Principles of Self-Determination Theory and a Conjugate Program: Building Intrinsic Motivation


Self-Determination Theory (SDT) provides valuable insights into enhancing motivation and well-being among athletes. Its three principles – autonomy, relatedness, and competence – can be effectively applied to coaching a conjugate program, creating an environment that fosters athlete growth and performance. In this blog post, we will explore how these principles empower athletes, promote skill development, and cultivate a lifelong love for the sport.

Autonomy: Making Choices and Embracing Auto-Regulation

Autonomy, the first principle of SDT, emphasizes the importance of providing athletes with choices and opportunities to make decisions regarding their training. In a conjugate program, athletes can actively participate in the decision-making process, allowing them to have a sense of ownership and control over their development. Coaches can involve athletes in exercise selection, goal setting, and even aspects of training methodology. By giving athletes the freedom to make choices that align with their preferences and goals, coaches tap into their intrinsic motivation, resulting in increased engagement and commitment.

Auto-regulation is a critical aspect of autonomy in a conjugate program. It allows athletes to adjust their training intensity, volume, and exercise selection based on their individual needs and preferences. Auto-regulation enables athletes to listen to their bodies, make informed decisions about training variables, and optimize their performance while mitigating the risk of overtraining or burnout. By empowering athletes to regulate their own training, coaches instill a sense of responsibility and self-awareness, fostering autonomy and long-term adherence to the program.

Being a student is another aspect of autonomy in a conjugate program. Athletes who approach their training with a student mindset, constantly seeking knowledge and seeking to improve, take ownership of their development. They actively engage in learning about training methodologies, biomechanics, nutrition, and recovery strategies. By becoming lifelong students of their sport, athletes deepen their understanding and appreciation for the training process, fostering autonomy and intrinsic motivation.

Relatedness: Connecting Sport and Life

The principle of relatedness focuses on the need for athletes to feel connected to others, such as coaches, teammates, and the larger sporting community. Building a sense of relatedness in a conjugate program involves creating an environment where athletes feel supported, understood, and part of a cohesive unit.

Coaches can foster relatedness by explaining the rationale behind specific training exercises and techniques. When athletes understand the purpose and benefits of certain training methodologies, they develop a deeper connection and commitment to the program. By transparently communicating the “why” behind the training, coaches bridge the gap between theory and practice, instilling trust and motivation in athletes.

Resiliency, a key characteristic of successful athletes, aligns with the principle of relatedness in a conjugate program. When faced with challenges or setbacks, resilient athletes demonstrate perseverance, adaptability, and mental toughness. Coaches can foster resiliency by creating a supportive environment that encourages athletes to view setbacks as learning opportunities and to develop coping strategies. By instilling a growth mindset and providing guidance during difficult times, coaches contribute to athletes’ sense of relatedness and enhance their motivation and commitment.

Core values, both individual and shared within the team or sporting community, also contribute to the sense of relatedness in a conjugate program. Athletes who align their actions with their core values demonstrate integrity, discipline, and dedication. Coaches can facilitate the exploration and identification of core values, helping athletes develop a strong sense of purpose and connection to their sport. When athletes understand how their core values drive their training and performance, they become more intrinsically motivated, leading to enhanced relatedness and overall well-being.

Competence: Skill Development and Building Confidence

Competence, the third principle of SDT, centers around skill development and building confidence. In a conjugate program, coaches play a vital role in designing training sessions that challenge athletes and facilitate skill acquisition.

Coaches can foster competence by progressively introducing new exercises and challenges. By providing a variety of training stimuli and focusing on developing different athletic qualities, coaches broaden athletes’ skill set. As athletes witness their progress and experience growth, their confidence naturally increases. Coaches can further reinforce competence by providing constructive feedback, recognizing achievements, and setting attainable goals. By acknowledging and celebrating incremental improvements, coaches instill a sense of accomplishment and self-belief in athletes.

The development of competence goes hand in hand with the development of confidence. As athletes become proficient in various exercises and skills, they gain confidence in their abilities. This increased confidence translates into better performance and a positive mindset, empowering athletes to push their boundaries and achieve new heights.


By incorporating the principles of autonomy, relatedness, and competence into coaching strategies for a conjugate program, coaches can empower athletes to reach their full potential. Providing choices and embracing auto-regulation give athletes a sense of control and ownership over their training. Fostering relatedness through understanding and connecting training principles to life cultivates a supportive and motivating environment. Lastly, emphasizing skill development and building confidence enhances athletes’ competence and self-efficacy. When these principles are applied effectively, athletes thrive, experiencing increased motivation, engagement, and lifelong love for their chosen sport. As coaches, let us embrace SDT and empower our athletes to excel in their journey of self-discovery and athletic achievement.

Read More