Behavioral Coaching: Applied Behavior Analysis in Sports and Athletic Training

Applied Behavior Analysis is used in sports and athletic training to teach and reinforce skills used in training and competition. Behavioral coaching has been used in sports from football to gymnastics to swimming both to improve athlete training regimes, such as enforcing health diet and regular exercise programs, and to boost the performance of particular athletic skills, such as maintaining proper body form.

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In the world of competitive sports, coaches search for any edge that will give their team an advantage over their adversaries. Constant training and practice are designed to impart skills to athletes that will bring them to the top of their form when it’s time to compete.

The science of applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a natural fit for the rigors involved in maximizing the output and performance of athletes. For an applied behavior analyst, all actions, whether used in daily life or on the football field, are simply a set of behaviors, and, as such, can be taught and reinforced using the basic tenets of operant conditioning.

Behavioral Conditioning Meets Physical Conditioning to Produce Elite Athletes

The challenges of motivating and training athletes to achieve peak performance has always involved the use of behavioral cues, but historically, the process was ad hoc and informed more by a coach’s instinct and tradition than by the scientific approach outlined by applied behavior analysis. Repetition, of course, is an old coaching favorite, as anyone who has ever run lines or performed endless dribbling drills can attest. But simple repetition is only one element of a truly scientific, behavioral approach to skill training.

The first example of using applied behavioral analysis in sports coaching goes back to a 1977 study where several players on a Pop Warner football team, all between the ages of nine and ten, were coached on three frequently-run offensive plays using applied behavior analysis techniques. The plays were broken down into a five-stage process, and the players repeatedly and consistently drilled at each stage with matching reinforcers. By the end of the study, each player had improved from the baseline by approximately 20 percent.

The field was further boosted by a series of studies through the 1990s demonstrating that the use of ABA techniques in training was successfully carried over into execution on the football field with skills such as blocking and tackling. The studies examined common ABA strategies such as:

  • Positive reinforcement for proper movements
  • Consistent feedback and stimulus training
  • Public performance objectives
  • Chaining behavior sequences to train complex movements and plays

Today, ABAs work both with teams and individual athletes to apply operant conditioning techniques to teaching athletic skills. Some ABAs are employed as counselors or psychologists directly by sports franchises, while others work in private practice as consultants. They may work with athletes directly or help train coaches in effective conditioning techniques drawing on applied behavior analysis.

A technique called behavioral coaching has become popular in many different sports since the early 1980s. Behavioral coaching makes use of operant conditioning techniques to improve and speed-up a player’s skill acquisition. The method combines a series of techniques familiar to any ABA, but applied in the coaching context:

  • Systematic use of verbal instruction and feedback – Using the same words or phrases to describe movements, and consistently offering feedback on performance at the same stage in practice.
  • Positive and negative reinforcement – Providing immediate recognition for proper or improper technique as the movements are being made.
  • Positive practice – A repeated set of movements in the proper technique, made in controlled circumstances where improper movements cannot be made, to help imprint the correct technique.
  • Time out – The practice of removing players from practice or play when they exhibit incorrect behaviors, to avoid reinforcing those behaviors.

Evaluated across players on football, gymnastics, and tennis teams, behavioral coaching showed an average performance boost of between 45 and 50 percent in specifically measured skills.

Behavior analysis can be applied in a more traditional context with athletes as well, in helping them break problematic behaviors with respect to diet and exercise. Just as ABAs work to help curb food addictions or mental issues around aspects of health and exercise, they sometimes apply the same approaches to helping athletes hone their own diet and exercise regimes.

Behavioral Analysis in Sport Strategy Can Predict an Opponents Actions

It turns out that applied behavior analysis has another contribution to sports that exists quite apart from its value as a training system. Because ABA involves a systematic method of observation and involves making and testing predictions about behavior, it can be used to analyze the game plan of opponents to reveal behavioral biases that can then be exploited on the field.

A 2006 study of offensive play calling in collegiate and professional football revealed patterns that could be predicted as a function of field position and down, allowing defenders to anticipate the actions about to be taken by the offense and devise a winning response. Subsequent investigations into the same phenomena revealed that even more precise behavioral predictions were possible, right down to specific game situations.

Of course, a football team’s coaching staff closely guards their secrets about the latest techniques and investigations into play-calling predictions, but it seems that numerous advances have been made—both in making predictions, and in confounding them. Indications suggest that behavioral analysts may be behind these advances.

And in basketball, investigations into behavioral momentum—the tendency of behaviors to continue, unless intervening consequences alter them—yielded methods of strategically using time-outs to disrupt the success of opposing players.

Preparing for a Career in Applied Behavior Analysis in Sports and Athletic Training

Sports psychology is the most common route for applied behavior analysts to follow to start a career in athletic applied behavior analysis practice.

Sports psychologists typically start by earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology. They may move on to gain an advanced degree in psychology or sports medicine, either a master’s or doctoral degree. Sports psychologists who hope to practice applied behavior analysis will usually also obtain a certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.

Another route into practicing as an ABA in sports is to gain an advanced degree in psychology, education, or applied behavior analysis, together with a BCBA®. Applied behavior analysts working in sports medicine may be hired on to support the coaching staff of pro or collegiate teams.

The most common position for ABAs in athletic training is in private practice, however. Specialized clinics use ABAs who work in consultation with individual athletes or teams to design training programs on the basis of the principles of applied behavior analysis.

A specific certification in applied sports and exercise psychology is available from the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, the Certified Consultant (CC-AASP). The certificate is restricted to practitioners who have a master’s or doctoral degree in a related field, and how have undergone an additional 400 hours of mentored and applied experience.

Volunteering as a student assistant for your collegiate athletics program is an excellent way to gain exposure to sporting and athletic culture, and provides an opportunity to work with practicing sports psychologists.

Additional Resources for Information on ABA in Sports and Athletic Training

Association for Applied Sports Psychology – A multidisciplinary, professional organization for practitioners in the field of sports psychology; offers certification and resources for practitioners and publishes the Journal of Sport Psychology in Action.

Association for Behavior Analysis International – The ABAI has a Special Interest Group dedicated to the study and support of applied behavior analysis in sport, health, and fitness regimes.

Applied Behavior Analysis in Sports and Fitness Facebook Group – A Facebook group for anyone interested in ABA applications in sports or fitness.

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