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Bringing IFS to sports coaching

When I first heard Rich, my summer rowing coach, yell loudly from his motor launch, “John! relax! relax! – drop your shoulders – hang on your oars!”  My pulse rate and muscle tension increased. I also lost awareness of my body. My progress through the water became inconsistent. In a race the next day, my endurance suffered from the effects of feeling ill at ease.

There is, as always, an inside story.

Through an IFS lens, we can imagine that younger Parts of me were triggered by the rowing coach’s tone and commands that day. Yes, I needed to relax and learn some new motions from his expertise, but younger Parts who worry about displeasing, are critical of me, are afraid of feeling shame, and who want to be liked, heard the way he spoke and became anxious. Such an internal reaction, which can block subsequent performance, as it did for me, is not the case for all athletes. But it is a common outcome of coaching instructions in sport.

Learning from other domains for sport

As an IFS therapist I understand why my race suffered. But all too often when people are coaching or being coached – in whatever domain – they do not have the advantage of knowing how the mind-body connection impacts performance. I wish Rich and I could have had some IFS informed interactions about his coaching style before my Parts were triggered and my race performance suffered. I became an IFS-informed consultant to rowing programs and nurse health coach projects.

I now outline a continuing education and research project that emerged that can be considered relevant to sports. If such a project were already conducted in sports it could have been used to support Rich’s early training as an athletic coach. So far there appears to be no evidence-based research yet on multiplicity of mind in sports. Thus, our best first approach – until such research does occur – is to consider our nurse health coaching project. It informs what research of this kind for sports might look like.

The nurse health coaching enhancement project

Joanne Gaffney RN, LICSW and I (traditional psychotherapists later well-trained in IFS) became consultants to a nurse health coaching company employing two thousand health coaches. We were asked to enhance their health coaching and patient outcomes.

Knowing that what people think and say they have done is not necessarily what has happened, we audio-recorded coaching calls and training sessions during the design and research phases of the project. The analysis we made of these recordings through an IFS lens revealed behaviors of experienced well-intentioned nurses that were problematic. For example:

  • Listening and mirroring back what patients said were sparse.
  • Untimely directives and explanations were common.
  • There was little checking with the patient as to whether the coach was hearing them accurately or whether they heard accurately what the coach had said.
  • Common observations were subtle shaming of patients or looking up information on their computer while the patient was talking.
  • There was no help finding words for emotions.
  • Empathic-sounding words and superficial reassurances were prevalent.

Patients and coaching behaviors were driven by protectors or vulnerable Parts. Without being able at least to cognitively grasp that their thoughts, feelings, and actions were coming only from a Part of them, not ALL of them, problems were arising.

Much of the well-intentioned coaching was “telling”:  telling evidence-based health information, and advising behavior changes and decision choices. Relational connection, curiosity and compassion were rare.

Following this analysis and our observations we tested a new Parts-informed training program for coaches and an enhanced set of coaching strategies and methods. Coach re-training was assessed by audio recordings. Patient outcomes were compared between two large random groups – patients coached as usual compared with those coached by nurses with enhanced training. Two methods to check patient outcomes were used: the evidence-based Patient Activation Measure (PAM) and tracking adherence to medical recommendations. Changes in experience of the coaches were assessed by interviewing.

What did we do?

Using audio recordings we trained the nurses in small groups with role play to attend to their internal state and to hold some Self-energy by verbalizing and breathing into common vulnerabilities that arose during their sessions. We fostered modest (at least cognitive) separation from their most intense protectors triggered in their job. Without intense cognitive “teaching,” we periodically introduced the sense of different personality Parts and a core Self and the respective roles of these. We trained the coaches to notice their own confused and concerned Parts that block their “quiet listening” to patients, and move towards acknowledging whatever might be said without trying to solve something. We shared evidence that new health information was best assimilated across a relationship bridge of witnessing emotions and concerns.

The knowledge that psychic multiplicity is the norm and people have within themselves an ability to witness their concerned Parts was particularly relieving.

