Authors: Jeff Noble, Mark Vermillion*, and Kewa Foster

*Corresponding Author:
Mark Vermillion, PhD
Wichita State University
Department of Sport Management
Wichita, KS 67260-0127

Understanding how athletes interact with coaches is an important topic for not only increasing performance, but also for managing developmental dynamics so often associated with coaching. As a result, the purpose of the research is to examine student-athletes’ perceptions of coaching environments as related to autonomy-supportive motivational climates. Division I (formerly known as Division I AAA) student-athletes were surveyed (n=143) as part of a larger data collection process by the athletic department. Self-determination theory is applied to examine motivation, autonomy, and support, while psychosocial student development theory is used to influence variable selection relating to the student-athlete population. Statistical results indicate an overall positive perception of coaching environments by student-athletes and no differences based upon gender. Regression analyses indicate only 28% of the variance is explained by current variables/questions on athletic department survey instrument with variables of gender, type of sport played, and student classification having little to no statistically significant impact. In accordance with previous research, coaches have the ability to create a positive atmosphere and in this study student-athletes had an overall positive view of their coaches’ ability to develop autonomy-supportive team climates. However, many personal-level factors could account for the large percent of variance not explained by statistical analyses in the current study.

Keywords: student-athletes, motivation, coaching climate, self-determination

With the immense scrutiny sport receives from media outlets, a wide variety of groups (e.g. media, general public, organizational administrators, parents, boosters, etc.) have recognized the role of the “coach” in the lives of athletes, especially student-athletes (16). It can be posited coaches exert an enormous influence in developing an environment, which aids in student, athlete, and individual development of young men and women (17). Recent research has shown exercise/physical activity participation is motivated and mitigated by supportive structures, such as peers or authority figures (19), and may impact the quality of social interaction within a sport program. As a result, athletes pursue self-determined goals, which are set in place or influenced by those exogenous to athletes, such as coaches, in order to satisfy social-psychological needs.

The psychological needs of student-athletes are social in nature, and include a variety of emotional and structural elements. Confidence and motivation are individualized attributes important to athletic success (6) and recent theorizing addresses how motivational climates relate to sport, exercise/physical activity, and performance. Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory (SDT) has been widely used as a framework when studying motivation in sport-related activities.

According to the self-determination theory (10), an individual’s level of motivation can range from intrinsic (internal) motivation to extrinsic (external) motivation to amotivation (not motivated). Extrinsic motivation, the middle of the continuum, includes external reasons for participating in an activity, which can be measured on a spectrum ranging from low to high forms of self-determination.

Within SDT, there are three psychological needs an individual strives to satisfy that are crucial for understanding human motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (9). Autonomy is the individual’s desire and freedom to self-organize and integrate in a way that is in congruence with his or her self, while competence is the individual’s ability to have an effect on the environment and opportunity to express his or her capabilities (8). Finally, relatedness refers to an individual’s need for belonging and having a connection to others (2). The fulfillment of these needs can greatly influence an individual’s overall well-being as well as one’s own level of self-determined motivation (21, 24).

Vansteenkiste and Deci (2003) conducted research on competition, rewards, and intrinsic motivation and discovered not only is positive performance feedback essential for maintaining intrinsic motivation, but it also can counteract negative effects of losing a competition. Pope and Wilson (2012) studied motivational processes concluding athletes who perceive their coaches as empathetic produce more motivational benefits. Similarly, Gagne, Ryan, and Bargmann (2003) noted when coaches created an autonomous environment with their athletes it directly and positively affected the way the athlete felt in terms of competence, self-esteem, energy and sustained positive emotions. The training environment and the way the athletes interacted with each other also benefited from the autonomous environment the coaches encouraged (12).

Jõesaar, Hein, and Hagger (2012) looked at the autonomously supportive coaches had on intrinsic motivation and motivation in general. The results parallel one of the principles of SDT, suggesting when athletes are given more choice and control, they are more intrinsically motivated. They recommend coaches have athletes complete tasks involving their peers, collaborative efforts, and learning because it helps promote intrinsic motivation, while—similarly—Garcia-Mas et. al. (2010) suggested creating challenging and interesting training for a comparable impact. Lonsdale, Hodge and Rose (2009), examining burnout and self-determination noted sport environments endorsing needs satisfaction promoted self-determined motivation, and aided in preventing burnout.

