England Rugby’s Head Coach, Eddie Jones, made an interesting comment in The Telegraph recently
“I want to make myself redundant by letting England players take control”
Often in professional sport, players will wake up and their schedule has been emailed to them, mapping out their movements for the day. When they join a new club, the club organises a flat for them, their new car will just arrive on their doorstep… ahh what a life.
Although within these examples, the player may feel a distinct lack of control with regard to their own life. Yes, of course these things are done to manage the player’s life stress, so they can focus on their sport. And rightly so. But Jones is trying to integrate some of that control back into the player’s rugby domain. He talks of putting “The players in complete control of their schedule and standards” and the athletes becoming ‘self-reliant’ and ‘responsive’, which are qualities that are often engineered out of their professional lives.
So what is the psychology and potential performance benefit behind giving players the control?
Using self-determination theory (SDT-Ryan & Deci, 1985), a theory of motivation, as a framework we can begin to look at the performance benefits of this approach. SDT describes 3 psychological needs, that if fulfilled, are central to our personal development and growth.
Autonomy - the need for self-endorsed behaviour that is choice-full.
Competency - the need to master your environment.
Relatedness - the need to feel cared for and connected to others
Autonomy is the need that we will focus on, although competency and relatedness have an efficacy within enhancing sporting performance. An autonomy-supportive coaching style is one that is democratic in nature, it’s when the coach involves the players in the decision making process. Jones initial statement about becoming ’redundant’, is the exemplar of autonomy-supportive coaching. Through giving the players choice and control over their training, Jones is fulfilling the players need for autonomy. In return for fulfilling these needs, the players will fulfil their own potential, grow and perform even better.
‘Right lads/ladies, I am supposed to let you run the session tonight to get the best out of you’
Saying the above at training will probably lead to a sub-standard warm up and a 45-minute game of touch. But here is one example of a simple, autonomy-supportive coaching behaviour.
You (the coach) want to work on offloading, so take three different offloading games and give players the perceived choice of one of them. By involving the players in this decision making process and seeking their opinions on the drills, and why they think one is more productive than the other, is an example of an autonomy-supportive coaching behaviour… and you are still working on the skill you want them too, but now they are more self-motivated to perform it.
Going back to Jones, he mentions this autonomy with one eye on the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and this may give England the edge (annoyingly). All of the top teams at the World Cup will have a group of performance analysts, they will have highly qualified medical and support staff, with excellent coaches leading them into the tournament. When all of these physical, technical and tactical elements are equal, it is often the psychological component of the team, and the individuals within it, that makes the difference.
With their recent unveiling of young talent in the test win over Argentina, there is an undercurrent of confidence (even more annoying) rippling through the England Rugby team. Twin this talent with a head coach that affords time into developing the psychological needs of the players, come 2019 you could have a seriously self-motivated and talented group of players landing in Japan (most annoying).
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour. New York: Plenum