[We’ll preface this lesson by stating that neither of us are psychologist and the following information is based on personal observation and application of Self-Determination Theory. This isn’t from research or any other authority giving application. It’s a mere expansion of principles into something we’ve found useful.]

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SDT As A Spectrum


Autonomy, competence and relatedness are Self-Determination Theory’s (SDT) crucial tenets—with autonomy leading the charge as the theory’s main intrinsic motivation elicitor. Play a song and give people room to figure out their own dance steps.

We’ve noticed, however, that autonomy, competence and relatedness carry different weights for different people and may morph over time. Some folks resist autonomy’s abundant freedom. Relatedness isn’t as important to some as it is to others. But thinking of Self-Determination Theory as a spectrum and meeting people in their current realm goes a long to spur confidence, motivation and training ownership.


A Quick Review


Before we hit this lesson in the good and plenty, let’s quickly review autonomy, competence and relatedness as they relate to SDT.




Autonomy is the need to direct one’s own life path. It’s based on perception. Even if a person is an environment that outwardly appears controlling, if the person feels that they are choosing the situation, they are demonstrating autonomy. The perception is most important.


It’s a simple, straightforward definition. Within our context we create an autonomous client environment in two big ways—we offer choice and we facilitate goal setting.


Choice is simple. Think of areas in which coaches and trainers are typically most restrictive—rep ranges and exercise selection. Overbearing control isn’t necessary, and it squashes an opportunity to educate clients as well as inspire ownership over the training process.


Prescribing reps in terms of ranges gives folks a simple sense of psychological leeway. Besides, unless someone is training to peak for a lifting event, does it really matter if they do four reps or five?


Goal facilitation allows people to direct their own path with an end game in mind.


Most people have a vague idea of what they want but have a hard time articulating it. They want to get stronger, or they want to lose fat from right “here.” (This is when they usually point to a body part.) But helping folks decide on a specific end to accomplish gives them cause to own their training means.


Facilitation begins with questions. Let’s work through a hypothetical.


Let’s say that a client says that they’d like to get stronger.


We follow with something like, “Ok, great! What does being stronger mean to you? Let’s get out some paper and brainstorm some answers.”


A typical answer is ‘feeling stronger so I can be stronger for myself and the people in my life.’ We jump back in with another question.


“What lifts do you love? What lifts make you feel strong when you do them well or when you see the weight go up?”


This person that I just made up for this exercise said squatting. Squatting more weight makes her feel strong and empowered.


We then ask if she wants to set a squat goal, what the number will be, what the time frame is, etc.


Our questions allowed the person to pull a goal out of themselves that they didn’t even know was there—manifestation through questioning. But they have complete ownership over the path because they made the decision to achieve a meaningful, emotionally significant goal.




Competence is feeling efficient while navigating one’s environment. It’s confidence embodied by unhesitating action.

Think about situations, or environments, that make you feel incompetent. If you’re introvert, maybe it’s a large social gathering rife with strangers. Maybe computers are the bane of your existence. Regardless, incompetence results in frustration and feeling out of control.


Competence, then, begins with environment—by matching level with user. That means prescribing exercises that are challengingly attainable. Exercise components, and programs as a whole, are constructed to ask folks to reach within their means. It’s blending small, confidence reinforcing hurdles with movements, rep ranges and rest periods that offer challenge. Think success and challenge sandwich.


Reinforce proper level selection with the growth mindset. People falsely internalize incompetence by comparing themselves with others. They expect to be able to obtain the same results, or own the same skills, as a person that’s farther down the path than they are.


Start with realistic expectations about their current situation and what’s obtainable, in the short-term and long-term, based on that situation. Carry forth by reinforcing the idea that everything changes with consistency and effort. Constantly reinforce effort and consistently provide them with examples of what changes because of effort. Through this people understand that competency is a matter of process not a static, unchangeable condition. Growth is the outcome of effort.


Complete the competency triumvirate by coaching toward mastery. Leave at least one movement in someone’s program until they own that shit. Skill ownership turns competency into a matter of confidence. Once a lady or gent walks the path to mastery, or close to it, with one exercise, it makes the broader path with other exercises and programs more palpable.




Relatedness is the need for close relationships—space age, groundbreaking stuff. Even the most reclusive introvert needs to feel connected to other people—we are human, we are social.

It starts by making every effort to make someone feel welcome the first time they cross your path or enter your gym. Show them that their presence is important. Know their name. Be waiting for them when they walk in. Reinforce that they are in the right place and you’re happy to have them there.


Then integrate them into an intentional community—create as much social cohesion as possible. Introduce people and make sure they know facts about each other. Give people the means to help each other. Make outward support the norm.


These last two paragraphs seem obvious, but they are, unfortunately, rare situations.


Employing The Spectrum


So we have the basic SDT tenets and simple applications in our awareness. Our list is not exhaustive, but expansion is a task reserved for your creativity.


