she says. ‘They enjoy being around other people who have got the same kind of ability level as they do and who they can have a bit of banter with.’

The more people feel connected with others, and have shared experiences, the more likely they are to maintain their new healthy habits.

Tips for coaches on how to help people connect with each other include:

  • Plan time for people to talk – and for you to talk to people. And remember, it doesn’t have to be about sport.
  • Provide a ‘chat topic’. So, sticking with tennis, this might be: ‘What do you think Andy Murray’s chances of winning the next Grand Slam are?’
  • Let people choose their own partners during group work. Or mix it up occasionally, and encourage people to connect with different partners.
  • Encourage people to continue conversations through social media, outside of the sessions.

Behaviour Change Tactics 4

Setting goals and building confidence

Face-to-face engagement is critical in the process of influencing behaviour change.

Taking the time to talk with participants before, during and after a session allows coaches to get a steer on their individual journeys and motivations, and build and facilitate social connections.

And only by understanding the person behind the racket can Suzzi begin to identify individual goals and implement strategies for building confidence – two more key components of behaviour change.

She values human interaction above all other coaching traits.

‘Coaches who want to turn up, do their job and go home, that just isn’t going to work at the level I’m working at.

‘You have to figure out people’s individual goals. In the sessions I take, the technical instruction isn’t the priority. People are very much in the now, they are not thinking about the long-term goals, they just want to know, in that session now, am I any good at tennis.

‘So we do simple techniques that progress into a reward quite quickly. They are not looking at developing techniques that will take six months to a year to perfect.

‘We will not go through every element of the perfect forehand. If you go to the coach of a tennis club, that is what you will get. But in our more informal, fun sessions, technical aspects take more of a back seat.’

Looking to engineer and celebrate regular mini-achievements breeds confidence and can lead to long-term commitment.

So plan drills that you know your participants will be able to carry out successfully. And aim to finish at a point when confidence levels are high, by avoiding setting difficult challenges at the back end of a session.

Also, make your feedback positive. Don’t offer a critical assessment of the past, provide positive suggestions for the future.

Suzzi said she has become adept at reading body language to distinguish who is confident and who isn’t.

Picking up on that will enable you to identify who needs extra confidence boosts.

And she spells out one definite no-no: ‘Don’t ask a person you have singled out as lacking in confidence to perform a demonstration in front of the entire group.’ You risk them never coming back.

Changing habits calls for a change of tactics

It is not being glib to say inactivity is killing us. 

The scale of the problem is enormous. It is driving up obesity levels, which has a knock-on effect in terms of diabetes, heart disease and other serious illnesses, and it is also having a detrimental effect on people’s mental well-being, self-esteem, academic performance at school, even increasing the risk of developing dementia 

Inactivity is a global pandemic that contributes to one in 10 premature deaths worldwide, but the statistics are even worse in Britain, with research from ‘The Lancet’ medical journal in 2012 stating that inactivity is directly responsible for 5.3 million deaths a year in the UK, and rising, which equates to one in every six deaths. 

In summary, behaviour change strategies should be used as part of a structured programme that activators, coach educators and coaches can adhere to, to inspire a change of habits. 

At this early stage, the benefits are incalculable, but they could prove to be invaluable and indispensable if governing bodies, activators and sporting bodies up and down the country embrace and endorse behaviour change as an integral part of their coaching.

Please leave a comment if you have found the advice in this article useful.

Next steps

Coaches: To find a ‘Behaviour Change Tactics workshop running near you, visit the UK Coaching Workshop Finder. More details about the workshop here.

Organisations: Find out more about how to organise the UK Coaching ‘Behaviour Change Tactics’ workshop.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

*This workshop is available nationally but you may not be able to find one running near you on the Workshop Finder. If you live in England, get in touch with your County Sports Partnership to register your interest.  Visit the CSPN to find your CSP. sportscotland, Sport Wales and Sport Northern Ireland run our workshops outside of England and advertise our workshops on their own websites.

Alternatively register with UK Coaching and you will receive a monthly newsletter detailing the latest workshops running across the country.

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Comments (4)

As a shameless plug, I've just gone through the tutor orientations for the workshop, and I thought I knew most things about the area - I don't!! Well worth going along to the workshop, and getting ideas and tips on where to find more information to help your coaching and tutoring
Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)
I think this is a great read. Fantastic insight of how the workshop has supported this coach sustaining behaviour change. I would encourage and certainly love to read more examples of this kind relating to sustaining behaviour change to be able to share them with other deliverers. Something like a top 5 tips that have been applied. In keeping with EAST, articles that are Easy to read and Attractive in terms of drawing attention to the central take home messages that can be shared with others. I guess I am playing on the side of short term emotional response rather than a long term rational reading. Thanks for posting.
Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

Enjoyed the blog and especially how she gets connected with her participants. Is there any other evidence that backs up the theory Suzzi Garnett uses in her activities?

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

Have a look at EAST principles and MINDSPACE. (Easily google-able) They give lots of evidence and examples of different ways of applying behaviour change principles.

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)