The nature of motivation - Autonomy

Updated: Aug 5, 2018

Hard work and dedication are two essential components in athletic performances. Where does an athlete find the energy to put forth great effort to achieve success and how can coaches increase a given motivation level? How can coaches increase the will to train harder and smarter; the will to learn better techniques; the will to keep going in the face of adversity when we come across inevitable 'bumps in the road'; and the will to keep doing this for years?

“A good understanding of an athlete’s motivation is critical to a coach designing an appropriate motivational climate to realize an athlete’s physical talent" (1).

We know that the higher the motivation to succeed, the higher chance success will come to fruition. Given two similarly skilled athletes, the one who’s motivation is self-governed and comes from within, compared to an athlete who is externally controlled or motivated by factors that don't originate from within, the self-governed athlete will show (2) -

  • Enhanced performance

  • More persistence/resilience

  • Increased creativity

  • Heightened vitality

  • Increased self-esteem and general well-being

To foster innate inclinations of higher levels of self-motivation, coaches can adopt autonomous-supportive coaching practices. Autonomy is defined as the need to feel control and make choices towards goal attainment. Athletes (anyone, really) need to feel that they are in control of their goal pursuits. Here are some suggestions for coaches to implement an autonomous environment -

  1. Provide choice in the seasonal goal planning. Have the team decide the level of success they wish to accomplish for the season. The coach simply helps the team to achieve the explicit goal (3,4).

  2. Provide relevant rationale for engaging in the seasonal training plan and the workout for the day (3,4).

  3. Finally, allow the athlete to choose the type or method of evaluation when giving feedback. Different athletes will prefer their coach to use different ways of helping them. Figure out who likes what form of evaluation (3,4).

“College Athletes who perceived their coaches to exhibit a leadership style that emphasized training and instruction and was high in democratic behavior and low in autocratic behavior reported higher levels of intrinsic motivation” (5).

Give your swimmers a voice in how the season will progress and watch them improve in ways they have not before.

The next post will cover competency and how it relates to motivation.


  1. Mallett, C. J., & Hanrahan, S. J. (2004). Elite athletes: why does the ‘fire’ burn so brightly?. Psychology of sport and exercise, 5(2), 183-200.

  2. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68.

  3. Coatsworth, J. D., & Conroy, D. E. (2009). The effects of autonomy-supportive coaching, need satisfaction, and self-perceptions on initiative and identity in youth swimmers. Developmental psychology, 45(2), 320.

  4. Alfi, O., Assor, A., & Katz*, I. (2004). Learning to allow temporary failure: Potential benefits, supportive practices and teacher concerns. Journal of Education for teaching, 30(1), 27-41.

  5. Amorose, Anthony J., and Dawn Anderson-Butcher. "Autonomy-supportive coaching and self-determined motivation in high school and college athletes: A test of self-determination theory." Psychology of Sport and Exercise 8.5 (2007): 654-670.

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