Self-Awareness and Sport

Self-awareness involves expert knowledge of oneself, independent of others. As such, self-awareness is  central  to  one’s  personal  and  social  perception and meaning of self.

Development Perspectives

It has been argued that there are at least two interrelated levels of the self that psychologist William James  (1842–1910)  labeled  the  “I”  self  and  the “me”  self.  The  former  is  considered  an  implicit level  whereby  the  self  is  a  subject  of  experience, whereas the latter is described as an explicit level where the self is an object of knowledge for oneself. This me self is a conscious representation of the self and involves a complex ability to allow one to  be  the  subject  of  one’s  own  attention  through self-identification and self-recognition.

Implicit  and  explicit  self-awareness  are  contingent  on  developmental  perspectives,  whereby  the I self concerns the first 2 years of life and the me self is developed in at least three stages thereafter. Most of the assessment and theoretical testing for self-awareness  has  been  conducted  by  observing infants’  and  children’s  reactions  to  themselves presented  in  mirrors.  Infants  begin  with  no  self-awareness  (oblivious)  and  develop  to  experience self-differentiation (how the body feels and looks) and  situational  differentiation  (how  the  body relates  to  the  environment).  Around  age  2,  individuals  will  manifest  recognition  of  themselves, and this is a landmark in the emergence of a conceptual self. At this initial explicit stage, there is an identified self that the image in the mirror is “me” and  what  is  experienced  from  within  is  related to what is displayed in the mirror. Following this identification,  individuals  develop  a  sense  of  permanence  whereby  their  self-identification  has  no boundaries  (i.e.,  they  can  recognize  themselves in  contexts  beyond  the  mirror,  such  as  movies or  photos).  The  final  developmental  level  of  self-awareness  has  been  proposed  to  include  displays of self-consciousness resulting from an awareness that the self is seen from within—what the self is— as well how the self is perceived by others.

High Versus Low Self-Awareness

Self-awareness  ranges  on  a  continuum  from  low levels  of  awareness  (i.e.,  narrow,  temporally  limited awareness of movement and sensation in the immediate present) to high levels of awareness (i.e., invoking  comparisons  of  events  and  self  against standards  and  norms  and  involve  broader  time spans).  These  distinctions  of  low  and  high  self-awareness have been linked to divergent thoughts, feelings  and  affect,  and  behaviors.  For  example, researchers  have  found  that  individuals  who  are highly  self-aware  perceive  their  experiences  more intensely,  have  more  accurate  self-evaluation  and are  able  to  self-regulate  more  adaptively,  react more strongly to social comparison, and generally know themselves better compared with individuals who are low on self-awareness.

Theoretical Framework: Escape Theory

The principle of escape theory is that individuals may find it burdensome and aversive to be aware of  himself  or  herself  and  therefore  find  ways  to escape.  Since  it  is  difficult  to  completely  “turn off” self-awareness, a common strategy is to narrow  one’s  attention  to  the  present  and  immediate environment. By narrowing attention, there is limited capacity to engage in meaningful thought about  identity  and  oneself.  This  deconstructive process, or moving one’s awareness from high to low  levels,  is  a  way  to  escape  threats  and  pressures.  The  motivation  to  escape  self-awareness hinges  on  a  comparison  of  the  self  against  standards,   norms,   and   expectations   whereby   the higher the standards, the greater likelihood of failure,  and  the  more  impetus  for  escape.  As  it  pertains to body shape and appearance, for example, there are high standards of “ideal” physiques for men and women that are perpetuated in the media and  internalized  as  normative  discontent.  Based on these high standards, the self is deficient, and actions  are  carried  out  to  manage  the  deficiency. Within  the  escape  theory  framework,  behavioral actions  such  as  alcohol  use,  cigarette  smoking, and binge eating are associated with a reduction of the undesirable state. While not examined empirically, it is intuitive that sedentary behaviors such as playing video games or watching television and physical activity (PA) engagement are also behavioral  strategies  to  manage  (escape)  the  deficiency brought about by high self-awareness. It could be argued  that  excessive  exercise,  for  example,  follows a similar trajectory as binge eating in that it is  an  escape  from  immediate  or  pending  threats and pressures.

Manipulations of Self-Awareness

Most  researchers  involved  in  experimental  studies  of  self-awareness  have  manipulated  attention and  cognition  through  strategies  of  distraction (e.g., intense, absorbing movies; challenging math problems;  complex  motor  behaviors)  and  heightened  focus  on  the  self  (e.g.,  mirrors,  self-relevant prompts, concentration and focus).

In sport psychology (SP), self-talk is a strategy that  can  be  used  to  heighten  self-awareness.  It  is proposed  that  self-talk  may  be  the  link  between the  I  self  and  the  me  self  and  helps  in  the  development of motivational thoughts, feelings, affect, and  self-monitoring.  In  this  way,  self-talk  may mediate self-awareness and related strategies such as self-monitoring and regulation.

Too Much Self-Awareness?

There  is  some  evidence  that  manipulating  self-awareness can heighten negative emotion and can foster susceptibility for anxiety and depression and lower self-esteem. More research is needed to better  understand  the  potential  maladaptive  role  of self-awareness.


  1. Baumeister, R. F. (1990). Anxiety and deconstruction: On escaping the self. In J. M. Olson & M. P. Zanna (Eds.), Self-inference processes: The Ontario Symposium (pp. 259–291). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  1. Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self-awareness. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  2. Heatherton, T. F., & Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Binge eating as escape from self-awareness. Psychological Bulletin, 110, 86–108.
  3. Morin, A. (1993). Self-talk and self-awareness: On the nature of the relation. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 14, 223–234.
  4. St Clair Gibson, A. & Foster, C. (2007). The role of self-talk in the awareness of physiological state and physical performance, Sports Medicine, 37,1029–1044.

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