Have you had a conversation with your players about why they play football? What is it that motivates them to turn up to training, sometimes three or more times a week, no matter what the conditions? In this article, resident positive psychology expert Lara Mossman looks at the ways in which coaches can empower players to become self-motivated.

It’s likely that across your team there will be a variety of different reasons why players turn up. Some may not want to be there at all but turn up because they are forced to, maybe by their parents or teachers. Some players turn up because they are punished (e.g. through loss of game time) if they don’t, or are offered rewards; rewards such as money from their parents for scoring goals. Others may play because they are motivated to show off their skills relative to their teammates; they participate to feed their ego. Some may turn up because they value being part of a team and physically active.

For others, football may be part of their identity. Then there are the players who play because they find football inherently satisfying; it piques their interest, their curiosity, and they enjoy it. They practice, driven to continuously master new skills. Football is their passion. How easily can you identify what motivates the players in your own team to play? Is there any link to the source of motivation and the coachability of your players? Supposing the more self-motivated players are more coachable, is it possible to move the less motivated players to become more self-motivated?

Whatever type of motivation your players have, we can think of them as somewhere on a continuum that runs from completely unmotivated to fully engaged and motivated; a continuum that passes through extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. Over time, a player’s motivation may move between these different types of motivation. Many young players will start because their parents sign them up, or because their friends play, but over time they grow to love the game and value it. It becomes part of their identity and interests.

Equally, a player who plays for the love of the game may get dropped from a team. They may feel they are too good for their new team and find that showing off their skills relative to others begins to motivate them instead. Or worse, they may lose motivation for the game altogether. So, your players sit somewhere on a continuum, and their position on that continuum changes over time. Research has shown that coaches can have some influence over this movement up and down the continuum.

Coaches can structure environments that facilitate greater motivation in their players. The way coaches structure their training environments and behave on game days can affect player motivation and wellbeing. Studies have categorised coaches into one of two styles: controlling or autonomy supportive (sometimes known as empowering). Controlling coaches can be found on the sidelines “telling and yelling”. By-and-large they control all the decisions on the field. They tell their players where to stand and what to do. They do not teach the players to think and act for themselves.

Autonomy supportive coaches, on the other hand, empower their players to make decisions for themselves. The following are seven ways autonomy supportive coaches behave:

    1. Provide as much choice as possible to their players within clearly communicated limits and rules.
    2. Provide a rationale for tasks, limits and rules, rather than a ‘do it because I said so’ approach.
    3. Inquire about and acknowledge their players’ feelings.
    4. Allow their players opportunities to take their own initiative and make independent decisions.
    5. Provide their players with non-controlling, competence feedback.
    6. Avoid blatant control, criticisms that induce guilt in their players, controlling statements, and tangible rewards.
    7. Prevent ego-involvement from taking place within their teams.

Controlling and autonomy supportive coaches both influence their players’ motivation and wellbeing. Controlling coaches tend to have players who are at greater risk of burnout, are less engaged and have lower wellbeing. However, when players see their coaches as autonomy supportive, they generally feel a greater sense of control over their own development, they experience more intrinsic motivation and have a greater sense of wellbeing. Importantly, these players are more likely to enjoy their sport.

So, assuming the coach’s role to be purely about imparting game competence skills (e.g. technical, tactical and game competence skills) vastly oversimplifies the role of a coach. Coaches help turn their players into motivated, well-rounded individuals who are more than just the sum of their skills. Reflecting on your own coaching style, do you think that you are more controlling or autonomy supportive? Are you training your players to make your decisions or their own?


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