A self-fulfilling prophecy can be defined as a prediction that sets in motion a series of events that ultimately causes the original prediction to become true. Within the sport setting, the self-fulfilling prophecy theory has been used to describe how and why the expectations that individuals (e.g., coaches) form about others (e.g., athletes) can serve as prophecies that subsequently dictate or determine the level of achievement that these others (athletes) will reach.
History of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Phenomenon
In 1949, Robert Merton, a sociologist, used the phrase self-fulfilling prophecy to describe a social phenomenon in which a false belief or expectation is developed and which initiates a series of events that causes the original false belief to become true. Although the term originated in the sociological literature, and the concept itself was popularized in the entertainment world (e.g., plays and movies based on the concept), the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon gained particularly wide recognition in the academic realm. In 1968, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson published the results of a study they had conducted to determine whether students’ academic progress could be influenced by their teachers’ expectations of them. These researchers began by notifying teachers at the beginning of the academic year that some of the children in their classes had been identified, via achievement tests, as “late bloomers” and that these students could be expected to show large gains in academic achievement. What the teachers did not know was that the students who were identified as late bloomers had actually been selected by the researchers at random. However, at the end of the school year, the targeted children, as a group, had made greater gains academically than had their classmates who had not been identified as late bloomers. In discussing these results, Rosenthal and Jacobson concluded that the teachers used the false information provided by the researchers to develop higher expectations for the children identified as late bloomers and then to act in ways that would stimulate higher performance in them (e.g., more individualized instruction, higher rates of positive feedback). Thus, the hypothesized chain of events conformed to the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon in that the expectations formed by the teacher (based on false information) were believed to set into motion a series of events (e.g., enhanced teacher-student interactions in the classroom) that caused the original false expectation to become true.
Following the publication of this study, other researchers in the academic domain explored the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon. This body of research generally resulted in support for the theory but also revealed that expectancy effects are not evident in all classrooms and may exert relatively low effect sizes (ES) when compared to other factors that also impact children’s academic progress. Nevertheless, reviewers of this research do point out that some children (e.g., those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, racial and ethnic minorities) may be particularly vulnerable to the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon in educational settings.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Sport and Physical Activity Contexts
Based on the research conducted within academic classrooms, Thomas Martinek and Jack Rejeski began to explore expectancy effects in physical education (PE) and youth sport settings. Their results, along with that of others, have provided evidence that the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon can occur in a number of different contexts within the physical activity (PA) setting.
Expectations Formed by Coaches
Much of the early work on coaches’ expectancy effects was based on a four-step model drawn from the academic literature that describes how coaches’ expectations for individual athletes can serve as prophecies that dictate the ultimate level of performance and type of behaviors that these individual athletes will exhibit. Step 1 begins when coaches form expectations regarding the capabilities of each of their players. These initial coach judgments can be based on person-type cues (i.e., gender, dress, socioeconomic status [SES], racial and ethnic group, family background), performance-based cues (e.g., athletes’ previous performances or their current performance in drills, fitness tests), and/or on perceived psychological characteristics (e.g., coaches’ perceptions of athletes’ self-confidence, maturity, self-discipline). Although all of these sources of information may be available in any sport setting, coaches likely differ in the particular sources they use and in the accuracy and flexibility of their initial expectations. If a coach, for example, initially forms a negative impression of a particular athlete’s capabilities (based, perhaps, on that athlete’s style of dress the first day of practice) but that initially false expectation is quickly revised by the coach as more information is obtained (e.g., athlete performs very well in drills on second day of practice) then the initially false expectation that the coach developed on the first day may not interfere with the athlete’s ability to progress in that sport setting. Conversely, if a coach forms an initially false (and low) expectation for an athlete (based, perhaps, on person-type cues such as gender or family background) and does not revise that expectation based on subsequent more performance-oriented information (athlete’s skill test scores), then that coach’s initial expectation was both inaccurate and inflexible. This is the type of situation that can lead to the second step in the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon.
At the second step, the coach’s initially false expectation or judgment that an individual athlete on her or his team has low abilities may lead the coach to exhibit behaviors toward and with this athlete that reflect the coach’s low expectation. Specifically, the coach may (a) interact less with this athlete; (b) provide him or her with less time in drills and practice activities; (c) establish a lower standard of performance for him or her; (d) deliver less frequent and less beneficial praise after a successful performance and less informational or corrective feedback after a performance error; and (e) attribute the athlete’s successful performances to luck or task ease and, correspondingly, attribute the athlete’s unsuccessful performances to lack of ability.
Not surprisingly, the differential behavior provided by the coach in the previous example would lead to the third stage of the self-fulfilling prophecy in which the athlete’s performance and behavior conform to the coach’s original expectation for him or her. Specifically, players who consistently receive less frequent and less effective instruction will not show the same skill improvement as other individuals on that team who are given optimal learning opportunities. Thus, by the end of the season, the low-expectancy athlete may indeed be a low-performing team member. However, this lack of progress is not really due to the player’s low athletic ability but rather to the initially false expectation by the coach that caused a series of events (e.g., differential practice time, ineffective feedback) that resulted in the player’s inability to improve. Furthermore, the negative coach behaviors toward this particular athlete likely also affected her or his psychosocial state. Thus, by the end of the season, he or she may be exhibiting low perceptions of competence, low enjoyment, low motivation, high anxiety, and possibly even low teammate support and friendship.
At the final step in the self-fulfilling prophecy sequence, the coach sees that this particular athlete’s performance and behavior were consistent with her or his (coach’s) original expectation. This conformity reinforces the coach’s belief that she or he made the right judgment at the beginning of the season. Thus, the coach perceives himself or herself to be especially astute at judging the initial talent levels of athletes, and the cycle continues.
