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Promoting Coach Flourishing: Self-Determination Theory
For the last several decades, Richard Deci and Edward Ryan have been exploring what helps people get things done - what motivates them to behave, particularly when there’s no obvious reward or clear signal. In the process, they’ve developed one of the most well-known psychological theories of motivation - self-determination theory. Self-determination theory (SDT) is a psychological theory that explains how people can achieve greater well-being by fulfilling their basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
These needs are universal and fundamental to human motivation and flourishing. Though Deci & Ryan never set out to study what helps humans thrive, these 3 factors drive intrinsic motivation and help us to feel good about ourselves and our lives.
This is our first empirically-supported theory of well-being for coaches. The same tools you use to motivate your athletes (or that you should be using) can help you feel and perform better too.
Autonomy: The need for self-direction
The first basic need is autonomy - the need for self-direction and control over one's life. When people feel that they have a say in their own lives (agency) and can make choices that align with their values and interests, they are more likely to experience positive emotions and greater well-being. For example, research has shown that employees who have more autonomy in their work are more satisfied and engaged in their jobs (see Kennon Sheldon’s great book Freely Determined for a bunch of research on this).
This is especially true for coaches. The need for control and drive to have a major influence over their own destiny often lives at the heart of coach behavior, both good and bad. Ideally, this striving for autonomy helps coaches appreciate the influence they can have, and also turn some autonomy over to their players to optimize performance.
The main way to promote autonomy is to give people choices. A simple example I often give coaches who want to promote autonomy in their environment is considering giving their athletes a say in how practice is run. Coaches can enhance their autonomy by drawing more conscious attention to the choices they actually can make, which can often be obscured by the pressure to perform. Pressure can lead us into binary thinking, which limits choice. By providing choices, people feel more in control of their lives and are more likely to be motivated and engaged.
Several scientific studies have provided evidence for the importance of autonomy and agency in human motivation. For example, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who had higher levels of perceived autonomy reported greater well-being and life satisfaction (Sheldon & Niemiec, 2006). Another study from the same journal showed that employees who felt more autonomous at work were less likely to experience burnout and more likely to be engaged in their jobs (Gilbert & Abbot, 2019). Having clear ownership over our direction and activities is empowering, and enables us to both feel and perform better.
Research has also shown that when people feel a sense of agency - the ability to take actions that influence their environment - they are more likely to be motivated and achieve their goals. A study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that participants who were given more control over an experimental task reported higher levels of motivation and performed better than those who had less control (Patall et al., 2010).
Simply put - the more we feel in charge of what we’re doing and like we have influence over our experience, the better we feel, think, and perform.
These findings suggest that promoting autonomy and agency can have significant positive effects on human motivation, performance, and well-being. As coaches or leaders, we should strive to create environments where people feel empowered to make choices and take actions that align with their values and interests. We should be promoting both autonomy (the ability to choose) and agency (the ability to influence and control) in our athletes, and seeking that for ourselves.
Competence: The need for mastery and achievement
The second basic need is competence, which refers to the need for mastery and achievement. When people feel competent and capable, they are more likely to experience positive emotions and greater well-being.
We can promote competence by providing opportunities for growth and development. This means seeking out opportunities to challenge yourself, bucking your own status quo, and working diligently toward something important to you, the same way you ask your athletes to do it. You can also ask your AD or other leadership for continued education and learning opportunities, or find ways outside sports to practice skills that you want to work on.
Several scientific studies have provided evidence for the importance of competence and mastery in human motivation. A study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that people who engaged in activities that allowed them to develop their skills and experience a sense of mastery had higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction (Keller & Bless, 2008). Another showed that employees who felt more competent in their jobs were less likely to experience stress and burnout (Schaufeli et al., 2009).
Making progress on meaningful goals might be the clearest evidence-based path we have to both health and high performance. That experience is tied directly to our need for competence. People who made progress toward their goals on a daily basis experience greater well-being than those who did not (Oettingen et al., 2013).
These findings suggest that promoting competence and mastery can have significant positive effects on human motivation, performance, and well-being. As coaches or leaders, we should strive to create environments where people feel challenged but supported in their efforts to develop new skills and achieve their goals.
Relatedness: The need for social connection and belonging
The third basic need is relatedness.
People need social connection and belonging. When people feel connected to others and have a sense of belonging, they are more likely to experience positive emotions and greater well-being.
People who have strong social connections and support networks are more resilient and better able to cope with stress. Having close friendships is associated with greater emotional resilience and better mental health outcomes (Zhou et al., 2020).
Relationships are both a health and performance enhancer.
Whether you want to believe it or not, you need other people. Coaching is a lonely profession, and often times coaches further isolate and insulate themselves because of the pressures of the job. Not only does this limit the ability to be maximally effective with players and the rest of the staff - but it also limits the coach’s well-being and performance.
The best coaches foster a sense of community and belonging. They encourage social events and team-building activities to help players and staff connect with one another. And, they recognize their status and power and work to build meaningful relationships across the organization. After all, if we want people to support players and coaches as a primary function, it helps the coach to have a meaningful relationship and investment in the rest of the staff.
By fostering a sense of community and belonging, people feel more connected and supported, which can lead to greater well-being.
Research has consistently shown the importance of social support and relationships in human well-being. People with strong social support networks reported lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress (Thoits, 2011). In contrast, people who felt socially disconnected were more likely to experience poor physical health outcomes, such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). The isolation of coaches is hurting both mental and physical health, which of course hurts performance.
These findings highlight the crucial role that social support and relationships play in human well-being. As coaches or leaders, we should strive to create environments where people feel connected to others and have opportunities to develop meaningful relationships.
Self-determination theory provides a framework for understanding how people can achieve greater well-being by fulfilling their basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. By promoting these needs in our personal and professional lives, we can create environments that foster motivation, engagement, and positive emotions. Whether it's giving people choices, providing opportunities for growth and development, or fostering a sense of community and belonging, we can all take steps to promote well-being using the principles of SDT.