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.
Since 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.
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.
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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