Autonomy-Supportive Coaching

Motivation is one of the foundations of successful sport performance, and coaches play a critical role in developing or undermining this attribute in their athletes.  The  techniques  coaches  use  to  instruct and motivate their athletes can influence whether athletes learn and achieve at a high level, develop a  strong  sense  of  confidence,  enjoy  their  experience, and persist in their sport over a long period of time.

Self-Determination Theory

In  1985,  Edward  Deci  and  Richard  Ryan  wrote their  influential  book,  Intrinsic  Motivation  and Self-Determination  in  Human  Behavior.  In  this text, and numerous subsequent publications, Deci and Ryan outlined their theory of human motivation, self-determination theory. This theory, often known as SDT, has guided much research examining  the  influence  that  coaches  can  have  on  their athletes’  motivation  and  subsequent  outcomes  in sport.

Deci and Ryan suggested that motivation is multidimensional, meaning that a person can be simultaneously motivated by multiple factors. Central to SDT is the distinction between self-determined and controlled forms of motivation. To be self-determined means to act with a sense of self-direction and choice. An athlete who is self-determined participates because that  athlete  finds  sport  enjoyable  or  interesting (intrinsic motivation) or values the benefits of sport participation. In contrast, motivation that is fueled by pressure from others or pressure from within (guilt) is  referred  to  as  controlled  motivation.  A  growing body  of  research  has  provided  evidence  regarding the benefits of being involved in sport for more self-determined reasons. For example, athletes whose participation is driven largely by self-determined factors as opposed to controlled forces perform at a higher level;  experience  more  positive  emotions;  use  positive coping strategies in stressful situations; and invest higher levels of concentration, persistence, and effort than athletes with lower self-determined motivation and stronger controlled motivation. In comparison, athletes with high levels of controlled motivation tend to experience a variety of negative outcomes such as drop-out  from  sport,  burnout,  antisocial  behavior, anxiety, and negative affect.

Given our understanding of the effects of controlled  and  self-determined  types  of  motivation on the athlete sport experience, a natural question that  arises  is:  How  do  athletes’  self-determined and  controlled  motivations  develop?  According to  SDT,  self-determined  motivation  is  most  likely to  develop  when  three  basic  psychological  needs, known as autonomy, competence, and relatedness, are fulfilled. Autonomy represents the need to feel personal  control  over  one’s  actions.  Competence reflects the need to feel effective. Relatedness represents the need to feel connected with others and a secure sense of belonging. There is evidence that athletes require all three psychological needs to be satisfied in order for optimal motivation and wellbeing  to  develop.  However,  there  is  also  research that suggests that some needs may be more important in certain circumstances. For example, competence may have a greater impact than relatedness on elite athletes’ motivation.

Coaching Behaviors and Athlete Motivation

When coaches’ actions support their athletes’ needs, self-determined  motivation  will  develop.  When coaches’ behavior undermines these needs, athletes are likely to experience increased controlled motivation.  Therefore,  it  is  important  to  understand  the specific aspects of coaching behaviors that are positively or negatively related to athlete motivation.

Coaches’ behavior can be classified in a variety of ways. When exploring motivation from a SDT perspective,  coaches’  provision  of  psychological needs support is often examined. Specifically, support that pertains to each of the three psychological needs has been investigated: autonomy support, competence  support,  and  relatedness  support. When a coach acts in an autonomy supportive way, the coach considers the athletes’ perspective, provides  appropriate  and  meaningful  feedback,  and offers opportunities for choice, while at the same time minimizing the use of pressures and demands to control the athletes. The process of creating an autonomy-supportive  climate  requires  considerable  skill,  particularly  considering  the  authoritarian role that coaches have often been expected to play  in  the  past.  Even  within  the  somewhat  rigid structure  of  many  organized  sports,  coaches  can take  steps  to  create  an  autonomy-supportive  climate  for  their  athletes.  Specifically,  researchers suggest a number of key practices that would help a coach become autonomy supportive:

