How Dan Pink's ideas can be applied to sporting atmospheres


Combining my experience, past education and current research involving business, sports, motivation and learning assistance, I wanted to explore ways business and motivation books could support and enhance sports coaching practices. With this in mind, this current piece of writing shall address ideas from Dan Pink’s books Drive and To Sell is Human and identify ways in which this could be applied to my current research and coaching specializing sports players and athletes. Within my current research, I aim to understand what intrinsically drives these players to remain in their sport, push for mastery within the sport and the roles coaches or leaders play within this, areas of interest which Dan Pink has previously researched, written and presented around. We understand drive in most sporting participants is found from intrinsic motives; their internal desire to master their sports and challenge themselves through committed engagement in highly repetitive activities. Age grade coaching environments need to adopt and offer players ingredients for genuine motivation; mastery, autonomy and purpose. These ingredients are echoed within research conducted in sports coaching involving the study of self-determination theory, which addresses innate psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Cliff Mallet researched and explained that “self-determination theory underscores the role of environment in fueling people’s perceptions of (autonomy, competence and relatedness) in contexts of sport” (Mallett, 2005). Amorose supported that “the more athletes felt autonomous, competent and have a sense of relatedness, the more reasons for participating were self-determined in future” (Amorose, 2007). Mallet also explained that “intrinsically motivated behaviours involve genuine interest and enjoyment in pursuing particular activities with a natural tendency to seek unique challenges, explore and learn” (Mallett, 2005). Therefore, all stakeholders, coaches and administrators involved in these player’s development need to tap into athlete’s intrinsic motivation to most effectively facilitate learning, enhance player’s creativity towards development and pervasively drive the athlete through the enjoyment of tasks and challenges, searching for mastery. Coaches should “agitate over irritate” to challenge players to accomplish something they want to achieve.

Autonomy in sports context can be offering players ability to have choices, input and emphasis onto their self-direction and development, allowing athletes to act on their curious nature while acting with choice. The art of autonomy is allowing people to be accountable of their actions and decisions; coaches should offer players control over their tasks, time, techniques and team around them (to a limited extent) to help them find accountability as control (or perceived control) is an important component of happiness. Amorose (2007) stated perception of the coach to be autonomy supportive had a significant impact on athlete motivational orientation. Coaches need to offer and monitor accountability and feedback of control offered and adopted by players whilst encouraging player autonomy in learning and tasks, as autonomy leads to engagement, which results in drive for mastery. Players when adopting a mastery mindset shall be driven by constant and consistent desire to improve, focus on learning goals and have incremental theory towards sport-specific knowledge and skill level.

The challenge of successful coaching is acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaboratively dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them. Past research by Mageau and Vallerand regards the “actions of coaches as (possibly) the most critical motivational influences within sports setting”. Pink acknowledges people are spending more time at their place of employment engaged in non-sales selling, such as persuading, influencing and convincing others, which is regarded as critical to success. Therefore, coaches to successfully “move” their players or athletes need to offer attunement, buoyancy and clarity by providing “astute perspective taking, infectious positivity and brilliant framing”. Therefore, as sports coaching has socially dynamic scenarios to factor, coaches also need to be prepared to successfully improvise and strategically mimic to enhance player and group perspective taking; improvising by coaches compensates changes and allows ideas to be developed through effective communication. However, improvisation success hinges on coach-athlete attunement.

Attunement is “the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people and context you are in”; applying Galinsky and Maddux’s research to sporting context would recognise that “taking the perspective of (player) produced both greater joint gains and profitable individual outcomes”.  This could be seen as improved coach-athlete relationships, regular player involvement in decision-making processes, honest and accurate goal attainment for coach, player and playing group as a whole and personal development from all stakeholders. Pink’s research acknowledges empathy as important as can build enduring relationships and defuse conflicts; I have read and acknowledged Jowett’s research which recognises 3+1 C’s (closeness, commitment, complementary and coordination) (Jowett, 2007) being critical for successful coach-athlete relationships. However, like mentioned, I believe a coach’s ability to use contrast principle, offering clarity by adding context, honesty and reasoning when offering perspective for dynamic and interactive coaching scenarios experienced and athlete relations shall reap long-term gains and reciprocal commitment and closeness from the athlete in return. My beliefs are echoed in past research including investigations by Mageau and Vallerand (2003); they believe coaches need to offer players opportunity for choice, acknowledge player feelings and perspective, limit controlling behaviours while valuing initiative, problem-solving and involvement in decision making (Mageau, 2003).

Communication when offering perception is important for coach-athlete relationships; coaches need to develop “ambivert” attitudes, being neither overly introverted or extroverted and juggling ability to both inspect and respond to situations when required as opposed to when desired. Coaches need to show openness to ideas, offering elements of power to athletes and enable them to take initiative or control of decision-making process; coach adopted transformational leadership styles would result in positive intrinsic motivations and increased athlete effort as “genuine, not manufactured variety is the key form of human connection”. However, talking too much/listening too little in an attempt to gain assertiveness, dull athletes or other’s perspective or becoming task focused may result in the coach adopting a controlling interpersonal style. Adopting this style puts pressure on the players to act, think and feel in a way consistent with the needs and wants of the coach (Amorose, 2015). Coaches when offering positive, non-controlling feedback need to ensure is related to self-delusion suffocates self-improvement. However, feedback and advice to players from coaches should never be “negative judgements of performance because levels of confidence, motivation and enthusiasm shall not be boosted by negative one to one conversations” (Bullock and Wikeley, 2004). Appropriate negativity allows players to process feedback and make related improvements. A suitable use of coaching time and resources would be educating players on self-reflection and self-talk finds to enhance intrinsic motivation and drive. Decisiveness through interrogative self-questioning gains answers and confirms belief for internally motivated goals as opposed to seeking for extrinsic measures or confirmations.

