Confusing Nice with Emotional Regulation and Psychological Goals: Part 2

September 3, 2020

Supporting Discussions

Deci and Ryan point to the recognition that autonomy is indicative of the benefits associated with such desirable characteristics as creativity, intrinsic motivation, cognitive flexibility, persistence, and many others (Conroy & Coatsworth, 2007). Conroy and Coatsworth (2007) were interested in developing empirical literature to identify distinct autonomy-supportive behaviors (2: interest in athletes input and praise for autonomous behavior) and whether athletes were capable of identifying these measures. Further, these authors make note of not only the suggestive benefits of autonomy-support on intrinsic motivation, but also make mention of Ryan and Deci’s assertion that executing an autonomy-supportive approach can increase the internalization of ones own regulatory behaviours. As we will see later, stress can have a negative impact on autonomy-supportive styles thus affecting ones ability to facilitate the very state of self-determined motivation coaches hope to instil in their athletes.

Mageau and Vallerand (2003) suggest several key considerations when enhancing intrinsic/ autonomous forms of motivation become the goal. It is important to preface these suggestions with the differences between a coach-centered and an athlete-centered approach. A coach-centered approach will often be marked by a sense of control, or be categorized as an autocratic style of coaching. An athlete-centered approach is one where, among other things, a culture of choice and mutual respect, one where athlete initiative is respected and praised, and where rationale, limits, and discussion are understood as engrained in the motivational process (Mageau & Vallerand, 2003). I would be remiss in pointing out that athletes often cannot achieve high performance states without enduring often unenjoyably and monotonous tasks and this is where more autonomous forms of extrinsic motivation are required and thus necessitate an effective coach delivered program. Importantly though, even through these coach-designed and delivered programs, autonomy-support can be facilitated, with an outcome of enhanced athlete intrinsic motivations Thus, a coach-athlete relationship is a necessity for enhanced motivation and diligence to performance cues over the short and long term.

Mallett (2005) discusses his experience with the 2004 Australian Olympic Track and Field team and how his coaching style is derived from empirical support found in self-determination research. Mallet was tasked with guiding the 2004 Athens-bound Olympic relay teams to increased performance. One prime example of autonomy-supportive coaching was the shared decision-making for the order of athlete performance between the heats and finals in the 4 x 100 m relay. While Mallett himself made the decision as to which runners would present on the team, he left the order of performance up to the athletes in order to establish more intrinsic importance for the performance of the team. Further, by having the athletes suggest the order, the team developed a sense of relatedness (another key facet to self-determined motivation) and strengthened the positions for each runner to take ownership for the performance (competence, another key facet to self-determined motivation). As an important aside that coaches may be more astute to than others in sport, the recognition that athletes do not appreciate being told what to do (controlled) nor do individual coaches enjoy being kept out of the informational circle when major games are at stake, Mallet’s (2005) autonomy-supportive approach managed to respect athlete competencies and existing coach-athlete relationships to ensure no additional performance factors were introduced.

A fourth piece of literature to mention is the overarching core social motives (Fiske, 2012) and the relationship these motives play to the development of autonomy and differentiation from independence. Fiske (2012) brings to light five unifying themes that demonstrate significant crossover in the interests of this research question. The five themes are: belonging, understanding, controlling, self-enhancing, and trusting. When examining the difference between independence and autonomy, themes such as belonging, understanding, and controlling define segregating messages between these two concepts. A sense of belonging is an over-arching theme for the coach-athlete relationship and the greater relationship the athlete has with sport itself. As well, understanding implies a connection to the themes being referenced by Mageau and Vallerand (2003), particularly the points for “providing a rationale for tasks and limits” and “acknowledging the other person’s feelings and perspectives” (p. 888). In the event that we consider Cote and Gilbert’s (2009) assertions that coaching effectiveness should be predicated on the undercurrent of the 4C’s, particularly competence and confidence, then in the appreciation for the core social motive of understanding, the athlete perspective should be considered, taken, and the athlete feel appreciated in order to further structure autonomy. The third core social motive, controlling, is at the heart of autonomy. Mallett (2005) specified that he did not absolve himself of coaching responsibility and decision-making but cultivated a culture of understanding and belonging in order to progressively develop appropriate controls for the athletes to demonstrate competence. Mageau and Vallerand (2003) suggest an equal measure in their model of coaching effectiveness, particularly in the context of coach involvement, structure, and autonomy-supportive behaviours. Fiske (2012) makes the association for control “between what people do and what they get, or…a contingency between behaviour and outcomes” (p. 20). Coaches often remind athletes that they must take responsibility for training, technical and tactical development, and performance measures such as nutritional practices, and yet many coaches facilitate a culture that, in essence, is the antithesis of what they desire in their athletes. Mageau and Vallerand (2003) point out that people tend to increase controls toward less intrinsically motivated individuals. Coaching can be a stressful role and when faced with athletes who are demonstrating control (what coaches perceive is independence), they often work to reduce this state thus feeding a greater divide between coach-athlete relationship. One must ask, at that point in time, is this coach-centered or athlete-centered behaviour?

