Self-Handicapping Psychology

Self-handicapping   is   a   future-oriented,   self-protection  strategy  used  to  (a)  maintain  personal perceptions  of  competence,  control,  self-worth, and self-esteem and/or (b) protect or enhance one’s public image in the eyes of coactors or observers. It consists of thoughts, statements, and behaviors that  take  place  in  advance  of  performance,  and that  increase  the  likelihood  of  situational  factors being  blamed  for  poor  performance  but  personal factors being credited for good performance.

Variations and Principles

Two forms of self-handicapping have been identified based on the way in which the process unfolds. When  cognitions  or  verbalizations  are  used  to proactively defend or enhance self-worth and self-esteem,  they  are  considered  to  be  self-reported, or  claimed,  handicaps.  Examples  of  this  form  of self-handicapping  include  a  focus  on  (or  claims of)  temporary  illness  or  injury,  situation-specific anxiety, mood fluctuations, or recent exposure to uncontrollable  negative  events.  When  proactive defense  or  enhancement  of  self-worth  and  self-esteem  involves  deliberate,  observable  acts  that could conceivably interfere with performance, they are regarded as behavioral handicaps. Examples of this form of self-handicapping include ingestion of drugs  or  alcohol,  withholding  of  effort,  choosing to perform under less-than-optimal conditions, or providing assistance to competitors.

From  a  theoretical  perspective,  the  use  of  self-handicapping  strategies  invokes  the  attributional principles of augmentation and discounting. More specifically, proactively established handicaps permit the individual to augment the role of personal attributes  such  as  ability  if  performance  is  good or,  alternatively,  to  discount  the  importance  of personal  attributes  such  as  ability  if  performance is  bad.  From  an  empirical  standpoint,  studies  of attributions  made  for  one’s  own  performance  in the presence of potential handicaps provide consistent  support  for  discounting  (i.e.,  self-protection) following   failure   and   occasional   support   for augmentation  (i.e.,  self-enhancement)  following success. Some researchers have suggested that self-enhancement effects might be most evident among individuals with high self-esteem.

Measures of the Construct

Individual  differences  in  self-handicapping  tendencies have been assessed in several ways within the sport and exercise domains. The most widely used  measure  of  the  construct  in  these  settings  is a  14-item  version  of  the  Self-Handicapping  Scale (SHS)  that  assesses  propensities  for  excuse  making  and  withholding  of  effort.  Despite  its  widespread  use,  this  measure  has  been  criticized  by some  sport  researchers  on  psychometric  grounds and  because  of  its  generic  frame-of-reference, which  undermines  domain-specific  relevance.  As an  alternative  approach,  other  investigators  have utilized  an  open-ended,  listing-of-impediments procedure  to  examine  self-handicapping  tendencies  among  athletes.  Overall,  the  findings  from these  studies  reveal  that  commitments  outside  of sport, injury or illness, and training disruptions are the most frequently cited potential handicaps prior to performance and that some athletes do indeed have a greater propensity than others to cite such impediments.  What  cannot  be  determined,  of course,  is  the  extent  to  which  these  obstacles  are actual  or  perceived  for  any  given  individual.  As such, there is likely to be some measurement error inherent to the listing-of-impediments approach.

A  less-frequently  used  but  potentially  informative  approach  to  assessing  self-handicapping  tendencies involves the construction of study-specific inventories   containing   contextually   relevant descriptions  of  proactive  impression-management strategies  that  are  then  rated  on  a  “like  me”  or “not  like  me”  basis.  In  the  youth  sport  context, these  items  might  include  statements  such  as  the following:  “Some  players  fool  around  at  practice and before games.” Then, if they don’t play well, they  say  that  was  the  reason.  or  “Some  players  get  involved  in  a  lot  of  activities  outside  of sport.”  Then,  if  they  don’t  play  well,  they  say  it was  because  they  were  involved  in  other  things. Such statements are clearly anticipatory, reflective of  self-handicapping  tactics,  and  explicitly  self-presentational in the orientation. Research in physical  education  (PE)  classes  has  demonstrated  that this approach can be informative, and it deserves broader consideration within competitive sport. It could  also  prove  useful  for  advancing  knowledge about context-specific self-handicapping in relation to exercise behavior. At present, the only measure of  the  construct  specific  to  the  exercise  domain is  the  Self-Handicapping  Exercise  Questionnaire, which  assesses  exercise  impediments  related  to incorporating  exercise  into  one’s  routine,  training in an exercise facility, and physical health.

