The Three Keys to Motivation


, by Chris Case

Photography by: L Ismail /

The most successful athletes rely on three fundamental psychological concepts—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—to set and achieve their goals.

What is it about certain athletes that makes them so successful?

Discipline? Sure, in some cases. Determination? That can help. Time? Not a bad thing to have.

More important than any of those characteristics, however, are three psychological conditions that strengthen an athlete’s sense of ownership and engagement in their own development, and that direct the quality of their motivation to pursue goals.

Psychologists Richard Ryan and Ed Deci first conceptualized something called the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) decades ago. Their research suggests that three concepts—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—yield the most powerful and productive outcomes, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.

RELATED: How to Create Effective Training and Performance Goals

Their theory proposes that these three fundamental and universal needs precede all motivation—which is the fuel that drives our pursuit of goals. Furthermore, according to the researchers, these needs must be satisfied for an athlete to experience psychological and physical well-being, and for goals to lead to progress, wellness, and success.

The three keys

First, there’s autonomy—defined as the freedom to act with volition and choice, without a feeling of compulsion or control. In a word, ownership.

“All athletes want to feel like they have a chance in this,” says Grant Holicky, co-owner of Forever Endurance Coaching, who holds a master’s degree in applied sports psychology. “They’re not being directed, or controlled by the winds and luck. They want to know they have some control over the outcome, and the process. This is the athlete’s journey.”

Photography by: KOTO

With that sense of control comes the need to take responsibility—both when things go well and when they go poorly. Being able to recognize that you are responsible for an action allows you to learn from that event, be it a crash, a bonk, or something else. And acceptance yields an opportunity for growth.

“That’s being ‘on the path’ in the development journey,” Holicky says. “Beating yourself up over a mistake doesn’t help us grow; it knocks us back.”

The second condition is competence—defined as the need to develop potential and feel effective in one’s environment.

Competence is created by having a strong self image, both as an athlete and as a person. You are best served by embracing both halves of who you are.

DID YOU READ? The Importance of Creating Your Annual Training Plan

Competence is bolstered by self belief and by feelings of self control, including the sense that you are capable of taking control if and when you want it. This refers back to that sense of ownership: For example, you get to decide when to attack—and you get to own that decision, win or lose.

It goes without saying that confidence grows as feelings of competence flourish.

“Athletes want to feel like they’re moving forward,” Holicky says. “And when they feel competent, that’s when they’re more likely to strive for a specific goal and strive for success.”

Three concepts—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—yield the most powerful and productive outcomes, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.

Finally, there’s relatedness—the need to experience mutually satisfying social relationships.

“Athletes thrive when they are in an environment with people like them. They’re in a community that they feel comfortable in,” Holicky says.

Relatedness is often the most easily attainable of the three traits—most of us ride or race with friends or competitors who we enjoy being with and learning from.

From S.D.T. to S.M.A.R.T.

Harnessing the power of autonomy, competence, and relatedness allows you to more readily create effective S.M.A.R.T. goals. That’s S for Specific, M for Measurable, A for Achievable, R for Realistic, and T for Time-bound.

YOUR NEW YEAR TARGETS: Manage and Track Your Goals with Strava

So, when establishing these goals, consider what motivates you, what drives you, what makes you tick. The most successful athletes, according to research, are intrinsically motivated—driven not by external accolades but by an internal drive for joy or satisfaction for the act alone.

When you use internal motivators, you are more likely to see progression to higher levels of sport; are more likely to reap lifelong rewards and pleasure from sport; and are more likely to prevent burnout.

Another benefit of creating goals within the framework of SDT is the natural tendency to build yourself up rather than trying to identify things that might be wrong or might need fixing.

Photography by: Wayhome Studio

For example, there could be the inclination to look for things that went wrong during the last season or the last race. With that perspective, you tend to focus on fixing a single issue. And a reliance on fixing problems often leads to reactive strategies.

An approach focused on “building” is far more powerful, since it allows for frequent opportunities to grow from the athlete you are, in the present, to the athlete you want to be. It is a process that is always present, proactive, and in need of constant attention.

KEEP TRACK OF YOUR TRAINING: Use the Strava Training Log

Put another way: Fixing issues often involves an all-hands-on-deck intervention once a problem erupts. Such a scenario is not ideal for the athlete or for those helping or coaching that athlete. Alternatively, a consistent build process usually requires frequent but relatively minor tweaks. Through regular assessment and modification, you stay closer aligned to your path, and disruptive deviations are less likely to intrude on your progression.

“Failure is an opportunity for learning,” Holicky stresses. “Instead of seeing failure as these steps backward, recognize them as part of the process, and understand that they’re just going to help you take those extra steps forward. When you resolve the problem or overcome the obstacle, you’re going to become better, by using those setbacks to develop, create, and pursue new goals for yourself as an athlete.”

Remember that your S.M.A.R.T. training goals are the strategies for closing the gap between where you are and where you want to be as an athlete. Your motivation is the fuel that takes you along the path from setting goals to achieving them. And autonomy, competence, and relatedness are the key ingredients for stimulating motivation in healthy, productive ways.

Related Tags

More Stories