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Athlete Ownership - Why?

Lance Smith explains why we should develop thinking athletes.

This article looks at a coaching philosophy that encourages athletes to think for themselves – and suggests you will be a better coach if your athletes know themselves better, contribute to their coaching and have ownership of their sport.

  • If you are going to coach someone you have to understand them  - Arthur Lydiard
  • People will rise to a challenge if it is their challenge - Wayne Smith
  • First of all, coaching is the art of communication - Gennadi Touretski, coach of Alexandre Popov
  • The better an athlete knows himself/herself the better I am as a coach.  - Lance Smith

The statements above sum up the intent of athlete ownership.   It stems from the proposition that athlete performance and motivation (and with it, your coaching) improve when:

  • athletes know themselves better 
  • athlete contributes to the coaching process 
  • It is the athlete's sport

In short, athlete ownership

The principle has been around for many years. It has been called athlete empowerment, humanistic coaching, athlete-centered coaching, consensus coaching, servant leadership, and self-determination, and while these terms are interchangeable, I prefer athlete input. It means athletes have ownership of their sport and with it the responsibilities of ownership by playing a significant role in their coaching. It can be seen in NZ Coach Approach, a coaching philosophy based on athlete empowerment promoted by Sport and Recreation NZ (SPARC) and now used extensively internationally.

With athlete ownership, it is the athletes who map the course of their sport, who make the choices and determine the goals. It can be likened to an architect and a client. The client says what style of building is required, what features are needed, and what the price will be. The architect then works out the best way to meet the client's specifications. It is the athletes (clients) who determine their level of participation or intensity, their goals, what they want to achieve, and what they want to get out of the sport. They work out their objectives and priorities, their long-term goals and they have an influence on the training programme and decide what events they will compete in. The result is an athlete who contributes to their learning.

Or put another way, athlete ownership is a coach trip (pun intended) with the coach behind the wheel steering, the athlete determining the destination, and both deciding how they get there. The premise that athlete input/ownership and motivation are closely linked suggests a brief look at motivation and the impact of societal changes on coaching is in order.

Motivation – pre-determined or self-determined?

A hundred years ago leading psychologists advocated that our instincts shaped behaviour. For instance, Sigmund Freud argued that subconscious instincts of sex and aggression drove motivation; C.L. Hull's drive theory stated motivation was the function of needs such as hunger, fatigue, etc., and B.F. Skinner's stimulus-response psychology advocated that external factors determined behaviour.  While these and other theories of the early last century were many and varied the prevailing belief was motivation was not up to the individual. Still, it was controlled by genetics or environment (Elliot, 2005).     By the middle of the 20th century, the idea that motivation is pre-determined was being replaced by the concept that we have free will.

Regardless of the influences bombarding us, we can choose our actions, interpretations, focus, and attitude.  Enter cognitive sports psychology, the current trend to examine performance based on conscious, controllable thoughts.  According to cognitive psychologists, motivation is a decision; it's up to the athletes.  (Elliot, 2005)

Social changes were a catalyst for differences in coaching philosophies. However, this must be looked at in association with the rise in cognitive psychology theories and the work of several behavioural scientists and researchers who argued that athlete empowerment is linked to performance.  Prominent among these were Deci and Ryan with their self-determination theory (SDT).   

SDT recognises the most significant stimulus to (mainly non-professional) sports participation is intrinsic (Deci & Ryan 1985, Frederick & Ryan, 1995) and that people are motivated to master their social surroundings.  It proposes that the psychological needs of autonomy drive behaviour (it is your choice, you make decisions), relatedness (you belong, it is relevant), and competence (you are effective, the excitement of the challenge.)   (Edmunds, Ntoumanis, Duda, 2007). 

Social Changes and the transfer of power

Changes in western society over the past four or five decades have been significant with possibly the most rapid changes coming in the late 1950s and 1960s. Back then, the major socialising agencies – family, educational, legal, religious, and political institutions, etc. – were hierarchal and based on a strong authoritative foundation (Lombardo, 1999). Coaches and coaching reflected the norms of the time, as did the next generation of coaches who invariably based their behaviour and philosophy on the way they were taught: questioning and challenging authority was not part of their coaching practice.

However, the athletes/teams they were coaching lived by different rules. Athletes who grew up in the 1970s and 80s had freedom undreamed of by their parents, made major decisions for themselves, accepted responsibility for their actions, and expected leaders (coaches) to justify and prove themselves.

Many authorities including Lombardo (1999) and Martens (2004) who talk about command style coaching being less effective with today's athletes argue coach behaviour has resisted societal changes and is out of step with 21st-century expectations. Perhaps in the current climate of professional sport (big money, ratings-driven TV, more sports professional) with its coaching to win (coach centred or professional models) overriding coaching for personal development (athlete-centred or humanistic models), a case can be made for some areas of coaching still being as prescriptive as ever. But generally, it is acknowledged that coaching attitudes have changed. However, societal changes did not drive changes in coaching attitudes but certainly influenced them and at the very least and allowed them to happen.

