Using Motivational Interviewing techniques as a coach to manage resistance and resolve conflict positively

Levi Nelson
3 min readMay 8, 2017

Motivational interviewing techniques such as using Open-ended questions, affirmations, reflective listening and summaries (OARS) allows the athlete to perceive they are making their own decisions, in control of their situation, inspires and builds self-esteem, lasting self-efficiency and intrinsic motivation to change (Woolsey & Portenga, n.d.). Rollnick et. al. (2008) urges coaches to RULE: “R- Resist the righting reflex- U- Understand the athletes motivation. L- Listen. E- Empower.

Instead of confronting athletes about their poor academics or lackluster work ethic begin productive conversations by first asking them questions such as, “Can we spend a few minutes talking about your attitude and effort?” When athletes are not ready and willing to change it is unproductive to force my ideas on them. Often by trying to fix the problems in the lives of the athletes under their supervision a coach will most likely end up reducing the likelihood of that change (Rosengren, 2009). The harder you push the more they’ll push back.

John Wooden said, “Listen if you want to be heard.” In the past when trying to resolve conflict I have been too quick to talk or offer suggestions. I actually learned this tactic while I was working in sales but failed to make the connection that it would be beneficial in my service to student athletes. People don’t like the sound of silence and by allowing the athletes to do the talking it will often result in the athletes themselves saying what the coach knows to be true. The difference is now it is coming from within and not from the coach. Motivational interviewing also teaches to summarize what the athlete has said showing that you were listening and most of the time results in a continued rational, explanation or information from the athlete.

Instead of giving athletes a lecture about the importance of off-season training a new tactic I will employ is asking them “on a scale of 1–10, where would you rank the importance of off season training?” Then, whatever answer they give, use an open ended question such as why did you say (the number they have) opposed (another number). This allows the athlete to elaborate on the their current state and hopefully results in a recognition for change. Open-ended questions like this are part of the ways to find out how willing an athlete is to change. Once the coach identifies that an athlete has a desire, ability, reasons and need (D.A.R.N.) to change only then should the coach provide ideas that will help the athlete make real change (Woolsey & Portenga, n.d.)

Coach Nelson serves as a high school football coach who is pursuing his doctorate in Sport and Performance Psychology. He has worked for division 1 athletic departments, professional sport franchises, a Fortune 100 company and has won numerous awards for his Leadership abilities.

His mission is to positively influence the world through Love, Effort, Attitude and Discipline (#LEAD). To learn more about the LEAD Philosophy follow him on Twitter

or reach out via email at He’d love to learn about or help you in your journey!


Rollnick, S., Miller, W. R., & Butler, C. (2008) Motivational interviewing in health care: Helping patients change behavior. New York: Guilford Press.

Rosengren, D. B. (2009). Building motivational interviewing skills: A practitioner workbook. New York, NY: Guilford Press

Wooden, J. R., & Jamison, S. (1997). Wooden: A lifetime of observations and reflections on and off the court. London, UK: McGraw-Hill ISBN-13: 978–0809230419

Woolsey, C. L, & Portenga. (n.d). The practical use of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and MI pinciples in coaching: How to positively motivate athletes to autonomously choose to improve [Power Point Slides]. Retrieved from



Levi Nelson

My mission is to positively influence the world through Love, Effort, Attitude and Discipline. #LEAD