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UK Coaching Participation Team

Psychology Essentials

Outlines some basic psychology essentials to help coaches understand the importance of psychology to sport, performance and being active

Understanding basic psychology essentials helps coaches to be better tuned in to people’s behaviours and feelings. Common themes to understand include motivation, confidence, anxiety and mindset. Being better able to coach people understanding these basics means that coaches are able to provide meaningful and inspiring experiences.  

The UK Coaching Psychology in Coaching information notes below are designed to help you think about your own coaching practice as well as providing some tips and suggestions for specific areas of psychology: motivation, confidence, anxiety and mindset.

What is motivation?

Motivation can be described as the reason for our behaviour. There is always a reason why people do everything. Goals are sometimes stated as motivations.

Here are two examples to show the difference:

  • Goal: A person’s objective, ambition, aim or desire result (eg to run a marathon).
  • Motivation: A reason for acting or behaving in a particular way; a stimulus or inspiration (eg to be fitter, more active, or to feel good).

Why does it affect people taking part?

Each person will have a different motivation for taking part in your session. Meeting the needs of these differing motivations will help to keep people engaged in sport and physical activity. Motivations can, however, change over time.

What can coaches do? 

  • Understand each person’s motivation for coming to your session.
  • Plan sessions to meet these motivations.
  • Reflect these motivations back to individuals when giving feedback. 

What is confidence?

Confidence is having belief in yourself and that you can do things.

Why does it affect people taking part?

Low confidence can mean that people in your session are unwilling to try new things and engage in your session. Achieving success helps people build their confidence. This includes small steps of success and improvement, not just the achievement of big goals.

What can coaches do?

  • Understand that confidence is not linear and can increase and decrease between people attending your sessions due to external factors.
  • Recognise small steps in progress, especially those linked to people’s motivations and goals.
  • Finish sessions when confidence is on the ‘up’. This means not including something too difficult or unattainable at the end of a session.
  • Praise positively and specifically.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a set of physical and mental reactions to stress, resulting in negative emotions and feelings. These are often identified through unease, concern, nerves or worries.

Why does it affect people taking part?

Some people are generally anxious in daily life. Other people just get anxious about certain situations. It is likely that there will always be someone who is anxious for part of your session. Some people will be anxious about other people in the session watching them take part due to a fear of failing, or a fear of embarrassing themselves in front of these people.

What can coaches do?

  • Observe and look out for people being anxious. You can notice this through their body language and what they are saying.
  • If you see that someone in your session is anxious, try and see if you can change the situation they are in to reduce their anxiety. You could also talk with them quietly and find out what is bothering them. Discretion is key here as you don’t want to add to this person’s stress by broadcasting their worries to the whole session.
  • Have empathy with people who are anxious and let them know that you understand and that you are available to help them.
  • Ensure that progressions in learning are achievable and related to that person’s goals and motivations.

What is mindset?

Mindset can be described as the mental attitude people have about themselves, their intelligence and their abilities.

Why does it affect people taking part?

An individual’s mindset will affect how they engage and respond to activities in a session. Some people may embrace a challenge, whereas others may run away from it.

What can coaches do?

  • Understand that not all people in your session will have a positive mindset.
  • Observe and identify where people seem to feel most challenged in a session.
  • Take time to show the process of learning in any demonstration. This indicates that learning new things can take time, effort and that mistakes will be made.
  • Making mistakes is normal and helps people to learn.
  • Provide positive feedback to people in your session who try new things and move out of their comfort zone, even if this is only by a little bit.
  • Talk to people about their thoughts and feelings about their progress.

Research from UK Coaching (formerly sports coach UK) looked at the The Role of Psychological Factors in Recreational Sports Participants. Key messages for coaches coming from the research include:

  • Coaches require skills that reflect inter-personal (relationship) qualities and communication skills such as being trustworthy and respectful as well as listening and understanding.
  • Coaches require competence in the sports they coach. They need a sound appreciation of the basic principles of their sport (technical, tactical, physiological, bio-mechanical) as well as capable of providing a well-structured training session that incorporates challenge, variation and continuous feedback.
  • Goal setting emerged as an important aspect of recreational sport participation. Participants anticipate and prefer coaches to be aware of their intentions or goals and plan their training and development accordingly. Coaches must be aware of the importance of goal setting in recreational sport and use it effectively as part of their coaching programme.

Why some people find exercise harder than others

A common motivation for people getting active is to look better, be healthier and maybe lose some weight. This TEDtalk has some fascinating insight into why some people struggle more than others to keep off the pounds? Social psychologist Emily Balcetis shows research that addresses one of the many factors: Vision.

In an informative talk, she shows how when it comes to fitness, some people quite literally see the world differently from others -- and offers a surprisingly simple solution.

The power of believing you can improve

This popular TEDTalk,  by Carol Dweck is a  great watch. Easily applied into a recreational coaching setting and not just for elite performers.

Related Content

  • Understanding Motivations

  • Behaviour Change Strategies

  • Understanding Behaviour Change


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UK Coaching Participation Team