Engineering Your Sport Environment II
Beyond the Diamond
By Dr. Anne Shadle
In this blog post, we will explore Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT is a framework that helps us to better understand and predict motivation. We have all heard a coach or teacher say, “This kid is motivated!” or “That kid is just not motivated.” Did you know that the environment that is created by parents/coaches/sport leaders has a DIRECT impact on the motivation of the athlete(s)?
We all want to coach and teach motivated kids. We want to help them grow, develop, and reach beyond their perceived limits. We all know the importance of motivation. What if I told you that all of the motivation you are seeking for yourself and others is right inside of you? Intrinsic motivation is the strongest form of motivation, and we are born with it. For example, I have two young nephews; one is almost three years old, and the other is eight months old. The curiosity in both of them is incredible! They are constantly seeking new challenges and exploring new areas, which drives their mother a little crazy trying to keep track of them. This curiosity, the need to explore and seek out challenges, is intrinsic motivation in its purest form.
Intrinsic motivation is that burning desire found within each and every one of us. We naturally feel motivated and excited about seeking out new challenges, exploring, and playing. Many older adults remember the variety of self-directed baseball games played in their youth (a.k.a. free play). It did not seem to matter if there were only a handful of players. Someone would create a game involving hitting, throwing, and catching. Rules were bent. Structure was stretched so that an uneven number of kids playing could all be involved. This opportunity for ‘free play’ is known today as skill development. What some ‘old-timers’ may not understand is that this is intrinsic motivation. These self-created, make-up baseball games encourage a love for the game and help nurture creativity and curiosity to guide young athletes along their developmental path. If your grandparents are close or an older neighbor is nearby, sit down with them and ask questions about the games they used to play growing up. Ask about the many street games that were played. My guess is those games are still played today. (Feel free to share/email any great stories and games you find to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Unfortunately, somewhere within our baseball/athletic development we seem to have lost most of this self-directed play and learning. There are many reasons for this, but one major reason lies in the idea that all sport development must be adult-led, developed, and controlled. Instead of giving young athletes the opportunity to choose to create, parents, coaches and sport leaders are often the ones dictating exactly what will happen. In turn, I fear this next generation may lose the pure love for the game of baseball that our grandparents had, as well as the appreciation that baseball is a game for the whole family to enjoy and play together. As coaches, parents and sport leaders we need an awareness to rebuild an environment that fosters intrinsic motivation.
Let’s Understand Intrinsic Motivation:
Our basic human needs include: Autonomy, Belonging and Competence, otherwise known as the ABC’s of Self-Determination Theory. These elements need to be incorporated into the environment. They need to be in the classroom, in the home and on the field. Let’s take a deeper look at the ABC’s of Self-Determination Theory.
Autonomy: Making decisions for yourself, by yourself, and about yourself. Autonomy occurs when the individual feels in control of their life. This is important in our development as a baseball player and throughout our life. We want to help teach our athletes (young and old) how to make good decisions both on and off the baseball field.
Depending on the age of the athlete, allowing athletes to make choices can be simple or complex. What is most important is creating what Deci and Ryan call an autonomy supportive environment. What this means is that athletes are given opportunities to make choices. For example, would you like to do warm-up A or warm-up B, today? Do you want to catch or play first base? What bat should you use? Do you want to do speed drills or a sprint-based workout?
We also want to give our athletes opportunities to make choices in a variety of situations. We want our athletes to feel confident in being able to make a good decision in pressure situations. When it comes time to make those game winning decisions, we increase the chance of success because our players have had the opportunity to practice making decisions. Good decision-making is not new to them. Players feel competent in their ability to make decisions.
Research in Positive Psychology also shows that having autonomy in our environment increases our well-being. This should not be surprising. Think about it…when we are in control, rather than being controlled, and we make good choices, and we feel good! This can help to increase our performance, allowing us the opportunity to take ownership of our choices and allow for self-directed learning which increases our intrinsic motivation.
