Researchers and practitioners have long believed that how people feel about and describe themselves can strongly influence motivated behavior in sport and exercise. Two key constructs studied in the sport and exercise psychology literature are self-esteem and self-concept. Since many people have argued that judgments about the self will influence the selection and maintenance of physical activity behavior, it is critical to distinguish between self-concept and self-esteem. Self-esteem or self-worth refers to how a person feels about oneself. It is a self-evaluation that provides a sense of how an individual assesses worth. Self-concept refers to self-perceptions of personal attributes such as skills, abilities, and physical characteristics.
Historically, researchers studied both self-esteem and self-concept from a very broad global perspective. Modern work, however, recognizes that self-esteem, and especially self-concept, is best viewed from a multidimensional and hierarchical perspective. Starting with the work of Richard J. Shavelson and colleagues in the 1970s, self-concept has been conceptualized as a multifaceted hierarchy consisting of the global self at the top, with specific domains (e.g. academic, social, and physical) and subdomains nested underneath. For example, one important domain of global self is the physical self, which can be further divided into several subdomains, such as flexibility, endurance or conditioning, sport skills, strength, and appearance. Each subdomain can be further differentiated into more discrete components. For example, physical flexibility can be further separated into facets such as leg flexibility, back flexibility, hip flexibility, and shoulder flexibility. Typically, subdomains of physical self-concept have moderate to strong interrelationships. Aspects of the physical self, especially body appearance, demonstrate moderate correlations with perceptions of global self across the life span.
Although there is strong support for the multidimensional view of self-concept, support for the hierarchical perspective is less compelling. Work by Herb Marsh and others has found that relationships among some specific domains or subdomains are low or non-existent. Furthermore, global self-concept also has low correlations with specific self-concept domains or subdomains. A hierarchical model also implies either a top-down or bottom-up direction of causal flow. The bottom-up approach proposes that situation-specific and task-oriented experiences influence perceptions in specific subdomains, which in turn will influence domain specific self-concept and overall global self-concept. Researchers conducting interventions using this model would target a specific facet of physical self (e.g. leg strength) and would expect changes in the facet to effect perceptions of a specific physical subdomain (e.g. physical strength). Changes in the specific physical subdomain would then result in expected changes to global physical self, which would effect change in global self-concept.
The top-down model hypothesizes that changes in global self-esteem will influence lower order domains (e.g. physical self), which will impact specific subdomains and in turn would influence specific physical activity behaviors. Therefore, top down interventions target global self-esteem as it is assumed that individuals with higher self-esteem would be more confident to engage in physical activity behaviors regardless of experience and perceived competence in that domain. A top-down model implies that changes in global self-concept (or self-esteem) should cause changes in lower order domains and influence subsequent situation specific experiences. Unfortunately, longitudinal and experimental research has found little evidence of either top-down or bottom-up causal flow between the domain level and global level.
Measurement of Hierarchical Self
Investigating the causal relationship between self-esteem, self-concept, and physical activity behaviors has been greatly enhanced by multidimensional models and subsequent measurement instruments. Many instruments have been developed, evaluated, and modified for various populations and age groups. Within sport and exercise research, there are a few instruments that have consistently demonstrated strong measurement properties. Susan Harter and colleagues developed the Self Perceptions Profiles for various age groups. These instruments were based on hierarchical models with global self-esteem and various domains (e.g., social, athletic, appearance) depending on the age group. Separate work by Kenneth Fox and Herb Marsh sought to capture the physical self in more detail. Kenneth R. Fox and Charles B. Corbin developed the Physical Self-Perception Profile, which consists of four subdomains of physical self-concept and one global domain of physical self-worth. The subdomains include sport competence, attractive body, physical strength, and physical conditioning. Marsh and colleagues developed the Physical Self-Description Questionnaire, which specifies physical self-concept as nine unique physical self-dimensions (strength, body fat, activity, endurance or fitness, sports competence, coordination, health, appearance, and flexibility) nested under general physical self-concept and global self-esteem. Marsh and colleagues also developed the Elite Athlete Self-Description Questionnaire to assess physical self-concept in elite athletes using six different dimensions. Elite athlete self-concept dimensions include skill, body, aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness, mental competence, and overall performance.
