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Self-Determination Theory: What Is It, and What Does It Mean (Practically) For Coaches?

Research shows that the most common cause of young people dropping out of sport is their psychological needs not being met. But unlike many of the other major reasons that young people stop participating in sport (such as injury, social pressure, and competing priorities), young people’s psychological needs is a factor that coaches do have more control over (for better and sometimes worse). 

To prime coaches to start thinking about how the impact the psychological needs of the young people they coach, we would encourage coaches to reflect on the following question:

“How does my coaching encourage my athletes to return to training next week?… To return to play next season?”

It goes with out saying that coaches want their athletes to get better. But those same athletes aren’t going to get better (at least, not because of the coach) if they don’t come back. 

In short, we are now starting to frame thinking around how can we, as coaches, create experiences that are intrinsically motivating for athletes (that is, experiences that are inherently satisfying in and of themselves).

99% of coaches will agree that making the sporting experiences they lead intrinsically motivating is a goal worth striving for. But what does this look like? What does this mean for coaching behaviours?

This is where Self-Determination Theory provides a useful framework — as it outlines the necessary components to make an experience intrinsically motivating.

Below, we’ll discuss what Self-Determination Theory is, what it tells us about the psychological needs that all humans possess, and how we can incorporate Self-Determination Theory into our own coaching.

What Is Self-Determination Theory?

Self-Determination Theory helps us understand human motivation and personality, primarily by analysing, and building a deeper understanding of, the key components of intrinsic motivation. In short, Self-Determination Theory states that intrinsic motivation is underpinned by three basic psychological needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy.

By learning about Self-Determination Theory, we can seek to understand what motivates individuals to behave in certain ways and participate in certain activities (such as sports).

In the context of coaching, Self-Determination Theory can guide us on what makes great sporting experiences, and how we can create environments in which participants are self-motivated to learn.

But, in order to truly understand Self-Determination Theory, we must first analyse the three psychological needs around which it is built.

Understanding the Psychological Needs

According to Self-Determination Theory, the three psychological needs that all people possess are relatedness, competence, and autonomy. When we’re placed in an environment where these needs are fulfilled, our intrinsic motivation to operate within that environment will be higher. Understanding these needs is the first step towards making Self-Determination Theory a useful framework for our own coaching. 


According to psychologist, and expert on Self-Determination Theory, Richard Ryan, PhD, relatedness means feeling cared for and connected to others: “It’s based on a sense of belonging, a feeling that you matter to the other people that are there,” he explains. “And it’s enhanced, not just by people treating you warmly and including you, but by you giving to them, and being able to matter in their lives; that’s part of what makes us feel connected.” At the same time, it’s also about being with people who matter to you. 


In the field of psychology, it’s largely agreed that competence is fundamental to our motivation and sense of wellness. “To feel effective in your environment, it’s very, very important to have some sense of mastery of the things that matter to you,” says Ryan.


According to Ryan, autonomy is the most essential of our psychological needs: “It refers to behaviour that is self-endorsed — that you agree with and find congruent within yourself. Autonomy means that you feel self-initiating. And when you’re fully-autonomous, you’re whole-heartedly behind the thing that you’re doing.”

Naturally, this enthusiasm helps participants to be more engaged in their activity and, in turn, to experience better outcomes. “It’s because of that whole-heartedness,” explains Ryan. “Performance tends to be better when you’re acting out of autonomous motives.”

Helping Athletes to Meet Their Psychological Needs

Having established what the psychological needs are and why they matter, we can look at some effective ways to help athletes meet these needs within our coaching environments. This, according to Self-Determination Theory, will enable them to build intrinsic motivation, enhance their desire to participate, and hopefully equip them to excel in their chosen sport(s).

Ensuring Good Coach and Parental Support

The support provided by coaches and parents can have a huge impact on how athletes perceive their own sporting competence. As such, it’s vital that we create a climate of development within our teams and sports clubs, whereby things like effort, improvement, and the building of connections are prioritised over results, and there is no favouritism shown to so-called ‘better’ athletes. Good coach (and parent support) also places value on the building of meaningful connections both among and between athletes

 As coaches, we can promote this by focusing on building culture through our sessions, and the ways we behave and interact with our players. We should also endeavour to help parents appreciate our team’s approach. We can do this by modelling good behaviour on gameday — by remaining calm and unobtrusive on the sidelines, and minimising our interventions, in order to allow athletes to problem-solve and enjoy participating on their own — and by communicating with parents to explain our team’s philosophy, processes, and the reasoning behind them.

