Strengthening Athlete Motivation by Embedding the Self-Determination Theory in a Strength and Conditioning Program

Published On: January 20, 2022Categories: Programming

“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”. At times in my career, I’ve heard statements from coaches along the lines of “this player seems like he doesn’t care” or “it doesn’t seem like she cares about being here”, and this is often followed up with a conversation about how frustrating it is for coaches when the athletes don’t seem present or invested in training.

I like to think I understand where the coaches are coming from; a lot of strength and conditioning coaches get into the field through some innate draw to the weight room, it’s something they have always connected with. This makes the experience of a seemingly disinterested or unmotivated athlete even more incomprehensible; we just can’t wrap our heads around the idea of not wanting to be here. It is important to remember that the field of strength and conditioning is both an art as well as a science; there are scientific principles surrounding biomechanics, physiology, anatomy, periodization and much more, however there are also social science principles (the arts) that provide coaches with valuable tools for managing things like motivation, emotional well-being, and positive development.

One such area of social science that is geared towards addressing individual motivation is Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory (see Figure 1)(1). Self Determination Theory is aimed at shifting individual motivation from extrinsic towards intrinsic and accomplishes this through emphasis of three components: competency, autonomy, and relatedness (2). Specific investment from the strength and conditioning professional into each of these three areas may lead to increased intrinsic motivation from athletes, and in turn lead to less athletes who seem like “they don’t care” (2).

Figure 1. Self-Determination Theory adapted from Deci and Ryan (1)

Coaching for Competence in Strength and Conditioning

Coaching for competence has been demonstrated as an effective way to drive participation and enjoyment in a strength and conditioning program (3). This requires the professional to be honest with his or her athletes with respect to their stage of development and training age, and providing a challenging environment where success can be developed3. Providing developmentally appropriate training does not mean an individual cannot be exposed to movements that are, at first, completed unsuccessfully, it means that the coach carefully selects a specific movement that the athlete might struggle with, and then provides constraints (whether task, environment, or individual) that help the athlete to learn how to achieve success in the given movement.

Over time as the athletes demonstrate competence, assistive constraints can be pulled back, and more challenging constraints can be applied to further stimulate both physical development as well as a sense of competence for “levelling up” in an exercise. Take the example of a bodyweight squat; a specific athlete might not possess the combination of traits that leads to successful completion of a dynamic bodyweight squat. Instead of removing that pattern from the program (and possibly creating a bad relationship with a great exercise), a coach can provide an environment and task constraint aimed at assisting this movement, which in this case could be a target to squat towards (like a box or a bench) as well as asking the athlete to simply hold the position at the level of the target (an isometric). This removes the demand of having to organize the body through a dynamic movement, yet still allows this athlete to perform a squat pattern. Eventually, the height of the target can be lowered, the length of the hold can be extended, and once a specific level of achievement has been reached then the athlete can “level up” to a dynamic bodyweight squat (4).

The progressive planning of appropriately challenging “levels” and the use of simple, yet effective, constraint manipulations can not only lead to the development of athletes who feel competent (and even confident5), but it can also lead to the development of a comprehensive training program that can be refined and updated over time. It’s also important to note here, you need to let an athlete know that they have done a great job by “leveling up” in an exercise. I’m not suggesting that we give our athletes a false sense of confidence or that praise comes at every single turn, as this is also not effective at developing confident competence (5), but if an athlete comes in the door and can’t do a proper push up, and then 2 weeks later can perform a good set of 5 push ups, make sure you give that athlete a fist bump. The smile that follows serves as specific proof that the athlete feels good about the accomplishment, and develops a heightened sense of competence in the gym setting.

Coaching for Autonomy in Strength and Conditioning

Athlete autonomy may be a tricky concept for some coaches, as it implies giving up a part of control and placing that part in the hands of the athletes. While I appreciate this, I also have experienced that most coaches who have had, and continue to have, successful outcomes (i.e., winning the championships) know just how much control to place in the hands of the athletes, and how much control to maintain. Providing autonomy to athletes has many benefits including an increase in motivation (2) , an increase in self-regulation (6), and increases in transformative leadership (7).

Creating autonomy within a training program, especially a high school or collegiate program with upwards of 400 athletes, is also highly beneficial for the strength and conditioning coach. Teaching an athlete how to self-govern aspects of their training program can free up availability to devote to other athletes, or attend to administrative responsibilities. The key here though, is that this process involves teaching.

Walsh outlines a five-step process that simplifies teaching for autonomy (see Figure 2) (6): first, you must help the athlete identify a problem with a specific technique. An athlete does not know what they do not know, and it is our job to bring awareness to a technical issue so as to raise the cognitive process associated with skill development and mastery.

Once an athlete is made aware of a technical error, the coach can work with that athlete to evoke a commitment towards adjusting this technique. This is where provision of general education comes in, and is much easier for the coach if there is a specific “why” for everything that you do; once explaining the “why” of a technical correction, goal setting towards self-regulation can begin. This next step is where competence and autonomy start to merge; execution of the desired technique is the next step in self-regulation. Execution alone however, does not lead to an increase in motivation; if an athlete negatively evaluates his or her performance, that performance is more likely to become permanent (6).