  1. Provide choice—athletes making decisions about some aspects of a training session.
  2. Provide a rationale for tasks, limits, and rules— explaining the reasons behind key coaching decisions.
  3. Inquire about and acknowledge athletes’ feelings—getting to know athletes as people first and athletes second; acknowledging that some training drills may be repetitive or tedious.
  4. Promote athlete responsibility—allowing athletes to create and deliver a training drill.
  5. Provide non-controlling competence feedback— having constructive feedback that is solution focused rather than problem focused.
  6. Avoid guilt inducing criticisms and controlling statements—providing critiques that focus on the behavior, not the athletes’ character.
  7. Limit ego involvement—encouraging athletes to improve their own performance, avoiding intrateam rivalries and social comparisons.

Studies exploring the relationship between coach autonomy support and athlete outcomes suggest a positive  relationship  exists.  For  example,  various studies  report  that  athletes  who  perceived  their coach to be autonomy supportive displayed greater levels  of  psychological  and  physical  well-being, self-determined  motivation,  sport  persistence  and adherence,  enjoyment,  and  positive  appraisal  for their sports participation.

Coaching  research  based  on  SDT  has  largely focused on autonomy support. However, competence and  relatedness  support  have  also  received  some attention. A coach who supports the athletes’ sense of competence by helping his athletes set clear and realistic  performance  targets,  for  example,  ensures those  athletes  have  the  necessary  information  and experience to develop and progress. Additionally, a coach who displays high levels of involvement with relatedness support ensures the athletes feel a sense of belonging and connection. Research suggests all three types of coach support (autonomy, competence, and relatedness support) create a favorable environment for the satisfaction of athletes’ needs.

Unfortunately,  the  very  nature  of  organized sport can lend itself to the development of a controlling climate that undermines athletes’ needs for autonomy,  competence,  and  relatedness.  Offering rewards  with  a  condition  attached,  such  as  an activity if athletes satisfy the coach’s expectations, is  a  common  practice.  Also,  athletes’  schedules are  often  planned  well  in  advance,  thus  creating  rigid  deadlines  for  training  and  performance. Additionally, athletes’ choice is often limited, particularly in youth sport, as coaches take ownership for developing strategies that they believe will provide  their  athletes  with  a  competitive  advantage. Hence,  it  is  unsurprising  that  many  coaches  tend to favor a controlling style, whereby their athletes feel pressured to think, feel, or behave in a set way. As  a  result,  athletes  will  often  comply  with,  but may  not  fully  support,  requests  from  the  coach, which contributes to the development of controlled motivation (non-self-determined). Coaching behaviors  that  are  viewed  as  controlling  include  the following:

  • offering rewards such as guaranteed selection to motivate athletes if they put all their effort into training;
  • using feedback that pressures athletes to continue with their behavior;
  • making demands concerning aspects of an athlete’s life not associated with sport participation;
  • intimidating athletes by using verbal abuse or threats;
  • promoting rivalry among athletes; and
  • withholding affection and attention if athletes don’t perform to an expected standard.

Unfortunately, little is known about the impact of these controlling coach strategies. A number of studies   suggest   that   athletes   who   viewed   their coach  to  predominantly  display  autocratic  and controlling behaviors reported less self-determined motivation and greater levels of controlled motivation.  Recent  research  indicates  that  athletes  who view  their  coach  as  using  controlling  strategies report  low  levels  of  psychological  needs  satisfaction.  In  turn,  these  low  levels  of  psychological needs satisfaction have been associated with negative  athlete  outcomes,  such  as  disordered  eating behaviors,   depression,   burnout,   and   negative affect.  These  findings  suggest  that  although  controlling  behaviors  may  sometimes  appear  to  be adaptive in that they prompt desired behaviors and performance  outcomes  in  the  short  term,  these behaviors may contribute to negative outcomes in the long term.

