n the dramatic Super Bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, there was a moment right before half-time that jumped out, from a coaching perspective. With the Eagles looking at fourth down deep in Pats’ territory, traditional NFL coaching wisdom would take the field goal all day long, bag three points and get the defence back out on the field. The analytics of the situation normally dictate that coaches play the percentages. But Philadelphia had other ideas.
During the time-out, their journeyman quarterback Nick Foles jogged to the side-line to talk to his head coach, who was perusing the playbook searching for an act of inspiration he might come up with. As Foles approached, he called out to his coach “Philly Philly”. It was name of a trick play they had practised but had never run in an actual game. Foles was suggesting they do it for the first time ever, not only in a real game, but in a huge moment, in the biggest game of his entire career. It was a massive call.
Almost without hesitation, his coach agreed. The Eagles ran the play and executed it to perfection. They caught the Patriots napping and Foles sauntered into the end zone for an uncontested catch that propelled them towards claiming American football’s ultimate prize.
The interaction between coach and player was something to behold. For Foles to feel so empowered in that moment, under the brightest of lights, to want to take ownership of the situation, and for a coach to be willing to relinquish control of such a hugely significant play call was remarkable. For me, it reinforced the importance of the type of environment coaches can create to enable their players to flourish.
I spoke at the GAA coaching conference in Croke Park in January about the practical implications of a broader understanding of self-determination, particularly as it relates to supporting the players’ need for autonomy. It’s not as complicated as it sounds.
Self-determination theory provides a theoretical framework that underpins most of what we know about what motivates people. Within it, intrinsic motivation is identified as the most powerful form of motivation one can experience.
Being motivated intrinsically suggests that the player in this instance has made a decision whereby they have freely chosen to take part in the sport for the pure enjoyment and satisfaction they gain from playing.
We know from research that people who take part in sport because of the enjoyment and personal satisfaction they derive from it are far more likely to persist playing longer and performing better.
I think that is powerful knowledge for anybody involved in coaching.
If science tells us definitively that people who are more intrinsically motivated stay playing the game for longer and work harder at getting better at it, as coaches it only makes sense that we would try to do everything possible to create the type of coaching environment for our players to feel motivated in that way.
Since the introduction of the GAA’s small-sided games mode, the Go Games, along with the growing realisation of the hugely impactful benefits of coaching through a games-based approach, we have started to break away from the cycle of simply reproducing the same tired drill-based training sessions that most of us would have been accustomed to as youngsters.
And given the alarming number of people dropping out of our games as they get older, I would strongly suggest this is something that can greatly help us to improve how we coach our games and keep our players engaged.
Of course, people have legitimate reasons for leaving the game behind, from frustrations with the uncertainty of fixtures, to them moving away for work or something else, but as a coach that’s not something one has any great control over.
What we do have control over is how you deliver a message to your under-14s or under-16s and all the way up the line.
Autonomy-supportive coaching environments attempt to provide the kind of context that allows players to feel like they are more heavily involved and included in the whole process; they are about giving players more choice, there’s more of an emphasis on self-initiation, and independent problem solving and so on. Essentially, players feel that they have a greater sense of control over what they are doing and how they are doing it and as a result are more motivated to do it better.
It’s the same with Google and most other multi-national companies who are trying to maximise the creativity and productivity of its workforce.
hether it’s a sports setting or a boardroom, the best coaches and leaders in the world are becoming more concerned about creating the type of environment where everybody is afforded a sense of autonomy to enhance their motivation to do their job to the best of their abilities.
Take the current NBA champion Golden State Warriors as an example. They’ve won two of the last three titles and are red-hot favourites to repeat the feat again this year. Just last week, in a nationally televised live game, their coach Steve Kerr was accused of disrespecting the opposition for allowing his players to do something very unusual. He let them do all the coaching in the game.
During time-outs, Kerr stood with the assistant coaches slightly removed from the bench and gave the players the control to run the plays and the game as they saw fit.
“It’s their team,” Kerr said. “They have to take ownership of it. As coaches, our job is to nudge them, guide them, we don’t control them. They determine their own fate.”
That is a coach dealing with some of the greatest basketball players of this generation, but the principles that guide their motivation to perform are still the same as they are for your players or mine.
Whether it’s Nick Foles making the call to run the trick play in the Super Bowl, or the Golden State players doing most of their own coaching against the Phoenix Suns, in the GAA we need to start moving towards providing our players with increased opportunities to have more influence over the direction of their training and game play.
When coaches provide the type of environment that enables players to be more autonomous and be more involved in the decision-making, they become more intrinsically motivated.
The more intrinsically motivated they become, the more they are likely to give to the cause, and the longer they will stay giving.