Power to the athlete

Coaching is an interaction of power. Paul Potrac (Jones, Armour, Potrac (2004) argues that power is central to the coaching process - power is a feature of social interaction and social interaction lies at the heart of the coaching process.; Traditional coaching models (terms include prescriptive, command, autocratic, fear-based) had the power predominantly with the coach. But power was not coach-owned. Athletes, even with the most prescriptive coach, always had the power to opt out. What we have seen over the past two generations is a shift in power from coach-dominated to power-sharing. This has necessitated an attitudinal shift from power to leadership, from directing to cooperating, from a dictatorship to a collective. Martens (2004) sums it up well: "Leadership is the wise use of power, and power is gained through active leadership."

Psychological – the rise of athlete-centred philosophies

The shift from coach power to athlete power would not have been possible without the changes in society and the development of new motivational theories referred to above. There is no firm evidence to indicate who originated the movement away from coach centred to athlete-centred coaching but Rod Thorpe and David Bunker (1982, 1989), Bennett Lombardo (1987, 1999) with his humanistic model of coaching, Rainer Martens who talked about "athletes first, winning second", (1981, 2004) and John Lyle (1986, 1999) have all been highly influential with possibly the work of Lynn Kidman (2001, 2005) having the greatest impact in recent years.

Kidman attributes Lombardo as a defining influence, stating that his work has been the basis of her thinking about coach development in the last dozen years or so (Kidman 2006), while Martens cites the work of Maslow (1962) and Rogers (1969) as seminal in the development of humanistic coaching which he describes as "the goals of athletes taking precedence of those of the coach with athletes expected to analyse, think and make important decisions" (Lombardo, 1999).

Kidman's books Athlete Centred Coaching and Developing Decision Makers include case studies of well-known coaches who successfully employ empowerment in coaching. Her research and conclusions argue that athletes learn more effectively when they are part of the decision making process.

Which Truth?

Cassidy, Jones, Potrac (2004) in discussing coaching ethics, point out that "our view of the truth is only one such version where many exist. Butler (1996) reinforces this with the observation that athletes and coaches view performances differently. And athletes will see events from within, the coach from the outside. This, Butler claims, surfaces in training, with coaches and athletes viewing training needs differently. This also applies to coaches and athletes viewing motivations, perceptions, and attitudes differently.

For athlete input to be effective, the coach needs the athletes' versions of the truth, and that could mean as many truths as there are athletes. Hence the need for the coach to know the athletes. Arthur Lydiard put it far more succinctly: "if you are going to coach someone, you have to understand them – you have to be a mentor and an advisor as well as a coach." You must know their goals, their priorities, their feelings. This includes understanding what drives them – are their motivations primarily intrinsic or extrinsic? Knowing the athletes may also mean knowing the parents. In many instances athlete input means parent input.

Why Athlete Input

Athlete input makes the coach a better coach and the athlete a better athlete.  There is considerable evidence arguing that athlete input/athlete empowerment facilitates better skill acquisition. Kidman (2001): "... main advantages to using empowerment in coaching are that athletes are motivated to learn, and they have a greater understanding and retention of both tactics and skills (psychological, emotional and physical) that are so important to success in sport."

An obvious consequence of athlete empowerment is athletes confident enough to question, discuss and provide feedback in training/learning situations. This too improves the coaching process.

Of significance is the information received from athletes that will influence what and how an athlete is coached at an individual level.  Crucially this relies very much on how much athletes know about themselves and can communicate it, particularly motivation, strengths, and weaknesses (physical and mental), preferred learning styles, and goals, both within the sport and outside it.


The key to developing athlete input and athlete awareness (including Query Theory) is feedback. But feedback as frequently described and generally understood is reactive. Coaches need to foster proactive feedback. Instead of "feedback" have "feed-front" – the information from athletes that initiates actions rather than reacts to it – unprompted comments, athletes asking questions, stating what they would like to or should do in short, athlete input.

An athlete who provides feed-front knows himself and is confident about it ... and shows it. There are many aspects of communication, much of it unspoken. Martens (2004) states that an estimated 70 percent of communication is non-verbal. So in addition to verbal information given, feed-front communicates self-confidence. An athlete who feels and displays confidence has a definite training, learning, and competitive edge.

Feed-front also makes for more effective coaching.  Kidman and Hanrahan (1997) maintain that "athletes who are provided feedback tend to acquire greater quality skill technique," i.e. are better learners, it goes the other way too.  To paraphrase the above, coaches who are provided feed-front tend to acquire greater quality skill-teaching techniques, i.e. better teachers.

