Human beings have an innate tendency and desire to succeed.  We all want to grow, develop and function at our best. Movies such as the Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Gravity portray our nature to thrive. What movie directors, musicians, artists and psychologists have discovered is we all want to flourish – but we cannot do it alone.

We are by nature, social animals, striving to reach our full human potential is natural. While our desire to thrive may be innate, thriving doesn’t happen automatically.  Athletes thriving in a sports environment requires nurturing.  As coaches we either facilitate, foster, and enable flourishing or disrupt, thwart and impede it. Conventional motivation practices have proven to undermine more often than encourage human potential.

The bad news is we have all likely adopted outdated ideas about motivation from our past experiences. The good news is the new science of motivation provides us a path of radical departure and an exciting opportunity to lead, energize and engage today’s student athlete.

The true nature of motivation begins with an understanding of three psychological needs – autonomy, relatedness and competence. Sixty years of research on motivation tells us these three psychological needs are essential to thriving and flourishing.


Autonomy is our human need to perceive we have choices. It is our need to feel that what we are doing is of our own volition. It is our perception that we are the source of our actions.

Traditional methods of coaching have created an environment where most players feel they have little to no choices and are only pawns being manipulated by coaches. If players feel like they have little to no choices their psychological need for autonomy is significantly diminished. Players must feel and experience autonomy to flourish.

This doesn’t mean coaches need to be passive or hands-off but rather that players feel they have influence over their sports experience. Empowerment may often be considered a cliché, but if players don’t have a sense of empowerment, their sense of autonomy suffers and so does their productivity and performance.


Relatedness is our need to care about and be cared about by others. It is our need to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives. It is our need to feel that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves.

Notice all the needs relatedness covers – it is personal, interpersonal and social – we thrive on connection. One of the big “aha” moments coaches discover when they examine the relatedness needs of their players is not nearly as many as they expect are getting their interpersonal needs met in athletics.

Their players are distracted by outside interests because those outside interests are meeting needs athletics are not.  One of the great opportunities coaches have is to help their players find meaning, contribute to a higher purpose and experience healthy interpersonal relationships in sports. The challenge is exploring healthy interpersonal relationships in athletics is foreign to most coaches and, in some cases, even discouraged. But the quality of our players’ relationships with you and their teammates is essential.

When coaches apply pressure to perform without regard to how it makes people feel, people interpret their coach’s actions as self-serving. You play a huge role in helping your players experience relatedness by emphasizing caring for others and feeling cared about, feeling connected without ulterior motives and contributing to something greater than oneself.

People do perform better with a coach but the type of coach you are impacts players perceptions, feelings and actions Players often feel verbal coaches are not acting in their best interest, but are solely self-serving.  Many athletes interpret verbal pushing as the coach’s need to win or that verbal encouragement is more for the coach and his/her own motivation than that of the players.

If players feel they are being used by you or sense that your attention is not genuine or suspect, they are simply a means to someone else’s end they will eventually lose energy and enthusiasm and become less interested.

Motivating people doesn’t work because you cannot force someone to feel a sense of relatedness   – what you can do is pay attention to how players feel, that means gaining the skill to deal with and identify emotions – that means getting personal by genuinely caring about the person more than the outcome.


All people, including athletes’, find joy in learning, growing and gaining mastery

Competence is our need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities. It is demonstrating skill over time. It is feeling a sense of growth and flourishing.

The key is to tap into an athlete’s natural sense of motivation to grow and learn – bribing players with carrots or driving them with sticks diverts their natural love of wanting to improve – when we reduce motivation to rewards and punishment we hook our payers on motivational junk food.

Every player and team needs to be on a path of continuous improvement – at the end of the day, we need to be asking our team not what they achieved but what did they learned? And how did they grow? The answers to those two questions direct players toward mastery of skills rather than a win-at-all-cost mentality.


The real story of motivation is that people have psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence. It is a mistake to think people are not motivated – they are simply longing for needs they often cannot name – athletes are learners who long to grow, enjoy their experience, be productive, make positive contributions and build lasting relationships – this is not because of motivational forces outside themselves, but because it is their human nature.  When we as coaches tap into our players natural energy sources – enthusiasm and engagement flow in abundance.

To learn more consider taking our new course:  Coaching and Motivating Today’s Student-Athlete. Release Date:  February 2018

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