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Changing an athlete’s behaviour: what can we learn from sport psychology?

February 26, 2017

Close Encounters of the Nutritional Kind

Number 4 – Changing an athlete’s behaviour: what can we learn from sport psychology?

If you had said to me a few years ago I would be writing a blog about behaviour change I would have said “behave yourself”. After all, I am a scientist (well a former rugby player trying my best to be a scientist) and we don’t get involved in that soft world of sport psychology. However, over the last few years working in professional sport I have quickly begun to realise that 90% of my job is exactly this. Yes, it is essential that we have the fundamental knowledge to underpin our advice (and lots of practitioners fail here as they have not gone through the necessary training) but the difference in my world between success and failure is often the ability to convince athletes to follow you on their diet change journey. And this is where many practitioners fail, for some reason they are unable to engage their client, fail to build the necessary relationships and therefore no matter how good the advice is, in reality there is little change.

I am by no means an expert in behaviour change and to an extent I’m very uncomfortable writing this. I have however been very fortunate to work alongside some excellent sport psychologists, such as Bill Beswick (formally RFU), Jeremy Snape (current RFU), Mark Nesti (LJMU) and Martin Littlewood (Everton FC and LJMU). In fact, I have recently become so convinced that this is crucial to sport nutrition consultancy that I invited Jeremy to give a guest lecture on our MSc program specifically on behaviour change. I am even thinking that in the future I may need to include an entire module on behaviour change in the sport nutrition MSc.

The purpose of this blog is to share some insights I have gained from the likes of Jeremy and Bill, put my sport nutrition angle on it and give some practical examples from my work in professional sport. This blog does not intend to be a blueprint to guarantee behaviour change with your athletes but perhaps give some ‘food for thought’ and some ideas where you could improve your practice.

There are 4 things that I have learned to appreciate that are really important when it comes to behaviour change:

  1. Do your athletes TRUST you?
  2. Do you understand the primary drivers of stress?
  3. Can you influence the triangle of behaviour change (Sir David Brailsford’s model not mine!)
  4. Can you break the cycle?

Do your athletes trust you? If not, have you asked yourself why not?

I was once having an informal conversation with Bill Beswick (I had many of these when we worked together as I really enjoyed learning from Bill) when he said to me something along the lines that “you do well as a nutritionist as you score highly on trust”. At first I was flattered that someone as respected as Bill had said this to me but then I was intrigued by what Bill had meant by trust? Bill went on to explain that he uses a model to score people on trust adapted from a book entitled ‘The Trusted Advisor’ by David Maister, Robert Galford and Charles Green. This model can be seen below (I now use this in the opening lecturer of the MSc degree to help teach my lot about trust).

Above, schematic representation of the model Bill discussed with me about trust.

In this model, there are 3 drivers at the top (all scored out of 10) and one big trust killer at the bottom (again scores out of ten). You divide the top score by the bottom and you have your trust rating.

At the top, you will see “Credibility”. Some sport psychologists have told me this is perhaps the least important but as an academic practitioner I genuinely believe it is the most important. We must have the right qualifications, I believe we must be SENr accredited and where possible have some experience in that sport. If we do not have experience in the sport it is crucial that we make up for this by doing our homework. I recently heard that one of my team (who I rate highly) was not used to the world of football and addressed the manager as he would a rugby manager. In rugby, it would not be unusual to call a manager by their first name or even “mate” but this does not work in football and resulted in an awkward conversation. More homework on the sport you are working in could easily have prevented this. The good news on this driver is that this is 100% controllable by you. Go and make yourself credible.

The second part of the 3 drivers is “reliability” and the great news again is that this is 100% in your control. I have heard of nutritionists who promise the world but deliver very little. If we say we will get a plan to someone by the end of the week make sure we have it done by mid-week. Set realistic expectations, under promise and over deliver. It does not take a lot to be seen as unreliable and once you are seen as unreliable it is very hard to change this perception.

The 3rd driver Bill terms “intimacy”. These are the soft skills which are hard to teach. How well do you listen, do players warm to you, can you sense the mood? Sometimes players will simply not be in the mood for a conversation and it is your job to sense this and act accordingly. I think this one comes with experience so get out there and work with athletes to develop your intimacy skills.

