Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Leslee A. Fisher

Committee Members

Craig A. Wrisberg, J. Amos Hatch, Donald W. Hastings


This study had three goals: First, to assess student-athletes’ perceptions of autonomy within the structure of collegiate sport. Second, to gain an understanding of student-athletes’ perceptions of power and how these perceptions affect student-athletes’ autonomy. Third, to understand the ways in which student-athletes’ perceptions of autonomy are important to the field of sport psychology was explored.

Working from within the constructivist paradigm (Hatch, 2002), a semi-structured interview approach was used to investigate the perceptions of autonomy of collegiate student-athletes. As described by Kvale (1996), data were gathered through semi- structured conversations with the co-researchers surrounding the theme of their perceptions of autonomy in their lives as collegiate student-athletes. Twelve co- researchers from four different sports at a Division I university were involved in this study (football=3, women’s basketball=2, men’s golf=4, women’s track=3). The student- athletes also represented each academic grade level (first-year=3, sophomore=2, junior=2, senior=5) to assess perceptions of autonomy during each of these years. Although an attempt was made to include a diversity of racial backgrounds in this study, due to lack of race representation in different sports, this study was limited to Caucasian (7) and African-American (5) student-athletes.

After analyzing the data using the interpretative analysis model described by Hatch (2002), three themes were identified. They were: 1) personal autonomy, 2) lack of autonomy, and 3) relational autonomy. Each of these major themes was comprised of several sub-themes that provided a greater understanding of how autonomy was experienced by the student-athletes in this study. Three minor themes- Effects of Autonomy, Model of Desired Autonomy, and Power- also are presented.

Overall, student-athletes’ lives were not completely autonomous, yet they did not fully lack autonomy either. Within the confines of the collegiate sport environment, there were many limitations on student-athletes’ abilities to be autonomous individuals. Seemingly, most of their decisions were based on commitment, mostly being committed to teammates and to the “requirements” of being a collegiate student-athlete. Possibly, then, the heart of student-athletes’ perceptions of autonomy lies in their relationships with others. Perhaps because they have a strong sense of commitment, they create a self- concept based on this commitment that then becomes a constant factor in their decision- making process. Finally, it appears that student-athletes’ perceptions of autonomy are dynamic and fluctuate depending on the context and their ability to reframe and integrate these experiences into their sense of self. Hence, perceptions of autonomy seem to exist on a continuum from completely lacking autonomy to having ultimate choice. In light of these results, recommendations for working with student-athletes and suggestions for future research are also provided.

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