Personality Tests and Sports

Personality is typically defined as a person’s distinctive and enduring (i.e., cross-situational) thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that characterize the person’s reactions to life situations. Personality traits are  also  defined  as  specific  properties  that  predispose a person to react in certain ways in given classes  of  situations—sport,  for  example.  Some personality  traits  are  genetically  determined  and formed  in  early  childhood.  The  terms  traits  and dispositions  are  often  used  interchangeably  (e.g., personality  dispositions).  Traits  are  not  the  same thing as orientations or styles, however.

Whereas  traits  are  permanent,  enduring,  and not  susceptible  to  change,  orientations  or  styles reflect a person’s preference, or tendency, to think or act in a predictable manner given a specific set of circumstances. An athlete’s competitive orientation,  for  example,  reflects  his  or  her  tendency  to feel more motivated and demonstrate higher quality  performance  under  competitive  situations,  as opposed to practice settings or other low competitive environments (e.g., recreational sport).

Behavioral tendencies, which are similar to and often  expressed  as  routines,  reflect  the  athlete’s observable  actions  that  are  performed  regularly, often leading to one or more routines. A baseball player’s  tendency  to  unwrap,  then  rewrap  his  or her  batting  gloves  between  pitches,  the  chewing and  spitting  of  tobacco,  eating  a  particular  pregame  meal  at  a  specific  time,  or  engaging  in  any behavior pattern that is predictable and observable would be classified as behavioral tendencies.

For  many  years,  researchers,  coaches,  athletes,  and  sport  psychology  (SP)  practitioners have  wanted  to  know  if  it  is  possible  to  explain or predict the behavior of high-quality (elite level) sports competitors based on a “paper-and-pencil” personality inventory. Can we predict a person’s— especially  a  child’s—future  success  in  sport?  The ability   to   accurately   determine   psychological characteristics  of  athletes  that  both  describe  and predict  future  sport  success  has  two  important implications.  First,  ideally,  an  athlete’s  responses to  a  questionnaire  would  allow  coaches,  parents, and sport psychologists to invest time, equipment, coaching, and financial resources on promoting a person’s future participation in sport, particularly at  advanced  levels.  Second,  determining  strong evidence   for   possessing   certain   psychological characteristics as a successful athlete would allow sport  psychologists  to  provide  interventions  that promote  these  desirable  psychological  features. For instance, knowing how elite-level athletes deal with anxiety, cope with stressful events, maintain concentration,  regulate  their  arousal  level,  and develop  confidence  would  suggest  that  lower-skilled  athletes  can  learn  particular  mental  skills and apply them under the right circumstances.

An  example  of  one  of  these  characteristics  is mental toughness, which has gained great interest by  SP  researchers  in  recent  years.  Describing  and identifying  mental  toughness  requires  validating an  inventory  that  accurately  measures  it.  Then, researchers  would  have  to  conclude  that  mental toughness  is  a  characteristic  that  is  desirable  and unique  to  elite-level  athletes.  Predictably,  coaches would  want  their  athletes  to  possess  high  mental toughness  scores,  and  sport  psychologists  would provide interventions that improve mental toughness.  However,  is  mental  toughness,  not  unlike other  dispositions  such  as  confidence  and  coping  style,  a  personality  trait?  Or  is  it  a  thinking tendency, called a disposition or orientation? The ability  to  differentiate  personality,  which  is  not subject  to  change  through  training,  from  related concepts such as styles, orientations, dispositions, and  behavioral  tendencies  is  a  limitation  in  the sport personality literature.

Pros, Cons, and Guidelines for Using Personality Inventories

Researchers  and  practitioners  have  examined whether  competitive  athletes  have  unique  personality  traits,  as  compared  to  non-athletes,  or if  athletes’  personality  traits  differ  as  a  function of  skill  level,  gender,  or  sport  type.  Results  of selected  studies  measuring  psychological  characteristics  suggest  that  elite  athletes  score  high  for dispositions  such  as  competitiveness,  confidence, optimism,  proper  coping  styles,  and  self-control, and  low  in  state  (situational)  anxiety  and  helplessness.  Elite  athletes  of  both  sexes  are  particularly adept at managing—not eliminating—stress, anxiety,  and  arousal.  These  characteristics  have been  strongly  linked  to  performance  success. Nevertheless, sport personality testing has several limitations.