Let’s explore individual application.


Personality differences are vast and varied. Coaching situations follow suit. But a simple effort of attention lets us determine how to use SDT and where a client falls on the spectrum between Autonomy and Relatedness.


Autonomy, competence and relatedness are all necessary for intrinsic motivation’s full manifestation. And are all employed in some degree at all times. But reality is that people have different needs at different times and that different personalities require different coaching strategies. Coaching interventions must reflect a person’s current needs.


Let’s break down need based on SDT’s tenets and individual observance.


Autonomy Dominance


Envision a contrarian, Type A person. This human is very driven and very averse to being wrong. Their need for guidance, however, is just as strong, perhaps stronger, than the needy rule follower. Effective coaching requires a subtle, autonomous frame. They have the same insecurities as everyone else, they’re just burying them more deeply.


They, even more than other folks, need to feel that they’re in complete control of their direction. They’ve come to you, so on some level they’re relenting to your authority. But outward admissions, and outward displays, are counterintuitive.


These folks need more choice.


Ask more questions that direct the process and allow them to find their own solutions. You’re effectually guiding them in the direction they should go, but the process of questioning allows them to find their own answers. This is especially important during direct exercise coaching. Giving them direct feedback and you’ll often get an ‘I know, I know” without actually making a difference. But asking them questions after each set, and giving cues based on thought provocation, is consistently effective.


Here’s a story-based example:


Person just completes a rack pull set.


Coach: What did you like about that set?


Client: It felt like I kept good back tension.


Coach: I agree. What didn’t you like?


Client: I don’t know, it felt like I was scooping my knees under the bar instead of extending my hips and knees at the same time.


Coach: Good observation. What do you think you need to do to fix it?


Client: Do a better drop driving the floor away so my hips and knees move together.

Coach: Absolutely.


This hypothetical is based on the understanding that the coach has already created context by having the client understand what certain cues mean in application. That understanding allows the client to solve his or her own problems with a little questioning guidance.


Next up—programming choice.

Build choice into their programs using rep ranges and exercise selection. There’s a range of each that they can exist in—offer direction and let them make the ultimate choice.


After employing these techniques, and earning greater trust, autonomy dominant folks may open themselves up to more direct coaching. They’ll, at the very least, listen to what the hell you have to say.


Competence Dominance


“Am I doing this right?”


Every coach has, or has had, this client—the one that unrelentingly asks if they are doing everything right. Many times we have several at once—or a revolving door of those overly concerned with their performance.


Success for these ladies and gents requires consistent, heavy doses of empowerment.


It begins with the level matching we discussed earlier and is continued on with emphatic reinforcement of small successes. When these folks do even the smallest thing correctly, make an ordeal out of it—help them internalize that successful feeling. Do a dance. Act like a crazy asshole. Yell, “Way to go Phil, you rack pullin’ son of a bitch!” It doesn’t matter—just make it a big deal. Confidence flourishes and action grows bolder.


In application:


Put them in situations that they can easily triumph in while also offering light challenges, and reinforce the fuck out of successes in each situation.


The end game is get them to take more control over their process—coaching themselves with more autonomy and internalizing the gym process outside of your guiding walls. To get them to fucking relax a little bit. But reality is that this only happens after they feel that they have a grasp on their environment; that they’re making strides.



Relatedness Dominance


These folks need to feel a strong connection to open up. Think of the people on the fringes—the ones that hang back until they’re engaged. Then what happens as soon as you show interest in them? They spill the largest can of uncooked beans the world’s ever been deprived of.


Go out of your way to make this folks feel included. Compliment them as frequently as possible. Invite them into group conversations and make sure they know that you’re incredibly interested in them. Remember the old quote ‘no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care’? That overwhelmingly applies to these folks.


Once these folks feel connected, like they have a home, they’re receptive and they’re effort explodes into concentrated productivity. Just give them a home.


Using All Tenets At The Same Time


Even though one person may appear to have greater needs in one area than another, we utilize all tenets at the same time.


Facilitate autonomy by asking more questions rather than strictly directing.


Enhance competence by teaching toward mastery.


Support relatedness by creating a safe environment for people to be authentic and connect to others.


We simply approach people with understanding that their needs of each tenet are different based on who they are and the context they’re currently existing in.


We’re All, All of These People


We’re all, all of these people. In reality we all internalize these tenets in different ways, and different situations we need more of one than the others. We must, however, pay attention to the intervention point. Which one is most relevant right now?


The ultimate goal is autonomy—to give people the ability to direct their own path and grow toward whichever end they wish. But everyone needs to feel competent in his or her actions and related to other people. We’re effective when we pay attention to the individual’s, and the situation’s, predominant need and act accordingly.

In 2010, two dudes Chris and Todd, started the business that would eventually become Strength Faction.

You know how they say the rest is history? Well, it’s not.

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