Chicken or egg?: Player's responding to coaching environment vs coaches structuring environments around player's needs

These past few weeks have been spent concluding my current research while preparing presentations around game based learning within rugby union contexts and importance of coach-athlete relationships in age-grade swimming. Interestingly (for me), these areas crossed over to similar areas of previous discussion; as coaches, are we allowing the athletes to find, answer and explore around their intrinsic motivations both in and away from the sport? In using game based, TGfU or non linear approaches as a platform, are we allowing them to personally reflect on their perceived competency and autonomously act in building skill level through making both independent and collaborative decisions in games? Are we encouraging our athletes to explore ways of “how to learn” and encourage problem solving as opposed to focusing on content and “what to learn” to allow creative ideas, independence and initiative to be explored in dynamic environments? To “borrow” from Mark O’Sullivan, are we teaching our athletes “in” the game as opposed to content “of” the game?


The foundations for self determined athlete motivations are simple; offer autonomy in practice design, ensure competency is self assessed and recognised and build an inclusive environment where athletes can collaboratively learn and develop in their areas of interest. One of the aims of my research was to add value to what we already know regarding athlete motivations amongst emerging adulthood players (aged between 16-20). Better understanding of what players in this age bracket are typically trying to achieve on and off the field on daily/regular basis will allow us to create better emotional and motivating, long lasting connections by helping them achieve their identified goals. Past research by Moffit and Singer (1994) shows that players at this age shall start to define whom they are and provide lies with semblance of purpose and unity through a disproportionately large number of autobiographical events, which are especially rich in emotional and motivational content (Dan P McAdams, 2001) and goal directed behaviour is motivated by self-defining memories (Singer & Salovey, 1993). Therefore, through better identification of what athletes are trying to achieve through specific behaviours and understanding of these individualised goals and where they stem from, coaches could be identified as an agentic source from which players may seek respect from and benefit from by being a supportive voice during the events. This is an area of importance as outlined by players in their responses, supported by previous research that found better understanding by coaches of their athletes and strengthening of coach-athlete relationships is ultimately “one of the most important determinants of athlete’s motivation” (Mageau, 2003).

Remembering strivings are “activated in response to and shaped by everyday social demands and are how individuals meet situational, strategic and developmental tasks in social ecology of lies” (Dan P McAdams & Pals, 2006), the responses received indicated involved players meaningful and social relationships came away from their sporting atmospheres, with their primary focus being on individual improvements and development when involved in rugby, working against previous research which suggests “enjoying sport is crucial for success at specialisation stage” (Holland et al., 2010). However, there is a lack of clarity from the research to answer whether the coaches are responding to the player’s focus of intrapersonal motivations and focus on achievement, improvement and hard work to establish identity or are players becoming “acquainted with culture’s sense of biography” (Habermas & Bluck, 2000); essentially, have the player’s sporting identities or internalised life stories been ascribed by culture or been constructed by the individual?

Finding both the themes found and even words used in high frequency from the player’s answers being similar to HP goals set by involved programs involved in led me to question…..did the focus on goal attainment come from the athletes or the environment and was one of the purposes or goals of coaches involved in these environments to ensure perceived competency was realised by players and supported by them? Which came first; coaches responding to player’s motivations (or strivings in this instance) or players adjusting to HP environments and the expectations of this level?

There is a number of areas for discussion and review from this point; firstly, I believe coaches within these HP sporting environments could be encouraged to develop closer and caring relationships for the involved players for greater engagement. This is supported by previous research which outlined “the more athletes perceived their coaches to be caring and involved, the more self-determined they shall be in their motivations towards sport” (Pelletier, 1995) and “individual development is linked to contextually sensitive, guided practice, scaffolded by capable others” (Beltman, 2003). As opposed to players searching for coach’s respect and being dependent on coach as instigator for change and action, development of close and complementary relationships to allow honest and timely feedback for athlete’s personal pursuit of mastery or development would be critical for building sustainable elite success.

While Hodge’s research suggested relatedness or connection to others did not have the same effects as lower competence and autonomy scores in relation to burnout symptoms such as emotional exhaustion, reduced perceived accomplishment and devaluation of sport (Hodge, 2008), it could be supported this group and other age grade athletes could benefit from emotional support and perceived efficacy from coaches for improved engagement. For this example, if sporting governing bodies wanted to invest in long term involvement and development of these players, they could acknowledge that self-defining memories of their current involvement and development pathway serve to motivate goal directed behaviour in future as “what people presently feel about past events is a function of how relevant those moments are to long term goals” (Singer & Salovey, 1993).

Why the focus on games based or non-linear approaches by myself as personal preference and result of this research? Previous research suggests that both “learning occurs in social groups through ongoing interactions between people” (Vygotsky, 1978) while Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi’s research addressed “creative people are driven by discovery and creation of problems as opposed to superior skills or ability”. While these players displayed an intrapersonal focus of achievement and development, based on their answers offered considering time, situation and role when questioned, previous strivings research showed goal attainment is related to well-being over time whereas commitment regarded as unrelated (Emmons, 1999); therefore, are they responding to their environment and what would the changes be if we adjusted the “high performance” or “elite” end of this environment? Would we see more engaged and happier athletes (and people) if we focused on them attaining goals important to them as opposed to coach’s expectations on commitment and effort?

Creating a fun, challenging atmosphere where players drive the structure and decisions shall allow you to better identify and connect to their character to become the “skilled partner”, offering guidance and encouragement in a Vygotskian style approach. I believe coaches should assist players to identify problems as opposed to solving them, offering ideas and assistance for how to think and act as opposed to offering solutions, allowing them to develop intrinsic motivation for their endeavours which leads to greater persistence, improved performance and enhanced well-being in a physical setting.

When it comes to sport coaching, it’s worth reminding ourselves that creativity resides in the playful state; if you want creative, adaptable and engaged players, give them the opportunity to practice. Let’s make our practice sessions the most engaging, exhilarating experiences of their week….no matter the age of the players!!