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Blog: goal-setting and sustainable behaviour change

In his latest blog on engaging participants in Sport for Development programmes, Alliance of Sport Co-Founder and Secretariat, Justin Coleman, gives guidance on setting goals and the importance of considering ACEs in achieving sustainable behaviour change.


My previous three blogs (one, two, three) focused on the various stages that Sport for Development organisations go through in achieving full engagement from their participants when working in and around the criminal justice system.

There’s no doubt it can be challenging work and many different elements are involved in achieving successful long-term behaviour change and desistance from crime with participants, some of whom are among society’s most challenging and complex individuals.

The various stages of engagement, from ‘disengaged’ to ‘fully engaged’, are summed up by the diagram above from our Theory of Change (this model combines the five-stage Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with behavioural change models put forward by Sport England).

The merging of these two methodologies has already proved a very useful aid for Sport for Development organisations. It has been used in staff training and with participants in one-to-one settings.

It helps to identify at what stage of engagement participants are in the model and, more importantly, provides guidance on setting tangible SMART targets to realistically get them to where they want to be in their lives.


When a relationship of mutual trust and respect has been established (which can take anything between one day to over six months), a secure and stable one-to-one session is a great moment to sit down and map out what each individual’s goals might be – and the route he or she can take to achieving them.

The above model was initially designed by myself and peer sports mentors inside HMP Oakwood. They expressed a need for a one-page goal-setting tool that enabled qualified HMP Oakwood sports peer mentors and mentee (participant) to set achievable goals together.

These smaller goals gradually but realistically raise the participant’s aspirations, according to their personal circumstances, stage of behaviour change and the support mechanisms in place.

By breaking goals/targets down into realistically-achievable stages, we maintain participants’ engagement because they know each celebrated smaller achievement is part of their progress towards a bigger proactive outcome. The 13 organisations we recently visited as part of our Review of Sport in Criminal Justice did just this.

Whether a Sport for Development organisation is working in the community or in the Secure Estate, there are two essential factors necessary for the above approach to succeed:

  • Intrinsic – the participant’s motivation and desire to achieve the goal
  • Extrinsic – whether staff, the organisation and wider environment can support the participant’s achievement of the goal

It’s pointless setting a goal (such as achieving a coaching qualification or getting off drugs), if a participant does not intrinsically want to achieve it. It’s equally pointless if the staff, organisation or wider supporting environment cannot provide the skills or structure to support the achievement of the goal.


Organisations use sport to achieve all sorts of different impacts which contribute towards reducing re-offending – attitudes, thinking and behaviour; accommodation issues; drugs and alcohol; children and families; health; finance, benefit and debt; abuse; prostitution; and education, training and employment.

What unites the majority of challenging and complex participants is ACEs (adverse childhood experiences). It is vital that practitioners bear this in mind throughout their time with participants, but most especially when young people leave their organisation.

With participants who have multiple ACEs (like those in the diagram above), it is crucial that the end of their time with you or your organisation is not a sudden withdrawal or ‘abandonment’ for them. This will trigger negative responses.

Appropriate support must be put in place to enable a continued positive path for the participant into other ongoing support services or proactive environments.

Overall, by skillfully and proactively forming trusting relationships, then setting goals that are achieved through intrinsic motivation and extrinsic support frameworks, sport and physical activity is a very potent platform for accelerating and driving lasting behavioural change.