Belonging (or relatedness, as described in the original Self-Determination Theory): This is the need for connection with others as well as developing positive, supportive interpersonal relationships. Having a place to be and belong to, having a best friend on the team, having coaches and parents who care about you all help to fulfill this basic human need for belonging. Self-Determination Theory connects to Positive Psychology because both focus on healthy psychological development and wellbeing. SDT aligns specifically with the Theory of Flourishing, which we explored in a previous post (Engineering Your Sport Environment Part I). Many old-timers can tell you about the joy they felt in the neighborhood pickup games or the big hit they got when all that mattered was the team you were on that day. The next game it did not matter because you might be on a new team, but in the memory, you came up big for your team that day, you were proud, and you absolutely belonged. It mattered that you showed up to play on that magical day!
Competence: Having and demonstrating knowledge and skill. Deci and Ryan (2000) define competence as, “The need for mastery experiences that allows a person to deal effectively with her or his environment.” To use a high school academic example; if a student were to study intensely for his/her Algebra exam and feel competent about the information being tested, that individual should feel confident going into the exam. If the student has done well on previous exams and knows the information being tested, again that individual will feel more confident.
Competence (having and demonstrating knowledge and skill) builds confidence. An athlete’s training and practice experience helps them to build baseball skills. Coaches should design for their athletes lots of successful experiences with game scenarios, and practice what will be asked of them in the game (i.e. planned, purposeful practice). Each successful experience helps the athlete feel competent, and thus confident in their ability to perform well when it comes time to compete. As the great Coach John Wooden said, “You have not taught until they have learned.” It is our job as coaches, parents and sport leaders to help players develop the skills necessary for success.
Note on Extrinsic Motivation: The purpose of this article was to introduce and discuss Self-Determination Theory. However, it is important we touch on extrinsic motivation. For the purpose of this article, “intrinsic” refers to source of the driver (who is pushing whom), and the source of the reward (intrinsic joy, pride, happiness vs. extrinsic ribbons, trophies, awards). Research and experience tell us that the best practice for building a successful environment is to development and strengthen the internal, intrinsic motivation BEFORE we sprinkle in the external, extrinsic forms of motivation. Internal, intrinsic motivation should be the stronger driving force.
Coaches, parents, and sport leaders have a role in developing and enforcing team rules, league rules, teaching techniques, and potentially dealing with game experience that may include negative emotion. Coaching and parenting involve having knowledge of the best research/science AND the art of understanding when and how to use it. Knowing when and where to apply external, extrinsic motivation is more of an art than supported by science. A lot of coaching models are driven mostly by extrinsic motivation but there is a better, stronger, more sustainable way to build our sport learning environment and that is with internal, intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic Motivation: Autonomy, belonging and competence lay the foundation for intrinsic motivation, leading to a self-determined individual. Deci and Ryan (2000) share that, “People who are intrinsically motivated tend to show enhancements in performance, persistence, creativity, self-esteem, vitality and general wellbeing when compared to people who are motivated by external rewards.” In Engineering Your Sport Environment (Part I), we asked you to remember a positive sport experience and a negative sport experience. In those memories, you will find examples of when you were using internal, intrinsic motivation and external, extrinsic motivation. What memory fueled your desire to succeed? Ask yourself the question: Who is pushing whom? There is no right or wrong answer here. Just make sure your memories include a mixture of both – YOU and your support network were both fueling your motivation. Apply this to the environment you want to set up for the kids you are coaching, parenting and leading. Be sure to create opportunities that foster intrinsic motivation.
Dr. Anne Shadle, Ph.D., is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, is a certified consultant in Sport Psychology CC-AASP and is a member of the United States Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology registry. She also serves on the Athlete Advisory Committee for USA Track and Field (USATF) and currently is the President-appointed committee chair for Psychological Services for USATF. She is heavily involved with coaching education and certification for the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and USATF. Shadle received her Bachelor of Science in Education and Human Sciences from the University of Nebraska, where she also ran track and field. She was a two-time National Champion in the mile and 1500 meter distances before going on to run professionally for Reebok and compete in the 2008 Olympic Trials.