The nurse coaches were trained to start by inviting the patient to share anything and to quietly listen with some mirroring back and “I hear you” (no typing or looking-up on computer). The coach was asked to hold the intention to tolerate the sharing without interrupting and to sense that whatever was being said was coming from different “Parts” of the patient. This was to help the coach to listen without trying to solve anything, including decision conflicts. As connected listening fosters increased verbalization of thoughts and feelings, we offered to interview Parts directly, as needed. Coaches were asked to help patients find words and body sensations for emotions as different from thoughts, and to use the patient’s language thereafter. Coaches were to inquire as to what he or she could say that might help – including adding information. With curiosity, the coach was shown to periodically check if the patient sensed whether their ideas and emotions were held by a Part of them – not ALL of them. The coach was helped to differentiate inner and outer sources of criticism,  to keep inquiring if the patient was ready to hear new information, and to ask how new information was landing, as well as discussing goals on which to follow-up.

The result

As a result of these protocols desired changes were recorded in coaching behaviors. Needing special attention were instances when coaches used “Parts” language as a cognitive manager. All nurse coaches thought that their careers were refreshed. The experimental group of patients showed improvement in PAM scores and increased adherence to medical recommendations. Company executives asked us to train “trainers” who would roll out “enhanced health coaching” nationwide.

We published this in a textbook form in 2016: Relationship Power in Health Care. The book links to video demos of brief health coaching sessions.

Applications of nurse health coaching to sports

Because of my background at that time in the multiplicity paradigm and health coaching, I was able eventually to help Rich, my rowing coach, alter his coaching with me and became a consultant to rowing programs in Vermont and Boston.

For example, Rich did not know that athletes are less triggered by coaches who first listen to an athlete’s concerns and prompt their self-awareness. An example is that Rich could have suggested that I “check the degree of tension” in my shoulders, rather than telling me to “drop the tension!”

He also was unaware that coaches who learn to be aware of and tolerate their own vulnerable emotions (coming from present and past) are less likely to let their protector Parts take over and spoil coaching effectiveness. Rich discovered that Parts of him were over-concerned about my doing well, about his failing as a coach and loss of income. He began to shift his coaching.

Here is how an improved version of his coaching sounded: “John, would you hold up for a moment. I am seeing a lot that works well. I am also observing tension in your shoulders and hands. See if you notice that. See if some Part of you feels concerned and is trying too hard. See if noticing that relaxes things. I’m open to any feedback.”

IFS in sports

In general, coaches from all areas of sports have little opportunity to acquire updated mind-body-relationship psychology skills to work with athletes and themselves. Their own “protector Parts” instruct and shame and inadvertently block performance.

Introducing IFS to sports coaching can likely help sports performance if we consider the effect on nurse health coaches and how we improved certain outcomes for patients in our project just mentioned above.

Whilst there is currently no formalized (research based) IFS practice in sports coaching, there has been a recent shift in athletic coaching from a focus solely on biomechanics to one including the mind and relationships with coaches. This opens the door for introducing IFS to sports.

Many writings I reviewed, however, about efforts to improve sports coaching and performance are stuck in outdated unintegrated monistic paradigms from cognitive-behavioral psychology, physiology, biomechanics, and meditation.

In Mind Over Water, Craig Lambert, writer for Sports Illustrated, although unfamiliar with IFS, clarified in 1998 why adapting for sports a mind-based paradigm (such as IFS) makes sense. He said,

the learning curve of decades of work in exercise physiology, sports biomechanics, and nutrition have gone asymptotic; further improvements are likely to be marginal. The effect of the mind on sports performance is the frontier of coaching.

Books from 1985-2021 by Hemery (Sporting Excellence), Halberstam (The Amateurs), Brick (The Genius of Athletes), Whitmore (Strategies of GROW), and Tim Gallwey’s (Inner Game of…series) each mention different approaches which are all touching the IFS paradigm in some way, but none of these approaches are so far evidence-based. Gallwey moved beyond traditional monolithic concepts to “Two Selves” –  one who “governs the part of our brain that is chastising ourselves for mistakes and praising us for successes” and another “who relies on base instincts to do everything from continuing to breathe to hitting a tennis ball.” People were not put off by his notion of two Selves.

