Self-Determination Theory, Intrinsic Motivation, and Youth Sports Participation

The self-determination theory states that autonomy, competence, and relatedness maintain or enhance intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Interestingly, the theory is based on the idea that in many cases, we start with intrinsic motivation, and we need to find ways to maintain or not retard that motivation. Rather than trying to motivate someone, we need to avoid de-motivating him or her. This is especially true with youth sports, which are inherently enjoyable activities. 

Organized youth sports are not purposeless play in the same way that playing a game at the park or in one’s backyard is a purposeless activity. Organized youth sports are generally adult-led activities, which opposes the individual’s need to feel autonomous. Lepper and Greene (1975) studied surveillance, which was defined as “the constant or periodic monitoring of a ‘subordinate’s’ behavior by a ‘supervisor’ with power or authority over him” (p. 479). A coach’s role naturally fits with the definition of surveillance.

In one study that compared high surveillance to low surveillance, the supervisors saw the “high-surveillance subordinates as motivated primarily by the surveillance, and hence less internally motivated, less trustworthy, and less likely to perform adequately in the absence of surveillance “(Lepper & Greene, 1975; p. 480). This creates a cycle where the supervisors believe that the high-surveillance subordinates need more supervision. What does this mean?

Imagine two coaches. The first coach (C1) believes that the players are motivated internally, want to play basketball, and want to do their best. The second coach (C2) believes that the players are minimally motivated, are there for extrinsic rewards, and will try to do as little as possible to get by.

Because C1 believes in the players’ internal motivation, he is likely to take a low-surveillance approach. Rather than set forth a lot of rules and a carrot-and-stick management style, he is more likely to create an environment that gives the players some choice and self-direction. Rather than hovering and constantly monitoring the players’ activities, he will allow some freedom. When a player makes a mistake, he will assume the player does not understand and attempt to re-explain, rather than assuming that the player is not playing hard enough or does not care. This creates a more positive approach to coaching.

C2 will use a carrot-and-stick approach. He will coach with a series of rewards and punishments. When players do not perform, the coach will automatically associate their lack of performance with a lack of effort or lack of motivation and punish the players. The environment will be one where the players perform in order to avoid punishments rather than for more intrinsic reasons.

Based on the studies of Deci and Ryan, the players on C2’s team will lose motivation and may quit. They will be in an environment where there is no opportunity for feelings of autonomy. The players on C1’s team are more likely to thrive and improve their performance. The coach’s behaviors become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since C1 believes that his players are motivated, and provides the space for them to perform, they are likely to maintain their motivation and perform. Because C2 does not believe his players are internally motivated, he will use external controls. When these work, it will reinforce his belief that the external controls are responsible for the players’ behaviors, which will lead to more external control. If the external controls do not work, the coach will believe more punishments or more rewards are necessary and will increase the external controls, creating a cycle.

In one study by Deci and Ryan, students who were interested in puzzles were observed as they worked with puzzles. One group received no reward. The second group, after a baseline measurement, was told that they would receive a reward. When the students were told to take a break, the non-reward group was more inclined to continue participating, while the reward group waited until the end of the break. The implication was that the presence of a reward turned the play into work.

Every coach wants his or her players to practice more, especially away from the team practice. Every parent wants his or her son or daughter to practice more. Often, the coach or parent puts pressure on the child or creates an external reward. This turns an intrinsically motivating activity – playing a sport – into work. Once the reward is introduced, the player is less likely to practice without the reward. I see a relationship with training. Once parents invest in a personal trainer for a player, the player loses some of his or her autonomy and is less likely to engage in self-directed practice.

Coaching and training are surveillance roles. One cannot avoid being in a position of power or authority over the player. However, one can mitigate the negative effects of the surveillance through his or her approach. By giving players some choice of their environment, one can increase their feelings of autonomy: The players believe that they are doing something of their choosing, not because they are forced to do something. The coach can focus on positive, informational feedback to improve feelings of competence. If the players feel like they are good or they are improving, this feedback may cancel the external controls (especially losing) that are a natural part of competition. Finally, the coach can create a sense of belonging for all the players. When players feel like they are important, and important to the team, there is a sense of relatedness. When players have these feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, even when under surveillance, they are likely to maintain their intrinsic motivation, play hard, and ultimately perform better compared to environments which ignore these feelings or concepts.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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