Authors: Joar Svensson1 and Scott Barnicle2

1Department of Sport Science, Halmstad University, Halmstad, Sweden
2College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV

Corresponding Author:
Scott Barnicle, PhD, CMPC
WVU – College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences
375 Birch Street
Morgantown, WV, 26505

Joar Svensson is a graduate student in sport and exercise psychology at Halmstad University in Halmstad, Sweden. His primary research interest is in self-determination theory and is continuing to expand his research interests as part of his graduate work.

Scott Barnicle, PhD, CMPC, is the program coordinator and teaching assistant professor in the Sport and Exercise Psychology program at West Virginia University. His research interests are in the areas of sport enjoyment, applied mental skills training, and teaching methods in the field of sport and exercise psychology.

Controlled but Autonomous: An examination of autonomy deficit in the pursuit of practice in sport


Self-determination theory posits three basic psychological needs, competence, relatedness, and autonomy (6). Autonomy is defined as being the perceived origin or source of one’s own behavior (2). The limits of this perception have not yet been tested. The current study set out to investigate whether athletes could be controlled while still feeling autonomous. A questionnaire about level of control and perception of autonomy was created. Participants were recruited (N=39) and answered the questionnaire. Results indicated that level of control over the sport and autonomy was significantly negatively correlated whereas control over practice and autonomy had no significant correlation. Athletes in controlling sports could therefore need extra autonomy support to satisfy their needs. As no significant correlations were found between control over practice and autonomy, practice sessions could possibly be very controlling without any major ramifications. The factors influencing this relationship need further investigation in differing sports and populations.

Key Words: Sport Practice, Autonomy, Motivation, Coach Education, self-determination theory


Self Determination Theory (SDT) suggests that humans have three basic psychological needs, which are competence, relatedness, and autonomy (6). Competence is defined as feeling effective and able to reach desired results, while relatedness is defined as feeling like a part of the group and having meaningful relationships (6). Deci and Ryan (2) describe autonomy as being the perceived origin or source of one’s own behavior. Texeira et al. (7) has stated that some types of physical activity may be inherently intrinsically motivating for many individuals, especially when they involve self-chosen optimal challenges that can help people enjoy the sense of autonomy and mastery which are factors that underpin intrinsic motivation. Hancox et al. (4) state that an individual’s autonomy can get lowered in many ways, like having an imposing coach telling the exerciser what to do and feel and imposing structured environments by being coercive (for example, by using ‘must’ and ‘ought to’ statements) and inflexible. In a study by Amarose and Anderson-Butcher (1), results demonstrated that the degree to which athletes perceived their coaches to be autonomy-supportive significantly predicted the athletes’ perceived competence, autonomy, and sense of relatedness, which, in turn, each predicted their motivational orientation. At the time of writing, there is a lack of research investigating if the intrinsically motivating aspects of certain physical activities and the autonomy debilitating impact of controlling coaches and the inherently can apply to a sport.


Deci and Ryan (2) state that autonomy concerns acting from interest and integrated values. When autonomous individuals experience their behavior as an expression of the self, such that even when actions are influenced by outside sources the actors, concur with those influences feeling both initiative and value in regard to them (2). Autonomy is often confused with or melded together with the quite similar term independence (which means not relying on external sources or influences) but SDT considers there to be no antagonism between autonomy and dependence (2). Indeed, one can quite autonomously enact behaviors and values that others have requested or forwarded if one congruently endorses them (2). On the other hand, one can rely on others for directions or opinions in such a way that autonomy is not supported as is the way with mere compliance or conformity (2). An autonomy supported coaching style has been shown to be effective in improving among others autonomy. Gillet et al. (3) concluded that coaches’ autonomy support facilitates self-determined motivation and sports performance. Reinboth et al. (5) showed athletes’ perceptions of autonomy support, mastery focus, and social support from the coach predicted their satisfaction of the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, respectively. The findings suggest that aspects  of the social environment may be salient for fostering psychological needs (5).

What if the same rules applied to sports?