As mentioned with celebrating when athletes “level-up”, the job of the strength and conditioning coach is to also let them know when they have done something well, not exclusively something done poorly. Over time, knowledge of a correct performance will become habit, and the habit leads to an increase in self-regulation and autonomy (6). Think of it this way: if your athletes cringe when you approach them within a session because they know they’re about to receive a correction, then you are missing the target. Not only is the athlete less likely to receive what you are saying, they will not want to work with you because the experience is disproportionately negative. A simple solution to this is to remember the coaching sandwich: tell an athlete that they’ve done something well, provide some feedback (if it’s necessary), and then provide another aspect that an athlete has done well.

Figure 2. 5 Step Process to Direct Coaching for Autonomy adapted from Walsh (6).

Coaching for Relatedness in Strength and Conditioning

Turner, Rudz, and Bertolacci indicate that relationships (relatedness) between adults (coaches) and athletes are critical to growth, learning, and success (8). In order to promote the development of relatedness with your athletes, it is imperative that you express care to the athletes, challenge the growth of the athletes, provide support to the athletes, share power with the athletes, and expand possibilities with the athletes (8).

Expressing care can come in many forms, however it is important to note that simply because you are expressing care does not mean the athlete is interpreting your expression in the manner that you intended. Working to first get to know the athletes is a great first step in understanding how they feel supported and cared for. Once you understand this, you can express care to the athletes in a way that they receive it.

Building relatedness does not mean that you are present simply to make things easier for an athlete. There are points within a training plan that require development, and development requires the provision of stress beyond the level an athlete is conditioned for. In these opportunities, being upfront about the work that has to be done is important; indicating that this is going to be a challenge but that you will be there with the athlete through the challenge, helps to strengthen the relatedness the athlete feels.

There are also times where the support an athlete requires is outside of your scope of practice, and in these moments taking the time to explain that a referral may be best for the athlete can go a long way in ensuring that the athlete feels like you are making decisions with his or her best interests in mind. Sharing power connects with the previously discussed development of autonomy.

A simple way to build autonomy, and in turn relatedness, into training sessions is to allow athletes an appropriate “menu” of options that they can choose to complete a given set and rep scheme. There are absolutely moments when a given exercise may be superior to another, but there are also moments when allowing the athletes to select their own exercise will lead to improved effort with an exercise as the athletes feel more ownership of the training process. This level of autonomy is likely best developed over many years, and slowly providing an athlete more an more autonomy in relation to the confidence you have in an athlete’s ability to make informed decisions is a manner that can be integrated within the course of a coach-athlete relationship.

Finally, a fundamental purpose of strength and conditioning is to develop athletes to a level further than the level at which they arrived in your care. This development is not simply physical, and you need to consider what comes next in an athlete’s life post-sporting career. The development of motivation, physical competence, confidence, knowledge, and understanding (physical literacy) with respect to training expands the possibilities your athletes have for taking ownership of their own healthy lifestyle in the future. Building a training environment where your athletes know you are there to provide support, teaching, and a challenge allows for the development of relatedness in the training environment.


Carefully considering the interplay of competency, autonomy, and relatedness, and how you are weaving the development of these three components into your training environment can lead to the insurance of more motivated athletes. As Gilson highlights, an increase in athlete motivation is synonymous with an increase in confidence (5), and the confidence generally comes with an improvement in performance on the field of play.

If we can improve performance on the field of play and improve physical literacy by positively impacting motivation by embedding the self-determination theory in the training environment without compromising training outcomes (9), I am hard pressed to find a reason not to seriously consider how you are embedding aspects of competence, autonomy, and relatedness into the preparation of athletes under your CARE!

Author Bio: Nic Gray is a strength and conditioning coach with a CSCS certification through the NSCA, a Master’s Degree in Professional Kinesiology from the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Physical and Health Education from Queen’s University. His industry experience includes working in the collegiate, private, and professional strength and conditioning sectors. Additionally, previous successes include coaching various provincial and national champion programs. Current undertakings include working in professional hockey, collegiate/high school hockey, and elite track and field.


  1. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Publishing Corporation
  2. Amorose, A., & Anderson-Butcher, D. (2007). Autonomy-supportive coaching and self-determined motivation in high school and college athletes: A test of self-determination theory. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 8. 654-670. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2006.11.003.                                                                  
  3. Chamberlin, J.M., Fry, M.D., & Iwasaki, S. (2017). High school athletes perceptions of the motivational climate in their off season training programs. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31 (3). 736-742. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001533
  4. Radnor, J.M., Moeskops, S.M., Morris, S. et al. (2020). Developing athletic motor skill competencies in youth. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 42 (6). 54-70. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000602
  5. Gilson, T. (2010). Outcomes of confidence in sport training settings. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32 (5). 91-96. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181dfcab7
  6. Walsh, A. (2012). Empowering athletes to self-regulate: A guide for enhancing athlete’s learning. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 34 (2). 70-75. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182452a01
  7. Smith, V., Moore, E., & Whitney, G. (2019). Strategies to increase athletes’ transformational leadership behaviours during strength and conditioning sessions. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 41 (2). 31-37. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000422
  8. Turner, G., Rudz, T., & Bertolacci, L. (2018). Strength and conditioning coaching and positive youth athletic development: Context-specific application of the developmental relationships framework. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 40 (6). 9-55. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000413
  9. Walts, C.T., Murphy, S.M., Stearne, D.J., Rieger, R.H., & Clark, K.P. (2021). Effects of a flexible workout system on performance gains in collegiate athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 35 (5). 1187-1193. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000004031

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