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Self-Determination Theory: A Key to Motivation

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a theory of motivation that aims to explain individuals’ goal-directed behavior. Motivation resides along a continuum, with intrinsic motivation on the far right, extrinsic motivation in the middle and amotivation on the far left. Intrinsic motivation is ideal; people engage in an activity because of internal factors and are therefore likely to sustain the activity for their own reasons. Extrinsic motivation is driven by external forces; it is a less preferred state than intrinsic motivation, but better than amotivation, which is a complete absence of motivation.

The critical component of the theory concerns the degree to which individuals fulfill their basic psychological needs; the more they attain these basic psychological needs, the more their behavior is self-determined. The three needs are autonomy, competence and relatedness. This article suggests ways in which you can positively influence clients’ motivation to exercise by maximizing their autonomy, competence and relatedness.


Autonomy is defined as freedom of choice. Autonomy is high when individuals feel they are engaging in exercise because they choose to do so, not because they feel pressured by other people or external factors. Ideally, exercisers will engage in exercise because they enjoy the experience. In reality, however, many people exercise to enhance their body image. That’s fine, but if clients can balance that extrinsic motivational state with things they enjoy about exercising (particular exercises, the feeling of exercising, becoming stronger, etc.), they will promote an intrinsic motivational state—which is more likely to keep them exercising. You can do two things to influence the level of autonomy that clients enjoy:

1. Offer choice as to the types of exercises you will use with clients.

2. Redefine what exercise means to them.

Exercise Choices. We all know that a variety of exercises can generally accomplish the same end; the differences in benefits may be minor. For example, there are subtle differences between the benefits gained from a dumbbell incline press and a barbell incline press. However, if you choose the exercise that yields better gains, but clients do not realize those gains because they do not enjoy the exercise, what is the benefit? Disliking one exercise in a weight training program might not lead to dropout, but disliking half of the exercises could result in that outcome.

Motivation Tip. Ask clients to identify the exercises they enjoy, the exercises to which they are indifferent and the exercises they do not like at all. Then steer clear of the ones they dislike, and include many, if not all, of the exercises they enjoy.

What Exercise Means. Redefining the meaning of exercise mandates that you explain to clients that all types of physical activity constitute exercise. Clients may have “boxed” themselves into a strict definition of exercise—usually consisting of doing certain exercises at the gym on x days per week for y minutes per day. This mindset is restrictive and contributes to dropout. Blow the walls off that box when clients first start working with you, and as you design their programs, incorporate activities that the clients enjoy. Says Mike Lagomarsine, head coach at Boston University’s Athletic Enhancement Center, “I worked with a woman who had just quit smoking and thought the only exercise was working one-on-one with a trainer. We talked about how walking up and down the stairs for 10 minutes before eating is exercise.”

Motivation Tip. Be creative. Tap into what clients enjoy doing, and translate these activities into a worthwhile exercise session. For example, if you are working with someone who enjoys gardening, have that person walk to the hose, fill up the water jug only enough to water a few flowers, water the flowers, then walk back to fill up the jug with more water. If a client likes playing video games, encourage him to choose active Wii games.


Competence is defined by a perceived self-belief in one’s ability to perform well in an activity. Feedback is a great tool for influencing clients’ competence. Here are a few SDT tips on administering feedback:

Positive Reinforcement. Use general positive reinforcement (e.g., “Nice work!” or “Way to go!”) a few times per session. Reinforcement can lose its value if clients hear it all the time; be somewhat selective when giving feedback.

Skill-Specific Feedback. Give skill-specific feedback (e.g., “Good job keeping your elbow stationary” during a biceps curl, or “You kept your upper half tight—keep doing that” during a lunge) the first few times clients perform a skill correctly. This kind of feedback is most beneficial when used immediately after clients have executed the skill. Also, give skill-specific feedback when clients are getting closer to performing the skill correctly.

The Sandwich Approach. Try the sandwich approach when giving corrective feedback. Begin by mentioning something clients are doing correctly (first slice of the bread); next, offer a solution to change the behavior that needs to change (filling); and then finish with a general positive comment (second slice of bread) (Brigman & Molina 1999). The sandwich approach is a great communication tool because you tell clients what to do, not what not to do, and you begin and end with positive statements. This creates an atmosphere of positivity that fosters client competence.

Feedback is effective if clients feel personally responsible for the action. When clients have low competence as exercisers, or have low competence in a particular area of exercising (e.g., they think they have a weak core or adherence issues), it is important to identify what they did well. Be specific. Remember, competence is about clients’ perceived self-belief; it does not matter much if you believe they have a strong core or if they show up most of the time. If they believe they are weak, then provide evidence to the contrary by giving feedback to that effect during and after training sessions.

The sandwich approach is effective with individuals who have low competence. Their self-worth is poor, and any negative comment can add another brick in what I term their “wall of defense,” which works against you. Work with these clients by using the sandwich approach to give them constructive criticism.

For further ideas, including eliciting feedback from clients rather than giving it yourself, see the sidebar “Promoting Autonomy and Competence.”


Relatedness is defined by a sense of shared experience. Motivation can improve in clients if they feel there is a warm, accepting atmosphere. One effective method is simply to put in more time and genuinely care about your clients. Says Kelly McGonigal, PhD, health psychologist at Stanford University and author of the forthcoming book The Willpower Instinct (Penguin 2012), “I know that social connection is half of what keeps people coming to class or scheduling sessions. So I plan to arrive early and stay late just to talk. I listen to stories about high-school reunions and kids’ baseball championships and anything else people want to talk about. I try to ask about that stuff along with things related specifically to the behavior change they’re working on.”

Here are other ways in which you can connect with your clients:

  • Ask clients whether or not they enjoy being talked to while exercising (e.g., whether you should count repetitions during weightlifting or chat with them when they’re running) and adjust accordingly. Get a feel for how much they like talking about themselves, and how much they want to hear about you.
  • Call clients a couple times per year. On each call, compliment them by pointing out two positive personality characteristics.
  • E-mail clients once per month. Congratulate them on something they did during that period. Ensure that clients feel in complete control over what was accomplished.
  • Tell clients how much you appreciate their business. Do this in person, or send a holiday card wishing them happy holidays and thanking them for their continued business (Cross 2008).

For more ideas, see the sidebar “Promoting Autonomy and Relatedness.”

A Consistent Approach

Motivating clients to perform at their best can be a difficult endeavor. Some clients seem to be self-motivated and have no problems with effort, intensity and focus. Others seem to be the opposite; it is quite difficult for them to give full effort, intensity and focus over the long haul. Worse yet, motivating these clients can sometimes seem impossible. Self-determination theory offers you a consistent approach. By consistently promoting autonomy, competence and relatedness, you can have a wonderful motivational impact on your clients, while improving your efficacy as a professional.

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