Enhancing Motivation through Autonomy Support

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From a coach perspective, a motivated player is a real pleasure to have in a session. Their drive and determination contribute to focused and effective sessions. As coaches we have the opportunity to encourage motivation to build in the athlete. So a good question is how can we foster sustainable motivation in the players we coach?

Liu Guoliang at the Werner Schlager Academy 2013 0 Photo by: Donn Olsen

For motivation to be lasting and most effective it needs to come from intrinsic sources and be self-determined. Intrinsic motivation is the desire the player finds from within to perform a task for their own satisfaction. Promoting autonomy in the players we coach will inspire the values of hard work and perseverance.

Research using the self-determination theory strongly supports the use of autonomy supportive coaching in enhancing intrinsic motivation.

So what does supporting autonomy actually involve? Here is one definition I found:

“an individual in a position of authority (e.g. a coach) takes the other’s (e.g. an athlete’s) perspective, acknowledges the other’s feelings, and provides the other with pertinent information and opportunities for choice, while minimizing the use of pressures and demands” – (Black and Deci, 2000, pp.742).

Margeau and Vallerand (2003) outlined some autonomy supportive behaviours to increase autonomy within coaching environments. The behaviours are listed below.

  • Provide as much choice as possible within reason

To give choice to the players, I like to get them to choose between two exercises. Or I might ask them to come up with one around a certain topic. If they are an experienced player I may say to them that they are to ask if they want feedback. Anything to get them more involved with their learning and practice.

  • Justify the tasks and constraints set

A short explanation before a task makes a big difference to a players focus. Playing with no reason or purpose is not going to be concentrated or be effective.

  • Acknowledge the players feelings and point of view

If a player feels that the coach perceives them as just a robot to program to play good table tennis then their feelings towards the tasks will be negative and motivation will be low. However, if the coach acknowledges the players perspective and provides a justification for constraints and rules then motivation will be nurtured. A good level of understanding for each others points of view will make for a good coach-athlete relationship.

  • Allow players to work independently and solve problems

Allowing players to work on problems in their games with another player or independently will enhance understanding as well as motivation. Coming up with their own solutions will create an investment in their own development.

  • Provide non-controlling competence feedback

Feedback has two main functions. To provide information and control behaviour. Providing controlling feedback such as “If you keep playing this well, people will be watching out for you”, conveys an expectation. Therefore, whether it was deliberate or not it is controlling. Feedback should target controllable behaviour. The feedback should provide information that enhances the players perceptions of competence such as, “Well done your backhand has really improved after all that hard training.”

  • Avoid controlling coaching behaviours

There are many ways to display controlling behaviour (e.g. physical and psychological control, rewards, etc…). One common way is imposed goals. For example, the coach setting the group of players a target of getting 50 balls on the table. These imposed goals take autonomy away from from the players. Self-set goals prevent external peer comparison and emphasize self-improvement. Thus increasing intrinsic and self-determined motivation.

Being autonomy supportive requires the coach to create an environment that allows the players to make choices. By taking a step back and creating a environment rich in choice and decisions you will allow the athlete to create self-determined motivations. The players are following a path and it is our job as coaches to keep them on the right track if they stray. But if there is a fork in the road let them make the choice.

Below is a great video outlining some key points in motivation, self-determination theory and autonomy support…

Do you have any ideas on how to support autonomy in coaching sessions? Comment them below.


Black, A.E. and Deci, E.L. (2000), ‘The effects of instructors’ autonomy support and students’ autonomous motivation on learning organic chemistry: a self-determination theory perspective.’ Science Education, 84, pp.740–756.

Margeau, G.A. and Vallerand, R.J. (2003), ‘The coach–athlete relationship: a motivational model’, Journal of Sport Sciences, 21, pp.883–904.


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