Affirmations in Sport

Affirmation is the act of reflecting on core aspects of  the  self,  such  as  important  values,  relationships,  and  personal  characteristics  like  religion, music,  or  sports.  Previous  research  shows  that self-affirmation  interventions  can  reduce  psychological and physiological stress and defensiveness, while boosting personal responsibility and performance.  Self-affirmation  interventions  and  theory have  promising  applications  in  sports  and  exercise, including facilitating achievement and helping individuals respond adaptively to setbacks.

Self-Affirmation Theory

The   social   psychologist   Claude   Steele   proposed    self-affirmation    theory    in    1988.    It holds  that  individuals  are  motivated  to  maintain  self-integrity:  a  sense  that  one  is  a  person  of  worth,  morally  adequate  and  effective at  making  changes  in  one’s  life.  There  are  many routes to self-integrity, and affirmations of the self in one part of life (e.g., reflecting on being a good father) can buffer threats in other parts of life (e.g., poor  performance).  Affirmations  in  the  context of  threat  can  protect  the  self  and  allow  people to  respond  with  reduced  stress  and  defensiveness because they are reassured that they possess integrity and worth.

When an event such as a sports loss or failure to complete a workout regimen threatens a valued self-image  (e.g.,  being  a  good  athlete  or  motivated  exerciser),  people  are  at  risk  of  responding defensively  by  rejecting  responsibility  or  giving up.  If,  however,  the  person  affirms  an  important personal  value  before  the  threat,  their  sense  of moral adequacy and efficacy can be reinforced and protected. Within social psychology, interventions involving  values  affirmations  often  take  the  form of having individuals reflect and write briefly about an important personal value such as relationships with  friends  and  family.  Writing  about  important personal  values  can  fulfill  the  global  need  for self-integrity  and  enable  people  to  constructively respond to threatening events.

Reduction of Defensive Strategies

affirmations-in-sport-sports-psychologySport  and  exercise  present  psychological  threats like  the  fear  of  low  performance  that  can  impact one’s personal and public image. There is empirical  evidence  that  people  can  respond  to  these threats by construing situations as less threatening to  personal  worth  and  well-being.  For  example, athletes may use defensive strategies such as attributing  more  internal  causes  for  success  than  for failure (e.g. “I won because of my ability,” but “I lost  because  of  the  weather”:  self-serving  biases); denying  their  team’s  responsibility  for  a  negative outcome or exaggerating their role in victory (group-serving biases); or claiming handicaps (e.g., claiming  back  pain  before  a  competition  to  have an excuse for failure or to enhance credit for success:  claimed  self-handicapping).  These  defensive strategies  help  maintain  self-integrity  by  reducing threats  but  can  limit  achievement  when  personal responsibility  is  denied  and  failure  is  attributed to  external  causes.  Self-affirmation  can  reduce engagement in these maladaptive strategies.

For  instance,  a  field  study  demonstrated  how self-affirmation  can  lower  athletes’  engagement in   self-handicapping   strategies.   Claimed   self handicapping  was  assessed  before  and  after  an affirmation intervention. First, coaches asked their athletes to report to what extent handicaps such as physical pain or stress could disrupt their training. Using  a  classic  self-affirmation  study  design,  athletes assigned to an affirmation condition ranked a list of values (e.g., relationships with friends) from the  most  important  to  the  least  important,  and then  wrote  an  essay  about  their  most  important value. Athletes in a no-affirmation control condition ranked the same values but wrote an essay on why  their  least  important  value  might  be  important  to  someone  else.  Athletes  in  the  affirmation condition claimed fewer handicaps after the intervention (no difference in the control condition).

Field  studies  with  athletes  immediately  after competition examined their attributional patterns for victories and defeats. The studies demonstrated that  an  affirmation  manipulation  reduced  self-serving  and  group-serving  attributional  biases. Without   affirmation,   winning   team   members claimed  that  their  efforts  and  their  team’s  efforts were more responsible for the outcome of the game than  losing  team  members’.  These  findings  were observed  for  players  as  well  as  nonplayer  fans, such that collegiate fans were less defensive in their attributions about their team’s outcomes when they affirmed a value central to their university. In health psychology, affirmed individuals are less defensive and more open to learning about their health risks, and more likely to take behavioral steps to address drinking, diabetes, or excessive weight. One study found  that  overweight  women  who  completed  a self-affirmation  lost  more  weight  than  women  in a control condition, suggesting that the threat and stress  stemming  from  their  appearance  may  have hindered their attempts to diet and exercise.

Reduced Stress

Self-affirmation can reduce physiological and psychological stress responses. Compared to a control group,  participants  who  affirmed  personal  values by  reporting  their  thoughts  and  feelings  about an  important  value  had  lower  salivary  cortisol responses,  a  marker  of  stress,  in  a  stressful  laboratory  task.  In  a  longitudinal  study,  compared  to control students who had a marked increase, students who affirmed personal values 2 weeks prior to an academic evaluation did not have increased cumulative   epinephrine   levels   from   baseline (an indicator of stress measured in urine).

Increased Performance

Whereas  threat  depresses  performance,  affirming core values could alleviate threat and improve performance.  In  both  laboratory  and  field  studies,  self-affirmations  have  improved  academic performance  among  people  confronting  a  negative stereotype about their ability; for example, it improved  the  academic  performance  of  African American  and  Latino  American,  but  not  White, students  in  mixed  middle  schools  in  the  United States. These effects persist for years by changing the  narrative  students  tell  themselves  about  their ongoing  experience,  thereby  instigating  recursive processes and positive feedback loops.

Conclusion

In sum, sports research demonstrates that self-affirmation  reduces  athletes’  defensiveness,  whereas other  research  shows  that  it  helps  address  health problems,  reduces  stress  responses,  and  boosts academic  performance.  Future  research  should address the specific effect of self-affirmation on the stress, performance, and commitment to a training regimen among both athletes and exercisers.

References:

  1. Finez, L., & Sherman, D. K. (2012). Train in vain: The role of the self in claimed self-handicapping strategies. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 34, 600–620.
  2. Logel, C., & Cohen, G. L. (2012). The role of the self in physical health: Testing the effect of a values affirmation intervention on weight loss. Psychological Science, 23, 53–55.
  3. Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 183–242). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  4. Sherman, D. K., & Kim, H. S. (2005). Is there an “I” in “team”? The role of the self in group-serving judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 108–120.

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