Self-Presentation in Sport

Self-presentation,  also  referred  to  as  impression motivation,  is  the  process  whereby  individuals attempt to monitor and control how other people perceive them—that is, they attempt to portray a specific image (or impression) to others. In general, people try to present truthful images of themselves to others. However, in any specific situation, they may  choose  to  highlight  certain  aspects  of  themselves and downplay others. For example, people may  choose  to  emphasize  their  positive  qualities (such  as  organizational  skills,  previous  win–loss record), and avoid drawing attention to their less positive  qualities  (e.g.,  poor  time  management, poor athlete retention) in a job interview for a new coach position. There are also situations in which people  may  actually  decide  to  make  a  negative impression—for  example,  a  student  pretending she or he has not done readings in class (seeming unprepared)  to  avoid  having  to  answer  questions in front of the whole class.

People  self-present  for  many  reasons.  First, when  they  make  positive  impressions,  individuals generally maximize the rewards they get from others  (e.g.,  getting  a  job,  making  friends)  and minimize  the  costs  (e.g.,  avoiding  public  speaking). Second, making positive impressions on others  is  associated  with  more  positive  moods  and higher  self-esteem,  while  negative  impressions tends  to  lead  to  more  negative  moods  and  lower self-esteem.  Third,  if  other  people  have  a  specific impression of an individual (e.g., a good athlete), that helps reinforce how that individual sees himself or herself (i.e., self-concept). In general, some level of concern for what others think is thought to be adaptive and functional.

Two  processes  are  proposed  to  underlie  self-presentation. The first is impression motivation— the   desire   to   create   a   certain   impression   in others.  The  second  is  impression  construction— how individuals decide which images to create and how they go about creating them. Several factors can  influence  an  individual’s  level  of  impression motivation. Some people are generally more concerned  with  what  others  think  of  them  in  most situations—they have high trait self-presentational concerns. However, certain situational factors can also heighten self-presentational concerns as well. For  example,  if  the  goal  (what  people  are  trying to  achieve  by  making  a  specific  impression)  is important,  they  will  be  more  motivated  to  create an  impression.  Similarly,  if  someone  thinks  that how  others  currently  see  them  (current  image)  is very  different  from  how  they  want  others  to  see them  (desired  image),  impression  motivation  will also be higher. Impression construction can also be influenced by both trait-like and situational factors. For  instance,  an  individual’s  self-concept  influences  the  images  he  or  she  may  wish  to  project. Situational  factors  include  the  values  of  the  target (who people are trying to make an impression upon)  or  how  people  are  currently  perceived  by others.  For  instance,  people  may  try  to  create  an image consistent with the values of the target and similar to their current images.

Self-presentation can occur in almost any aspect of one’s life, including sport and exercise settings. In  these  settings,  self-presentational  concerns  can impact  how,  or  even  whether,  people  participate in sport and exercise. In addition, sport and exercise  participation  can  impact  self-presentational responses.

Motivation for Exercise and Sport Participation

For many people, self-presentational concerns can motivate  them  to  participate  in  physical  activity  (PA).  One  specific  concern  relates  to  physical appearance. In particular, in North American society,  there  are  well-defined  ideal  physical  appearance standards for women (thin, toned body) and men  (muscular,  lean  body).  Participation  in  sport and exercise can help people maintain or improve their physical appearance and achieve these ideals. Thus, for some, the desire to appear more physically  attractive  to  others  motivates  them  to  be active. In addition to physical appearance, the wish to be perceived as an exerciser or an athlete may also encourage people to be more physically active. One  reason  is  that  people  described  as  exercisers are  perceived  more  positively  than  non-exercisers on a variety of physical and personality characteristics. Similarly, being seen as athletic (e.g., strong, coordinated, quick) can also lead to more positive outcomes. For instance, many individuals identify professional athletes as their heroes. Thus, people may  participate  in  PA  to  achieve  these  positive social images.

Alternatively,  self-presentational  concerns  can also  demotivate  people  from  being  active.  Often, if people believe they will make a negative impression during PA, they may avoid being active. These negative  impressions  can  also  relate  to  physical  appearance  and  social  identity.  For  instance, since PA by definition places a focus on the body, and  often  involves  wearing  more  revealing  clothing (e.g., shorts and a T-shirt), people may worry about  others  thinking  they  are  physically  unattractive. Similarly, individuals may worry that they may appear weak or unfit if they can’t lift as much weight or cycle as long as others. In sport settings, they  may  worry  about  looking  unskilled  if  they make  a  mistake.  Thus,  if  individuals  believe  that they  will  create  a  negative  image  (e.g.,  physically unattractive,  unfit,  or  unskilled)  then  they  may avoid PA altogether.

Physical Activity Context

Even if people choose to be physically active, the context of their activities can be influenced by self-presentational concerns. For example, if individuals believe they may make a negative impression, they may choose to be active alone—such as exercising at home. Another aspect of the PA context that is influenced by self-presentational concerns is the nature of the social environment. For example, many women indicate preferring to exercise in all female rather than coeducational settings because they  feel  more  comfortable  with  respect  to  their bodies.

