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Creating A Self-Determined Athlete

By Katarina Miller - May 15, 2018

I would venture a guess that every coach wants to see exceptional motivation from their athletes. This is the type of motivation that pushes an athlete above and beyond; this is the type of motivation that builds the foundation for resilience in the face of adversity. I see coaches use a variety of methods to instill this type of drive in their athletes; sometimes it’s the presentation of external rewards, sometimes its showing athletes inspiring videos of their favorite athletes, and sometimes its hiring a motivational speaker to talk vividly about chasing your dreams. This desire to pull the very best out of ourselves is not isolated to sports either. We see this desire in the motivational posters that teachers place in classrooms, we see it in the anti-smoking tactics used by health insurance companies, and we can see it in the hundreds of self-help books published with the selling-point of motivating you into a better version of yourself. And while these efforts are made in good intention, what psychology has to say about motivated behavior might provide a more stable source of motivation for all of us, no matter where we choose to perform.
            Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed self-determination theory as a potential explanation of motivated behavior, and through decades of research its applications have been used in almost any domain of human performance you can think of (sports, education, healthcare, parenting, business, etc.). The theory posits that while humans are oriented toward growth and progression, the degree to which an individual’s environment supports that orientation has a direct influence on the motivated behavior that person will display. To break that down a little further there are three basic needs we have as human beings; and the extent to which our environment fulfills those needs is also the extent to which we can experience motivation, wellbeing, and high-performance. These needs are:
  1. Autonomy: feeling in control of one’s life and actions. Humans have a need to feel as if they have the ability to steer the direction of their own life. This can be thought of as the ability to act independently.
  2. Competence: feeling as if you are skilled and capable. Humans have a need to feel as if there are tasks that they can accomplish, and that they can accomplish well.
  3. Relatedness: feeling as if you belong. Humans are social beings that are designed to feel connected to each other.
            This emphasis on the way an environment interacts with an individual’s ability to perform at their best opens a door of opportunity for coaches and sport organizations. If we can set up the sport environment to support the needs of our athletes, then we can potentially bring out their very best motivated mindset. This motivated mindset can set the foundation for hard work, resilience, and optimism; all of which are undeniably contributors to high performance. Below are some simple tips for coaches to create an effective motivational climate through the fulfillment of those basic needs.
  • Depending on the age of the athlete, allow them to have input in training structure. You can provide them with two options to choose from; allowing the coach to still have leadership but also allowing the athletes to have an opinion
  • If the athletes are young, instead of allowing them to have input on the training structure you can take time intentionally to explain why you are doing what you are doing. At a younger age, understanding why you’re doing something can be autonomy-supportive
  • Emphasize “controllables”: before traveling or before big competition, discuss with your athlete’s obstacles they may face and identify what is in their control and what is not. Focusing on what is within their control develops a sense of autonomy
  • Provide opportunities for success in training. While experiencing and learning to overcome failure during training is certainly valuable, it is important to keep it balanced with opportunities to succeed in order to maintain competence. Challenge your athletes, but also give them a chance to be reminded of their talent
  • Feedback is crucial in developing competence. A focus on individual improvement can be tremendous for a strong sense of competence
  • Use mistakes as an opportunity to instruct your athletes on how to be better instead of becoming angry over them
  • Understand that social belonging is crucial to motivated behavior; allow your athletes opportunity during training to enjoy each other
  • Encourage your athletes to spend time together outside of sport and to develop true social support networks
  • Developing a simple team chant or motto and making it a regular part of training can also be a way to create a sense of community
            Implementing strategies to create an effective motivational climate can be tremendously valuable, however it is also important to note that these changes can take time. Therefore, the key to developing this type of environment for your athletes is to do so consistently and with patience. Furthermore, communication with parents about this type of approach to coaching can also be valuable. If parents are able to extend this type of motivational climate to the home environment, its impacts on the athlete will be that much greater. For more details and information about self-determination theory see some resources below.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being being. American psychologist, 55, 68-78.