Control Leads to Compliance, Autonomy Leads to Engagement: Is Autonomy Support the Most Important Factor to Facilitating a Productive Coach-Athlete Relationship in Athletic Development?

In our previous blog we explored the true value of university placement programmes on the intra and interpersonal development of university students. The placement experiences shared in the blog highlight the ability of placement programmes to narrow the gap between the textbook and the real world in the sport science industry, with challenge and support being important aspects. In this week’s blog we will explore the role of the coach-athlete relationship in physical training, with a particular focus on autonomy support. Is autonomy support the most important factor to facilitating a productive coach-athlete relationship in athletic development?

Sports psychology research has identified the importance of the coach-athlete relationship to both successful athletic performance and interpersonal satisfaction (Jowett and Meek, 2000; Jowett and Cockrill, 2003; Jowett, 2005; Lyle, 1999; Mageau and Vallerand, 2003; Poczwardowski, Barott, and Jowett, 2006). A well-conceived coaching philosophy provides the structure through which such performance and satisfaction can be coherently and consistently achieved (Cassidy, Jones, and Potrac, 2009; Martens, 2004; McGladrey, Murray, and Hannon, 2010). An important construct of the author’s own strength and conditioning (S&C) coaching philosophy surrounds the need for autonomy in the coach-athlete dyad. Autonomy is the experience of volition; for behaviour to be united with an integrated sense of self, empowering choice as a driving force behind behaviour (deCharms, 1968; Deci and Ryan, 2000; Reeve, Nix and Hamm, 2003; Ryan, 1995). The author will now provide a critical discussion as to whether autonomy support is the most important factor to facilitating a productive coach-athlete dyad in athletic development.

Autonomy support occurs when a significant other (e.g. S&C coach) embraces the target’s (e.g. athletes) perspective, provides appropriate and consequential information and encourages the target’s initiative (Black and Deci, 2000; Pelletier, Fortier, Vallerand and Bricre, 2001). Research suggests that behavioural strategies may be applied by the S&C coach to satisfy this support system (Grolnick and Ryan, 1989; Mageau and Vallerand, 2003; Pelletier et al., 2001). Through the author’s own S&C coaching philosophy (appendix 1) and experiences such strategies can be applied by providing the athlete with a clear direction and framework to S&C. Publicising the periodisation of training and expectations regarding adaptation, volume and intensity of training relative to the competition cycle provides pertinent information and rationale to the athlete. At this point the athlete should be encouraged to express opinion; consult on tasks, limits and policies and propose questions in order to fulfil self-determination (deCharms, 1968; Ryan and Deci, 2006). The author also positions the need for individuality in the coaching process relative to physical ability and the need for mentoring athletes. Autonomy supportive behaviour would propose varying strategies relative to training age and physical literacy to stimulate continued adaptation without threatening wider training aims. Variability in exercise progressions and regressions and considering action required on feedback from the athlete may be appropriate strategies. As such the sensations of competency, connectedness and autonomy may be internalised, thus mediating the effects of need satisfaction on the relationship between the coach’s behaviour and athlete’s motivation (Mageau and Vallerand 2003, Reeve and Deci, 1996; Ryan and Fredrick, 1997). #

Beyond the actions related to programme design and athlete competency, the author cites the importance of language and its impact and influence on the athlete (appendix 1). Language that provides structure and portrays involvement in the athlete’s welfare represents an important component of athlete’s perception of autonomy (Deci and Ryan, 1985; Grolnick and Ryan, 1989; Alvarez, Balaguer, Castillo, and Duda, 2009).  Research has highlighted the importance of communication being positive, open, honest and founded on mutuality and understanding (Culver and Trudel, 2000; Bloom, Schinke and Salmela, 1997; Headley-Cooper, 2010; Yukelson, 1997). Drawing on the experiences of the author, the use of such language may allow the athlete to ‘try’ a variation in technique or ‘may want to’ load or deload the barbell to achieve training adaptations. Such language creates a more motivating climate, providing the athlete with vital experience and information to internalise their own physical capability and facilitate self determined extrinsic motivation (Mageau and Vallerand, 2003; Pelletier et al., 1995). Research has shown that S&C coaches who undertake a process of self-assessment of their instructional behaviour are effective in modifying behaviours targeted for change (Gallo and De Marco, 2008). As such this process may be effective in improving the S&C coaches’ use of language to provide more effective autonomy support for the athlete.

While the concept of autonomy supportive behaviours fosters choice, rationale, emotive awareness and both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Cordova and Lepper, 1996; Grusec and Goodnow, 1994; Reinboth and Duda, 2004) it is idealistic to suggest such support can always be effectively delivered in the S&C environment. Coaching context is an influential factor on coaching behaviour (Mageau and Vallerand, 2003) and even if autonomy supportive behaviours are central to coaching philosophy, actual behaviours are formed within the context in which they operate (Deci and Ryan, 2000; Headley-Cooper, 2010; Oliver, Markland, Hardy, and Pethrick, 2008). From the author’s experiences, the S&C environment can be highly competitive as task contingent rewards are prevalent, athletes are continually observed, evaluated and assessed, competition and training are scheduled in advanced creating rigidity to training and performance and S&C coaches are afforded limited contact time with the cohort of athletes they engage with. Such circumstances can force ego-involved, controlling behaviours from the S&C coach that result in conflict, alienation, controlling regulatory processes and compensatory outcome goals (Conroy and Coatsworth, 2007; Deci and Ryan, 2000; Deci and Ryan, 1987). Autonomy relative to ideal supportive behaviour may be undermined and the equilibrium of the coach-athlete dyad affected.

Whilst the role of autonomy supportive behaviours has been recognised as important to facilitating productive coaching-athlete relationships, the ability to execute such behaviours in the S&C environment may be challenging. The S&C coach should be encouraged to expose S&C planning and rationales, provide individual support to stimulate athletic development and use language that internalises physical capability and motivation. Such recommendation fulfils the athlete’s self-determined need for choice, independence and expression of feelings and motivation. However, the challenge is represented by the context in which the S&C coach and athlete engage. The limitations surrounding competition, reward systems and scheduling places stress on the coach’s ability to deliver autonomy support and as such controlling behaviours may prevail. S&C coaches should understand the importance of autonomy supportive behaviours and the positive effects on the athlete and their physical and emotional development. However, the coach must also be aware of factors that limit the facilitation of productive coach-athlete relationships such as the coaching context. How do you go about developing autonomy support to facilitate a productive coach-athlete relationship in athletic development?

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