What Drives Behaviour Change – Applying Behaviour Change Theories in Sport

Behaviour refers to the way we act or ‘behave’ in any given situation or to any given stimulus. Behaviour change interventions can be defined as coordinated sets of activities designed to change specified behaviour patterns. In general, these behaviour patterns are measured in terms of the prevalence or incidence of particular behaviours in specified populations.

Some of the best know behaviour change theories include Social Cognitive Theory, the Transtheoretical (stages of change) Model, Theory of Reasoned Action, Self – Determination Theory and the COM-B Model. This is not an exhaustive list, and we will be focussing on the latter two, here.

It is generally advised to use such theories as a guide when seeking to change behaviours. This is because theories are based on evidence, and they will steer you towards solutions in a way that gives you greater confidence in their chances of having a successful impact.

COM- B Model

According to the COM-B model (developed by Susan Mitchie) for a given behaviour to occur, at a given moment, one must have the capability and opportunity to engage in the behaviour, and the strength of motivation to engage in the behaviour must be greater than for any other competing behaviour.

Capability is defined as an individual’s psychological and physical capacity to engage in the behaviour concerned. Physical capability relates to whether an individual possesses the necessary knowledge and skills required to perform the target behaviour. Psychological capability refers to an individual’s capacity to engage in the necessary thought processes, comprehension, and reasoning to perform the target behaviour.

In the COM-B model, capability is said to be associated with behaviour directly and indirectly via the mediating effect of motivation.

Opportunity is defined as all the external factors that lie outside an individual that make behaviour possible or prompt it, including physical and social factors. Physical opportunity is afforded by the built environment and social opportunity is afforded by the cultural milieu that dictates the way that individuals think about things.

In the COM-B model, opportunity is said to be associated with behaviour directly and indirectly via the mediating effect of motivation.

Motivation is defined as all the brain processes that energise and direct behaviour, not just goals and conscious decision-making.

In the COM-B model, motivation is said to be directly associated with behaviour and is proposed to mediate the associations between capability, opportunity, and behaviour.

Self – Determination Theory

This theory refers to each person’s ability to make choices and manage their own life and as if they have control over these choices. This has been applied to a range of areas such as in education, the workplace, healthcare and the sport and exercise industry.

It suggests that people are motivated to grow and change by three universal psychological needs – these are autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Autonomy – is when people feel in control of their own behaviours and goals.

Competence – is when people feel that they have the skills needed for success, they are more likely to take the actions that will help them achieve their goals.

Relatedness – People need a sense of belonging.

People that are high in self-determination admit their fault, take responsibility for not reaching their goals and believe they can take action to correct their mistakes. Those who are low in self- determination look for other things, people, and situations that they can blame, they make excuses or refuse to take responsibility.

If all three psychological needs are met, it is more likely that behaviour change will occur.

Fig. 2 – Self – Determination Theory

Behaviour Change Techniques

The Behaviour Change Technique Taxonomy is a database of behaviour change techniques that are based on an evaluation of their affordability, practicability, effectiveness, acceptability, side effects and equity. Some of these techniques can be used in sport as well as changing behaviours in relation to physical activity participation too.

Goal Setting and Planning
Monitoring and Feedback
Increasing Social Support
Shaping Knowledge
Understanding the Consequences of Change
Creating a Social Norm
Providing Prompts and Cues
Using Decisional Balance Tables

To conclude, where you are now is the result of small choices you made previously. So, don’t focus on the results, focus on the actions that are ging to get you those results.

Other Resources

COM-B Model Explained – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c99xgznTQQE  

COM-B Model Applied Example  – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uUXgMNS23k

Self – Determination Theory Explained – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgzQULNUmD8


Michie, S., van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation science : IS6, 42. https://doi.org/10.1186/1748-5908-6-42


Willmott, T. J., Pang, B., & Rundle-Thiele, S. (2021). Capability, opportunity, and motivation: an across contexts empirical examination of the COM-B model. BMC Public Health21(1), 1014. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-11019-w