The Importance of Autonomy by Jamy Clamp


[This is a guest blog by Jamy Clamp. Jamy is an Undergraduate Sports Science Student at Loughborough University, currently Interning at Athletic Lab as a Performance Coach.]

autonomyDifferent coaching styles always provide varying degrees of self-reliance, or autonomy. It’s often a factor that is split down the middle, one group enjoys the coach being in complete control, whereas the other would prefer more autonomy. In a team environment, the likelihood of forming a cohesive unit when half of the group doesn’t agree with the coaching style, is particularly low.

Essentially, autonomy allows people to feel as though they have control of what they are doing. For example, in sporting terms, a Conditioning Coach could allow a player to follow their programme without them being present, or talking them through every aspect. Although it’s important for the player to understand the fundamentals of the programme, chances are, they aren’t overly interested in the finer details. Neil Potts, Head of Athletic Performance at Scottish Rugby, simply says, “know your piece in the puzzle and do your job.” Developing self-reliant behaviours is at the core of Scottish Rugby’s system and, ultimately, the most effective way to do that is to promote an autonomous environment. Doing that involves very limited amounts of spoon feeding because, more often than not, the most successful athletes are those who apply themselves when the coach isn’t about. We’ve all heard stories of the athlete that arrives at the training ground first, then leaves last. I’m not saying that in order to be successful, you have to work yourself into the ground because that’s not normally the most effective method. Being successful in sport comes down to training smart, particularly as athletes age.

One way to promote self-reliance is to use open-ended questions. Making an athlete think about how and why they are doing something makes them accountable for their progress. For example, “Why was that session effective?” “How could you do that better?” Instead of asking a yes-no question, which doesn’t tend to require much thought, force them to be critical of their performances. When I say be critical, I mean constructively. Not just tearing their performance to pieces, for the sake of it (Venney, 2014). Through the use of open-ended questions, a growth mindset is also encouraged. A growth mindset often propagates further improvement in sports because the athlete is thinking of new ways to make themselves better. One final benefit of open-ended questions is that they, generally, highlight an aspect that can be improved, therefore, giving motivation a boost. With young sportspeople, keeping them interested and motivated is paramount because the last thing that we, as coaches, want is for them to dropout, unless they’re completely uninterested.

In my previous blog, “Work Rate and Culture within a Team Sport Environment,” I mentioned Brad Thorn’s mantra of ‘Champions Do Extra.’ In order to do extra, it helps for the athlete to have the knowledge to train effectively during that time. Otherwise, it’s just time spent picking heavy things up with no real purpose. A Strength and Conditioning Coach provides the ingredients, the athlete then bakes the cake. Along the way, there’s a good chance that they’ll open the oven door whilst the cake is baking and it will sink. As a result of that, they should learn not to open the oven door. Transfer that analogy to training. A trial and error approach is an excellent way to learn. If something works, excellent, if not, ask why it didn’t work, then adjust your methodology.

cyclingCycling is a good example of autonomy. A large amount of a professional cyclists’ training is done alone, or with a small group of riders, without a coach being present. Therefore, in order for the rider to know what they’re doing on their ride, it’s important for them to be knowledgeable about training.

Trust is a critical aspect of autonomy, particularly in a team. Without trust, whether it be between Head Coach and support staff or between players, the chances of creating self-reliant behaviours are thrown out of the window. To give a group of players autonomy, a coach, firstly, has to trust them to make the right decisions. Equally, the players have to trust the coach. They’re the ones who will be following a programme and instructions, so it would be helpful for them to trust that you know your stuff. That’s where being personable comes in to play. We tend to trust those who are approachable and are happy to help out. That’s not to say that being personable is the one factor that builds trust, it just binds the mixture together.

Coaches are usually excellent educators, particularly in Youth sport. They provide information about a programme, write the programmes, inform athletes about their areas for progression and teach exercises. So, if an autonomous environment is the goal, being a good educator is a beneficial skill. The predominant focus of coaching is centred around implementing effective techniques into a planned programme. However, as a teacher in an educational environment would, coaching people on a personal level, in terms of time management and communication, is equally as important. To be autonomous, and limit mistakes, it’s helpful to have a solid foundation of interpersonal and technical skills that can then be developed further. (Naslund & Pennington, 2011) As trite as it sounds, coaches develop people as well athletes.

In conclusion, autonomy is firstly dependent on the coaches style and whether they want to develop an autonomous environment. If they do, then it’s critical to trust that the team, or individual, will make conducive decisions and not neglect the freedom that they are given.