The Relationship Between Coach and Athlete: Self-Determination Theory

The Relationship Between Coach and Athlete: Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory in sports performance

Self-determination theory (SDT) is the idea that three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competency, and relatedness) are fundamental to motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The quality of fulfilment of these basic psychological needs indicates an individual’s motivational profile. Jowett et al. (2017) defines athlete well-being from an SDT perspective as “the self-realization of an athlete that is optimally functioning, and meaningfully engaged in pursuing their potential in a designated context (i.e., sport)” (p. 1).

The continuum of motivational states begins at amotivation due to extrinsic motivators such as external regulation, introjection, identification, and integration. In contrast, the most self-determined and ideal state for performance is intrinsic motivation. The early work of Deci & Ryan (1985) propose that intrinsic motivation is bred out of the human need for competency and autonomy. Social-contextual events that elicit feelings of competence are vital for burgeoning intrinsic motivation. An example of a social-contextual event supporting intrinsic motivation is positive feedback, while negative feedback does the opposite (Deci, 1975). Coach behaviour and the environment a coach creates have key implications on an athlete and their mental well-being.

How does one assess this athlete well-being? Furthermore, what can be done by a coach to ultimately enhance it?


To enhance athlete well-being, the three BPNs must be sufficiently satisfied. The study by Riley & Smith (2011) suggests that by developing validating and supportive relationships with coaches, athletes may find those three BPNs fulfilled.

Research by Jowett et al. (2017) found that the perceived coach-athlete relationship was able to predict satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs and propositions using the 3Cs model to assess the coach-athlete relationship. The 3Cs model describes the influence of commitment, closeness, and complementarity on motivation. The CART-Q (Jowett & Ntoumanis, 2004) is a questionnaire that assesses the 3Cs and could be provided occasionally to athletes to keep measures of their perception of the coach-athlete relationship. Using a form of measurement along with subjective interpretation of the relationship, problems can be found, and the communication, interaction and ultimately, the relationship of the coach and athlete can be improved (Jowett et al., 2017). Coaches who engage in positive interpersonal relationships are more likely to succeed at facilitating the necessary fulfilment of the three BPNs, thus enhancing their athletes' psychological growth.


Deci, E. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. Springer.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Conceptualizations of intrinsic motivation and self-determination. Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior, 11-40.

Jowett, S., Adie, J. W., Bartholomew, K. J., Yang, S. X., Gustafsson, H., & Lopez-Jiménez, A. (2017). Motivational processes in the coach-athlete relationship: A multi-cultural self-determination approach. Psychology of Sport and Exercise32, 143-152.

Jowett, S., & Ntoumanis, N. (2004). The coach-athlete relationship questionnaire (CART-Q): Development and initial validation. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports14(4), 245-257.

La Guardia, J. G., Ryan, R. M., Couchman, C. E., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Within-person variation in security of attachment: A self-determination theory perspective on attachment, need fulfillment, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology79(3), 367-384.

Lonsdale, C., Hodge, K., & Rose, E. A. (2008). The behavioral regulation in sport questionnaire (BRSQ): Instrument development and initial validity evidence. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology30(3), 323-355.

Riley, A., & Smith, A. (2011). Perceived coach-athlete and peer relationships of young athletes and self-determined motivation for sport. International Journal of Sport Psychology42(1), 115-133.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist55(1), 68-78.


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