Prioritising More than Performance

The way our environment is set up can also impact the emphasis that is placed on performance. For instance, how much does our sport or environment focus on competition outcomes, such as winning games or tournaments? And does it allow for athletes to be grouped in terms of skill level, so that all participants receive an appropriate mix of challenge and success? 

Again, this will have a direct impact on how athletes perceive their own competence. We should strive to ensure that everyone we coach receives challenges that are appropriate for their experience and level of ability, while also providing them with opportunities to compete that aren’t centred around results.

“Competition is great, but when we creep into a ‘win at all costs’ environment, our youth are likely to be turned off, or be at risk of other serious and potentially harmful impacts, such as burn-out or overuse injury,” explains Katie Horne, Regional Coach Youth Advisor at Sport Waikato. “Youth development isn’t linear. Selection decisions in younger age groups do not guarantee success as an adult. And we cannot develop skills and improve in a sport by sitting on the bench.

“We need to bring fun back to youth sport and stop treating children and youth like they are mini-adults.”

Helping Athletes to Develop a Growth Mindset

Helping athletes to develop a growth mindset will also increase the motivation they feel when playing sports. Esteemed psychologist and Stanford University professor Carol Dweck states that a growth mindset is a function of how individuals think about ability and talent; an individual with a growth mindset will consider qualities like intelligence, ability, and character as things that can be developed through hard work and perseverance, rather than perceiving them as traits that are innate or fixed.

This latter mentality — a fixed mindset — views failure as permanent, will often take critical feedback personally, and is likely to choose easier tasks and give up when facing obstacles. In contrast, someone with a growth mindset will see failure as a chance to learn, consider feedback a tool for improvement, embrace more challenging tasks, and perceive obstacles as a chance to experiment and problem-solve. While fixed mindsets tend to fixate on measurable outcomes and accomplishments, growth mindsets appreciate the learning journey and the potential for continuing improvement.

Once more, fostering a mindset whereby qualities like ability are changeable and earned can lay the foundations for developing a strong sense of competence. After all, an athlete with a fixed mindset, and who believes they are ‘weak’ at a particular skill, is likely to consider this weakness as something that is insurmountable; an athlete with a growth mindset will believe that, with effort, they can (and will) reach the level that they desire.

According to Dweck, all else being equal, developmental outcomes are considerably more positive when an individual possesses a growth mindset. Furthermore, a growth mindset allows athletes to base their enjoyment of their sport solely on factors that they can control — such as their own decisions and effort levels — instead of external outcomes, like results — thereby making it easier to find motivation to participate.

Ways to help athletes develop a growth mindset include:

  • Presenting failure as a learning opportunity.
  • Celebrating improvement ahead of outcomes.
  • Reframing ‘achievement’ to reflect traits like effort and discipline.
  • Promoting a new attitude towards ability (instead of letting athletes believe “I can’t do this”, encourage them to think “I can’t do this yet”).
  • Inspiring athletes to embrace challenges — both as a source of fun and a means to improve.

Crucially, having a sense of autonomy is essential to establishing a growth mindset; if an athlete does not believe they are in control of their own learning journey, it’s unlikely that they’ll develop the motivation, determination, and resilience required to embrace challenges and overcome adversity.

Empowering Young Athletes to Make Their Own Decisions

To help young athletes develop that vital sense of autonomy, we must empower them to make their own decisions, both within our sessions, and regarding the activities they participate in.

As coaches, we can allow athletes to experiment and make decisions within our sessions by designing game-based activities in which there are many different opportunities to explore and apply knowledge, and where there are a range of potential solutions to the problem(s) that they face. By providing constraints, we can guide athletes towards certain outcomes while allowing them to make decisions independently, giving them a sense of ownership over their own learning. It may help to think of our role as providing structure, but not control.