It is also evident that some people may choose to avoid participating in certain activities because of  the  stereotypes  that  are  endorsed  about  participants  of  certain  activities.  For  example,  some sports  are  considered  more  “feminine”  (such  as figure skating or gymnastics), while others are considered  more  masculine  (such  as  football  or  boxing). Because of these stereotypes, some men may decide not to participate in certain sports to avoid being seen as too feminine, and some women may avoid  certain  sports  so  they  are  not  seen  as  too masculine.

Effort and Exertion

People’s  level  of  effort  during  PA  can  also  be impacted by self-presentational concerns. In some cases, people may tend to work harder when others  are  around.  If  people  want  to  appear  fit  and hardworking to others, they may put more effort into  their  workout  or  their  sport.  For  instance, they may lift more weight at the gym if someone is working out beside them, or they may run faster to  chase  a  ball  during  a  soccer  game  if  there  are others watching. On the other hand, some people may  report  working  less  hard  to  make  the  same impression.  For  instance,  if  during  a  challenging fitness  activity  someone  says  it  feels  easy,  she  or he may be trying to create the impression of being highly fit.

One particular self-presentational phenomenon that is relevant in sport is self-handicapping, which occurs  when  people  set  up  impediments  (either behavioral,  such  as  not  practicing,  or  claimed, such as saying they feel sick or anxious) in advance of their performance. Thus, if people fail, they can attribute  that  failure  to  an  external  factor  (e.g., sickness,  lack  of  practice,  highly  skilled  competition).  If  they  succeed,  they  manage  to  look  even more talented or skilled, as they were able to overcome the impediment in front of them. In general, self-handicapping  is  more  likely  to  occur  in  situations  that  are  considered  very  important,  where the outcome is uncertain, or that are highly public.

Self-Presentational Responses to Physical Activity

While  self-presentational  concerns  can  affect choices  regarding  PA,  participation  in  PA  can also  lead  to  certain  self-presentational  responses. Specifically,  participating  in  sport  and  PA  can increase, or decrease, the experience of certain self-presentational concerns. In general, these concerns are related to social anxiety—the worry or concern that  arises  when  people  want  to  make  a  specific impression  (impression  motivation)  but  are  not sure they will be successful.

In sport settings, one of the most common self-presentational  responses  is  competitive  anxiety, which  is  the  anxiety  that  results  specifically  in competitive sport situations. Although anxiety can originate from many sources, some of the concerns are self-presentational in nature. For example, athletes may worry about embarrassing themselves in front of fans, teammates, and coaches if they make a  mistake  or  look  unprepared  or  unskilled.  They may  also  worry  about  evaluations  of  their  body, particularly in sports where physical appearance is judged as part of the outcome (e.g., gymnastics and figure skating), where there are weight restrictions (e.g.,  rowing  or  wrestling),  or  where  clothing  is particularly revealing (e.g., swimming and diving). In extreme cases, this anxiety may lead to choking under pressure—failing in situations where people are trying particularly hard to succeed. People may place  so  much  pressure  on  themselves  to  succeed (and  make  a  positive  impression)  that  they  are unable to perform their best.

A  second  self-presentational  response  that  is common  in  sport  and  exercise  contexts  is  social physique anxiety (SPA), which is the anxiety that occurs  when  one’s  body  is  evaluated  by  others. Interestingly, the level of SPA has been associated with both higher and lower levels of PA. For some people,  high  concern  over  others’  evaluations  of the body leads them to be more physically active, while for others, it is associated with less PA, perhaps  to  avoid  the  possibility  of  their  body  being evaluated by others. For athletes, participation at higher  competitive  levels  is  generally  associated with  lower  levels  of  SPA—perhaps  they  become used  to  their  body  being  evaluated  by  others  or perhaps those very high in SPA drop out of sport early  on.  In  addition,  certain  factors  in  the  PA environment  may  make  SPA  more  likely.  For example, the presence of mirrors, the presence of men (for women), leadership style, and the wearing of revealing clothing (by oneself or others) are all associated with higher SPA levels.

A  third  self-presentational  response  is  self-presentational efficacy, which is the confidence people have in their ability to create a desired impression in  others.  In  exercise  and  sport  settings,  these images most often revolve around being seen as fit, skilled,  and  physically  attractive.  Generally,  individuals  higher  in  self-presentational  efficacy  are more active than those lower in self-presentational efficacy. They also report lower SPA.

Physical Activity Interventions: Their Impact on Self-Presentational Concerns

Generally,  PA  participation  can  help  reduce  self-presentational  concerns.  Aerobic  and  strength training programs have been associated with reductions  in  SPA  and  increases  in  self-presentational efficacy.  In  addition,  there  is  some  evidence  that even a single exercise session can lead to these same improvements   in   self-presentational   concerns. Further,  these  improvements  have  been  found  in college  men  and  women,  as  well  as  middle-aged and older adults. Interestingly, it appears that these changes  are  not  necessarily  linked  with  actual changes  in  the  body—rather,  changes  in  self-efficacy  and  perceptions  of  fitness  improvements may be equally influential.


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