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Help Your Athlete Take Control Of Their Future

By Katarina Miller - June 8, 2018

In our last blog post, we overviewed self-determination theory and some of its applications to sport. In order to sharpen the tool of utilizing self-determination theory, it is important to take time to understand each of its’ components more thoroughly. Starting with autonomy, we will break down this theory further.
            Self-determination theory has been researched in its’ entirety for decades, but so has autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy, the feeling of control over one’s life, has been supported by research in a variety of domains. Students, athletes, employees, and healthcare patients have all seen higher performance outcomes and higher quality motivation as the result of perceived autonomy-support. I encourage readers to visit for links to some of the more frequently cited research supporting autonomy.
            Feeling as if you have control over your life can lead to higher motivation via the understanding that the choices you make and the work you put in can lead to the outcomes you desire. That means that sporting practices don’t have to be viewed as a chore, but as a choice an athlete is making to propel themselves closer to their goals. It also means that mistakes made during training can be viewed as information for how to make the right choices to avoid that same mistake in the future. Feeling autonomy over one’s life can be viewed as one of many stepping stones in building a truly resilient mindset.
Implementing Autonomy
            With any mental tool I provide with a client, no matter what the tool may be, I encourage them to start small with their applications. Similarly, I want to emphasize that small changes in an environment can make a big impact in promoting autonomy. Instead of creating an exhaustive list of ways that autonomy can be supported, I encourage coaches, parents, and organizational executives to keep two major concepts in mind when it comes to autonomy: choice and feedback.
Choice & Autonomy
            It may seem obvious, but making decisions for oneself is an integral part of developing a sense of control and independence. Promoting an athlete’s sense of choice is a simple and effective way to start creating an autonomy-supporting environment
  • Coaches can give their athletes choices when it comes to their training
  • Mental skills training can provide athletes a sense of choice and control over their mindset while they perform
  • Parents can give children a choice between housework chores to expand the feelings of autonomy to home
  • Parents can give their children choices about which sports to participate in, instead of choosing for them
  • Organizational executives can implement strategies to promote choice amongst their staff; brainstorming meetings that allow coaches’ ideas to be heard can allow staff to feel like they have influence and control in their workplace 
Feedback & Autonomy
            While choice is important in developing a sense of control, proper feedback and communication can promote a sense of control by providing an individual with a clear understanding of how their actions led to a certain outcome; and therefore, how controlling one’s actions can lead to desired outcomes.
  • Coaches can provide corrective feedback when mistakes are made that is aimed at the athlete understanding how to avoid the same mistake in the future
  • Coaches can be intentional about positive feedback and celebrating improvements in performance as well as giving corrective feedback
  • Parents can extend these ideas to home as well; when you have to discipline your children explaining to them why that is happening can be very effective in giving them the control to avoid the same discipline in the future
  • Organizational executives should be intentional in telling their staff specifically what behaviors you do and do not want them to engage in; this gives your staff the power and knowledge to perform the job to the organization’s standards
            The beauty of sport psychology, and self-determination theory specifically, is that it rarely requires a complete overhaul of a coach’s or individual’s current training methods. It is often small changes that over time lead to large differences, and creating an environment that supports athletes’ autonomy is no different. I encourage any coaches, parents, or executives reading this post to take time this week to be intentional about providing choice and appropriate feedback to their athletes with the goal of facilitating autonomy. A great way to start, if you’re a coach for example, is to look at your training sessions this upcoming week and plan one way you’ll provide choice and one way you’ll provide autonomy-supportive feedback each practice. Keep it simple, expand your implementation strategies over time, and you will start to see the benefits of this practice. Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks as we provide more similar information on competence and relatedness to round out self-determination theory.