What if sports could be autonomy supportive or debilitative? A coach that uses coercion could be interchanged with a rule set that punishes players for not conforming to the rules. A coach that does not let you have a say could be interchanged with an opponent, steering the game in a certain direction. Do not forget the biased judges who have the power to punish your every move. What if the social environment has potential of fostering psychological  needs could apply to a sport as a whole? If that reasoning holds, some sports might be inherently more motivating since they have an open environment and involve more self-choice and self-chosen challenges which help people satisfy their autonomy needs. If the reasoning holds true and some sports are inherently more motivating , then it is a double-edged sword. Some sports may be inherently unmotivating since they are very controlling with a structured environment that punishes players for not following its strict ruleset whilst at the same time offering a low number of choices and self-chosen challenges. It can be theorized that some sports may have an inherent autonomy deficit or maybe since all sports have rules which are inherently controlling, all sports might, therefore, come with an inherent autonomy deficit. It depends if the deficit counts from maximum autonomy or the level of autonomy needed for a person to feel satisfied. If it is the former all sports might have an autonomy deficit and if it is the latter some sports might have an autonomy surplus. I argue that the measure of autonomy should be centered around the level needed to be satisfactory. Everything over satisfactory would be a surplus and everything under would be a deficit. If this were the case the coaches of some sports would have to be extra autonomy supporting since they are starting out from a deficit, whilst other coaches could be autonomy unsupportive since they are working from a surplus. However, since all players have accepted the rules of the sport, they might all start from the same level of autonomy.

According to Deci and Ryan (2) one can quite autonomously enact behaviors and values that others have requested if one congruently endorses them. If someone engages in a sport for a long time, they might have already accepted the behaviors and values the sport demands, in an autonomous way. This might lead to the value of choices becoming relative. In a very controlling sport, a small choice might become relatively big because choices are scarce. Allowing a weightlifter to choose an accessory exercise or what to wear when competing might be perceived as a relatively valuable choice making the weightlifter feel autonomous. In sports like Mixed-Martial Arts (MMA) that choice might be perceived as a relatively low-value choice since the sport is already so free. If every sport starts at the same deficit but the choices become relative, an MMA fighter would need a big choice to satisfy the autonomy need, like structuring a fight camp or choosing all the exercises to focus on in a training session, which is impossible for weightlifters since they only compete in two lifts. For a weightlifter that would be a relatively gigantic choice (not really though since the only a few exercises are relevant which makes that sort of choice a non *viable choice because it wouldn’t improve the athlete) for an MMA fighter, it would probably be a relatively big choice to choose all the exercises but not as big as it would be for a weightlifter (if it would be a viable choice for the weightlifter).

Choice multiplication        Choosing outfits=1
Mma 0.5                              1×0.5=0.5
WL 3                                     1×3=3

How the relativity of choice could function in different sports

Different autonomy levels in different parts of the sport

Sports consist of at least two part; the competition portion and the training. Why is this important? The two parts are relevant because whereas the competition portion of a sport (called the game from now on) might be very controlling, training does not necessarily have to be. The training part of the sport could be full of choices. Even if the training part is not full of choices the game might be. Here is where it gets interesting. If the game offers a lot of choices and training consists of mostly playing the game the training could still satisfy the autonomy needs of the individual even if the coach is being very controlling on the other parts of the training. A game with an autonomy surplus could be enough to counterbalance a controlling coach. The reverse might also be true. A training session that consists mostly of playing the game where the game is very controlling could need a very autonomy supporting coach to counterbalance the controlling nature of the game. The games however could be able to have an autonomy surplus and deficit. Team sports have multiple positions with different amounts of choices. A certain position could be very controlled whereas other positions could be very free.

Purpose and Hypothesis

As autonomy plays a big role in an athlete’s motivation (1). It is important to find out whether certain sports have an autonomy deficit. The purpose of the current study is therefore to test whether some sports might have an inherent autonomy deficit. Since controlling sports offer few choices for the athlete, the athlete should be more likely to feel controlled thereby lowering the athlete’s autonomy. Therefore, our hypothesis was that sports that are more controlling lead to individuals feeling less autonomous.



There was a total of 39 participants recruited from a Swedish sports high school. 3 participates were excluded because they did not practice a sport. The remaining 36 participants had the following sporting background: Football (15), Ice hockey (9), Riding (5), Floorball (3), Gymnastics (2), Table tennis (1), Powerlifting (1).


A sports high school in Sweden was contacted. The school then sent out the questionnaire to a group of students. Some of the questions pertained to the competition part of a sport, to clarify that a statement was put at the start of the questionnaire to assure the right thing was answered. The study did not collect names or email addresses. Therefore, the study was anonymous.          


