Sports And Personality

Personality has been defined as the relatively stable organization of an individual’s character, temperament,  intellect,  and  physique,  which  shapes  the individual’s  behavior  and  his  or  her  actions  in  a given situation. For each individual, there are core personality  components  that  are  quite  stable  and unchanging. However, when one observes patterns of  behavior  in  an  individual  not  only  his  or  her base psychological core should be considered but also the dynamic organization within the individual  that  determines  his  or  her  unique  adjustment to  the  environment.  In  essence,  the  interaction between  the  core  trait  and  the  peripheral  (e.g., state)  aspects  of  the  individual’s  behavior  defines his or her personality.

This  interaction  between  the  core  traits  and peripheral  aspects  in  the  individual  is  expanded in a current view on personality. This view, called the “New Big Five,” is composed of five different aspects associated with the concept of personality:

(1) an individual’s unique variation on the general evolutionary  design  for  human  nature,  expressed as a developing pattern of (2) dispositional traits, (3)  characteristic  adaptations,  and  (4)  integrative life  stories  complexly  and  differentially  situated (5) in culture. According to this view, the psychology  of  personality  should  provide  an  integrative framework  for  understanding  how  each  person is  like  all  other  persons  (understanding  speciestypical  characteristics  of  human  nature),  like some other persons (understanding individual differences  in  common  characteristics),  and  like  no other person (understanding unique patterns of an individual’s life).

Based on the New Big Five approach, a psychological  profile  is  often  used  to  describe  the  type of  personality  that  is  exhibited  by  the  individual (e.g.,  an  athlete).  For  example,  elite  performers  in  sport  are  expected  to  be  highly  motivated toward practicing hard, aimed at enhancing their abilities and skills, focusing on their performance, and  coping  effectively  with  physical  (e.g.,  illness, injury)  and  mental  (e.g.,  failure,  lack  of  playing time) barriers. A unique psychological profile (i.e., a “sport personality”) consisting of sport-relevant psychological  characteristics  is  required  to  attain high performance standards. In addition, individuals act in given settings that also have the potential to  influence  their  personality.  In  sport,  athletes are  typically  required  to  execute  acts  in  particular  settings  (e.g.,  practice  sessions,  competitions, games),  where  they  are  exposed  to  specific  task and  environmental  demands.  Under  such  conditions,  observed  behavior  depends  largely  on  the interaction  between  the  athlete’s  core  personality and  the  environmental  demands.  Therefore,  personality is composed not only of core psychological characteristics but also of an arsenal of plans, strategies,  and  skills  that  individuals  implement to achieve their goals. The integrated approach of the core psychological characteristics (i.e., “hard” aspect)  and  the  skills  and  strategies  (i.e.,  “soft” aspect) that are used by the individual is adopted in our discussion on personality and psychological characteristics of elite athletes.

sports-and-personality-sports-psychologySince  the  early  1960s,  researchers  in  sport psychology  (SP)  have  used  introspective  tools  to measure the personality profile of athletes. Two of the  earliest  tools  for  measuring  personality  were the  Minnesota  Multiphasic  Personality  Inventory (MMPI)  and  the  Cattell  16PF  Questionnaire. These  personality  tests  were  typically  given  to adult athletes who had already attained the highest level of performance in their sport. The personality scores of these high achievers were compared with those  of  nonathletes  or  with  general  population norms.

Personality  tests  failed  to  associate  specific traits  with  sport  performance  and  ignored  the unique  psychological  characteristics  related  to sport performers. Consequently, sport-related psychological  skills  questionnaires  were  developed. An example of one of these questionnaires was the Psychological  Skills  Inventory  for  Sports  (PSIS), developed  by  Michael  J.  Mahoney,  T.  J.  Gabriel, and T. S. Perkins, which measured the psychological skills athletes use in practice and competition. This  inventory  and  others,  such  as  the  Self-Analysis  of  Mental  Skills  (SAMS),  developed  by J.  R.  Grove  and  S.  J.  Hanrahan,  and  the  Ottawa Mental  Skills  Assessment  Tool  (OMSAT),  developed  by  Jordache  D.  Bota,  were  administered  to elite  and  novice  athletes.  Specifically,  the  psychological strengths and weaknesses of the novice and elite athletes were assessed. In some of the studies using questionnaires related to sport, a number of methodological (e.g., sample size or sample availability) or conceptual (e.g., the difficulty in defining the term elite athlete) concerns were noted, and therefore,  determining  the  psychological  characteristics associated with skill levels was limited and still remains inconclusive.

To  overcome  the  methodological  and  conceptual  barriers  associated  with  personality-testing instruments, such as the MMPI or PSIS, in-depth interviews and narrative stories have been among the alternative methodologies used for determining sport-related  psychological  characteristics.  In  the in-depth  interviews,  athletes  are  asked  about  the psychological  attributes  and  characteristics  that most  helped  them  to  attain  their  athletic  performance. From the narrative stories (e.g., autobiographies,  biographies  told  by  athletes),  researchers obtained  unique  information  on  the  athletes’ personal journey of “climbing to the top,” which helped  to  provide  insight  into  the  psychological characteristics or skills central to the athletes’ achievements.

Psychological Characteristics and Skills of Adult Elite Athletes

A  number  of  psychological  characteristics  and skills  of  elite  athletes  have  been  identified  from the extant research using questionnaires and interviews. These are outlined next.