BUT by far the biggest factor in developing trust is what can be seen in red in the schematic. “Self-interest”. We have to remember that when we work with athletes we are in a privileged position and we are there to support their needs and dreams. James Morton once said to me about someone “they want to wear the tracksuit but not run the laps”. I love this phrase. If you are in this game for self-reward pick another profession. We have to be in the background and once an athlete suspects you are more interested in getting a selfie for your twitter feed than helping them the trust has gone. I appreciate this can be difficult as many practitioners are also trying to grow a business but the best way to do this is to stay in the background and let others tell the world who you work with and how good you are. Twitter has done may great things but just because you get lots of followers and a fancy website does not make you an expert.

Basically, we have to create an environment so deep in trust that your athletes look forward to talking with you, and know that you are there to make them better. Often you may need to have 100 conversations before you have the real one that is going to result in an action. How well do you know your athlete? Do you open your conversation by asking “how are you, how are the kids” or do you start with “your body fat is too high”? Why would an athlete open up and trust someone they don’t know? Work on these soft skills they are crucial.

I once worked with a rugby league team where the coach did not get why I spent so much time simply speaking with the players. I’m sure he thought he was paying me to drink tea and chat to my friends. This is because his former nutritionist worked more formally than me and based most sessions around taking skinfold measures. Upon reflection, I should have discussed my preferred method with the coach explaining how important these informal conversations are in sport nutrition. I needed to develop trust before I could practice, however this can be a hard concept for some coaches to get their head around.

Do you understand the 3 primary drivers of stress? Changing diet hits all 3!!!

In his lecture to my MSc group this year Jeremy Snape stated that there are 3 main drivers of stress. These being:

  • Novelty
  • Uncertainty
  • Uncontrollability

This really hit home with me and has had a massive impact on my practice. Think about it. Whenever we change a diet we are in danger of hitting all 3 of these stress drivers without even trying! Jeremy also explained that the brain is built for safety, very much like the fight or flight response us physiologists are used to talking about. The brain sees change as trouble so its natural reaction is to protect itself – and the brains way of protecting itself often results in a narrow focus that is hard to see beyond. Once we have got our athletes in this state we are fighting an uphill battle. We also need to remember that the brain finds it hard to differentiate between an action and a thought and therefore if your athlete THINKS they cannot make that change this will impair the ACTION pathway and change becomes unlikely. We therefore need to do whatever we can to minimise these 3 drivers of stress.

Let’s think about this example. “Hello jockey X, I’d like you to try this NEW DIET (introduced novelty). I know you have eaten your way all your life and have made weight but it’s not healthy so try my way please and trust me you will make weight better (introduced uncertainty). In fact, let me write you a diet plan for you to follow (and now we have taken away their control)”.

I think as sport nutritionists we must always keep these 3 drivers of stress in mind when speaking to athletes. We need to think how we can reduce the novelty, minimise the uncertainty and give them some control. I certainly do not have all the answers to this and I suggest you develop your own ways to do it. Personally, to minimise novelty I tweak diets rather than ‘root and branch’ reform them, even if the diets are terrible. Small steps often help. To minimise uncertainty in some situations I use fellow athletes to help me. Getting a current jockey to explain how to make weight better is far better than I could do it as this takes away uncertainty that it may not work. As for control, I attended a session once organised by Ruth Wood-Martin (a brilliant dietician who works for the IRFU) on motivational interviewing. If you have not done this look into it. This involves trying to help your athletes to make their own decisions better – essentially, they are now in control. Simple questions like “what would you like to achieve, how can I help you, have you thought about trying etc” rather than telling someone what to do can be far more effective.

Can you influence the triangle of behaviour change? If you can’t, can your boss?

I listened to a great interview with Sir David Brailsford on the triangle of change which I believe came from Steve Peters, another world class sport psychologist. In this interview, he describes 3 things that are needed to result in change.