Structural factors (e.g. type of sport, gender) may impact autonomous coaching environments and have a long history of being associated with the development of students and student-athletes. A psychosocial student development approach highlights student athletes’ development, which results from the unique situational characteristics of their social lives (Evans, 2010). Athletic environments are extremely important contexts for developing and educating young people’s view of authority figures. Coakley (2009) noted the importance of athletics in identity development, which includes important structural influences, such as gender, race/ethnicity, the type of team/sport where the athlete participates, and other characteristics associated with student-athletes.

SDT aids in understanding the complex environments associated with sports or athletic performance and examining the structural factors associated with social environments and student (athlete) development provides a more holistic explanation of coaching dynamics. As a result, the purpose of this research is to examine Division I student-athletes’ perceptions of coaching environments regarding autonomy-supportive motivational climates. Specifically, the following research questions were answered:

1) Are there differences between male and female student-athletes’ perceptions of coach autonomy support?
2) What role do gender, sport, and student classification have upon student-athletes’ perceptions of coach autonomy support?



Using the sport climate questionnaire (SCQ) (7), student-athletes from a public, urban-serving university were surveyed during the fall semester of a recent academic year. The SCQ is a validated and reliable instrument for measuring the athlete’s perception of coach-provided autonomy support, even across various cultures and using differing languages and translations (1). Within this research the Cronbach’s alpha was .933, which measures the internal relationships of the scale’s questions, and is well above the accepted level within the social sciences for a reliable scale making it a useful instrument for measuring an athlete’s perception of their coach’s team climate or training environment.


The university is a Division I (formerly known as Division I- AAA) athletic department (i.e. no football program), which results in a slightly smaller athletic department when compared to those with football programs. Nonetheless, student-athlete responses were gathered from representatives of 94% of athletic programs supported by the athletic department. After data collection 143 complete surveys were collected (n=143), which is over 50% of the athletes in the athletic department at the time of data collection. The sample was composed of more male than female athletes (51.7% vs. 48.3%) and of freshmen (34.3%), sophomores (22.4%), juniors (20.3%), seniors (15.4%), and 5th year seniors (7.7%). Race/ethnicity, age, and residency (i.e. foreign vs. domestic student-athletes) were not included on the athletic department’s survey, and therefore not included in the results.


Following athletic department approval, the athletic department administered the surveys for internally collected, NCAA mandated, data management. The SCQ was added to the already standing survey instrument. Student-athletes completed the survey during organized study time or while they were in the center for athletic academic services. Coaches were not present during data collection and responses were electronically gathered. Once gathered, each response was assigned an electronic identifying number, which became part of the electronic record and database. Researchers were not present during data collection. The database was both developed and analyzed within SPSS, version 21. Athletic department personnel provided access to the database for researchers, which did not provide any identifying respondent information except for demographic information provided on the survey instrument by the participant.

Initial statistical results indicate an overall favorable view of coaches’ ability to provide autonomy within coaching environments, as measured by relatively high mean scores on the SCQ, which ranged from a possible score of 6 (low) to 42 (high). The mean score on the SCQ for student athletes in this sample was 31.24 (SD=8.526).

Regarding the first research question (Are there differences between male and female student-athletes’ perceptions of coach autonomy support?), a t-test was conducted to see if the mean scores on the SCQ differed between male and females. The mean differences along the SCQ show males and females do not have a statistically significant difference in perceptions of autonomy support (t= -.140, df= 134). And, both males (mean=31.14, SD=8.95) and females (mean= 31.34, SD=8.17) had positive perceptions of their coaches respectively.

In order to answer the second research questions (What role do gender, sport, and student classification have upon student-athletes’ perceptions of coach autonomy support?) a regression model was developed to explain the variance of the dependent variable (SCQ) using structural variables associated with the psychosocial development of student-athletes. These independent variables include the respondent’s sport, gender, and academic classification. A regression model was used to help in predicting the variables that have a distinct impact upon an athlete’s perception of their coach’s ability to develop an autonomously supportive training environment. The analysis of variance for the model was significant at the .000 level, which indicates the model based upon psychosocial student development theory is statistically significant to the null hypothesis that these factors have no impact. However, goodness of fit regression analyses (R2) revealed the independent variables explained only 28% of the variance in the dependent variable, the SCQ, thereby indicating several other factors influence student-athletes’ perceptions of coach-provided and autonomy-supportive motivational climates. Additionally, the only significant independent variable was the sport of softball, which would—ultimately—undergo a coaching change at the end of the season when these results were developed. See table 1.

