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  • Brian Bender, PhD

Autonomous Athletes: Attaining Elite Performance

Updated: May 2, 2023

Reaching elite levels of athletic performance takes significant commitment. By and large, autonomous athletes are the ones to reach this level, and coaches, athletic trainers, team cultures, and technology alike can all help foster higher levels of increased intrinsic motivation through self-regulation and autonomy.

Self Determination Theory

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a psychological framework developed by Dr. Edward Deci and Dr. Richard Ryan in the 1980s that suggests that humans have three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy is defined as feeling a sense of volition or control over your own actions and decisions, while competence means feeling effective and capable in activities. Relatedness refers to the need for forming interpersonal connections with others. SDT has been used to explain motivation in various domains, including athletics. According to Dr. Alan Chu, an Associate Professor of Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology at UNC Greensboro, SDT is the most widely used theory of motivation amongst athletes since it sheds light on why they are driven to train and perform.

Autonomy is essential for motivating athletes since it enables them to take control of their own training process without feeling restricted or coerced into taking part in activities they don't want to do themselves. When athletes feel that their choices are respected and valued by coaches or other peers in their environment, this can lead to increased intrinsic motivation which in turn leads to a higher level of commitment to the athletic program overall. Saara Haapanen PhD Sports and Exercise Psychology and coach of 22 years, agrees. “Autonomy is needed for an athlete to experience intrinsic motivation. Therefore, I encourage all coaches to aim to create an environment that allows for autonomy to have the best physical and psychological outcomes from their athletes.”

Competence also plays an important role here since athletes need to feel effective when engaging with different tasks or training regimes so that they can become more confident in their skillsets; once a certain level of mastery has been achieved, this provides further incentive for them to continue striving towards excellence in the sport. Lastly, relatedness concerns the importance of having social support from teammates or mentors which helps foster better performance outcomes due to improved communication between individuals within a team setting as well as providing emotional comfort when faced with challenging situations during competitions or practices.

Overall, self-determination theory provides insight into why athletes have a higher likelihood of doing well when feeling adequately autonomous, competent and connected with their environment; according to Dr Alan Chu this understanding can be used by coaches and other leaders involved in sports programs as a way of creating positive atmospheres where athletes feel motivated and supported throughout their time on the field or court.


Self-efficacy is an essential factor for those looking to achieve elite levels of athletic performance. It is essentially the belief of one's own ability to succeed in a given task or activity. This confidence allows athletes to take ownership and responsibility for their own success, creating an intrinsic motivation that leads to more goal-oriented behaviors and better overall performance. Self-efficacy also allows athletes to develop a greater sense of resilience, since they are more likely to persist in the face of adversity and setbacks due to their confidence in their own capabilities.

In order to maintain high levels of self-efficacy, elite athletes often utilize self-monitoring devices such as heart monitors and pedometers that allow them to assess their performance over time and track long-term progress. Additionally, education on the importance of physical activity, proper nutrition, and other lifestyle factors can help athletes understand how these elements can contribute to their success. This understanding can then be internalized into a stronger belief in one’s own abilities and lead to better overall performance. And self-regulation of learning is also often a feature of elite athletes, using a variety of tools and self-monitoring and feedback to build self-efficacy.

At the same time, research has shown that elite athletes tend to possess higher measures of self-efficacy than non-elites. This is likely due, in part, from having experienced successful outcomes from previous performances which have contributed to their self-beliefs over time. Through consistent training and dedication, these successes become further reinforced which serves as a source of motivation for continual improvement and gaining an edge within their sport.

Overall, self-efficacy plays an important role in helping individuals reach elite levels of athletic performance by providing them with the confidence necessary for success while also inspiring them towards continual improvement over time through dedicated training and practice. Self-monitoring devices combined with educational resources can help foster this mindset even further by providing additional insight into one's personal development while reinforcing positive belief systems along the way.

Sustaining Behavior Change

Intrinsic motivation is a more sustainable approach to healthy behavior changes because it encourages long-term adoption of new behaviors based on an individual’s internal desire to experience the positive effects of such changes. Unlike extrinsic factors, intrinsic motivation is not dependent on external rewards or punishments—it comes from within. People who are intrinsically motivated to make changes in their diet, exercise routine, and other lifestyle habits usually have higher levels of commitment to those changes than those who rely solely on external motivators. Intrinsically motivated individuals are more likely to continue with their lifestyle changes even when there are no external rewards or punishments because they have formed an emotional connection with their chosen behavior.

The development of intrinsic motivation is often rooted in self-reflection and understanding the positive impacts that healthy behavior change can have for an individual’s overall wellbeing. Such reflection allows people to become aware of the link between the behaviors they choose today and the health outcomes that will result from them in the future. In learning about how their choices can affect their physical, mental and social wellbeing, individuals can become more conscious of their own power and ability to influence change in their lives. Personal feedback and self-monitoring tools have been shown to be effective in patients seeking healthier lifestyle management. This greater sense of ownership over their health increases intrinsic motivation as it helps people recognize that they can determine which actions are best for them and how far they wish to take these actions. In the long-term, individuals with intrinsic motivation continue healthy behavior changes more sustainably than when they feel pushed or controlled into doing so.

Additionally, initiatives that focus on developing intrinsic motivation among individuals strive to create a supportive environment through education and interpersonal connections. Learning about nutrition, physical activity, stress management and other key elements of healthy living provides people with an opportunity gain knowledge and understanding while allowing them the freedom to decide how they want to apply this information in their lives. Connecting with peers or mentors can also encourage sustainable lifestyle changes by providing support systems where individuals feel empowered or inspired by others around them seeking similar goals.

In conclusion, adopting elite performance habits sustained by intrinsic motivation is a much more effective approach than relying solely on external rewards or punishments as it relies on an individual’s own initiative and internal desire for change rather than any external pressures or incentives. Encouraging self-reflection alongside knowledge building efforts and tools that encourage self-monitoring along with creating supportive environments such as educational programs and peer networks provide opportunities for athletes to develop intrinsic motivators for lasting behavioral change in pursuit of elite levels of performance. As a recent research article concludes, “[r]egardless of the type of sport, the highly intrinsically achievement-oriented athletes consistently have the best potential for success." Coaches, athletic trainers, and athletes themselves all can play a role in becoming an autonomous athlete!


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