Self Determination Theory and Coaching
In the fitness and nutrition world, coaches spend a lot of time optimizing programs and approaches to maximize adaptation and results by focusing on the quantitative components of training and eating. And rightfully so, there is an abundance of science that supports the importance of reps, sets, volume, carbohydrates, and protein, to name a few.
Adaptation and performance however rely equally on the client or athlete’s attitude when striving towards a goal. Good coaching extends beyond spreadsheets and numbers as the coach/client relationship ultimately influences the subjective experience of the client.
Coaches have an excellent opportunity to enhance the clients experience and indirectly their results if they understand the tools and methods to use.
One such tool relies on a theory in psychology called “Self-Determination Theory.” Self-determination theory proposes that people are motivated to grow and change by three innate and universal psychological needs.
- People need to gain master of tasks and learn different skills. When people feel like they have the skills needed to be successful, they are more likely to take the actions required to achieve their goals.
- People need to experience a sense of belonging or relatedness to other people.
- People need to feel that they are in control of their own behaviors and goals. This sense of being able to take direct and chosen action that will impact their success plays a major role in helping people feel self-determined.
Self-determination theory suggests that people have a desire for personal growth and that repeated instances of self-improvement, goal attainment, and skill mastery positively impacts one’s sense of self. When the need for competence, connectedness, and autonomy are met, we are more likely to be driving by intrinsic motivation and thrive in the pursuit of our goals.
The theory assumes that people have a natural curiosity to endeavor and try new things, master those things, and embark on new challenges. People often tend to integrate those experiences with a core sense of who they are. It also acknowledges that people will struggle to pursue the process of self-improvement if they lack the feeling of autonomy, competence, and/or connection.
When we consider how this applies to athletes or clients, it is most relevant to view self-determination theory through the lens of communication, as that will be what drives most coach/client relationships. A good coach is more than a spreadsheet generator or provider of macros.
In a 2022 meta-analysis, researchers assessed existing studies on coach autonomy support. They define this as generally taking steps to:
- Provide choices to clients
- Provide the rationale for tasks and decisions
- Acknowledge the clients’ feelings and perspectives
- Provide non-controlling, competence based feedback
- Aspire to prevent coach ego involvement
- Avoid overt controls and the use of tangible punishments or rewards
As expected, a high level of autonomy support in the coach/client relationship was positively associated with a long list of positive psychological outcomes and results. Clients in these types of coaching relationships reported higher levels of general well-being, life satisfaction, self-esteem, performance, achievement, and of course coach-client relationship quality. This analysis supports that coaches have an opportunity to enhance their clients’ sense of connection, autonomy, and competence while concurrently supporting their mental health.
The process of putting self-determination theory into practice as a coach is actually relatively straight forward. It does require a coach to forgo the tendency to simply prescribe a program to a new athlete. Even though an experienced coach may have thousands of data points to support their approach with any one client, it is important to remember that the client may only have one data point in their coaching experience, and that experience (which relies heavily on how the coach behaves) can have an enormous impact on the trajectory for that client. The application of self-determination theory requires even the best coaches or programmers in the world to treat each client as a unique individual.
The first step with any new client of course is goal setting. By collaborating during the goal setting process, the coach helps to build a sense of connection and helps to ensure that coach and client are pushing in the same direction. As subordinate goals develop, providing genuine feedback and allowing the client to select from options fosters a sense of autonomy. This helps to increase intrinsic motivation for continued striving.
During program design, the coach should focus on tasks that are well within the clients’ skillset. A program that is too complicated or advanced for a client will negatively impact their sense of competence which will discourage intrinsic motivation and make the program far less enjoyable overall, which increases the risk of quitting. Over time, good coaching and appropriate challenges will encourage the client to develop new skills and mastery which will begin to positively impact their sense of self while building their sense of competence. By soliciting and incorporating feedback in program design and by building in options (such as when to take a deload or when to take a refeed day), the coach increases both connection and autonomy.
By actively listening and understanding a client during feedback, a coach again increases the level of connectedness a client feels to the process and the coach. Instead of inducing shame or guilt when a client fails to perform or meet expectations, a coach should acknowledge areas of proficiency while providing several potential solutions that are appropriate for their abilities. By not inducing shame and instead providing a small amount of positive affirmation along with corrective feedback, the coach increases the client’s sense of competence even when failure occurs. This promotes an environment that fully supports a client’s well-being and supports their long-term success.
In our fast-paced, results driven world, it is not always intuitive to take the slower, more thorough approach, especially when some clients communicate that their desire is to simply be told what to do. Ultimately, long term success relies on a solid foundation that is built on a client’s subjective experience, well-being, and intrinsic motivation. Coaches can cultivate these through simple strategies such as inviting input, providing meaningful choices within the program, explaining the rationale being decisions and fielding questions, validating a client’s feelings, and seeking to understand their perspective.