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Marathon runners are loners and introspective; foot. ball players are extroverts. Such stereotypes pervade popular thinking about personality and sports, but do these labels have any basis in fact? For decades people have debated whether aspects of people’s personalities influence their choices of which sports to play and their success in those sports. A bias behind part of this debate has been the idea that sports build character. Much research has been conducted to determine the role that personality plays in sports. This research has been framed within three major theories of psychological thought: psychodynamic, dispositional, and phenomenological. Although personality traits may be associated with sports in some way, thus far no conclusive evidence indicates that popular stereotypes have any validity.
Personality was defined in a variety of ways during the last century. Common aspects of these definitions include a focus on psychological aspects (thoughts, emotions, behavior, motives) that make up a person’s identity, on how people differ from one another, on behavior that is controlled from within people rather than from the environment, and on how different aspects of a person form an integrated whole. An example of a definition of personality comes from Lazarus and Monat, who defined it as “the underlying, relatively stable, psychological structure and processes that organize human experience and shape a person’s activities and reactions to the environment” (Lazarus and Monat 1979,1).
Psychodynamic theory emphasizes the importance of early life experiences in determining current psychological makeup and the role of the unconscious. During the first three decades of the twentieth century the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud laid the foundations of psychodynamic theory, and theoretical development was continued by Adler, Erikson, Fromm, Horney, and Jung. Although some authors in sports psychology have speculated that psychodynamic theory may contribute to understanding why people tend to-ward participation in some sports and not others, no evidence has been provided to support their speculation.
Dispositional theory focuses on the characteristics of a person’s behavior that are relatively consistent through time and between situations. Personality represents a combination of these characteristics. Four theories that focus on a person’s stable and enduring characteristics are trait, dispositional state, biological, and motive or need theories.
Traits are those internal characteristics of a person that are highly stable between situations and over time. Trait theorists (such as Allport, Cattell, Eysenck, and Guilford) contended that traits lie beneath people’s behavior.
During the 1920s Coleman Griffith conducted some of the first research into personality and sports. To determine the personality profile of the successful athlete, Grifith observed and interviewed college and professional athletes. Eleven traits were common among them: ruggedness, courage, intelligence, exuberance, buoyancy, emotional adjustment, optimism, conscientiousness, alertness, loyalty, and respect for authority.
During the 1960s and 1970s research on personality in sports, based on trait theory, was prolific, with more than one thousand studies conducted. Research could be conducted relatively easily, with investigators administering personality questionnaires from mainstream psychology (such as Hathaway and McKinley’s Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Cattell’s 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire, Eysenck and Eysenck’s Eysenck Personality Inventory) to athletes. In 1969 a sports-specific questionnaire (Tutko, Lyon, and Ogilvie’s Athletic Motivation Inventory) was developed to assess eleven personality traits (drive, determination, leadership, aggressiveness, guilt proneness, emotional control, self-confidence, conscientiousness, mental toughness, trust, and coachability), which have some similarity to the traits that Coleman had identified more than forty years earlier.
Using these questionnaires, researchers looked for differences between athletes and nonathletes, between athletes from one sport type and athletes from another sport type, and between athletes at different levels of ability. Although various studies have identified differences between groups (e.g., athletes versus nonathletes), no consistent findings have come from this research. That is, no clear and enduring personality differences have been found between athletes and nonathletes, between athletes from different sports, and between athletes of differing ability.
Some researchers have speculated that personality may be connected with various sport behaviors (e.g., successful sporting performance). To date, no evidence supports this claim.
Another subject of research has been whether sports build character. Although a small number of studies have been conducted on this subject, they have consistently concluded that no relationship exists between sports and the development of character.
Dispositional state theories consider the interaction between personal characteristics and the environment. Dispositional state theorists consider dispositions to be less rigid than traits. Both these personal dispositions and the environment determine personality. Two models that have received extensive research attention in sports are Morgan’s mental health model and the individual zones of optimal functioning (IZOF) model, applied by Hanin and Syrja in their research on emotion and sport.
In 1980, with the mental health model, Morgan proposed that positive mood states facilitate higher athletic performance than do less positive mood states. Morgan and later researchers measured mood using the six subjective mood states of the Profile of Mood States questionnaire, developed in 1981 by McNair, Lorr, and Droppleman. These mood states include tension-anxiety, depression-dejection, anger-hostility, vigor-activity, fatigue-inertia, and confusion-bewilderment.
Through research with different athletic populations, a distinct athletic profile was developed. The profile was characterized as higher vigor-activity levels than the population norm and lower levels of tension-anxiety, depression-dejection, anger-hostility, fatigue-inertia, and confusion-bewilderment than the population norm. Based on the graphical representation, this pattern was named the “iceberg profile.”
The iceberg profile, however, is not related to sporting performance. Some athletes perform well despite having a profile that is considered to be “negative.” Issues that may confound the mood-performance relationship include athletes’ perceptions of their moods and the type of sports they play. Athletes’ perceptions of their mood as facilitative or deliberative may influence performance to a greater extent than does the mood itself. Some sports may require mood profiles different from those of the iceberg profile. The mental health model may be more useful for charting differences between athletes and relating these differences to performance than for relating the profiles of many athletes to performance.
In 1995 Hanin and Syrja developed the IZOF model. With this model as a base, Hanin asked athletes to rate previous successful performances with regard to the intensity of a range of positive optimal emotions (i.e., eager, sure, determined), negative optimal emotions (i.e., tense, furious), positive dysfunctional emotions (i.e., calm, nice, content, pleasant), and negative dysfunctional emotions (i.e., slack, lazy, unwilling, tired). Greater success was associated with positive and negative optimal emotions of a high intensity and positive and negative dysfunctional emotions of a low intensity. The few studies that have been conducted have shown the IZOF model to be predictive of performance. Although not a personality theory, consistency of emotional state was being examined with the collection of data on successful and poor performances.
