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  • Madison Granger

Adding Motivational Interviewing to Your Coaching Toolbox

As a coach, you’ve probably found yourself trying to help motivate an athlete who is experiencing ambivalence, or conflicting attitudes and emotions related to an endeavor. Maybe you observe it at practice with an athlete who feels unsure of whether they can execute a new skill. Maybe it’s in a pre-season meeting with an athlete who expresses both excitement and skepticism about a goal they’d like to pursue. Ambivalence can be a significant obstacle to maintaining consistent motivation. When coaches are able to help their athletes navigate ambivalence, they empower them to perform better and have more positive experiences in sport. An excellent tool for this is motivational interviewing.


Motivational interviewing (MI) is a conversation technique aimed to help another deepen their intrinsic motivation and commit to actions that will benefit their health and happiness. Originally developed as a tool for mental health professionals, MI was created by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick as they searched for a better way to help patients rise above addiction and other struggles. MI identifies key aspects of how to engage with clients to help them “talk themselves into change,” a central component of which is moving past ambivalence.


MI has been adopted in a variety of settings from criminal justice to medicine to sports. It applies to any industry that shares the common difficulty of motivating others to commit to beneficial but difficult endeavors. Central to MI is that the interviewer should avoid giving advice to their counterpart; instead they focus on working with their counterpart, using effective tools and questioning, to assist them in articulating why and how they would like to commit to a behavior change endeavor. Knowing that lasting motivation can only come from within, the interviewer (whether a doctor, teacher, or coach) aims to help their counterpart tap into and grow the motivation they already have within themselves.

To illustrate MI, we’ll use the example of a coach, Jolanda, trying to encourage one of her athletes, Derek, to go easier on his rest days because he is showing signs of overtraining and burnout. When discussing this, Derek initially expressed understanding and agreement that he could benefit from this change, but then shared concerns that lowering the intensity of his training in any way could jeopardize his performance goals.

MI identifies four main tools to use in a situation like this, to most effectively support an athlete like Derek in coming to a self-determined decision on how to proceed and committing to carrying that decision out. The tools make up the acronym OARS. Below we briefly describe each of them and offer examples for how Jolanda might use them with Derek.


(O) Open-ended questions – to encourage the counterpart to explore their inner-workings and to do more talking than the interviewer

“How do you feel on your off days, emotionally as well as physically?”

(A) Affirmations – to bolster the kind of self-image that is consistent with the desired behavior(s) and will help the counterpart move towards committing to them (a type of reflection, see below)

“I can tell it’s important for you to be in tune with your body and give it what it is telling you it needs.”

(R) Reflections – to demonstrate understanding and draw attention to key points, while keeping insertions into the conversation short to encourage the counterpart to do more of the talking

“You feel anxious at the end of the day if you haven’t worked out” (after Derek has expressed something similar to this)

(S) Summaries – to synthesize key takeaways and next steps at the end of the conversation

“You know that you have my full support and encouragement to take your off days completely off and you’ve identified that if you continue to have anxious feelings around this it might help to discuss them with [the psychologist or other supporter or resource he has access to].”

This article by no means covers Motivational Interviewing in its so we encourage you to seek out additional resources and even consider enrolling in a course to get the most that you can out of this tool. Here is just one online opportunity to get more exposure to Motivational Interviewing. You can also see this video for more discussion on the use of OARS within MI.


by Madison Granger

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