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.
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:
- Provide choice—athletes making decisions about some aspects of a training session.
- Provide a rationale for tasks, limits, and rules— explaining the reasons behind key coaching decisions.
- 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.
- Promote athlete responsibility—allowing athletes to create and deliver a training drill.
- Provide non-controlling competence feedback— having constructive feedback that is solution focused rather than problem focused.
- Avoid guilt inducing criticisms and controlling statements—providing critiques that focus on the behavior, not the athletes’ character.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- Mageau, G. A., & Vallerand, R. J. (2003). The coach athlete relationship: A motivational model. Journal of Sports Sciences, 21, 883–904.
- Mallett, C. J. (2005). Self-determination theory: A case study of evidence-based coaching. The Sport Psychologist, 19(4), 417–429.
- 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.