MOTIVATION PART 1: The Importance of Self-determination

For my first blog in this series, I thought I’d start with the theory which, I can say I have had deep experience with for better or worse. It is the self-determination theory.

28th US President Woodrow Wilson said “Self determination’ is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.”

The self-determination theory says that humans feel motivated to change and progress when 3 innate needs are being met. Those needs are:
Competence, Connection (you’ll sometimes hear relatedness) and Autonomy

I’ll assume that if you are listening to this, you likely have a drivers licence and feel confident driving.
Think back to when you first got behind a wheel to learn.
Unless you were some freak Schumaker-esque prodigy you likely felt unsure of yourself. Perhaps a bit frightened. I remember my first drive. I ran into a ditch!
I learned in a manual and clearly remember the “bunny hopping” the stalling, the gear grinding, the over-revving, the under-revving, the 10 moves it took to do a 3-point turn, the thousand moves it took to do a parallel park and still end up with a tire on the curb, indicating 20 minutes before the turn…
Little by little I became more competent and with that competence growth came confidence growth.
I’ve been watching Season 4 of Cobra Kai. I’m loving this show on Netflix. I remember my Granddad taking me on an outing to see Karate Kid when we were living in the US in a place called Logan, Utah. 35 years later and Daniel LeRusso is about to start training his own son in the art of Miyagi-do Karate. Before he begins the physical labour, he imparts these words of wisdom to his kid, who is a bit of a gamer.

“Learning karate isn’t easy. It takes a lot of work. But listen, think of it like a video game. It might not be as exciting at level one when you’re learning all the controls but the more you play, the more skills you get, and before you know it, level 12. You’re hooked.”

When we first start learning we are very conscious of our incompetence. That can be demotivating. That is an essential time for a Trainer and Coach to be at their most encouraging. With time and effort, we become consciously competent. We are doing things right for the most part but are thinking and talking our way through it. Eventually we become unconsciously competent. Things become automatic. We can now claim mastery of a task, and we can feel confident using and developing our acquired skills.

The second innate need is CONNECTION

Where do you feel most confident driving? Familiar streets or unfamiliar territory? I know every time I have driven in a foreign country (foreign to Australia that is,) – back before Covid uppercut the nose of international travel, it would take me a little while to feel as confident driving on as I do back home. Whether that’s on the crazily hectic and congested streets of Manila in the Philippines, or the quiet suburban streets in Lethbridge, Canada, where, as an added challenge I had to remember to drive on the right rather than the left side.
Think about when you’ve started a new school, new job or joined a new team and how you’ve felt at the start.
Have you ever walked into an unfamiliar environment, especially if you’re amongst people who don’t know and felt awkward, unsure, apprehensive?
You could be a Mensa level rocket scientist who is taking a samba class for the first time. Your high-level intelligence won’t translate to confidence in that situation. Relatedness which comes with making connections and threading your life into your new environment will help you to feel more comfortable with your surroundings and those who surround you and consequently, you will become more confident.

The 3rd need is AUTONOMY
A man was leading as centre manager a high performing, award winning not for profit club. This club has a head office with many locations across the country. Year after year this particular club, (and I’m not going to give specifics because this gets a little personal,) won awards and consistently out-performed other clubs financially and in meeting other KPIs. The reason for this as I see it, was that the head office at the time, took care of the club with light administration and a little oversight to ensure some uniformity in quality was maintained, support in other ways but also allowed the club to run autonomously when it came to things like payroll, fundraising, staff hire, promotions, equipment purchase etc. They knew that this manager and the staff were entrenched in the local community and knew how best to serve that community.

Then a new GM came on board. Someone who believed that the best way forward was to strip the local clubs of their in-house admin and to centralise everything but basic day to day operations. They then went about homogenising the clubs without a consideration for the different demographics that each location served. To really show who was boss the centre managers in each of these mostly suburban or rural locations now had to report their hourly tasks. Local deals for local members were eliminated. All fundraising was run through the swanky head offices located many kilometres away from the low-socio-economic streets that this local club served. The worst of it? This extremely energetic, community loving, charitable to a fault manager, was now disallowed to make any decisions for his local venue, big or small, without having to go up the chain of command and just about prostrate himself before their fat feet.

How motivated do you think the staff at this club now felt having had their autonomy stripped from them? How do you feel when you are being micromanaged?

Taking away the local manager and his club’s autonomy just about ruined this great man. Mentally it took him to the darkest place that he had ever been.

What the heads did was the opposite of what good leaders should do. If you want to create leaders, you can’t deny people the opportunity to lead.

Going back to the “learning to drive” example. How annoying are “backseat” drivers? I’m in a position now where I’m having to learn to back off as our daughter learns to drive. She is transitioning from her Learner plates to Provisional plates and it’s very hard to bite my tongue when I’m in the passenger seat. Advice is okay of course. Warning of imminent danger or a reminder of rules if they are broken is part of the teaching but as time goes on and she gains in ability – to constantly tell her and remind her what to do would deny her the ability to think for herself.
She would never gain confidence.

As Coaches, Trainers, Teachers etc. we are leaders but there’s a common misconception that leaders must always stay up the front and that the students or followers footsteps, must align with our footprints.

I used to be a scout. As a scout we used to go camping in places where we would need to hike for a couple of hours to get to a site. I remember that at least 3 scout leaders would be assigned to take up certain positions in the pack. 1 would take the front and set a pace. A second would position himself in the middle to keep people on the path. The 3rd lead from the back. He was the one assigned to look after those who were struggling and falling behind.

No scouts were carried, all had to walk up the mountain or through the bush trail with their own 2 feet. The leaders didn’t disappear. But what they did as certain scouts gained confidence, was bring those young men into the positions where they could lead from the front, middle or back.

As human beings we need to feel that we have control of our lives. We need to feel that we are driving our goals. We need to feel ownership of our behaviour.

A person has a high level of self-determination won’t blame, won’t look for scapegoats whenever there is a failing that they caused or even just participated in. A person with a high level of self-determination will put up their hand, say “my bad. Let’s see what we can do to fix this or how we can do better next time.”
Someone with low self-determination will avoid taking responsibility and will shift the focus so far away from themselves that they won’t be in a position to fix the mistake or improve on the issue.

I’ll leave you with a short quote by Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinozer:

Freedom is self-determination

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