Table 1

The purpose of this research was to examine Division I student-athletes’ perceptions of coaching environments regarding how well the coach promotes an atmosphere where student-athletes feel there is an autonomy-supportive motivational climate. Findings indicate over 70% of the variance regarding autonomous coaching environments is explained by factors other than gender, type of sport, and academic classification of student-athletes, which were measured on the athletic department’s survey.

Psychosocial student development theory acknowledges the importance of specific roles, structurally relevant expectations, and individual life experiences (11). Confidence and motivation are related to perceptions of the surrounding environment, which is hypothesized to by influenced by the coach and his or her ability to develop an environment where the student-athlete feels confident to express him or herself. Results of this research, however, indicate the sport in which the athlete participates, school classification, and gender of the respondent—while theoretically salient—do not explain a substantial amount of the variance relating to the overall positive view of respondent’s coaches. The one case where the sport was statistically significant (softball), it was associated with an acrimonious team climate, which was one antecedent that may have influenced a coaching change in that sport.

Vermillion (2010) noted student-athletes do not, necessarily, have a homogenous athlete-dominant identity while researching community college softball players’ decisions to attend their current institutions. Specifically, he noted the multifaceted identities of many of the student- athletes, which manifested themselves in the factors influencing their higher education decisions. While playing time and head coach are factors associated with athletic identities, other student identity factors, such as tutoring and academic support, were equally important (23). A healthy self-concept and identity is associated with confidence and self-efficacy, the belief in accomplishing—successfully—one’s appointed task (14). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation correlate with self-esteem, self-efficacy, and the encouragement within sport settings.

Self-determined motivation, as previously mentioned, can be enhanced by developing interesting or relevant interactions within the sport setting (13). Specifically, structured settings define expectations and the resulting impact can positively increase self-determined motivations; research recommended developing collaborative interactions, which promote healthy communication amongst athletes and foster a sense of team, when athletes are given choices they are more motivated (15) and have better self-esteem (12). Within this research the athletes perceive their respective coaches in a positive manner and there are no differences based upon athletes’ gender or sport, thereby leading one to conclude the associations and relationships these athletes have with their coaches take place in supportive environments, which are healthy interactions for them (except for one team/sport). This supports findings from research involving the climate coaches work with their athletes. Coatsworth and Conroy (2009) noted the importance of the coaching climate on the developmental benefits of sport participation. They concluded that coaches’ autonomy support, particularly through praise that focused on process, predicted youth competence need satisfaction and relatedness need satisfaction in the coaching relationship (5). As such, it would be beneficial for coaches to promote practice and competitive settings where athletes are comfortable with their environment, regardless of sport or gender.

Finally, Brinkman-Majewski and Weiss (2015) noted—when examining motivational climates in intercollegiate athletic training rooms—the importance of individual athletes’ characteristics, dispositions, and goal orientations. The current research noted 28% of the variance was explained by the current factors (gender, type of sport, etc.), but the vast majority of the variance could be examined using more psychologically-oriented tools, such as scales or indices focusing on specific goal orientations, self-efficacy, or differing aspects of identity. For example, focusing on the athlete’s motivational climate, whether a mastery or performance orientation, could be an important factor for understanding the remaining 72% of variance in this research.

The current study surveyed Division I student-athletes in order to gain a better understanding of coach and student-athlete dynamics. As with any research there are limitations, which should be identified. For example, additional questions such as race/ethnicity, age, and residency (foreign vs. domestic) should be included on subsequent data collection attempts in order to develop a more holistic picture of what influences student-athletes’ perceptions of autonomous coaching environments. Understanding that an athletic department’s coaches are producing coaching environments that allow student-athletes the opportunity to express themselves is extremely useful to many collegiate athletic administrators because it helps to develop an organizational culture where student-athletes feel comfortable expressing their opinions and views. Additional scales regarding self-efficacy, athletic identity, and student identity could help further examine the high scores generated by the SCQ, which represents athletes’ perceptions of coaches’ ability to create supportive and encouraging sport contexts.

A clearer picture of what better explains student-athletes’ perceptions of coaching environments will help coaches’ communication efforts and impact on student-athletes. Additionally, understanding how student-athletes view coaches and the team atmospheres they create can assist athletic administrators evaluating these coaches. Finally, the more information other athletic department subunits charged with the task of student-athlete development have available to them, such as academic and athletic student services, then the more impact the programming aimed at helping student-athletes grow can be.

We would like to thank the athletic department that was willing to not only work with our researchers, but also recognizes the importance of bridging academic scholarship with organizational dynamics and leadership strategies.

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