Self-Awareness and Self Reliance

Athlete self-awareness is essential to athlete input:  an athlete who does not know their strengths, limitations, desires, goals, etc. cannot effectively contribute to their coaching.  Equally, athlete input fosters self-awareness by forcing athletes to think more about themselves.

Australian cricket coach John Buchanan said at the 2005 Australian Coaching Congress that his role is to make himself redundant: the players are there to think for themselves, and he is there to give guidance. Peter Stanley expressed a similar view to Paul Potrac (Jones, Armour, Potrac 2004) that he wants his athletes to develop a sense of responsibility for their performance.  He stated that coaching is ultimately about guidance rather than control. Similar sentiments have been expressed by Graham Henry (All Blacks), Lois Muir (netball), Wayne Smith (All Blacks), and Bob Dwyer (Wallabies) among many others.

David Hadfield  (1994) crystallised the above with his "Query Theory", a coaching strategy based on asking rather than telling. Query theory encourages skill development through self-awareness with athletes given ways of working out problems for themselves. In introducing, Theory Query Hadfield wrote, 'the ultimate coach empowers a youngster to be a champion and all but makes himself redundant. Hadfield also observed that Query Theory worked just as well with tactical (thinking) aspects of the sport as it did with technique and skills. It stands to reason that it is also equally effective in developing mental skills such as confidence and appreciation of strengths and weaknesses.  The key here is to expand the principle of Query Theory from coach questioning athletes to athletes questioning themselves.

Self-awareness leads directly to self-reliance. An athlete who has learned to have control of his or her sport will have an easier path to the senior elite level. As Arai (1997 – in Kidman 2001) stated, "athletes who have a greater awareness of options have greater control over future directions." It is also necessary for them to develop a measure of self-reliance and sufficient understanding (of themselves) to enable easy adjustment to another coaching system. Likewise, they need to be able to compete well when the coach is absent – only possible with self-reliance developed through self-understanding.

The Bottom Line

Athlete ownership, athlete input, athlete self-awareness, athlete self-reliance, and athlete empowerment, as the diagram suggests, are all linked – take one aspect out, and athlete ownership is meaningless.

It can be summed up in a personal belief that the coach and athlete are a team – but the athlete is the team captain.

Athlete ownership is fundamental to autonomy (or varying degrees of independence) and from this model, is thereby linked to performance. Performance is the bottom line. It is what all coaches and athletes are striving for.


  • Bunker, D, & Thorpe R.D (1982).  A model for the teaching of games in secondary schools.  Bulletin of Physical Education, 18.
  • Butler, R.J. (1996) Sport Psychology in Action.  Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann.
  • Cassidy T., Jones R., Potrac, P (2004). Understanding Sports Coaching.  Routledge.
  • Edmunds, J, Ntoumanis, N,  Duda, J.L. ( 2007).   Testing a self determination theory based teaching style intervention in the exercise domain.   European Journal of Social Psychology, 38.  Published online Sept 2007, Wiley InterScience.    
  • Elliot J.F (2005).  Motivation: the Need to Achieve in the Sport Psych Handbook, Shane  Murphy (Editor), Human Kinetics.
  • Frederick, C.M and Ryan, R.M (1995).  Self Determination in Sport: A Review Using Cognitive Evaluation Theory.   International Journal of Sport Psychology, 26, pgs 5 – 23.
  • Hadfield, D.C. (1994).  The Query Theory – a sports coaching model for the 90's.  The New Zealand Coach, 3 (4).
  • Jones, R., Armour K., Potrac P. (2004).  Sports Coaching Cultures, From Practice to Theory. Routledge.
  • Kidman, L and Hanrahan, S. (1997).  The Coaching Process. Dunmore Press 
  • Kidman, Lynn, (2005).  Athlete Centred Coaching.  Innovative Print.
  • Kidman, Lynn (2001) Developing Decision Makers.  Innovative Print.
  • Lombardo, Bennett J. (1987).  The Humanistic Coach.  Charles C. Thomas.
  • Lombardo, Bennett J. (1999).  Coaching in the 21st century: issues, concerns and solutions.   Rhode Island College.
  • Martens, Rainer (2004).  Successful Coaching 3rd edition,  Human Kinetics, (1981, 1st edition)
  • Martens, Rainers (1987).  Coaches Guide to Sport Psychology.  Human Kinetics
  • Maslow, A. (1962). Towards a psychology of being. D. Van Nostrand.
  • SPARC (2007) Coaching Resource CDf Knowledge Learning, Nov  2007, SPARC download.

Page Reference

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About the Author

Lance Smith is a practising coach with Athletics Southland in New Zealand with coaching qualifications in sprints, track endurance, road and cross country, steeplechase, and high jump and has coached athletes to national championship medals in all the above events. He is also an active "master" athlete and takes part in track events and jumps.