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Applying SDT in Coaching
Practical Tips and Examples
Self-determination theory (SDT) is a framework for understanding human motivation and behavior. It proposes that people have three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
After over 3 decades of research, the science is clear that these needs are universal, innate, and essential for personal growth and well-being. Anyone who applies SDT in their practice can help their audience meet these needs and foster intrinsic motivation, engagement, and satisfaction.
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That all sounds great. So how do you actually do it?
Autonomy refers to the need to experience volition and choice in one's actions. Sometimes, we call this having a sense of agency, or “free will.” (If you want a great book on these concepts, I’d highly recommend Freely Determined by Kennan Sheldon - my best read so far of 2023). Autonomy involves feeling a sense of ownership and control over one's behavior and environment. In coaching, autonomy can be promoted by giving athletes or employees choices, providing opportunities for self-expression, and avoiding excessive control or pressure.
The free spirit and open posture that has been ascribed to Pete Carroll’s Southern California vibe is actually a master class in promoting the autonomy of his players. The basic message is be who you are and do what you do, as long as you’re here for the team. He encourages self-initiated action, supports the players’ individuality, and validates that they each have something unique to offer. As a result, the players love playing for him and are more motivated to perform because their performance also reflects them, and not just some static system or single set of preferences.
Autonomy can be the most challenging of the three needs to meet since coaching inherently involves taking control and providing direction. Unfortunately, many coaches take this too far. Coaches I consult with are often shocked when I suggest letting the athletes choose how to spend part of their practice time because the assumption is that the athletes will choose to spend it messing around and not working on anything intentionally. It also tends to raise a coach's level of anxiety - maintaining control is one of the few things that gives coaches a sense of stability in a volatile profession.
Yet, research has shown that creating autonomy-supportive environments is critical for individuals to meet their need for autonomy. The fathers of SDT, Richard Deci & Edward Ryan, have consistently found that individuals who perceive their environment as autonomy supportive are more likely to experience intrinsic motivation, self-determined behavior, and psychological well-being. In contrast, individuals who perceive their environment as controlling reported less satisfaction, lower levels of motivation, and poorer mental health outcomes. It’s no wonder that many athletes exit sport early - some sports have controlling environments from the time athletes are 7-8 years old.
Competence refers to the need to feel effective and capable in one's activities. It involves experiencing a sense of mastery and growth. In coaching, competence can be fostered by setting challenging but achievable goals, providing feedback and support, and creating a safe environment for learning and experimentation. Coaches who support competence help their clients develop a growth mindset, embrace challenges, and persist in the face of setbacks.
Fostering competence also leads to a greater sense of well-being for athletes. We all want to know we’re making meaningful progress when we’re working hard on something, and coaches often serve as an important source of external validation that progress is being made.
Studies have shown that leaders who foster a sense of competence in their followers can improve their performance, motivation, and well-being. A study by Gagné and Deci (2005) found that supervisors who supported the psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness were more likely to have employees who experienced higher levels of job satisfaction, intrinsic motivation, and perceived competence. Similarly, a study by Baard et al. (2004) found that transformational leadership behaviors, such as providing individualized support and challenging followers to grow and develop, were positively associated with employees' perceived competence and self-efficacy. In the sports world, data shows that youth athletes participating under coaches who promote competence have a higher likelihood of continuing participation in their sport. The best coaches I’ve been around are those who are constantly looking to find what the athletes are doing right. And, if an athlete is doing something wrong, they look to themselves first as the reason the performance isn’t where they’d like it to be. These two habits end up not only enhancing their own competence as teachers, but empower the athletes to continue flexing their strengths while constructively targeting weaknesses. The end result is enhanced performance and improved coach-athlete relationships.
Relatedness refers to the need to feel connected and cared for by others. It involves experiencing a sense of belonging and social support in one's relationships. In coaching, relatedness can be nurtured by building positive relationships with athletes, empathizing with their experiences, and creating a sense of community among them. Coaches who promote relatedness help their athletes develop social skills, trust others, and seek meaningful connections.
Research has shown that promoting a sense of relatedness can have numerous benefits for individuals, including increased well-being and motivation. Social support is one of the most robust predictors of overall psychological well-being. It’s also a resilience enhancer, stress reducer, and cohesion booster. For example, a study by Reis and colleagues (2000) found that individuals who reported higher levels of relatedness in their close relationships also reported greater life satisfaction and happiness. Additionally, a meta-analysis by Deci and Ryan (2008) found that individuals who felt more connected to others were more likely to experience intrinsic motivation and engagement in their activities. These findings highlight the importance of fostering relatedness in coaching, as it can help athletes develop stronger social connections and enhance their overall well-being.
To do this effectively, you’ve got to move past the typical platitudes of “sticking together” and “doing it for each other.” When I worked with Lewis Caralla at University of North Texas, I got to watch some of the best work on relatedness I had ever seen. Lew met with each player individually for an hour plus, getting to know the athletes, their families, and what their goals were. He also helped them understand how they could impact the program and support their teammates. By the end of a summer of training under Lew, the level of connectedness amongst teammates was off the charts. And he continues to build on that practice today - just check out how the locker room responds to him on social media (search for some of the videos from Georgia Tech - it’s remarkable).
Of course, this approach also helped Lew (and continues to help him) deliver outstanding results. The team wants to perform for him and with each other. That’s what relatedness is all about.
The Role of Intrinsic Motivation in Sports Performance
Intrinsic motivation is a powerful force in sports performance. Athletes who are intrinsically motivated engage in their sport because they find it inherently enjoyable, challenging, and satisfying. They are driven by a desire to improve their skills, compete at their best level, and experience the thrill of victory.
Research has shown that intrinsic motivation is positively associated with various aspects of sports performance, including skill development, persistence, creativity, and performance quality. For example, a study by Vallerand et al. (1997) found that athletes who were intrinsically motivated to participate in their sport reported higher levels of perceived competence, autonomy, and relatedness than those who were extrinsically motivated or amotivated. These factors contributed to greater enjoyment of the sport and higher levels of performance.
Coaches can play a critical role in fostering intrinsic motivation among their athletes by creating an autonomy-supportive coaching environment that emphasizes skill development, positive feedback, and goal-setting. Coaches who focus on promoting athletes' sense of competence and relatedness can help them feel more connected to the team and invested in its success. Additionally, coaches who encourage athletes' autonomy can help them feel empowered to make decisions about training methods or competition strategies that align with their personal values and goals.
Here are some practical tips and examples for building autonomy, competence, and relatedness:
Encourage athletes to set goals that align with their interests and values. This promotes a sense of ownership over their training and competition.
Provide options whenever possible. For example, let athletes choose which drills they want to do during practice or how they want to warm up before a game.
Avoid controlling language or behavior. Instead of saying "You have to do this," say "What do you think is the best way to approach this?"
Give athletes choice in training.
Provide opportunities for skill-building and mastery. This might include individualized feedback, targeted training sessions, or access to resources like videos or articles.
Help athletes set realistic but challenging goals that push them beyond their current abilities.
Celebrate progress and improvement, not just wins or losses.
Praise success with the same detail that you provide when offering criticism.
Try to catch people doing something right.
Create a positive team culture that emphasizes support, empathy, and collaboration.
Foster strong coach-athlete relationships based on trust, respect, and open communication.
Encourage peer-to-peer connections by promoting team-building activities or assigning accountability partners for off-the-field training.
Pay extra attention to the forming of good relationships and belonging.
Connect athletes’ values to the team/orgs values and allow for some individual expression of those values.
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