Psychological Characteristics

Among the psychological characteristics of elite athletes  are  (a)  commitment  (the  dedication  to devote  oneself  to  all  activities  associated  with  the selected sport from early phases of talent development  until  achieving  sport  expertise);  (b)  internal motivation (the internal drive of the athlete to direct his  or  her  effort  toward  achieving  high-standard goals,  such  as  the  willingness  to  be  involved  in  a multiphased task-pertinent  training  program  for an  extended  period  of  time,  the  desire  to  excel  in competition, and the ability to cope with feelings of discomfort and failure); (c) learning capability (the ability  to  learn  complex  sport  skills);  (d)  control (the command of the ongoing events on and off the court, field, or gym); (e) competitiveness (the ability to  compete  against  others  and  strive  for  success); (f)  self-confidence  (the  belief  in  one’s  ability  to achieve the best results while overcoming physical and  psychological  barriers);  (g)  adaptability  (the ability  to  perform  well  under  unfavorable  conditions); and (h) mental toughness (the ability to control emotions and thoughts, and to remain focused under challenging and stressful conditions, particularly under negative circumstances).

The  aforementioned  psychological  characteristics  have  been  observed  in  athletes  in  both  team and  individual  sports.  However,  in  some  early studies  comparing  the  personalities  of  athletes  of various sports with nonathletes, it was evident that athletes  who  played  team  sports  demonstrated less  abstract  reasoning,  more  extraversion,  more dependency,  and  less  ego  strength  than  nonathletes. Athletes who competed in individual sports exhibited  higher  levels  of  objectivity  and  dependency,  and  less  abstract  thinking,  compared  to nonathletes.  In  regards  to  the  female  athlete, early  research  showed  that  female  athletes  were more  achievement-oriented,  independent,  aggressive, emotionally stable, and assertive than female nonathletes.

Psychological Skills

Elite athletes have been found to possess various mental skills that are at significantly higher levels than  those  of  less-than-elite  athletes.  Specifically, the following psychological skills have been found to  be  used  by  elite  athletes  and  associated  with their efforts to achieve high levels of proficiency in their sports: (a) goal setting (the ability to set challenging but realistic goals for short and long-term periods); (b) imagery (the ability to imagine oneself successfully  performing  a  sporting  act);  (c)  focusing attention (the ability to focus effectively, ignore external  distractions,  and  avoid  negative  internal thoughts); (d) emotional control (the ability to stay calm when feeling anxious or nervous or to become “psyched-up”  when  not  appropriately  aroused  or excited);  and  (e)  psychological  routines  (the  use of  pre-,  during-,  and  post-performance  routines  to self-regulate behavior and emotional states before, during, and after performing the sporting act).

Psychological Characteristics and Skills of Young Athletes

Not only have psychological characteristics of elite adult athletes been studied but also those of young individuals in earlier phases of talent development (e.g.,  children  up  to  the  age  of  14).  Researchers interested  in  talent  detection  and  early  development in sport identify age 14 as the final year of early  involvement  in  sport  and  the  beginning  of the  specialization  phase  (i.e.,  focusing  solely  on one  sport  activity).  Based  on  data  obtained  by researchers such as Craig R. Hall and Tara Scanlan, who administered questionnaires to young athletes involved in competitive sport programs in basketball, gymnastics, hockey, soccer, and wrestling, as well as conducted interviews with these athletes, it was  found  that  young  athletes  showed  more  persistence than nonathletes. In terms of psychological characteristics and skills, it was observed that (a) the level of trait confidence in the young elite athletes was negatively related to the level of state competitive concerns; (b) motivation to participate in  sport  was  more  intrinsic  than  extrinsic  in  the young elite athletes—more specifically, young elite athletes  more  often  reported  skill  development, team affiliation, fun, excitement of the game, liking  to  compete,  and  liking  to  do  something  they are good at as important motives for participating in  sport;  and  (c)  using  imagery  as  a  psychological skill is common among young athletes, but the type of imagery and the reasons for using imagery vary. For example, the types of imagery used by the young  athlete  were  visual,  auditory,  kinesthetic, or  tactile.  Some  of  the  athletes  used  imagery  for developing game strategy while others used it only to serve individual goals. In addition, it was found that gender differences exist in some, but not all, psychological  characteristics.  Girls  reported  professional or international ambitions less often than boys and reported enjoyment as a motive for playing sports more often than boys. More boys than girls attributed their success to physical factors.

Can Sport Build Character?

A  question  that  is  often  asked  by  researchers and  practitioners  deals  with  the  contribution  of sport  to  the  development  of  psychological  characteristics.  Specifically,  “Can  sports  help  athletes build  character?”  Although  the  belief  that  sport enhances   psychological   development   is   widespread, research in SP has yet to provide clear-cut evidence supporting this assumption. For example, studies have examined the influence of sport competition on the prosocial behavior of cooperation and  altruism  in  children.  Data  from  these  studies showed that sport competition had a negative effect on prosocial behavior and that children who gained more experience in competitive sports were significantly  less  altruistic  than  those  who  accumulated  less  experience.  In  other  studies  aimed at  examining  the  contribution  of  organized  sport programs to the moral behavior of young children, it was observed that some aspects of moral behavior did improve (e.g., attitudes concerning sportsmanship,  and  moral  reasoning).  However,  some of the sport activities that were performed in these studies failed to reflect actual competition or game situations, and therefore the ecological validity of the studied activities was relatively low.

The question of whether elite athletes are born with  sport-relevant  psychological  characteristics remains  unsolved.  Additional  studies  incorporating  personality  and  genetics  may  advance  our knowledge  on  this  issue.  At  present,  more  effort should  be  devoted  to  research  tools  and  method logical aspects deemed appropriate for the study of psychological characteristics of athletes.


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