This brings me to the fifth and final piece of literature: Cote and Gilbert’s (2009) examination of coaching effectiveness. The above-mentioned 4C’s (Competence, confidence, connection, and character) have been mentioned as an undercurrent and necessary feature in athlete-oriented coaching. At the same time, the performance expectations must be considered as well in order for the coach to understand how acting in a participatory or performance manner will affect athlete motivations. The demands on a coach at the participation level of sport are to provide the fundamental skills and develop a lifelong love for activity through sport. The performance level demands change slightly but should not take away from the delivery of the 4C’s. Still, setting up regimented training plans, increased time demands on athlete practice, and increase importance for technical, tactical, and performance goal setting have the potential to reduce the autonomy a young athlete feels in sport. At the same time, Mageau and Vallerand (2003) point out, that incongruent with the definition of independence, autonomy still plays a role in many reduced control athletic circumstances. Athletes can make the decision to increase dependence upon those who coach them in these sporting endeavours. As such, this has the potential to shift a coach’s impression toward performance and outcome-focused states and reduce the importance of task-specific successes in practice and competition. Many coaches struggle to balance these essential features in sport thus necessitating the very coach education program suggested by Mageau and Vallerand and backed by Cote and Gilbert. This suggests that coaches need to maintain perspective when coaching athletes toward higher performance, and particularly developmental aged athletes, to ensure long-term athlete development is kept in mind, athlete-centered motivational cultures are cultivated with autonomy at the forefront to ensure a ever-developing sense of intrinsic motivation for the increasing demands of sport performance.


Coatsworth, D.J., & Conroy, D.E. (2009). The effects of autonomy-supportive coaching, need satisfaction, and self-perceptions on initiative and identity in youth swimmers. Developmental Psychology, 45(2), 320-328. doi: 10.1037/a0014027

Cote, J., & Gilbert, W. (2009). An integrative definition of coaching effectiveness and expertise. International Journal of Sport Coaching, 4(3), 307-323. doi:

Fiske, S.T. (2012). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Mageau, G.A., & Vallerand, R.J. (2003). The coach-athlete relationship: a motivational model. Journal of Sport Sciences, 21(11), 883-904. doi: 10/1080/0264041031000140374 Mallett, C. (2005). Self-determination theory: A case study of evidence-based coaching. The Sport Psychologist, 19(4), 417-429. doi:

Martens, R. (2012). Successful coaching (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Confusing Nice with Emotional Regulation and Psychological Goals: Part 1

September 2, 2020

A problem that exists in sport coaching is the misconstrued understanding of the term autonomy. Coaches have long been known to strive for success, and propitiate themselves by justifying their methods as motivation. In contrast, a growing amount of literature reflects an increased need for athlete development in a manner that shows respect for the developmental phase the athlete is currently in along with an appreciation and respect for the future phases of development the athlete will move towards. The model that is currently being applied to sport is entitled the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model (Canadian Sport for Life (CS4L), 2014). Emerging from this model is the encouragement and education of coaches and administrators to understand physical, psychological, emotional, and social development. At the same time, paralleling this model is the desire for higher performing athletes, often at the expense of the participation in sport. Cote and Gilbert (2009) address this further by acknowledging general chronological ages at which decisions should be examined as to whether an athlete desires a continued recreational path or one in pursuit of higher performance. These sporting levels are directed at the discretion of coaches. Regardless, these authors suggest that developmental characteristics known as the 4 C’s (Competence, Confidence, Connection, & Character) remain at the forefront of any coaches’ goals regardless of the level of sporting participation.

Still, as a result of potential incongruence, attrition occurs and often-talented athletes leave sport before they are developmentally able to cope with the increased demands. This means coaches are left with what they perceive as the most motivated and committed. But what they are often left with is those who were capable of surviving whatever rigorously applied and potentially inappropriate process coaches assign to the athlete. These processes may or may not be at a phase of development where the rigor is appropriate for the athlete in the first place. At the heart of this concept lies autonomy. Coaches demonstrate and respect autonomy for themselves. This is evidenced by the fact that coaches operate as the gatekeeper for athlete contact in sport. On the other hand, coaches appreciate the freedom to choose what to believe and what to ignore: This demonstration of autonomous behavior is not often afforded those who participate under the guise of the professional coach. Hence, the cliché: “Do as I say, not as I do” can be applied here. What is this an issue?

Why would a sport psychologist care about increasing the autonomy in sport and the differentiation between this term and independence? Coaches are viewed as the trusted handlers for the execution of all things performance related. They hold the key to tactical and technical knowledge that brings out the highest chance for success (Mageau & Vallerand, 2003), or competence, in a young athlete. In fact, Cote and Gilbert (2009) acknowledge that coaches are viewed as being in a position to make a significant contribution to the psychological characteristics of athletes such as self-esteem and perceived competence. Further, coaches wield a great deal of power and thus, younger athletes may position themselves to receive accolades and social support from these positive adults (Mageau & Vallerand, 2003). Lastly, coaches believe a great deal in the work they do. Many are volunteers whose athletic careers in sport may have taken them down a path toward success as well and as such, feel capable of walking the path with neophyte performers who share their passion. However, coaches are not often privy to the knowledge of how autonomy works. In fact, even at the highest levels of sport, this concept is still misconstrued as independence, a characteristic often associated with the “country-club” (Martens, 2012), or laissez-faire (Mageau & Vallerand, 2003) coaching style.