To be able to measure if a sport has an autonomy deficit a new questionnaire was constructed. The questionnaire consists of general questions and 5 subscales. The subscales are ‘’control over the game (Cg, game autonomy (Ga), control over training (Ct), training autonomy (Ta) and focusing choices (Fc). Cg and Ct pertain to the amount the athlete makes choices and how controlled the individual is. Where the control over the game is more about how the rules, opponents, and judges, etc. affect the athlete’s choices, control over training is about how much the athlete decides. Autonomy over the game and training pertains to how many self-decided choices the athlete feels like they can make. As with the controlling subscales, Ga pertains to how affected the individual feels by judges, opponents, and rules etc… while the Ta pertains to the amount of self-decided choices the individual feels like they could make. Fc pertains to the athletes’ options to focus on different parts of the game while disregarding the others. Since sports are multifaceted and some areas of a sport can be controlling whereas others do not have to be, the answers to the questions were not suspected always to line up. For example, in gymnastics, you can feel very controlled by the rules, but you are probably less likely to feel controlled by your opponents. The same reasoning goes for training, a warmup might be relatively inconsequential so the athlete might be allowed to choose the warmup but not being allowed to choose the rest of the training since it is more important. Since the answers do not have to line up and in many cases will not, reliability analysis was not performed.


Table 1: Correlation matrix of the examined variables.

Measures 1 2 3 4 5
1.Cg 1 .600** -.276 -.108 .061
2.Ga   1 .191 -.223 .076
3.Ct     1 .143 .159
4.Ta       1 .316
5.Fc         1

*p < .05, **p < .01

A significant correlation was found between Control over game and autonomy over the game. No other variables were significantly correlated.

Differences between Sports

Since there were few participants belonging to many of the sports (only two sports had 9 or more participants) only two of the sports differences were compared.

Table 2: Comparison of means between sports

  Football Ice Hockey
Cg 28.600 29.888
Ga 15.800** 20.000**
Ct 11.000 12.333
Ta 29.466 31.222
Fc 17.067 16.333

There was a significant difference found in game autonomy between football and ice hockey.


Control over the game and game autonomy

Cg and Ga had a strong significant correlation (.600). This supports the hypothesis that how controlling the game is affects the athlete’s level of autonomy in the game. The results also support the hypothesis of some games having an autonomy deficit at least in the competition part. According to Deci and Ryan (2) one can quite autonomously enact behaviors and values that others have requested or forwarded if one congruently endorses them. The problem is that all athletes might not autonomously enact the behaviors and values that the game demands. This seems to leave the athletes of some sports feeling less autonomous. The values and behaviors that the game demands can be autonomy debilitating in many ways.

First, you have the rules, which inhibit a large amount of choices from being viable since the rules leave them ineffective and sometimes, they are even punished. Rules also decide the number of variables in the game. Variables can be anything from physical contact and what body parts you can use, to the ways you can score. Restricting the number of variables and further restricting the options of those variables could leave the athlete with less viable choices, which might decrease the athlete’s likelihood of feeling autonomous. You also have the opponents who make the game reactive by making certain choices unviable by steering the game in a certain direction. You might also have obligations towards the team or organization. Although this was not researched in the study one can theorize of the impact of these obligations as well as society. For example, media exposure can be good for athletes since they can get more fans, make more money, which can allow them to buy better trainers, equipment, food etc. On the other hand, missing chances of media exposure could leave you missing out on all the above and in the case of obligations; you can get punished by not talking to the media etc. Marshawn Lynch is a good example. He has media obligations and would be penalized if he did not go to them, so he just sits quietly and then leaves. It would not be a stretch to suggest that these obligations might be detrimental to Lynch’s autonomy. Society, including the media, can be theorized to have a big impact on athletes and it would be naïve to not factor in the rest of society as a force that can be detrimental to an athlete’s autonomy. Society can affect how much you are paid, which in turn impacts the number of opportunities you can get. If you do not conform to the wills of society you might find yourself having fewer fans, less money, fewer choices and becoming the recipient of a lot of hateful comments. This might lead athletes to adjust their playstyle to avoid the scenarios above, which can lead to the individual feeling less autonomous if the behaviors and values are not congruently endorsed.

Control over training and training autonomy

Ct and Ta did not have a significant correlation. Deci and Ryan (2) stated that the individual only must agree with the decision to feel autonomous. The findings of the current study imply that athletes can feel autonomous without being the one who makes the decisions. Since the actual control, the athlete has over training does not seem to be a factor that influences how autonomous the athlete feels during training, what does? Amarose and Anderson-Butcher (1) results showed that the degree to which athletes perceived their coaches to be autonomy-supportive significantly predicted the athletes’ perceived autonomy. Reinbooth et al. (5) also showed that an autonomy supportive coach was a predicting factor of an athlete’s autonomy satisfaction. Whether the degree of autonomy support from the coach makes actual choices matter less was not tested in the study. What also was not tested was to what degree the athletes understood and agreed with the different parts of both the game and training. It can be theorized that if athletes see the value in the parts, like the rules of the game and the exercises of the training and see the benefits they bring they will be more likely to feel less controlled. On the other hand, athletes that do not see the value and the benefits the factors bring, they might be more likely to feel controlled.

