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UK Coaching Research Team
Developing Mindsets

Self-Determination Theory and Off-Season Motivation

Using theories from psychology, we ask: What can you do as a coach to keep your players motivated during the off season?

Keeping your players practising on their own during the off season is useful for development, but for the player, this may not be the most interesting way to spend their free time.

Research shows that any programme needs to address issues of competence and control to be truly effective.

The Champions Club example

The Champions Club was an attempt to optimise the motivation of the football team at an American college. The non-competitive season was divided into phases, and players had the chance to earn points for a variety of accomplishments (for example, setting a personal best in the weights room). 

The top point scorers were then awarded prizes for each phase, which included a steak dinner for high scorers (and hot dogs for everyone else), specially logoed athletic bags or jackets, or an opt-out from penalties levied for negative behaviours. 

In addition, the top 25 point earners had their pictures featured around the college.

What motivates people to act in certain ways has been a topic that has taxed the brains of academics (and coaches) for many years. Research suggests motivation ranges along a scale, from people who are intrinsically motivated (where a player engages in an activity purely for the satisfaction and pleasure it produces) to amotivation (when players have no desire to engage in the behaviour). 

Along this scale, you will also find players who are influenced by extrinsic motivations such as avoiding punishment, feelings of guilt, to attain a reward, or to follow their personal values.

Self-determination theory is a popular way of understanding motivation in sport, and this formed the basis from which the researchers evaluated The Champions Club. This theory hypothesizes that intrinsic and self-determined motivation are likely to happen when an individual’s three basic psychological needs are met. These needs are:

  • autonomy (the need to have a choice in executing actions that are in accordance with one’s values)
  • competence (the need to interact effectively with the environment)
  • relatedness (the need to be securely connected to and understood by others).

Research has found that elite athletes usually display these self-determined types of motivation, and coaches are often encouraged to develop environments that foster this type of motivation.

However, The Champions Club was based on rewards that are more extrinsic, and it may at first seem the programme would reduce the sought-after self-determined motivation (and indeed that is what a lot of the research suggests).

The researchers countered this argument by stating that if rewards are properly managed, they can help create an environment that encourages self-determined motivation. They argued that rewards can have either:

  • an informational aspect (they communicate that a person is competent in a specific domain), or
  • a controlling aspect (they are perceived as coercive and used to dictate behaviour). 

An informational reward can contribute to perceptions of competence (a key psychological need) and improve a player’s self-determined motivation. On the other hand, a reward recognised as controlling may have the opposite effect – diminishing a player’s perception of autonomy (another key need).

In evaluating the Champions Club, the researchers wanted to see how far players agreed that a programme based on off-season rewards would meet their needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Overall, The Champions Club was successful in some areas but less so in others. The social aspect of the programme, which allowed players to compare themselves with their peers, was a key motivational tool, but for many players, the programme did not increase competence and was seen as overly controlling. Therefore, the effect on off-season motivation was not as strong as it could have been.

However, the research provides valuable ideas that any coach can take away and think about. 

These include:

  • Any programme to increase motivation will affect different people in different ways. Do not expect to see improvements across the board.
  • The social context of off-season training programmes may be more valuable than rewards – players like to compare themselves to teammates. But don’t forget the rewards, or the players will have nothing to strive for (the championship without the trophy!).
  • Make sure the programme is not seen as coaches controlling the players in the off season. Involve your athletes in deciding the rewards. If players value the rewards, they are more likely to want to achieve them.
  • Players need to see a link between activities in the off-season programme and their on-field performance. If players can’t see the link between what they are doing and how it will improve their competence, they are less likely to work hard.

Related Content

  • What Motivates Young People to be Active?

  • Understanding Motivations

  • Coaching and the Language of Learning


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UK Coaching Research Team