Self-Esteem, Self-Concept, and Physical Activity Behavior
Researchers in sport and exercise psychology recognize the importance of self-esteem and self-concept as not only significant mental health outcomes, but also as potential determinants of physical activity behavior. There is solid evidence, in both youth and adults, that physical activity behavior is correlated with aspects of physical self-concept and sometimes with global self-concept and self-esteem. For example, many researchers have found that conditioning and endurance self-perceptions predict objective physical fitness and physical activity levels. Similarly, self-perceptions of body fat or physical appearance self-concept predict objective measures of body mass index or body composition. Physical self-concept measures are far superior compared to global self-concept or self-esteem measures in predicting physical activity behaviors. However, self-perceptions of body appearance and body fat are often unrelated to physical activity behaviors.
Many physical activity intervention studies in children, youth, and adult populations have primarily focused on global self-esteem or self-concept and physical activity. In studies with children and youth, the majority of these studies have found a modest short-term significant intervention effect. However, many of these studies have been criticized for being poor quality. In adults, John Spence, Kerry McGannon, and Pauline Poon conducted a meta-analysis of over 100 exercise intervention studies and reported that exercise intervention seemed to have a small but significant effect on either global self-concept or self-esteem. Overall, researchers suggest that physical activity interventions can produce small changes in global self. However, there is little consistent evidence about the characteristics of the physical activity intervention (intensity, duration, types) required to produce changes.
Physical activity intervention research targeting changes in the various levels of the hierarchical self is more limited. In one review of intervention studies in various populations, Kenneth Fox concluded that physical activity conferred significant improvements in some components of the physical self. Typically, the intervention effect was stronger for physical self-perceptions compared to global measures. More recent work in adults suggested that interventions have a stronger impact on physical self-concept compared to global self.
Based on a mix of findings, researchers seem to suggest that physical activity can cause changes in both global and physical self. Intervention studies often indicate a bottom up model in that physical activity will cause a change in self-concept or self-esteem. However, recent work by Herbert W. Marsh and Rhonda G. Craven and Marsh and other colleagues strongly suggests there is a reciprocal relationship between achievement behaviors and domain level self-concept. Using longitudinal designs and complex modeling, they found that self-concept and physical activity are both a cause and effect for each other. The reciprocal model suggests that previous physical activity behavior would influence physical self-concept, which would in turn impact physical activity behavior even after controlling for previous physical activity behavior. This reciprocal effect was found in several studies using various physical activity contexts, such as elite swimming, physical education, and extracurricular activities. The work of Marsh and colleagues in various populations and achievement domains indicates that the reciprocal effect occurs primarily at the domain level. The use of the reciprocal model has implications for research and applied practice. For instance, it implies that interventions should be targeted at both the self-concept level and at specific physical skills or perceptions related to the targeted domain. Also, the level at which self-concept is measured needs to be considered, as reciprocal effects are stronger when the domain in self-concept is congruent with the achievement domain.
Gender and Cultural Differences
Researchers have consistently found that males have more positive global and physical self-perceptions than females in both youth and adults, although there are large variations within each gender. This parallels the findings in the physical activity literature. However, there is no consistent evidence of the relationship between self-concept and physical activity behaviors being different across genders. Some researchers have argued that gender stereotypes, cultural beliefs, and the dominance of traditional boys’ sports in school systems and community organizations results in sports being more highly valued for males and thus more prominent in the development of their self-concept and self-esteem. There is, however, no reliable evidence that physical activity interventions are more effective in enhancing self-perceptions for either females or males.
Understanding cultural differences in the global and physical self-concept is challenging. Most studies comparing samples from various countries show similar results in terms of physical self-concepts being meaningfully related to physical activity behaviors and there is strong evidence that males have more positive self-perceptions across groups. However, most studies compared nationality (e.g., Turkey vs. United Kingdom) rather than assessing cultural values, such as filial piety, settings. Males tend to have more positive perceptions of physical self as well as higher levels of physical activity behaviors. Physical activity interventions have a stronger impact on enhancing the physical self-concept compared to the global self. There is growing evidence, however, that there is a reciprocal effect between physical self-concept and physical activity behavior over time. Cultural differences are not well-understood.
Self-esteem and self-concept are best understood from a multidimensional perspective. Physical self-concept is an important dimension in understanding motivated behavior in sport and exercise settings. Males tend to have more positive perceptions of physical self as well as higher levels of physical activity behaviors. Physical activity interventions have a stronger impact on enhancing the physical self-concept compared to the global self. There is growing evidence, however, that there is a reciprocal effect between physical self-concept and physical activity behavior over time. Cultural differences are not well-understood.
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