Some theorists (e.g., Kretschmer during the 1920s and Sheldon during the 1940s) have contended that personality is related to bodily configuration. For example, people with lean, linear body types were suggested to be tense, inhibited, and introverted. Later researchers during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s reasoned that personality is related to nervous system function.
Few biological studies have been conducted in sports. Studies have tended to investigate whether physiological and psychological processes are associated and whether physical and psychological measures, in combination, can predict behavior. A study conducted by Hardy, McMurray, and Roberts in 1981 exemplifies the first type of research. These researchers investigated whether people with type A personalities (i.e., people who tend to be strict, rigid, perfectionistic, and mindful of time) respond differently to exercise than do people with type B personalities (i.e., people who tend to be more relaxed). The results showed that people with type A personalities experience greater negative psychophysiological responses, at higher intensities of exercise, than do people with type B personalities. At light and moderate intensities, people with type A personalities had greater positive psychophysiological responses than did people with type B personalities.
Motive or Need
For motive or need theorists (e.g., Murray, McClelland, Atkinson), specific motives or needs are the drivers of personality. In 1957 Atkinson published his achievement motivation theory, which grounded later sports re-search. The need to achieve formed the basis of Atkinson’s theory. The theory has received some empirical support. For example, in 1965 Ryan and Lakie found that people with a need to avoid failure that is stronger than their need to succeed perform better in noncompetitive situations than do people whose need to succeed is stronger than their need to avoid failure. In competitive situations the reverse was true.
Zuckerman’s work on sensation seeking, conducted during the 1970s, has been the foundation of several sports studies. Sensation seeking is the need for intense, novel, and varied sensations. Several studies have found sensation seeking to be higher in people involved in high-risk sports. Some evidence also indicates that sensation seeking can explain people’s degrees of involvement in high-risk sports as well as the sports they choose.
Phenomenological theory emanated from the initial writings of Husserl in 1911 and is based on the premise that all people perceive the world and themselves differently. Behavior is shaped by people’s subjective understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. Personality is assessed by asking people how they would feel or behave in a given situation. Three phenomenological approaches are actualization/self-determination, cognitive information processing, and social-cognitive.
Theories developed during the 1960s, such as Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs and Rogers’s self theory, focused on people’s achievement of their own potential. Although Maslow’s theory does identify some basic human needs, experts assumed that everybody has the same needs. The emphasis was on the fulfillment of those needs in an attempt to achieve self-actualization.
In sports, research has been based on the cognitive evaluation theory of motivation, which Deci developed in 1975 and elaborated on with Ryan in 1985. Core to their theory is the idea that people have an innate psychological need to show competence and self-determination. Competence is people’s perceptions of their ability to interact successfully with their environment. Self-determination is the degree to which people perceive that they are free to choose their own behaviors. People will be intrinsically motivated (that is, engage in an activity for the pleasure associated with the activity itself) to the extent that they are able to show competence and that they are free to choose to engage in an activity.
Cognitive Information Processing
Cognitive information-processing theory emphasizes the individuality of how people actively make sense of their own behavior and the world around them. In 1955 Kelly developed the personal construct theory, in which he hypothesized that the dimensions of personality are constructed on an individual basis. These dimensions act as lenses through which people view the external world. If people’s lenses continue to help them to predict the world around them, then people see no need to change these lenses.
Few studies have been conducted on personality and sports using the personal construct theory. In 1976 Lerch explored how four track athletes perceived their preseason, in-season, and postseason experiences and found that each athlete had unique perceptions of his or her athletic involvement.
In sports a greater amount of research has been conducted using Weiner’s attribution model, which he developed and refined during the 1970s and 1980s. The central aspect of this model is that, following achievement behaviors, people will search for causes of those behaviors. The three general causes that experts have identified are controllability, locus of causality, and stability. Controllability is the degree to which the cause of the achievement behavior is under the control of the person making the attribution or under the control of other people. Locus of causality is whether the cause of the behavior is internal or external to the person making the attribution. Stability is the consistency of the cause over time.
Sports researchers have also investigated cognitive consistency theory. The premise that underlies this theory is that people strive for consistency in their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Sports performance has been associated with less cognitive conflict and the greater use of methods to reduce conflict, whereas dropping out of sports has been associated with cognitive conflict.
Social-cognitive theories explain behavior as the interaction between behavioral, cognitive, and environmental factors. In 1986 Albert Bandura described self-efficacy theory, which is a social-cognitive theory that has, during the last twenty years, underpinned more research than any other personality theory. Self-efficacy is people’s perceptions of their ability to perform desired tasks. Much of the research using self-efficacy theory, however, was not directed toward investigating differences in people’s personalities.
Reminiscent of researchers conducting trait studies during the 1960s and 1970s, researchers using social-cognitive concepts have outlined the characteristics of successful athletes. These characteristics include self-confidence, the ability to stay focused, the capacity to regulate arousal, positive emotions and thoughts toward sports, high commitment to excellence, and determination.
People harbor popular notions that personality traits are connected to sports, and maybe in some ways personality traits and sports are connected. No evidence indicates, however, that our popular notions have any basis in reality. With the lack of a “sports personality,” the common argument that sports build character also seems tenuous. People with a broad range of personality characteristics participate in and are successful in sports.
- Apitzsch, E. (1995). Psychodynamic theory of personality and sport performance. In S. J. H. Biddle (Ed.), European perspectives on exercise and sport psychology (pp. 111-127). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Gill, D. L. (2000). Psychological dynamics of sport and exercise (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Lazarus, R. S., & Monat, A. (1979). Personality (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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