Despite some work that moves towards the practices of multiplicity most past writings embrace a monolithic paradigm of mind and are telling athletes what they “should do.” All lack internal mental processes to implement the suggestions made. Instructions such as: “Control your fears and your choices”; “Trust and allow your body and subconscious mind to function as an integrated whole,”; “The only way is to think of one stroke at a time, that and nothing more”; “Keep your head and shoulders still and move your pelvis.” But, how to accomplish these directives is always missing.

Are there universal mind-body strategies feasible for coaches and athletes? I believe, both as a lifelong athlete and an IFS therapist and health coach, that IFS has a lot to offer sport coaches and athletes alike.

Sports coaching and the need for formal research – some thoughts

The challenge for us in IFS is to evolve a training and research model for sports that maintains the integrity of IFS, while adapting strategies and methods which are feasible in the reality of different sports.

The specific strategies and methods of IFS psychotherapy which foster conscious internal relationships with protective and vulnerable personality Parts and facilitate unburdening do not seem feasible in sports coaching. This is because within the context of busy, noisy, athletic brief-encounters without a therapeutic contract, it is not feasible for an IFS-trained sports psychology consultant to facilitate athletic coaches to Self-witness their own burdened younger Parts. As far as athletes being able to unburden, there is little feasibility for training athletic coaches to be IFS therapists. To make “unburdening” a goal in an athletic context runs the high risk of activating manager Parts and other reactions. The environment is not therapeutically safe for unburdening practices.

Although each sport requires different body mechanics, all are enhanced by tapping into the body’s natural wisdom and flow. My hypothesis is that performance in any sport will be enhanced by promoting whatever degree of unblending of personality Parts is possible within both the athlete and the coach. Although some unblending is especially needed from those Parts carrying shame, criticism, pressure, fear, being able in awareness to recruit those Parts carrying athletic abilities is also essential.

When I have coached adults and youths in rowing, partial unblending did occur, and performance improved. Reliable measures of sports performance are needed. I found that coaches can be trained in direct access methods. This is all well and good but an evidence-based research study will tell us more than testimonials.

A universal mind-body goal for sports might be “to apply power efficiently,” otherwise known as “flow.” Flow is a well-known goal in sports (following Csikszentmihalyi’s work) and seems to result from strong connection to body with aware recruitment and integration of abilities. An IFS-informed approach opens the door to the best that the mind and body have to offer. But, how? We need research to tell us in IFS what we need to know to apply the IFS paradigm to sports.

About doing research to discover feasible applications to elite and recreational sports, I suggest working from bottom-up by recording both athlete performances and direct access interviews of coaches from several sports, including youth and recreational. Then, training the coaches (usually former athletes) to witness the thinking, emotions, and body sensations of the “Parts” of athletes. Then, documenting any changes in coaching behaviors and athlete performance.

Over 90% of U.S. adults and youth (over 250 million people) are involved with some sport. Globally the number is huge. It seems wise and feasible to bring people involved in sports the benefits of the IFS paradigm. Such applications are certainly for Olympic level striving, but also for the benefit of those who want to improve and grow. With the IFS paradigm, there is more room for shameless learning, body wisdom, comradery, and fun for its own sake.

IFS can enhance sports as a pathway for connecting cultures, as can music. But we need research to help us understand the routes.


Acknowledgement: Ann-Katrin Bockmann, PhD, an IFS-trained psychologist at University of Hildesheim, Germany, provided significant help with the organization of this article.

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Author´s Bio


  • John Livingstone

    John Livingstone is a Level 2 IFS therapist, Child and Adult Psychiatrist, Health Coach, member of the Harvard Medical School Academy of Medical Education, and a founding member (2013) of the IFS Research Program.

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