Autonomy supportive coaching behaviours: a reflection and practical perspective

Mageau and Vallerand (2003) conducted a review of the coaching literature specifically focussing on the coach-athlete relationship and the mediating effect this has on the type of motivation experienced by athletes. One of the key findings was the importance of autonomy supportive behaviours that seem to be a causal factor related to the development of intrinsic and self-determined extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the tendency to engage in a behaviour or activity for the enjoyment inherent in this activity. Self-determination refers to the degree that an activity or behaviour is internalised by the athlete. Intrinsic motivation can be thought of as the most self-determined form of motivation whereas external regulation is thought of as the least self-determined form of motivation. Between these two extremes can be thought of as a sliding scale of motivation with the position of the individual determined by the degree of internalisation as a result of autonomy supportive coaching behaviours.

An individual is likely to apply more effort and consistency in training if they are intrinsically motivated. However, the nature of sports is such that performance at the highest level is often challenging and tough. Therefore, self-determined forms of extrinsic motivation, that are characterised by internalisation of the value of the activities involved, can facilitate persistency and effort in the face of difficulties. From a practical point of view the coach can facilitate self-determined motivation by demonstrating autonomy supportive behaviours. Autonomy supportive behaviours are those that:

  • Provide choice within specific rules and limits: the coach must listen to and appreciate the athletes’ choices. Initial goal setting would be a prime opportunity to have an open dialogue with the athlete/s. This dialogue could be focussed on what the athlete wants to achieve (e.g. performance goals?). Following this an ensuing discussion regarding the optimal way of facilitating this (coach directed but open for the athlete to contribute via questioning and guided discovery)
  • Provide a rationale for tasks and limits: This can be embedded within the coaching process when actively coaching the athlete. For example, when coaching a squat, a short explanation as to why this is an important movement and how it can benefit the athlete when working towards their performance goals would help the athlete relate the exercise to their already internalised goals. This would associate the activity with the desired outcome and facilitate effort towards the exercise.
  • Acknowledge others’ feelings and perspectives: this requires a degree of empathy, openness and skill in listening actively and asking questions that can facilitate openness on the part of the athlete. It is important to be mindful of the athlete and listen with the intent to understand their whole experience.
  • Provide athletes with opportunities for initiative taking and independent work: Often it is important to catch people doing things right and feed this back to them. The resultant effect will ideally be replication of this behaviour and positive effort and affect. Opportunities for independent work should be encouraged for those less pro-active individuals. A non-punitive environment should be encouraged so that athletes are comfortable making mistakes yet are encouraged to learn from them.
  • Provide non-controlling competence feedback: This feedback should be focussed on specific aspects of the athletes’ performance that are under their control. For example: ‘that’s a very good looking squat, your chest is high, your weight is balanced nicely on your heels and your hips are below your knees. You look really comfortable and stable’. Controlling statements may include ‘your weight is on your heels and this is what I expected you to do’. Non-controlling statements are focussed on the what the athlete is doing well that is under their control. Constructive feedback can be embedded into the positive autonomy supportive feedback and can facilitate performance while encouraging self-determined motivation. For example, during a Romanian deadlift: ‘you really control your weight well, I can clearly see you’re focussed on moving your weight onto your heels which shows good control. Could I ask you to try and lift your chest up a little more? Try and imagine a spotlight shining directly forward from your chest. I want you to try and shine it in front of you’. The use of a coaching analogy provides an external cue in the form of something relatable that the athlete can understand. This also takes away focus from body angles and positions which can reduce the smoothness and automaticity of the movement, causing the athlete to ‘overthink’ and reduce the effectiveness of motor learning. The use of external cuing and analogies can also add an element of fun determined by the coache’s imagination which is useful when working with youth athletes. For example, when coaching a hip turn a coach could use the following feedback:
    • ‘you really did push the ground away hard and fast (this feedback is focussed on things that the athlete can control and replicate). Some of the fastest footballers in the world even Ronaldo and messi turn their hips really quickly when they change directions (vicarious experience that is relatable for children). Maybe we can play a little game to try and twist fast like messi. Can I ask you to imagine you’re one of those star wars characters with a lightsabre down by your hips (make the sounds and have some fun with them and let them choose a character). Let’s now imagine our enemy is beside us and we’re going to keep our lightsabre at our hips but turn really quickly and strike them really hard – kids love this one!
  • Avoid controlling behaviours
    • Avoid overt control
    • Avoid criticisms and controlling statements
    • Avoid tangible rewards for interesting tasks


Autonomy supportive behaviours are an important determinant of self-determined motivation. Autonomy supportive behaviour can be fun and challenging to implement and should be focussed on providing choice, providing rationales for activities and behaviours, acknowledging others’ feelings and perceptions, encouraging independence and initiative taking while providing non-controlling competence feedback that is externally oriented often with the use of coaching analogies. Remember, have fun with your athletes and help them to enjoy their time with you.




Mageau, G. A., & Vallerand, R. J. (2003). The coach-athlete relationship: a motivational model. J Sports Sci, 21(11), 883-904. doi:10.1080/0264041031000140374