Differences between sports

Since there were few participants belonging too many of the sports (only two sports had 9 or more participants) only two of the sports differences were compared. Football had significantly less Ga than ice hockey. No significant differences were found between the sports in any other variable. This suggests that even though the athletes from both sports seem to think that their sports are controlling to the same amount, they perceive their autonomy in the game as different. After further analysis, it turns out that there were significant differences in three of the questions of Ga. The questions concerned having to make choices based on the opponent, and unnecessary rules in the sport. The footballers of this study seem to find their opponents as a more controlling force than ice hockey players. They also seem to find more rules unnecessary than ice hockey players. Although Cg and Ga are correlated, Cg can lead to different levels of Ga in different sports. Why the football players found their opponents and the rules as more detrimental to their autonomy than ice hockey players was not investigated. There seems to be factors that influence the athlete’s perception of autonomy. Even though those factors were not researched there are clues left in previous research. As previously discussed, Deci and Ryan (2) stated that the individual only must agree with the decision to feel autonomous. Well what makes the athlete agree with decisions? As discussed, the degree of athletes understanding and agreeing with the different parts of both the game and training could be possible explanation.

Practical Implications

The current study was the first one in this subject; therefore, there is still a lot of research to be done to identify the implications. Based on the study coaches of controlling sports can try to be extra autonomy supportive during the game portion of the sports. Coaches can also do a lot of training planning without having the athlete’s autonomy in mind. That said it was not investigated if there are any prerequisites that need to be fulfilled before that holds true. Therefore, coaches can try to be autonomy supportive and explain the choices to the athletes since it is theorized that those may be prerequisites for the athlete being relatively unaffected by how controlled the training is.


The current study had a small sample size (N=36). Because of the small sample size, many sports had below three participants, which made comparisons between the sports less reliable. The study also used a new questionnaire. Since the questionnaire is new, there are improvements that could be made and flaws that may not have been identified. Since it is a new subject, questionnaires that measure these specific questions do not exist; therefore, a new one had to be made. The sample of the current study was relatively young, between 16-19. The questionnaire did not ask how long the participants had trained their sport or their level of competition. An athlete that has not trained the sport for a longer time might not have been as affected by the autonomy deficit as someone who has trained the sport for a longer time. The same reasoning can be applied to someone who is at a low competition level compared to someone of a higher competition level.

Future research

Since this is one of the first studies in this subject, there is a lot of future research to be done. Because of the small sample size, a similar study with a bigger sample consisting of older players of a higher level of competition. The current study did not account for whether the athletes found certain rules, training programs etc. useful or valuable. As discussed, it can be theorized that the athlete’s opinions can change the ways it perceives, for example, a training program. The factors behind the athlete’s perception of autonomy was not researched in the current study. Future studies could therefore investigate the different factors to establish the mechanisms of autonomy. The questionnaire also asked questions about extremely specific parts of training and competition. It could, therefore, be interesting to investigate possible correlations of a general sports autonomy questionnaire. Society is a factor that was theorized to impact autonomy that was not accounted for. A study including questions pertaining to society’s effect would be interesting to see if the theory holds up. Since an autonomy-supportive coach has been shown to impact the athlete’s sense of autonomy. Therefore, it could be interesting to include a questionnaire about autonomy supportive coaches to see how they impact the individual’s perception of both training and competition.


How controlling a sport is affects how autonomous an athlete feels while playing the sport. Athletes of controlling sports could therefore need extra autonomy support during periods of frequent competition to balance their autonomy deficit. How controlling training sessions are does not seem to affect an athlete’s level of autonomy in training. Therefore, trainers do not seem to have to take athlete’s autonomy in to account when planning training. The study provided evidence that even if athletes perceive their sports as equally controlling, they can still experience different levels of autonomy. It seems that athlete’s perception of autonomy is influenced by different factors. The discovery of these factors and the underlying mechanics of autonomy could provide the possibility to be infinitely controlling without negatively impacting an athlete’s autonomy. Further investigation of the mechanics of autonomy is needed.  


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