Poor Prediction Rates

For   instance,   researchers   have   shown   that inventories can predict athletic behavior and success only 8% to 10% of the time.

Attempts to Measure Changes in Traits

Personality  scales  have  been  used  inappropriately to examine changes in personality traits over time—for instance, before versus after the season, or  the  failure  to  establish  baseline  scores.  This  is incompatible  with  the  design  of  any  instrument that  examines  personality,  because  by  definition,  personality  traits  are  stable  and  enduring. Consequently,  results  cannot  be  interpreted  to measure  personality  change.  An  example  would be  researchers  who  measure  changes  in  athletes’ anxiety at various points before sport competition using a trait anxiety (TA) inventory; changes in TA should not be expected.

Inconsistent Use of Terms and Traits

Sometimes  certain  terms  and  factors  used  in personality  scales  are  not  universally  defined  so that the results of studies lack generalizability (i.e., external  validity).  For  example,  determining  who is an athlete has differed among studies (e.g., participants in recreational competition as opposed to competitors on a school team or at more elite levels). A related limitation occurs when personality traits  (e.g.,  sociability,  ego  strength,  shrewdness, dominance)  are  defined  differently,  depending  on the  inventory  being  used,  limiting  the  ability  to accurately measure and generalize findings beyond the present sample.

Inappropriate Use of Inventories

The  traditional  personality  inventories  used  in sport personality research are often not created for sport  participants.  For  example,  the  Minnesota Multiphasic  Personality  Inventory  (MMPI)  was originally  meant  to  diagnose  mental  illness.  The Cattell  16PF  Questionnaire  and  the  California Personality  Inventory  (CPI)  inherently  assume that each of many factors is interpretable in sport situations. The CPI requires a reading comprehension  level  equal  to  about  the  10th  grade,  making younger  athletes  or  persons  with  poor  reading skills  ineligible  for  this  assessment  tool.  These inventories do not include a single item related to thoughts,  emotions,  or  behaviors  in  competitive sport situations.

Using the Cattell 16PF Questionnaire has shown that  athletes  tend  to  be  more  stable,  extraverted, tough-minded,  and  highly  efficient,  as  compared to  non-athletes.  In  other  (European)  studies,  the MMPI has shown male soccer players to be aggressive, intelligent, and dominant. American football athletes differ from competitors in other sports on traits  called  tough  mindedness,  extraversion,  and self-control.  Critics  of  these  findings,  however, question the relevance and real-world application of these traits.

In  support  of  using  psychological  profiles, highly  successful  sport  performers  do  differ  from less  successful  competitors.  For  example,  elite female  athletes,  as  compared  to  non-elite  athletes,  score  higher  for  dominance,  aggressiveness, adventurousness,  sensitivity,  independence,  self-sufficiency,  and  introversion.  In  addition,  female sports  competitors  in  general  tended  to  be  more assertive,   dominant,   self-sufficient,   reserved, achievement   oriented,   and   intelligent,   while lower  on  emotionality,  than  female  non-athletes. Practitioners  question,  however,  whether  these findings have relevance in SP consulting or in any other aspect of sport.

Poor Sampling Techniques

Past  attempts  at  examining  sport  personality  have  included  examining  several  variables  in the  same  study  (e.g.,  team  vs.  individual  sports) without controlling for skill level, age, gender, and cultural differences. This flaw makes it impossible to draw conclusions about identifying a set of personality  traits  associated  within  a  specific  group or cohort.

Despite flaws in research tools and other limitations,  sport  psychologists  generally  acknowledge that highly skilled athletes score relatively low in neuroticism,  tension,  depression,  anger,  fatigue, and confusion. They tend to score very high in self-confidence,  self-concept,  self-esteem,  vigor,  need achievement,  dominance,  aggression,  intelligence, self-sufficiency,  mental  toughness,  independence (autonomy),  sociability,  creativity,  stability,  and extraversion.  Whether  these  results  are  meaningful  in  identifying  and  consulting  sports  competitors remains questionable. Here are a few sample sport personality traits that have been studied over the years.

