Autonomy: Building Relationships & Buy-In – Jared Markiewicz

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series on developing relationships and buy-in as a coach. All of this comes from Self Determination Theory, and Jared Markiewicz has used these exact processes to work with his staff and clients. Part 1 addresses the concept of Relatedness. Part 2 addresses the concept of Competence, and this edition addresses the concept of Autonomy. We highly encourage you read all three parts of this series and consider implementing these concepts into your coaching or business activities.


Autonomy is the ability to have or make decisions that lead to a direction. 

Basically, you get an opinion that is heard regarding the direction that is taken. And since adolescent athletes have LOTS of opinions, what better way to motivate them than by listening to their opinion.

Additionally, there are levels to autonomy that we will break down simply into two categories:

1) Low control choices are simple THIS or THAT questions guiding simple task selection.

2) High control choices are more complex, necessitating a greater understanding of the variables that exist to drive a team or group towards the mission.

As it relates to motivation levels, the level of control rises as it’s recognized the individual’s motivation is more intrinsically driven.

So, how do we apply this concept to a gym full of coaches and athletes? Simply put, those wanting more autonomy need to EARN THE RIGHT (ETR).

Stated over and over again in this series, “Earn The Right,” gives the person looking for motivation a reason to stay engaged. The more they push to get better, the more they will receive feedback demonstrating your confidence in them.

The end result, they are more in control of their path to achieving greatness than most anyone has offered them before. And you get to be the one providing it to them!

Coach to Staff

When issues or new opportunities arise, they are great times to utilize your team, give them their first amendment rights and often come up with great ideas or solutions.

But to do so, you as the leader need to establish some firm guidelines.

To explain this, let’s compare the process to creating a beautiful house.

The first step to building a beautiful home is laying a solid foundation so it lasts a long time.

In your gym, that is simply your mission or value statement and your core values.

Then a house needs a frame, something it can stand on and can handle most anything you add to it without collapsing over. It’s unlikely to be noticed unless it’s a problem but people are drawn to certain layouts over others.

In your gym, that is the training environment: the actual organization, structure and feel of your facility.

Once you have those pieces in place, your staff understands enough to get involved in the process of how to complete the house and make it incredible.

So when an issue arises or an opportunity presents itself, your team has the tools to weigh in on a solution and be a part of the process.

You as the leader are no longer expected to have all the answers. More importantly, the solution will likely be one with far more insight than if you sat in your office staring at the wall struggling for hours on end.

But insight doesn’t mean perfection. Mistakes are likely to happen. It can be difficult for a business owner to shoulder the mistakes of his staff and not want to step in to just do the job right. That is NOT delegating.

Action Step: offer low control choices for your staff members to allow them to build confidence and truly take ownership in their role on your team. If they make mistakes early, it shouldn’t be devastating to your business.

And, if your approach is slow but consistent, the long-term result will be a collaborative think tank of ideas and solutions by your highly motivated staff members.

Coach to Athletes

Picture this: you are first learning how to bowl.

One coach says, “to bowl well you must take 5 steps, hold the ball in your right hand exactly and cross your right leg behind you after you toss the ball.”

A different coach says, “I’m going to show you a number of ways to get a bowling ball down the lane effectively and then I want you to choose one and try it yourself.”

Which coach do you want? Or, which coach do you want for your child?

Giving athletes choices with constraints allows them to explore, feel empowered and still maintain a safe and effective path to higher performance levels. It’s all about autonomy with constraints.

Choices in a training session can be provided at a young training age as long as the constraints are narrow.

For a new athlete to your program, a simple question of, “did that feel hard OR easy,” will be enough to help you gauge their abilities/attitude while allowing them to be involved in the process. It’s a choice no matter how minuscule it might seem.

As they Earn The Right, the conversation can evolve towards the actual program makeup, recovery from training/practice/competition and optimization of their training cycles.

Providing choices has also highlighted an unexpected outcome for some of our athletes.

Occasionally we come across the “problem athlete.” We have all coached this boy or girl. They struggle with the standards of a school curriculum and a, “do this or else,” approach doesn’t jive with them.

We have found athletes like this thrive when given choices and a say in what goes on. They don’t always get what they want, but the fact that they have a voice and we acknowledge it makes for an adherent and driven athlete.

Action Step: Start giving choices to your athletes during warm ups, as they go through their ramp up sets or in the conditioning portion or play portion of the training session. Areas that will be minimally affected by options and are unlikely to cause you stress about them not doing the right thing (because we all know we will!)

We have the ability to improve the processing and learning of our athletes while instilling confidence through choices; so let’s do it!

Staff to Athlete

It’s your job to create structure for your staff to best coach the athletes they work with.

Therefore, it’s time for your coaches to better manage their groups by implementing the Earn The Right mentality with their athletes.

When they provide athletes some control over the direction of their training, it can generate authentic leadership within the team or group.

It all comes down to questions. This is probably the most difficult systematically speaking. You need to teach your staff not only how to ask quality questions but also how to listen and respond accordingly.

To make it simple and gain traction for your staff with their athletes, they can use the image of a dangling a carrot in front of a horse.

At the beginning of the session, ask the athletes this, “we have 5 minutes at the end of the session that I want to leave open to you to decide how we use it. We can either foam roll or play a game. Tell me your decision and if we are efficient, we can possibly have 10 minutes for Spiky ball hoops (crowd favorite at FIT).

Not only will you get more efficient work done but also you will start to have athletes step up and shepherd the flock when someone is getting off track.

Action Step: Have your coaches ask the athletes what they want. Then provide them an opportunity to earn it without making it a guarantee.

When you create a system for choices with constraints by simply asking questions, it can breed leadership and buy in like no other.

And what leader doesn’t want a staff that has efficient training sessions full of motivated athletes, stepping up as leaders.

It’s a win/win/win!

Wrap Up

As leaders, we all aspire to a weight room culture of massively bought in athletes and coaches.

But, your motivation and passion isn’t enough. You have to put the effort in to learn what drives your team and your athletes.

When you lay down a foundation based on a well-researched model like the Self Determination Theory, you can then build your own creative structure on top! Then the process can be fun and inclusive.

And when you set expectations for your staff and your athletes that ownership isn’t given but EARNED, you are on your way to massive buy in from everyone involved.

jared markiewiczJared Markiewicz is the founder and CEO of Functional Integrated Training, in Madison, WI.  Jared has worked with a wide array of athletes including middle schoolers, collegiate and professional athletes, as well as adults – all looking to find the best version of themselves.  He sits on the IYCA Advisory Board, has gone through many IYCA certifications, and is a regular contributor and speaker for the IYCA.

Jared holds a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology with an emphasis in Exercise and Movement Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s also a Certified Personal Trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM-CPT), an Advanced Sport Performance Coach through USA Weightlifting, a Level 2 Functional Movement Screen Specialist, a Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach (PN1) and a golf fitness instructor through Titleist Performance Institute.


If you want to be better at coaching young athletes, the IYCA Youth Fitness Specialist certification is the industry gold-standard for youth fitness and sports performance.  Click on the image below to learn more about the YFS1 certification program.

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