It is widely acknowledged that the most successful performers across varying sporting paradigms are those that have invested a significant amount of time acquiring the essential skills of their trade through purposeful practice. From a skill acquisition perspective, factors such as repetition are recognized as being of critical importance in providing players/performers a solid foundation upon which to build. Repetition, by nature, however can become somewhat monotonous and un-enthralling given the persistent revisiting of a task, set condition or function within a practice. This, coupled with the fact that many elite or aspiring young athletes are now exposed to multiple sessions per week on a year round basis (without mentioning of course the likelihood of engagement in other sports or extra-curricular activities in what has become the full diary of a young child in today’s society) leaves the coach with a conundrum to overcome. How do I keep my athletes excited engaged and eager to learn when I know many environmental factors may be working against me?

The answer… Intrinsic Motivation.

Research in the academic domain (Deci et al, 1981, Mitchell, 1996) supports the idea that selected aspects of teachers’ behavior can be important factors affecting the intrinsic motivation of students. Intrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity for the pleasure and satisfaction derived from engaging in the activity (Deci and Ryan, 1985) whilst being engaged in sports out of enjoyment and fun has been shown to be an important determinant of sport persistence and performance (Vallerand and Rosseau, 2001).

Chelladurai’s (1980) multi dimensional model of leadership suggests that in order to maximize performance (and satisfaction) there should be congruence between the actual coaching behavior and preferred and required behaviors (Hoigaard Jones and Peters, 2008). Several studies (Black and Weiss, 1992, Chelladurai, 1984; Cote and Sedgwick, 2003, Hoigaard, Jones and Peters, 2008, Mageau and Vallerand, 2003, Mitchell, 1996, Potrac, Jones and Cushion, 2007, Ryan and Deci, 2000, Weiss & Friedrichs, 1986, Westre & Weiss, 1991) have highlighted the importance of an athlete’s perception of coach behavior in relation to their levels of motivation and furthering this, a need for an athlete centered, autonomy supportive learning environment has now been established (Deci and Ryan, 1985, Mageau and Vallerand, 2003, Mallett, 2005, Ryan and Deci, 2000).

Autonomy supportive learning environments are those in which the coach places the emphasis on the athlete’s self initiation, independent problem solving and participation in decision making (Deci and Ryan, 1985). Kidman (2001) suggests, undertaking this athlete centered approach to coaching is fundamental to producing performers who are intrinsically motivated to achieve. Mageau and Vallerand (2003) further strengthened the work produced by Deci and Ryan (1985) by producing an overview of the proposed behavioral patterns a coach could exhibit in order to facilitate an autonomy supportive environment. Providing athletes with, choice, a rationale for tasks, opportunities for initiative taking and competence feedback that does not control or direct behavior are believed to be synonymous with positive motivational climates. If a coach can successfully adopt the prescribed behaviors linked to developing autonomy then they are likely to develop intrinsically motivated athletes that, invest more effort (Peltier et al,1995) report higher levels of concentration (Briere et al, 1995) are more persistent (Peltier et al, 2001) and perform better (Beauchamp et al,1996).

The development of intrinsically motivated athletes within an autonomy supportive environment is strongly linked to the performer’s perception of the learning environment and particularly the levels of threat (Black and Weiss, 1992, Hoigaard, Jones and Peters, 2008; Mitchell, 1996,) perceived to be prevalent within that practice environment. It is in these instances where a coach must ensure their athlete positively perceives the experience they are undertaking. Mitchell (1996) proposes opportunities for success should be incorporated within practice as repeated success should lead to a more positive feeling of self-worth.

A range of theories have been produced whose central focus is to accurately surmise what factors impact the motivation levels of athletes. Prevalent within this body of literature is: competence motivation theory (Harter, 1978), cognitive evaluation theory (Deci and Ryan, 1985) and self-determination theory (Deci and Ryan, 1991). Alongside these theories, previous researchers have attempted to produce models that accurately orchestrate the process undertaken by the coach and performer during practice. Both Chelladurai’s (1984) multi-dimensional model of leadership behavior, and Mageau and Vallerand’s (2003) motivational model of the coach-athlete relationship serve to further strengthen the realization of the complexity of the task coaches face when attempting to motivate their athletes.

It is with the help of this research however, that coaches are provided with a greater framework for understanding what factors impair their athletes’ ability to produce their optimal performance levels and conversely what factors within the learning environment are conducive to athletes’ maximal functioning.

Coach Behavior 

One controllable factor conducive to the development of an athlete’s optimal performance and motivation levels is coach behavior. Black and Weiss (1992) highlight that coaches who provide more information and praise following desirable performances were associated with athletes who showed greater levels of enjoyment, effort and perceived competence. Similarly Cote and Hedgwick (2003) claimed athletes’ self esteem was enhanced by coaches who exhibited high levels of technical instruction, encouragement and supportive behavior. In addition, the nature, delivery and timing of feedback provided by coaches have been show to play an ever more important role in heightening an athlete’s motivation levels. Ryan et al (1985) suggest that feedback which is positive and informational in nature given in response to a performance should increase an athlete’s perceptions of competence and furthermore should promote a corresponding increase in motivation levels.


In the highly competitive contexts of both youth and elite sport, understanding the importance such highly controllable actions can have on the psychological wellbeing of athletes is a key component for future coaches. I hope the content of this article has been useful in providing an insight into the type of behaviors you should be looking to emit when you next take to the field. Good Luck.

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