However, incorrectly assuming independence and autonomy as one in the same leads coaches to shy away from the latter, and as such an understanding for the very characteristic they most value in their profession. Asking coaches at all levels if they enjoy having someone looking over their shoulder at all times and giving feedback whenever they feel is appropriate will result in coach laughter and a dismissive stance. No one enjoys this experience. Yet, this is often a perceived role of a coach: Stand and evaluate, offer supportive or non-supportive behavioral observations, and suggest that an athlete must work harder or demonstrate greater effort. Yet, without so much as a method of approach in their back-pocket in order to resolve these issues, they extinguish the hopes and passions these young athletes desire to share with the very person criticizing them; the coach. Coaches often assign success to the steps that they take and assign failures to the lack of steps the athlete has taken. Having an external attributional style keeps the coaching ego safe from what might be the greatest gap in the coach’s toolbox of approaches. And yet, coaches rationalize the very tool they feel entitled to (autonomy) by reducing the sense of athlete autonomy through controlling behaviors and statements, using various “coaching styles” (often self-prescription through years of post-modern ‘picking’ from characteristic pools of highly successful coaches). By no means is it suggested that coaches should not develop their own style. What is being suggested is that sometimes, hypocritically, the nature of the very thing the coach enjoys most (autonomy) is the same feature that is most likely to motivate the very people they work with. If this motivational tactic is done in a calculated and educated manner, and differentiated from independence, the above-mentioned behavioral observations made by coaches (lazy, out of shape, head-case, etc.) may become less of an issue. If these issues are resolved, then would the athlete not emerge a better prepared and more self-motivated individual? This is what is being sought with this research question.


Sport Psychology Professionals Encourage Coaches to Develop Mental Toughness

August 26, 2020

So many athletes have depended on traits or characteristics of mental toughness that the concept is now a staple in sport. Or, has it become a cliche? Hearing coaches (myself included in the past) say to athletes that they have to demonstrate greater mental toughness for this adversity or that particularly difficult time is frequent. However, after asking hundreds of coaches over the years what they mean, many different definitions pop up.

Let's zoom in on how well established members of the sport psychology community suggest mental toughness can be fostered in athletes.

  1. Be Purposeful in Thoughts and Actions: This means a statement cannot be a cliche. It needs to be clear, concise, and, precise; void of banter or negative verbal sputum that serves only to express the frustration a coach may be experiencing in the moment. We have all been frustrated. And, most of us, this means we are not likely communicating clearly or with any precision. To be purposeful means to take deliberate action in planning and creating opportunities to strengthen the mind muscle. EXAMPLE: Define traits or characteristics through actionable behaviours and deliberately create opportunities for self-evaluation and reflection.

  2. Be Challenging but Encouraging: This means an athlete is well aware of the physical and mental challenge for an upcoming task (how are they aware? Spoiler have shared with them and dialogued with them about these challenges). Dictionary Definition: Hard: Solid, firm, rigid. Challenging: Testing one's abilities. Which one sounds more like a coaching style? SIDEBAR: I recall a short segway cartoon growing up. It was a competition between the sun and the wind as to who could get the man to remove his jacket. The wind went first and blew harder = man hung onto coat more. The sun then went next and shined brightly = man removed coat and enjoyed the stroll. Moral of the story = persuasion is better than force. Hence, be encouraging not degrading.

  3. View Each Athlete as an Individual: Yes, we may have a team...but we have a team of individuals and each one is just like all others in some ways, like some others some ways, and like no other in some ways. Your job as a coach is to lean into the "like no other", then into "like some others", and THEN "like all others". Getting to know what motivates an athlete (second spoiler alert: autonomy is KEY) is massive when creating a culture for your program. Whether it is a team sport or an individual sport, we all value relationships. ALL OF US. Foster them. As a coach, if you are struggling to connect with some of your athletes, this is where we can help. Please, do not blame them for "not being the way you need them to be", but rather, find out how they want to be on your team and blend your needs with their needs. It takes purpose, precision, and a clear focus for a coach to do this well. Professional development alert!

Citing an article from Weinberg, Freysinger, and Mellano (2018) from THE Miami University (The "U") extends an important way for how professionals in the sport psychology field can help coaches sharpen their skills in developing mental toughness. If you have questions, feel free to ask. One of my mantras has always been: "The more I learn, the less I know". Keep learning!

Weingberg, Freysinger, V., & Mellano, K. (2018). How can coaches build mental toughness? Views from sport psychologists. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, ((1), 1-10. doi: http://dx.dol.ord/10.1080/21520704.2016.1263981