Autonomy supportive coaching behaviour – a summary and look through the mirror

Autonomy-supportive coaching behaviours are those that fulfil any of these characteristics: provide choice within specific rules and limits, provide a rationale for tasks and limits, acknowledge others’ feelings and perspectives, provide athletes with opportunities for initiative taking and independent work, provide non-controlling competence feedback.

Aims of autonomy-supportive behaviour

The aim of autonomy-supportive coaching behaviours is to facilitate athlete ‘internalisation’ of the task or rules. Internalisation means the athlete ‘buys-in’ to what you are asking them to do, perceives the value of the task and consequently feels engaged to perform the task. However, due to individual differences in athlete personality, psychology and coachability a coach, manager or anybody leading a team, will need to reflect on the optimal way to achieve buy-in. Therefore, understanding your team, particularly their motivations and reasons why they are training or working in their current position opens-up opportunities to not only build positive working relationships but also provides an awareness of how to do the best by your athletes/employees and help them see the value of their training/work or alternatively be encouraged towards an activity that fulfils their needs. Thus, autonomy-supportive behaviours are a non-controlling approach to managing and leading. Contrasting effects of controlling coach/leader behaviours are useful for short term goal achievement but lack any long term positive effects.

A personal reflection of autonomy supportive behaviour – a look through the mirror

Coaching/leading using autonomy supportive methods requires ongoing coach engagement with the underlying principles of this approach. I believe that coaching is a personal reflection of the self and as such the approach taken should reflect the beliefs and values of the person. If a coach uses a method that lacks alignment with their personality, beliefs, values and engages this method due to professional body recommendations, this will lead to contrived and inconsistent outcomes.

I value organisation, planning and being meticulous with detail. Why? because it enables me to account for every controllable detail and intervene and remain in control of myself and ‘my session’. I unconsciously take ownership of the session and as such it is very personal to me. However, I argue the need to provide a non-controlling autonomy supportive environment. So how can autonomy-support be reflective of my values if my aim is to control the controllables? I believe that controlling people doesn’t achieve optimal behaviour in the long run. However, controlling abstract non-personal factors (such as time and tasks) facilitates the setting of the optimal environment.

My life has involved exposure to a lot of controlling coach/managerial behaviours most of which damaged my long-term motivation and engagement. I know from first-hand experience that controlling coach and managerial behaviour causes friction and resentment and as such I am motivated by the need for smooth, positive, non-problematic sessions. However, I often neglect the need to control behaviour and bias the need to provide autonomy. This bias may be evidence-based in the long term, however from a personal perspective the need to occasionally control and nudge people towards a short-term goal is essential and the proportion of emphasis should lie (for argument sake) at 90% in favour of autonomy supportive behaviour.

My bias towards autonomy-support has been highly influenced by my first-hand experience of being embroiled within work and training sessions that have been highly controlling and personally damaging and discouraging. My value of personal development and my identity as a coach in a position of influence, coupled with my previous negative experiences motivates me to ‘do right by my athletes and colleagues’. Considering the large evidence base behind autonomy-support, and the uptake of athlete-centred coaching by most of the professional bodies of sport, my approaches are sufficiently evidence based. However, my ongoing reflection will continue to compare and normalise my approach to coaching against my ideal perceived model of coaching. Thus, ongoing reflective practice will problematise coaching behaviours that deviate from my considered coaching ideology/philosophy and close the gap between ideal and current coaching behaviours.


“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest” – Confucius