Research in Sport and Exercise

Self-handicapping  occurs  most  often  in  situations  that  involve  public  behaviors  that  are  considered  important  to  the  individual  and,  at  the same time, are characterized by uncertainty about the  likelihood  of  a  good  performance.  In  such circumstances,  poor  performance  is  potentially threatening  to  private  or  public  self-worth  and self-esteem.  Because  sport  and  exercise  environments  often  contain  most  of  these  elements,  it  is not surprising that psychologists have taken a keen interest in the correlates and consequences of self-handicapping  processes  within  sport  and  exercise settings.  Table  1  summarizes  research  findings related to self-handicapping in the areas of motor skills, sport, PE, and exercise. The information is necessarily selective, but it provides an overview of how self-handicapping has been examined in these domains and outlines relationships that have been observed with other psychological constructs.


self-handicapping-sports-psychology-t1-2self-handicapping-sports-psychology-t1-3Table 1  Summary of Findings for Studies of Self-Handicapping (SH) in the Motor Skills, Sport, Physical Education, and Exercise Domains

Several  noteworthy  observations  arise  from an  inspection  of  Table  1.  First,  self-efficacy,  self-confidence,  and  self-esteem  have  been  studied extensively  in  connection  with  self-handicapping, and  the  findings  have  been  consistent  across behavioral  domains.  In  general,  lower  levels  of self-efficacy,  self-confidence,  and  self-esteem  are associated with higher levels of self-handicapping. The  interrelated  constructs  of  achievement  goals, dispositional goal orientations, implicit ability conceptions, and motivational climate have also been widely  studied  in  relation  to  self-handicapping. Regardless  of  behavioral  domain,  it  appears  that a  mastery  (learning)  orientation,  which  is  associated  with  incremental  ability  conceptions,  results in higher levels of self-handicapping than a performance (outcome) orientation, which is associated with fixed ability conceptions.

Most of the studies within these domains have operationalized  behavioral  self-handicapping  in terms  of  reduced  practice  effort.  While  expected relationships have been observed between various psychological constructs and this index of behavioral  self-handicapping,  some  researchers  have expressed  concern  about  heavy  reliance  on  this measure. More specifically, it has proven difficult to  assess  reliably  via  questionnaire  in  sport  and exercise  settings,  and  direct,  observational  data related to practice effort (e.g., number of practice attempts)  can  be  influenced  by  numerous  factors other than self-handicapping. Some consideration may  therefore  need  to  be  given  to  other  indices of  behavioral  self-handicapping.  Additional  consideration  should  also  be  given  to  the  correlates and  consequences  of  self-handicapping  in  relation  to  real-world  exercise  behaviors  outside  of sport  and  PE  settings.  Despite  some  interesting preliminary findings (e.g., an association between self-handicapping  tendencies  and  voluntary  withdrawal  from  demanding  physical  training  programs), it is clear from the summary in Table 1 that relatively little self-handicapping research has been conducted  in  this  domain.  Given  the  importance of real-world exercise behavior to personal health, its  social  desirability,  and  the  self-presentational issues  that  surround  it,  there  would  seem  to  be abundant opportunity for more detailed examination of the associated self-handicapping processes.


Self-handicapping  is  a  proactive  self-protection and  self-enhancement  strategy.  Classic  forms  of self-handicapping  involve  self-protective  thought processes  or  statements  that  occur  in  advance  of performance  (self-reported  or  claimed  handicaps) and pre-event behaviors that might interfere with performance  (behavioral  handicaps).  Numerous psychological  constructs  have  been  examined  in connection  with  these  forms  of  self-handicapping in the motor skill, sport, PE, and exercise domains. These  constructs  have  included  personal  (e.g., anxiety), group (e.g., cohesion), and environmental  (e.g.,  climate)  variables.  In  general,  positive self-perceptions,  incremental  ability  beliefs,  and mastery-oriented environments are associated with low levels of self-handicapping, while negative self-perceptions, fixed ability beliefs, and performance-oriented  environments  are  associated  with  higher levels of self-handicapping. Self-handicapping processes  within  real-world  exercise  settings  deserve closer scrutiny in future research.


  1. Martin, A. J. (2008). Motivation and engagement in music and sport: Testing a multidimensional framework in diverse performance settings. Journal of Personality, 76, 135–170.
  2. Ntoumanis, N., Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C., & Smith, A. L. (2009). Achievement goals, self-handicapping, and performance: A 2 x 2 achievement goal perspective. Journal of Sports Sciences, 27, 1471–1482.
  3. Prapavessis, H., Grove, J. R., & Eklund, R. C. (2004). Self-presentational issues in competition and sport. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 16, 19–40.
  4. Shields, C. A., Paskevich, D. M., & Brawley, L. R. (2003). Self-handicapping in structured and unstructured exercise: Toward a measurable construct. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 25, 267–283.
  5. Smith, J. L., Hardy, T., & Arkin, R. (2009). When practice doesn’t make perfect: Effort expenditure as an active behavioral self-handicapping strategy. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 95–98.

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