It  is  important  to  note  that  a  coach  can  display  elements  of  controlling  and  needs-supportive behavior.  A  coach  may  frequently  issue  additional physical exercises to the athletes as a discipline strategy  (controlling  behavior)  but  may  often  provide opportunities for player input about other aspects of training  (autonomy-supportive  behavior).  It  is  also important to note that the lack of needs-supportive behaviors  does  not  automatically  necessitate  the presence  of  controlling  coach  behaviors.  The  lack of  needs  support  might,  for  instance,  simply  be  a sign of a more neutral rather than a controlling style. Nonetheless, in terms of the impact of these different coaching styles, needs support versus controlling behavior, the majority of studies indicate that needs supportive behaviors are associated with self-determined motivation and positive athlete outcomes.

Autonomy-Supportive Approaches

These   research   findings   provoke   an   important  question  as  to  whether  it  is  possible  for  a sports coach to learn how to become more needs supportive  and  less  controlling.  While  a  need-ssupportive  coach  training  program  has  yet  to  be experimentally  tested,  preliminary  evidence  demonstrates  that  needs-supportive  practices  can  be employed  by  coaches  working  with  elite  athletes. Clifford Mallet described an autonomy-supportive approach  when  coaching  two  Australian  relay teams  competing  at  the  2004  Athens  Olympic Games.  Some  of  his  autonomy  supportive  strategies included (1) providing choice to the athletes in a number of management and performance areas; (2)  providing  a  rationale  for  executive  decisions; (3) actively seeking suggestions, opinions, and feedback from athletes and their personal coaches; and (4)  encouraging  athletes  to  take  personal  responsibility  for  their  learning.  Mallet  concluded  that by  adopting  this  autonomy  supportive  approach he  promoted  their  levels  of  self-determined  motivation.  This  preliminary  evidence  suggests  that needs-supportive coaching is feasible, even in elite sport settings.

Additional  evidence  supporting  the  potential efficacy  of  needs-supportive  coach  training  programs  comes  from  intervention  studies  designed to  improve  coaches’  interpersonal  skills.  Although not  focused  specifically  on  needs  support,  these studies provide evidence that coaches can learn to alter  their  interpersonal  behaviors  when  working with  athletes.  For  example,  coaches  can  learn  to (a) provide instruction and encouragement, (b) avoid sarcasm or degrading comments, (c) establish  clear expectations,  and  (d)  avoid  nagging  or  threatening athletes. Promisingly, coaches who participated in  these  training  programs  were  evaluated  more positively by their athletes compared with athletes whose  coaches  did  not  take  part.  Additionally,  a variety of positive athlete outcomes were reported. For  example,  compared  with  controls,  athletes  of the trained coaches displayed lower levels of anxiety and  drop-out,  higher  levels  of  healthy  motivation and fun, and a greater liking for their teammates.

Finally,  research  outside  of  the  sport  setting indicates that authority figures like teachers, managers,  and  health  care  professionals  can  successfully alter their interactions to become more needs supportive after attending a training program and this increased support had positive effects on subordinates’  motivational  outcomes.  Coach  education research has taken this evidence on board and preliminary  guidelines  are  now  available  and  can help coaches learn how to be needs supportive in their interactions with their athletes.


There  is  a  great  deal  of  evidence  that  needs-supportive  coaching  is  associated  with  more  positive forms of motivation and better experiences for athletes. Preliminary data suggests that sport coaches can  learn  to  effectively  apply  needs-supportive coaching principles. Further research is required to test the effects of coach training programs specifically designed to promote needs support and lessen controlling coaching.


  1. A. J. (2007). Coaching effectiveness: Exploring the relationship between coaching behavior and self-determined motivation. In M. S. Hagger & N. L. D. Chatzisarantis (Eds.), Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in exercise and sport (pp. 209–227). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  2. Mageau, G. A., & Vallerand, R. J. (2003). The coach athlete relationship: A motivational model. Journal of Sports Sciences, 21, 883–904.
  3. Mallett, C. J. (2005). Self-determination theory: A case study of evidence-based coaching. The Sport Psychologist, 19(4), 417–429.
  4. Treasure, D. C., Lemyre, P., Kuczka, K. K., & Standage, M. (2007). Motivation in elite-level sport. In M. S. Hagger & N. L. D. Chatzisarantis (Eds.), Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in exercise and sport (pp. 153–164). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

See also: