Want to make circus even more fun? Follow the principles of self-determination theory!

Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2010) suggests that people are more likely to enjoy an activity (and stick with it) when participation in this activity fulfils three key psychological needs. These three psychological needs are the need for autonomy, relatedness and competence. In this blog, I will explain how you can use the principles of self-determination theory to increase students’ enjoyment in circus classes.

Fulfilling the need for autonomy

Autonomy represents the feeling of being allowed to make your own choices. Research suggests that autonomy is highly predictive of people’s enjoyment of an activity (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004). This is the case for children, but even more so for adults.  So how can you provide circus artists with experiences of autonomy while working within the boundaries of what is safe for that student? Below are three options to increase autonomy that I believe are easy to implement within circus schools:

  • Provide your students with options. For example, during warm-up, show your students three exercises that target more or less the same outcome, and let them choose individually which one they’d like to do.
  • Ask your students if there is something in particular they want to achieve during the term. In each of your classes, give students a bit of time (for example 5 minutes) to work on exercises that will help them achieve that goal. Make sure the students understand how these exercises will help them get closer to their goal.
  • Provide students with opportunities to create their own mini-acts and routines. This provides students with choices about the character they would like to portray, the music they’d like to use (if any), and the skills they would like to incorporate in their act. As a bonus, this will help your amateur students feel like true circus artist.

Hitting the ‘relatedness’ sweet-spot

The second psychological need, relatedness, refers to feeling part of a community, and creating friendships with other people in the circus. Relatedness is important for adults and children, and seems key in exercise participation of females. In my experience, circus excels in fostering feelings of relatedness. That being said, some coaches and schools are better at this than others. One best practice example I vividly remember was from a training centre I went to after I had just moved to Perth. Before the class even started the coach came up to me and said, ‘Hi you must be Fleur!, I am … and I’ll be taking your class’. He then proceeded to quickly explain what I could expect from the class, showed me where everything was, and then – perhaps most importantly – walked me up to a classmate and said ‘Hi …, this is Fleur, she just told me she loves lyra, just like you’. Instantly this coach had made me feel part of the group by not only showing that he cared enough to learn my name, but also to introduce me to someone he knew I had something in common with. This made it easy for me to talk and connect to that person. I later learned this training centre also organised occasional outings, for example visiting circus shows together. This also fosters feelings of relatedness among students.

Experiences of relatedness can also be created during circus classes by making students work as a team. This can include partner stretching or doubles/group skills, as well as providing specific challenges to pairs of students. For example, you could challenge two students to together come up with as many transitions as possible out of a particular move, to perform the same skills portraying as many emotions as possible, and so on. Within this, be mindful of the personalities of your students. You’ll want to avoid overwhelming your more introverted students with too many team/group activities, and too many partner-swaps. If this occurs, they will feel uncomfortable and will experience low levels of relatedness. As a result, they will be likely to quit your classes. Similarly, if you have managed to create a tight group of students this is wonderful, but please ensure that any ‘new’ students quickly feel like the have become part of the group. If they feel like an ‘outsider’ for too long, they are also more likely to quit your classes.

Fleur in Lyra
Picture by Jealous by Nature

Making your students feel competent

The final psychological need, competence, refers to feeling like you’re successful in what you’re doing. Beginner students in particular may feel like they are failing in classes, and that they can’t keep up with others. Of course, providing options and progressions of skills will help students achieve little victories which likely will make them feel good about themselves. But don’t let the feeling of competence solely depend on the circus artists’ own thought processes. Instead, simply point out what you believe they are doing well. As a guideline, research suggests that 80 to 90 percent of feedback to students should be positive. This is particularly important for children, but adults like positive feedback too. So is your student getting more flexy? Compliment the student on their progress. Is a student working extremely hard at a skill and still not getting it? Make a comment about how proud you are of their work-ethic. Did a student finally overcome an (irrational) fear? Celebrate with them! Creating feelings of competence amongst students is all in the little things, you’d be surprised about the difference a high-five or a simple smile can make. Further, when you provide instructive feedback (for example: point your toes), make sure that you also reward the student for following your feedback (that looked much better with pointed toes, well done!).

Even if you’re not a circus coach, providing a few honest compliments can change the dynamics of the entire circus setting. These compliments can range from ‘I love the pattern on your leggings!’ to, ‘I noticed how hard you have been working on this skill, you have made so much progress with it’. I recommend any circus artist to give this a go and to see what happens. As long as these compliments are honest and true, you will start noticing that others will join in on the positive attitude, and that the environment will become more supportive of people’s accomplishments.


Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Soenens, B., & Lens, W. (2004). How to become a persevering exerciser? Providing a clear, future intrinsic goal in an autonomy-supportive way. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 26(2), 232-249.