The Nature of Motivation – Relatedness

First, some feedback I received:

A suggestion was made that autonomy-supportive coaching behaviors equate to leniency over bad behavior; or an autonomy-supportive coach lacks control over a team.

Being an autonomous-supportive coach does not mean the athletes have free reign of the team. It does not mean there are no rules, and all behaviors are accepted. That is called permissive coaching, and in fact, permissive coaches repress motivation by diminishing athlete perceptions of competence and relatedness (3). Athletes want rules, boundaries, and structure, and permissive coaches convey indifference, or not caring, towards the athletes.

On to the post…

Relatedness – the need to have a close, positive relationship with coaches and teammates; to feel belonging; to be understood – is the last key component of motivation. Relatedness is why we have teams, why we are compelled to do more than we could accomplish than if we trained alone. Our teammates help to inspire us to become better. As we strive towards ideal psychological functioning, and therefore performance, we need to feel connected to our social environment (3).

The Team and Relatedness:

Studies have shown that team cohesiveness – the quality of forming a united whole – is especially important for increasing motivation. Relatedness is also effective in devotion to a sport (2). However, in team settings, it is common to compare and compete against our fellow teammates and possibly undermining our connection to each other (5). How can teammates compete against each other while maintaining or increasing positive relations?

The Latin root word ‘compete’ means to ‘come together’ or ‘strive together’. Competition is nothing without another. Our competitors make us better. This is why it’s so important to congratulate our competitors at the end of a race. They literally make us better performers.

Moreover, our teammates make us better athletes when practices emphasize a ‘mastery’ climate over a ‘ego-involving’ climate (5). Mastery climate is defined in terms of attempting to master a task or assignment and exhibiting maximum effort and dedication. In this environment, athletes tend to “adopt adaptive achievement strategies such as selecting challenging tasks, giving maximum effort, persisting in the face of setbacks, and taking pride in personal improvement” (4).

Conversely, an ‘ego-involving’ climate promotes social comparison, and public evaluation as a basis for success (4,5). An ego-based climate has a stronger negative impact on women than it does on men, and both genders respond positively to a mastery climate (4). Teammates who are ego-based try to prove superiority and are concerned about how talented they are while simultaneously trying to protect those relative talents. That’s not a teammate. Teammates foster cooperation amongst each other, no matter the talent level.

Inevitably however, conflicts amongst team members will arise. Contrary to reports that lots of conflict is good, it’s not. Conflict resolution takes an inordinate amount of energy, energy that should be used towards achieving team and personal goals and forming team cohesiveness. While self-determination theory itself – autonomy, competency, and relatedness – has been shown to reduce intra team conflicts, another tactic to keep conflicts to a minimum is to encourage and teach self-compassion. Self-compassion defined as:

“Emotionally supportive toward both the self and others when hardship or human imperfection is confronted. While most people report being kinder to others than themselves, self-compassionate individuals report being equally kind to themselves and others” (6).

Self-compassionate individuals are able to resolve conflicts in relationships in a more healthy and helpful manner, while those who lack self-compassion “do not have the stable emotional platform needed to respond to conflicts in an evenhanded manner” (6).

To nurture self-compassion, adopt the following components (6):

  • Self-kindness (we are all works in development, honor that)

  • Common humanity (recognizing that all people have problems, make mistakes, and feel inadequate in some way)

  • Mindfulness (being aware of present-moment experience in a clear and balanced way so that one neither ignores nor ruminates on disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life)

One more tip to foster team cohesiveness: Peer coaching can benefit cooperative learning and provide positive social relations amongst team members (5). But it can’t just be any team member. If two team members are not getting along, it’s probably best to not put them in a peer-coaching situation.

The Coach and Relatedness:

Several studies have asserted that the coach-athlete relationship could be the most important factor of athletes’ contentment and well-being (5). The coach who intentionally or unintentionally leads the team by promoting ego-based team environments of “intra-team rivalry, outdoing others, and recognizing only the most talented players” are likely to lower feelings of relatedness between team members (5). These coaches also usually give more attention and feedback to athletes who are most instrumental in winning or train the ‘hardest’. Furthermore, coaches are also more likely to respond to poor performance with disciplinary reactions rather than taking the time to figure the ‘why’ of the performance (4). Despite our best intentions, it’s easy for coaches to do inadvertent harm, as we are frequently not conscious of our own controlling behaviors (5).

Rather, by “reinforcing effort, personal progress, and the view that everyone has an important role on the team”, coaches can improve relatedness and, in fact, the other two components of motivation as well (5).

The coach who take into consideration –

  • Athlete feelings and emotions

  • Disapproval of coaching methods

  • Doubts about training progression

  • Contradictory ideas on future training and racing

  • Welfare of each person on the team

– enhances relatedness and motivation (3).

To further improve the relationship with your athletes, and therefore improve motivation to succeed, coaches can (1,3):

  • Demonstrate friendliness and interest in relation to each pupil

  • Adopt some non-competitive, cooperative, learning structures (peer-led technique/motor control/motor modification sessions)

  • Provide choice within specific rules and limits

  • Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and perspectives

  • Provide athletes with opportunities for initiative taking (social media promotion of the team, for example)

Avoiding controlling coaching actions, such as ‘should’, ‘must’, and deadline statements can also help motivate athletes.

“The extent that athletes perceive that their coach allows them to feel competent, connected with others and autonomous in their behaviors, they will experience heightened intrinsic motivation because their basic psychological needs will be satisfied” (3).

The interconnectedness of the three components of motivation – autonomy, competency, and relatedness – are dynamic. They are never a 33%, 33%, 34% mixture. They are constantly evolving and changing amongst your athletes and throughout the season and years. As soon as you think you have motivation down, you don’t. Keep employing all three components dynamically and you’ll see wonderful results.


  1. 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.

  2. Calvo, T. G., Cervelló, E., Jiménez, R., Iglesias, D., & Murcia, J. A. M. (2010). Using self-determination theory to explain sport persistence and dropout in adolescent athletes. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 13(2), 677-684.

  3. Mageau, Geneviève A., and Robert J. Vallerand. "The coach–athlete relationship: A motivational model." Journal of sports science 21.11 (2003): 883-904.

  4. Breiger, Joshua, et al. "Winning, motivational climate, and young athletes' competitive experiences: Some notable sex differences." International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching 10.2-3 (2015): 395-411.

  5. Reinboth, Michael, and Joan L. Duda. "Perceived motivational climate, need satisfaction and indices of well-being in team sports: A longitudinal perspective." Psychology of Sport and Exercise 7.3 (2006): 269-286.

  6. Yarnell, Lisa M., and Kristin D. Neff. "Self-compassion, interpersonal conflict resolutions, and well-being." Self and Identity 12.2 (2013): 146-159.

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