Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Psychology

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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