Whitehead, J. R., Baarlaer, L. A., Guggenheimer, J. D., Short, S. E., & Wilson, P. M. (2014). Autonomy support, motivation, and burnout in Division I swimmers: A test of self-determination theory. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46(5), Supplement abstract number 1733.

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This study investigated the following sequence of motivational processes in swimmers: Autonomy Support - Psychological Need Satisfaction - Motivation - Consequences. The main consequences of interest were athletic burnout and subjective vitality felt by the swimmers. Cross-sectional data were collected from 133 college swimmers from five NCAA Division I teams. Each swimmer completed a questionnaire that measured perceived autonomy support from the coach, perceptions of psychological need satisfaction experienced via swimming, sport motivation, burnout, and subjective vitality felt when swimming. Data analyses tested the fit of two conceptual models based on the tenets of Self-Determination Theory using structural equation modeling. In Model 1 motivation (autonomous vs. controlled) was specified as a mediating variable between need satisfaction, and burnout and vitality, while Model 2 also included direct links from need satisfaction to burnout and vitality.

Global fit indices suggested that Model 1 and Model 2 were both tenable. Standardized path coefficients and variance predicted provided further support for the hypothesized linkages within both models. Autonomy support from the coach predicted feelings of psychological need satisfaction which, in turn, predicted motivation to swim. Motivation to swim predicted burnout in Model 1 and Model 2 yet only predicted subjective vitality in Model 1. The direct paths linking psychological need satisfaction to burnout and subjective vitality plus the pathway linking motivation to subjective vitality were not significantly different from zero in Model 2.

Implication. Autonomy support from coaches is critical in promoting optimal sport experiences and motivation while mitigating the likelihood of burnout in competitive swimmers.

The outdated-coaching model of having coaches make all decisions for swimmers was shown to be contrary to what swimmers really need to elevate their motivation for the sport. Coaches need to teach swimmers as much as possible about the sport, its training, and advantageous forms of conduct at swim meets. Allowing swimmers to make their own decisions as to what they do at competitions and in races will add much to their motivation, enjoyment, and success in the sport.

Coaches not subscribing to swimmer autonomy will hasten the occurrence and frequency of bouts of swimmer burnout.

Return to Table of Contents for Psychology of Swimming.

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