Although research studies have provided support for the four-step self-fulfilling prophecy model, it is important to point out that not all coaches exhibit tendencies to be expectancy-biased (i.e., to be quick to make inaccurate and inflexible judgments of individual athletes at the beginning of the season and then to act in ways that are biased by this initial expectation). Furthermore, not all athletes are susceptible to the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon (i.e., some are resistant to the negative effects of a biased coach). But there are others who may be particularly vulnerable to such coaches.
In the youth and adolescent sport settings, athletes who could be more vulnerable to expectancy-biased coaches might include children that are early or late maturers (i.e., those who are proceeding toward full physical maturation at either a faster or a slower pace than are their average and early maturing peers). Late maturing boys, for example, who are typically smaller in physical size and stature than their same chronologically aged peers may be perceived by expectancy-biased coaches to be low-expectancy athletes. Thus, these temporarily smaller, less physically developed boys may not get the optimal instruction and feedback that they need and/or may even be cut from competitive youth programs. For girls, however, it actually may be the early maturing ones who are most vulnerable to expectancy-biased coaching. That is, early maturing girls (i.e., those who are entering the pubertal development stage at an earlier chronological age than their peers) may be seen by their coaches as less physically competent (due to early pubescent changes in body shape, composition, and functioning) and less interested in sport participation, especially as compared to their late-maturing female peers who still have a more linear body build and less body fat.
Another important issue with regard to the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon is that of the broader societal stereotypes and biases that can affect coaches’ expectations for individual athletes. Research in the sport literature has shown, for example, that coaches’ behaviors toward individual athletes can be biased on the basis of their (coaches’) sexist, racist, and/or homophobic attitudes, beliefs, and expectations. Thus, coaches who do hold such negative and biased stereotypes may judge individual athletes at the beginning of the season based on person-type cues (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, body build) and then exhibit the kind of biased instructional behavior that interferes with individual athletes’ ability to develop and/or exhibit their talents and abilities. Again, then, the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon may be most evident under such social conditions.
Expectations Formed by Referees
Within the sport setting, referees constitute another group of individuals who may exhibit expectancy effects. Specifically, referees’ decisions regarding fouls and other game infractions appear to be influenced by the initial expectations they develop based on such things as team uniform color, team reputation, and even players’ body size. Furthermore, gender stereotypes regarding the appropriateness (or inappropriateness) of females exhibiting aggressive behaviors may exist among referees as female players have been found to be penalized more often than are male athletes for aggressive play. These results are consistent with the idea that the expectations that referees might form either as a result of general stereotyped attitudes and/or during pregame activities would affect their actual behaviors within the game context.
Expectations Formed by Athletes
Some studies have examined expectations formed by athletes and, correspondingly, how those expectations might affect athletes’ beliefs and behaviors in relation to their coaches, other individuals in the sport setting, and even their opponents. First, in regard to athletes’ expectations about coaches, it appears that athletes do form initial judgments when first meeting (or reading profiles of) a new coach and that these initial expectations are primarily based on dynamic cues (e.g., coach’s eye contact, body language) and on third-party reports (e.g., the coaches’ previous performance results) and less on static cues (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, age). At this point, little is known about the effects of such initial judgments on subsequent coach–athlete interactions. However, some studies have found athletes’ perceptions of their coaches’ leadership styles and behaviors to vary as a function of their coaches’ gender. That is, female coaches who exhibit certain types of behaviors and leadership styles (e.g., a controlling or autocratic style) may be perceived more negatively than are male coaches who exhibit the same types of behaviors. Again, such differential evaluations are likely due to gender stereotypes that may be prevalent in the broader sociocultural context within which that sport exists.
Second, athletes also form initial expectations when judging the effectiveness of other types of coaches with whom they may have contact (e.g., sport psychology [SP] consultants, strength and conditioning coaches, personal trainers). In particular, athletes form initial impressions of SP consultants based on such things as gender, dress (e.g., business or athletic wear), and body build (i.e., appearance of physical fitness). For strength and conditioning coaches as well as for personal trainers, athletes and students may generally indicate a higher preference for, and more positive evaluation of, male coaches or trainers, with male athletes and students exhibiting stronger gender preferences than do female raters. Sexual orientation, as well, has been demonstrated to impact the preferences of athletes and their parents for coaches and the rating of job applicants for personal training positions.
Third, athletes have been found to develop expectations about their opponents based on such person-type cues as the opponents’ dress, body language, body size, and uniform color. Furthermore, these initial expectations or judgments formed about an opponent do seem to affect the athletes’ own level of confidence and expectancy for success. Based on the four-step self-fulfilling prophecy model, it would be further hypothesized that the expectations that individual athletes or teams form during precompetition events (e.g., watching game films, observing warm-up activities) about the competencies of their opponents (e.g., that athlete or that team is really good) might affect the athletes’ own behavior within the competition (e.g., amount of effort exerted, persistence after a mistake) and thus, actually, cause the initially formed expectation (that athlete or team will beat me or us) to become true. As such, then, the self-fulfilling prophecy is fulfilled.
The self-fulfilling prophecy describes a social phenomenon in which an initial prediction sets in motion a series of events that ultimately cause the original prediction to become true. Within the PA setting, research studies have found support for this theory, most particularly with regard to the expectations that coaches develop for individual athletes on their team and that, ultimately, can determine the level of performance that each athlete reaches. More recent work has demonstrated that the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon may also apply to other PA situations (e.g., referees’ behavior, hiring practices in sport, and PA settings). From a practitioner standpoint, the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon can have significant effects on the progress that individual athletes, coaches, and other individuals can make in any particular PA context.
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