AIS banner

Helping coaches and athletes manage change

Michelle Austin

Losing a key player to injury, budget cuts to elite or local sport, gaining or losing an assistant coach, unexpectedly ending a long losing or winning streak, taking over from another coach, rule changes to your sport, coaching boys after a long history of coaching girls, moving to a new clubhouse, making the step up to coach a much higher level, retiring from coaching… the list of possible changes that coaches and athletes face are endless.  These changes are inevitable and are happening constantly around us.  Learning to be a change champion, rather than a change coward, can help you to not only manage yourself in times of change, but also help you to support your athletes. 

We live in constantly changing times, where the only we can be certain of is that things are not likely to remain the same for very long!  Changes can be run-of-the-mill, such as fixture changes; or they can be momentous, such as losing a key player to injury, or having your budget for the coming season halved.  Planned changes (such as taking over from another coach and teaching your new athletes different ways to perform the same skills) are usually much easier to manage than unexpected or uncontrollable changes (such as one of your key players receiving a suspension). Whether the changes are big or small, planned or unexpected, the more adept you are at coping with them, the easier the changes will be for both you and your athletes.

Why do people resist change?

  • Comfort in old habits
  • Feel powerless
  • Resist interference
  • Feel threatened/fearful
  • Worn out from constant change
  • Cynical from past experience
  • Feel uncertain

Effects of change

Athletes and coaches alike will feel similar effects from change.  These may include:

  • disbelief - 'I can’t believe this is happening to me/us'
  • denial - Refusing to accept that major changes have to be made on the field when key players are injured
  • resistance - refusing to work with a new assistant coach or manager
  • avoidance - avoiding teaching players how to incorporate unwelcome rule changes into their game
  • stress - evidenced by reduced effectiveness, increased emotionality, decreased objectivity, reduced enjoyment of the game
  • negativity - unable to see/discounting any positives about the change, even though there may be obvious benefits.

Coaches have an added burden in that not only do you have to mange your own reactions to change, you will also have to manage your athletes responses too.

Phases of change

  1. Disbelief/denial/resistance.
  2. Exploration.
  3. Acceptance/get on with it.
  4. Facilitate understanding/progression.
  5. Utilise the new approach.
  6. Learn from the experience/reflect on what's happened.

Accepting Change

People come to accept change when they can understand the reasons behind it, when they can see personal or group gain from the change, or when they see the change as necessary or useful. Coaches may find it easier to accept change than their athletes as the higher up you sit in an organisation, generally the faster you will move through the change process.  The closer you are to the change, the more control you have over it, and you can see the finish line before some people have even started the race.

Overcoming resistance to change

  • Communication - provide open and honest information whenever you can (including when you don’t know something – always say so).
  • Leadership - provide solid leadership and direction.
  • Involvement - involve everyone as much as possible, and especially involve the resisters to build ownership.
  • Support - provide extra training, reassurance etc as needed.
  • Negotiation and compromise - aim for win/win outcomes.
  • Coercion - as a last resort you may need to force compliance (especially with rule changes).

Getting commitment to change

  • Before the change actually occurs, go through 'what if' scenarios with your athletes, think through possible reactions/ramifications etc.
  • Meet people's needs (for example, extra training, resources, information and reassurance).
  • Be able to see their perspective.
  • Education.
  • Help them to identify any benefits (either personal, or for the larger organisation).
  • Empower people – give them the tools to manage the change.

Helping your athletes manage change

Acknowledge and validate people’s issues and concerns
Where possible allow athletes/support staff to have input into managing/implementing the change so they feel they have some control/power over how the change affects them
Respond and reply/act on concerns
Be open, clear and honest throughout the process
Clearly identify what are the major issues and who they affect and seek to address them

Managing yourself managing change

In times of change it is important to listen to yourself, to provide for your own needs and gather support.  Also record your ideas and thoughts – you never know what might be useful later.  Be sure to focus on a few actions at a time – don’t overwhelm yourself trying to change everything at once.  Give yourself time – it takes just as long to cement a new habit as it does to break an old one.  Changes can’t be implemented overnight.  Set short and long term goals to keep a clear picture of where you are headed and how you are going to get there.

Enhancing your experiences of change

  • Know what lies ahead and plan for it
  • Acknowledge the emotional impact
  • Identify and work through fears/obstacles
  • Look for opportunities and gains
  • Keep your focus on solutions
  • Express your feelings about the situation openly and honestly
  • Set aside time for personal reflection
  • Give the situation time (reserve judgement)
  • Look for the positives
  • Talk to people for support, ideas and information
  • Focus on the future, not the past
  • Separate the personal from the professional
  • Acknowledge the value of the past
  • Gather as much information as you can about the change
  • Create daily goals or structure to keep you focused on achievements
  • Exert control over your situation by identifying and focusing on what you can control
  • Make a personal commitment to get involved and actively deal with the change
  • Capitalise on, or create opportunities to get involved or provide feedback
  • Celebrate your progress and achievements
  • Change is natural
  • Change is constant
  • Change is necessary
  • Change is a catalyst
  • Change is unpredictable


Practical coping strategies


  • Maintain a good diet
  • Get some exercise
  • Drink lots of water
  • Sleep well


  • Positive thinking
  • Clear communication
  • Be assertive


  • Talk with family/friends
  • Focus on your interests & strengths
  • Personal reflection/relaxation

Source: Sports Coach Volume 29 Number 2

Follow us

follow us on facebook follow us on youtube follow us on twitter follow us on instagram

Did you know?

Australia's most successful Olympic event is the Men's 1500m Freestyle.

Quick numbers

233 thousand people have so far completed the ASC online coaching course.
35 thousand kilometres were swum by Petria Thomas while at the AIS.
38 thousand people have so far completed the ASC online officiating course.
0.5 million people visit the AIS each year.