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Coaching the Basic Psychological Needs of an Athlete


  1. Autonomy - Help your athletes feel as if they have a part in why they are doing what they're doing.

  2. Relatedness/Connectedness - Connection is critical. Help them to understand that they are a part of something special.

  3. Competence/Confidence - Confidence can be hard but it is critical to maintaining interest in an activity.


There is no doubt that coaching styles vary greatly between coaches. Some coaches lean towards a hard nose style that exudes toughness while others try and develop players with a friendlier approach. Of course, there are also all those in between. Many will even try and mix up their styles over the years in an effort to try and reach the different types of players they encounter. As a coach, I know that I cannot act the same way with all of my players. However, I always try to stay consistent throughout the season regardless of how I choose to lead my team.

In an effort to support the psychological needs of the players on a team, those in charge of the team need to understand what those basic psychological needs are. The basic psychological needs theory (BPNT) tells us what conditions enhance and inhibit the satisfaction of our basic needs through the provision of the support of autonomy, relatedness/connectedness, and competence/confidence (Cotterill and Breslin, 2017).


Autonomy is described as the view that one is self-directing their own actions (Cotterill and Breslin, 2017). This perception helps the athlete to feel as if they have a voice and some control over whatever they are taking part in. What’s an easy way to promote autonomy? Allow players to develop their own pre-practice or pre-competition routine.

When a coach is controlling and tells his or her players that they must do specific things in order to be rewarded, they are thwarting the needs of an athlete. Understanding the importance of autonomy will help a coach develop his non-controlling language. Non-controlling language will reduce pressure and give choice to the athlete (Cotterill and Breslin, 2017). There are absolutely times when a player needs to do what is asked of them by the coach but controlling athletes with specific phrases like “you must” or “you have to” inhibits their feeling of autonomy. These types of phrases should be used sparingly.


Wood (2014) tells us that a coach should show an appropriate level of care for their athletes. One way to do this is to create a “family” type atmosphere where belonging is important. This helps fulfill the basic psychological need of relatedness. Relatedness helps an athlete feel as if they truly are a part of the team. On any team, just as it is within a family, connection is extremely important. Members of a team/family need to take an interest in one another if they wish to develop successful relationships. The positive effects of good relationship building are astounding. When a team is running as it should, the “family” effect can take them to a new level.

When a coach tells an athlete to do something and the reasoning behind it is “because I said so”, the athlete struggles to find meaning or the why behind what they are doing. To fulfill the basic need of relatedness an athlete needs to know how they, and their thoughts/actions, fit in. A coach should provide the purpose for each task they do and connect it to the athlete’s personal goals/values (Cotterill and Breslin, 2017).


Perceived confidence is extremely helpful in encouraging an athlete’s performance. Training should set up an athlete for success so that they experience competence (Wood, 2014). Of course, the training should not lead the athlete to feel overconfident. Confidence building should help the athlete to acquire a realistic feel for the game. Wood (2014) tells us that an adequate amount of competence will help the athlete appropriately manage anxiety and prepare them for a top performance. If the training environments consistently produce failure or the success is too easily obtained, the development of competence can be skewed.

Proper training aimed at developing confidence can also give an athlete competitive experience and, according to Cotterill and Breslin (2017), develop mental toughness. As any coach knows experience is priceless and mental toughness is hard to come by.

Making small adjustments in coaching philosophies can be difficult for some but addressing a the athlete’s basic psychological needs is paramount in sport. Burnout is real and the research shows it’s not because kids are specializing too early or playing too much. It is because somewhere along the line a coach, a team, or even a parent has thwarted the development of the athlete’s basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Let the athletes have fun and remember, it is about them and nothing else.


Cotterill, S., & Breslin, G. (2017). Sport and Exercise Psychology: Practitioner Case Studies.

Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

Wood, W. (2014). Helping Athletes Flourish; Strategies for Satisfying Basic Psychological

Needs. Olympic Coach, 25(4), 33-38.

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