  1. You have to be suffering enough or the reward has to be great enough to engage with change and if one of these are not in place change is unlikely. This made me think about a lot of my friends (and I will keep this gender neutral). So many of them lost weight for their wedding day but now cannot do it. Why is that? Well the reward of looking great on their wedding day (or suffering of not looking how they wanted to) was great enough but now there is no reward to drive them. In professional sport, sometimes the suffering/reward can be put in place by a coach (you are not being picked if…) but other times we have to work hard at creating the reward. Displaying team’s body comp data publically can be the suffering although this has to be done carefully and following consultation with the entire support team. I 100% believe that this is central to behaviour change and often in professional sport I have had little success at driving a change when the athletes cannot see any suffering or reward. Sometimes an athlete does not see the need to make the change and that can be the most challenging of all situations.
  2. You have to be psychologically minded. If you don’t think you can change, you won’t. This comes back to the TRUST issue earlier. You can help the athlete believe they can make the change. Think about the uncertainty from the previous section. How can you help your athlete believe that change is possible?
  3. Without a commitment to change we will get nowhere.

Understanding this triangle of behaviour change can help you to frame conversations and hopefully drive behaviour change more than you would otherwise. You can watch this short 3-minute talk from Sir David by clicking on this hyperlink.

Can you break the cycle?

When it comes to behaviour change we are ultimately trying to take someone from their current practice towards their ideal but in doing this we often have to break a cycle. I was recently thinking about this in some detail. Often with “bigger” athletes I am asked to help reduce body fat. This got me wondering is the very reason that they are playing their sport because as a young child they over ate and put weight on (think of the big American Football players)? Often, they may find themselves in that sport as they are biggest and strongest (and heaviest kids) and have found a sport where being big is an advantage – you could even say they have found their place in life where not only are they accepted for being heavy but actually really valued. Suddenly we get them at professional level and now ask them to change how they have eaten their entire life. No wonder this is hard.

Above – Simple schematic on breaking the cycle.

The schematic above summarises this cycle and is borrowed again from Jeremy Snape’s   

lecture to my group this year. To break the cycle and move from current to ideal it is crucial that there are aspirations, there are strategies put in place and above all there is honesty. Sometimes an athlete in need of diet advice will recite a perfect diet back to me when in reality there is no way they are eating that way. This could be because I have not earned their trust yet, or because they do not have the psychological mind-set to make the change. Either way, at that point they are not ready for change and you may need 99 more conversations before you make the break through.

On the opposite side of the cycle is justification (e.g. I play better when I am over weight), lies and denial (e.g. all I eat is salad, it must be metabolism!).  It is our job to use all of the tools described earlier to get people on the left-hand side of this diagram and begin to break the cycle.

I personally like to equip my athletes with a ‘When’ and ‘Will’ mind-set. Often bad choices come from being unprepared. If an athletes weak spot is going to their favourite coffee shop after training having a milky coffee (or a latte to non-Wiganers) and a muffin then work with them to pre-plan a better option. Help them to develop their own ‘When and Will list’. When I go to X, I will do Y. Being prepared can be a huge support for them.

Above – develop a When and Will list to help avoid rushed decisions.

Finally, we MUST remember that research suggests that a winning mind-set usually thinks in little steps. As practitioners, we must therefore look for small wins and reward this with praise. One day, one meal, even one better choice is a great start which you should praise and encourage. As we often hear, you may not think you can climb a mountain but you can certainly take one step up it and let it grow from there. You cannot win a gold medal today but you can certainly start that journey towards winning it today. I really like the quote from Jacob Ris about the stone cutter which states that when pounding a rock, it is not the final hit that did the damage but the many hits that came before it. This is so true with diet.

Above – my favourite quote about perseverance. This is so true when it comes to nutrition

At Everton Football Club we came up with the motto Every Feed Counts to encourage our younger players to make each decision the correct one when it comes to getting better. Because every feed has the chance to make you better or worse and only you can decide which route to go down.


Above – our nutritional moto at Everton FC Academy that every feed counts. It is great that Everton take nutrition seriously and we even have a website dedicated to getting this message across to the parents of the younger players. It’s certainly worth checking out.

OK, much longer than I intended but I actually really enjoyed giving this some thought. I really hope some of this is useful for you. As I opened with, I am by no means an expert so would welcome your thoughts and comments. I will continue to work on my own ability to implement behaviour change and embrace the fascinating world of sport psychology.

Until the next Close Encounter of the Nutritional Kind

Take care,







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