Clarity in the ability or capacity to assist others see their situations in fresh, revealing ways and identify problems they didn’t have is another necessity for moving others. 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. As Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi’s research addressed, creative people are driven by discovery and creation of problems as opposed to superior skills or ability. Therefore, coaches could adopt ideas from Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), where this theory has the coach standing as a recognised more capable other to the athlete with their requirement being to engage in contextual collaborative and learning relationship with athletes to ensure optimal psychological functioning for maximal sporting performance. The coach or more capable other plays a significant role in transitioning athlete from other’s assistance to self-assistance through ideas such as leading questions or prompting higher cognitive thoughts to assist independent problem identification and solving leading to improved performance in next similar situation. Having three stages in shifting from assistance by others, transition stage and assistance to self, this supports the theory that “development appears twice”. This theory believes development firstly occurs inter-psychological between peers or playing group for this context, prior to occurring intra-psychological, where we internally process and develop, therefore allowing coaches to offer opportunities for players to identify problems as opposed to solving them and propose ideas and assistance for how to think and act as opposed to offering solutions.

I believe this Vygotskian approach to team-based learning would be strongly advantageous in team sports environments if adapted to age grade applications. A collaborative exploration into the technical and tactical sides of sports such as rugby union offer the support required for age grade players in specialising periods of sporting career whilst allowing coaches to unobtrusively redesign coaching environment based on player’s learning styles, acknowledging various philosophies, outlooks and player identities. This method may impact team cultures and social dynamics less as the approach is physically and emotionally safe for involved athletes who have clarity and control over their investigative and learning methods with all tasks being meaningful and understood. Ideas within sessions to build a sense of ZPD include open games and skills exploration akin to ideas in TGfU (Teaching Games for Understanding), aimed at discovery of new techniques and problems identifying/solving strategies along with improved coach communication such as open-ended coach questioning and honest feedback to allow players to discover solutions.

Back to recent readings, Pink notes that “optimism is a catalyst that can stir persistence, steady us during challenges and stoke confidence that we can influence our surroundings”, all traits necessary and desirable for our specialising rugby players to adopt. As leaders or coaches, we aim to offer buoyancy by which we aim to assist our players to “stay afloat amid an ocean of rejection through infectious positivity”. By doing so, we can increase persons, or in this case, player’s effectiveness as positive emotions can “widen counterparts’ views towards situations, expand behavioural repertoires and heighten creativity”, qualities we are endeavouring to install into our developing athletes and young men within my proposed study. Within coach developed and supported positive learning atmospheres or encouraged positive emotions towards learning and performance, we again empower players to take control of their actions, emotions and thinking towards personal development. Coaches in creating a positive, empowered learning atmosphere for the players allows athletes to broaden ideas for future actions and ideas, open awareness to a wider range of thought and make players more receptive and creative to problems within learning contexts.

Pink’s books both address attunement, buoyancy and clarity as key factors for moving people or “selling” people through engagement of your ideas or goals as the case may be in sports coaching. He also addresses enabling and assisting people to find the internal drive or intrinsic motivation through offering autonomy in their actions, purpose in what they do and target mastery of their positions or roles should assist increasing creativity, eliminate narrow focus or unethical behaviour whilst improving performance. Coaches acting with honesty, intimacy, purpose and being personal can create positive learning atmospheres where they can afford to offer bigger picture and allow players to take more control. My research aims to support Pink’s ideas and supported studies mentioned within this article; supportive environments are important for engagement, peak performance and continued participation. As mentioned earlier, I believe for engagement and continuously improved performance, coaches need to offer players opportunity for choice, acknowledge player feelings and perspective, limit controlling behaviours while valuing initiative, problem-solving and involvement in decision making (Mageau, 2003).

My current belief that rugby union age grade development and coaching has become algorithmic as opposed to heuristic. I believe through our (coach’s) desire of personal extrinsic motivators (both self-determining and non-self determining), use of extrinsic rewards, controlling feedback, adopted tactics and set instructions for reliably safe outcomes, we are acting against player’s inherent tendency to seek out challenges, exercise their capabilities and desire to explore and learn, recognised by Deci’s research. While there is a place within rugby for the encouragement of the development of closed skills, I feel these would be better suited at a later stage of player’s developmental process, the investment stage. I believe at this specializing stage of rugby union development, coaches and programs should be offering opportunities and environments to challenge themselves with freedom and purpose whilst finding the balance to ensure players are neither overwhelmed with anxiety to perform or underwhelmed with monotony to drive personal development. Again, within my research, I aim to address the current types of roles coaches offer, forms of learning offered in age-grade programs and compare against what is expected or sought after from their players or athletes in the form of a grounded research qualitative study. Within these teams and player environments I have researched, I believe coaches have to be allowing players to have elements of control over what they do, how, whom and when they can direct their development and learn within sports contexts. Players with mastery mindset will find intrinsic motivation and drive for the pursuit; where I believe we as coaches fit into the equation is offering consistent, critical yet non-controlling feedback while offering support and praise for effort, strategy and exploration of skills and abilities.