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UK Coaching Talent and Performance
Talent and Performance Developing Mindsets

Understanding Self-Determination Theory

A quick reference guide explaining intrinsic and extrinsic human motivation and how to fulfil participants’ basic psychological needs of relatedness, autonomy and competence

Despite the significant benefits of participating in physical activity, approximately 50% of individuals drop out of exercise programmes within six months of commencement, with even more experiencing lapses in participation.

This dropout can be attributed to a number of factors including motivation, self-esteem, social physique anxiety and enjoyment.

Regarding motivation, it is thought that individuals who participate in physical activity for intrinsic reasons and enjoyment are more likely to adhere compared to those participating for instrumental motives. Self-determination Theory (Deci and Ryan, 1985) can be used to understand motivation and adherence and proposes that behavioural regulation towards an activity can be amotivated (lacking any intention to engage in the behaviour), extrinsically motivated (controlled behaviour) or intrinsically motivated (self-determined behaviour).

It is only when individuals are intrinsically motivated that their behaviour can be considered self-determined.

Furthermore, these self-determined regulations are related to more adaptive behavioural outcomes (eg adherence) compared to less self-determined regulations. In fact, a growing body of evidence in the literature suggests that intentions to be physically active and adhere to these activities are positively correlated with intrinsic motivation and negatively correlated with amotivation and external regulation.

In simple terms, self-determination appears to be the characteristic of choice if one is to focus effort on an individual’s development.


Individuals with high levels of self-determination have stronger perceptions of control over their behaviour that are positively associated with prolonged engagement in physical activity.

Based on theories of motivation and personality, the Basic Psychological Needs concept (of evolved psychological needs and their relations to psychological health and well-being) states that psychological well-being and optimal functioning is based on autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Therefore, the presence of these is required to maximise fulfilment and satisfaction on all three needs, and if any is not met then there is a distinct cost to performance and wellness. You can see from the diagram below when a participant experiences the basic needs it develops their commitment and desire to engage, which results in performance improvement, resilience to continue and an ability to be flexible and adaptable.

Unfortunately, there are some limitations to this work, especially from a lifespan perspective of development. Specifically, the need to examine whether these findings apply to adults, since much of the research has been conducted with children and youth populations.

Given the propensity for dropout and inactivity during the adult years, this appears to be a crucial line of enquiry that should be longitudinal in nature so that the exact contribution of high self-determination to lifelong physical activity may be determined. However, it appears that this individual characteristic seems to offer much potential for applied interventions.

Tips to help fulfil your participants' basic psychological needs of relatedness, autonomy and competence:

  • Provide structure not control
  • Encourage choice
  • Positively worded expectations
  • Build and maintain relationships with participants
  • Create an environment where you are ‘on the same team’
  • Model the behaviours you want.

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Further Reading

A Guide For Coaches

A more in-depth guide to self-determination theory, including 'Seven things every coach should know'

Learn More

A Person-Centred Approach

Social connectedness is one of the main components of self-determination theory

Learn More

Psychology of Motivation

Explore the topic of motivation, with a particular focus on self-determination theory and achievement goal theory

Learn More

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Related Resources

  • Behaviour Change: Understanding Motivations

  • Strategies for Motivating Young People in Sport

  • The Motivation and Skill Grid: an Athlete Development Tool


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