Coaches can also support athletes’ autonomy by requesting their input into training design. This might mean asking them to choose between different types of drills (that have similar objectives), or to decide the order of the drills in the training session. Or we could even ask athletes to design the training session.

Empowering individuals away from our sessions means enabling them to choose the sports and other extra-curricular activities that they devote their time to. We must never demand that an athlete commits solely to our team (or even our sport), and should ensure that they are always the driving force behind their own participation.

For all athletes, feeling like they can make their own choices, and that they’re participating in a sport because they want to, is key to them developing intrinsic motivation. 

Understanding the Power of Effective Feedback

Many of the approaches mentioned above are impacted by how we provide feedback. A common mistake coaches make is overusing praise — which, by its nature, is often focused upon outcomes and results instead of the process (potentially having a negative impact on athletes’ senses of their own competence). As an alternative, we recommend positive affirmation — the process of providing positive feedback based upon efforts, intentions, and the learning process. (Incidentally, positive affirmation is another way we can help to promote a growth mindset in the athletes we coach.)

Further to this, we should strive to ensure that all of our athletes feel supported and valued, constantly and unconditionally, regardless of results or other outcomes. This will also reinforce the notion that the purpose of sport lies in participation and improvement, not the end result.

Building Meaningful Relationships with Our Athletes

Finally, by establishing meaningful relationships with our athletes, we can help them to feel the sense of relatedness and connection that is crucial to developing intrinsic motivation.

The key to building a rapport with our athletes is understanding that we coach people, not a sport, and then getting to know them as individuals. We should learn about the context behind the people we coach, endeavour to know the socio-cultural factors that influence the way they learn and what motivates them, and adopt a supportive role, in which we place their needs ahead of our own.

Furthermore, we should support athletes and teammates in building meaningful relationships with each other. We might achieve this by setting up unsupervised arrival activities, providing opportunities for free play, or ‘delivering’ self-regulated games. These opportunities to socialise and connect without adult supervision can be invaluable in a world where play and group interaction outside of formal settings are increasingly rare.

We can also promote qualities such as teamwork and togetherness when developing our team ethos or culture — ideally, with input from our athletes. This will, in turn, help to facilitate an environment where every individual feels included, supported, and able to support their teammates.

In doing so, we can build meaningful relationships while showing our athletes that we care about them, and that they exist as part of a team in which everyone is valued. 

What Does Self-Determination Theory Mean for Coaches?

Self-Determination Theory is centred upon the three key components of intrinsic motivation: relatedness, competence, and autonomy. All individuals need to meet these key psychological needs within an environment in order to feel intrinsically motivated and have a desire to participate within it. In coaching environments, we must help our athletes satisfy these needs so that they want to stay involved in our sport, and are able to develop the motivation, mindset, and habits required in order to improve as they participate.

As coaches, we can help athletes to meet their key psychological needs through methods such as prioritising processes over outcomes, helping individuals to develop growth mindsets, empowering athletes to make their own decisions, providing consistent and unconditional support, and building meaningful connections and relationships with everybody on our team.

Ultimately, our primary role is to help athletes keep their happiness, confidence, and love of sport. Self-Determination Theory can provide a useful guide in helping us to achieve this goal.

In Summary

  • Self-Determination Theory gives us a better understanding of how individuals form intrinsic motivation. In a coaching context, it helps us to determine what makes great sporting experiences, and how we can create environments in which athletes are motivated to participate and learn.
  • Intrinsic motivation is underpinned by three key psychological needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy.
  • We should help athletes to feel a sense of connection, both with their teammates and with their coaches.
  • Autonomy is arguably the most important of the psychological needs. We should strive to create environments in which athletes are able to problem-solve, make their own decisions, and take ownership of their learning.
  • As coaches, our primary role is to give athletes enjoyable sporting experiences, help them find the motivation to return each week, and hopefully lay the foundations for a lifetime of active participation.


  1. Participant Development in Sport: An Academic Review
  1. A systematic review of dropout from organized sport among children and youth
  1. Drop-out from team sport among adolescents: A systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies

Image Source: Pixabay

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