The 3 Needs, Motivation, & Peak Performance.


coaches corner

According to Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory (SDT), 3 basic psychological needs underlie the operations of a functional and motivated person. They are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Humans want to grow. Because of this, there is a drive to thrive. If that sounds familiar, it’s part of the name of my parenting elite athletes book and online training program. This psychological infrastructure is important to peak athletic performance at all ages and experience levels. It is especially helpful in early developmental levels to build great athletic performers, but also well rounded and motivated kids.

This week I will highlight AUTONOMY.

What it is: Autonomy represents the need to be self-directed and believe that behaviors and thoughts are freely chosen and enable a person to get what they want.

What it Ain’t: non-autonomy is like floating in the middle of the ocean on a life raft, at the mercy of the waves, the current, the wind. One bobs without direction or control, hoping something good happens. There is little perception of personal control over how things turn out. A non-autonomous person frequently finds them self in situations where they are externally controlled. They wait for instruction and direction from whatever system to which they surrender control (sports/coaches, work, family, life).


Someone who is autonomous might also be in a life raft in the middle of the ocean, but with a motor attached. They are influenced by the waves, current and elements (the junk in life that is out of one’s control), but they also believe they can do something about it. Thoughts, actions, and behaviors influence one’s direction and move them toward where they choose to be. They act freely, knowing there is choice, control, and that they are self-directed.

Autonomy is directly connected to internal motivation.

If you are a coach or parent of an athlete who needs constant direction, coaxing, and a sharp stick in the back for motivation, you are dealing with someone who lacks autonomy. Working specifically on the belief that their actions will influence outcomes will help them be more successful. This is part of what I do as a mental skills coach, reach out if you need some help.

Autonomous people have control of their fate, and they know what they do has an influence on their lives and performance. An autonomous athlete won’t have to be dragged out of bed to get to practice (as often-let’s be real when talking about teenagers).

There is an internal motivation to get things done because the athlete sees value in the activity. This is true even if the activity isn’t desirable and/or is coming from an area of external control like a parent or coach. There are things in life and sport that must be done. An autonomous athlete finds a way to make it their own and get after it!

A note from Dr. J

The Work of Carol Dweck and the fixed mindset comes into play for those who struggle with non-autonomy.

A fixed mindset believes that:

1. Talent, intelligence, and ability are inherent-you have it or you don’t.
2. It’s too late to ___________(fill in the blank).
3. They are defined by failures.
4. If you can’t win, what’s the point?
5. Anything short of praise is an attack.
6. The deck is stacked against me.
7. My situation, “Is what it is.”
8. What I am now is all I am capable of.
9. If I don’t try, I can’t fail.
10. Where I fail is the edge of my ability.
11. Avoids feedback and criticism.
12. Threatened by other’s success.

A growth mindset is connected to autonomy.

A growth mindset believes that:

1. Talent/intelligence continue to develop.
2. Effort gets you what you want.
3. Believes mistakes are ok.
4. Failure isn’t fatal.
5. They should seek challenges.
6. Mastery comes from doing hard things
6. Uses criticism & feedback to grow.
7. Inspired by other’s success.

I am going to cover need two: competence, soon… don’t miss it!

I’m Dr J., I work with athletes, parents, coaches, and teams of all levels to get their “Mind Right” through the art & science of sport & performance psychology.
In my practice, I work with individuals, teams, and organizations face-to-face or through Zoom.
I also offer comprehensive online sport psychology programs, one for athletes, and one for parents of athletes.
Check out my website, for more info, or email me at

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