Risk Taking

One  characteristic  of  highly  successful  competitors is risk taking. Risk taking is a function of narrowing the margin of safety, both physically in terms of bodily harm and psychologically in terms of  the  probability  of  success  or  failure.  Elite  athletes seem to thrive on and to prefer the excitement of engaging in risk-taking behaviors.

Stimulus Seeking

A  psychological  disposition  of  elites  that  is similar to risk taking is called stimulus seeking, or sensation  seeking.  Athletes  prefer  situations  that foster  tactile  and  other  forms  of  sensory  stimulation  as  high  stimulus-seekers.  Stimulus  seeking  is a motivational factor to participate in sport and to engage in the risk-taking behaviors.

Competitiveness

The extent of the desire to win consists of three dimensions:  competitiveness  (desire  to  strive  for success in competition), win orientation (focus on winning and avoiding losing), and goal orientation (focus on personal goals). Athletes score higher on all  three  dimensions,  with  competitiveness  being the major discriminator.

Expectations for Success

Highly  skilled  athletes  have  high  expectations of  success:  they  expect  to  win,  which  improves their  concentration  and  attentional  focusing,  and fewer distracting anxious thoughts.

Mental Toughness

This  orientation  concerns  an  athlete’s  propensity  to  reach  and  sustain  under  pressure  high performance—the   athlete’s   ideal   performance state.  Mental  toughness  is  learned,  not  inherited. Mentally  tough  competitors  are  self-motivated and self-directed (their energy comes from internal sources; it is not forced from the outside), in control of their emotions, calm and relaxed under fire, and highly energetic and determined.

Fear of Failure

Fear of failure (FOF) is a motivational disposition to avoid failure: a core belief that attaining desired goals is not likely. Persons who fear failure are likely to  avoid  challenging  tasks.  Better  athletes  successfully manage their anxiety and have low FOF.

Fear of Success

Some athletes fear the social and emotional isolation  that  accompanies  success  (i.e.,  fear  of  success, or FOS). An athlete may feel that performing at a level far superior to that of teammates or peers will result in social discomfort, even ostracism. In addition, some athletes prefer not to deal with the pressure to constantly match or exceed their previous  best  performance.  Trying  to  live  up  to  the expectations  of  spectators,  coaches,  parents,  and the media can place an extensive amount of pressure on athletes to reach or exceed their previous best performance.

Can Personality Tests Predict Future Talent?

There is considerable scientific evidence that each of us has an optimal level of performance quality called  motor  capacity  that  is  genetically  determined. Our genetic capacity to perform sport skills, which  cannot  be  altered,  is  an  important  reason psychological  inventories  do  not  predict  a  world-class champion. Predicting an athlete’s future success in sport through psychological testing is at the heart of a process called talent identification (TID).

The  primary  purpose  of  TID  is  to  identify  a child’s sport in which they are most likely to succeed and to encourage them to participate in that sport  or  those  sports.  TID  is  also  used  to  screen young athletes to determine which individuals are most likely to succeed in sport and then to direct them  toward  the  sport(s)  to  which  they  are  most suited. TID is the process of recognizing individuals currently involved in sport who have the potential to become elite athletes. To date, the scientific literature does not support using personality profiles or any other type of psychological inventory to select or eliminate those individuals based on test score.

Conclusion

The following conclusions about sport personality appear to reflect the current literature:

  1. Elite athletes are self-confident, have a high need to achieve, and maintain a relatively high self-image, self-esteem, and confidence in the sport environment as opposed to their non-elite counterparts.
  2. Highly skilled athletes feel anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions but manage better than their less successful counterparts.
  3. Highly skilled athletes tend to be mentally tough, resilient, and tenacious in dealing with the array of “storms” that competitive sport regularly presents.
  4. Elite-level athletes, particularly from contact sports, are more tolerant of acute pain than non-athletes.
  5. Personality scales can predict an athlete’s future success in sport only 8% to 10% of the time. This is cause to avoid personality scales for prediction purposes. They should also be avoided as part of TID programs.
  6. Finally, differences exist between personality traits, dispositions, styles, orientations, and behavioral tendencies, and some are more susceptible to change than others.

References:

  1. Anshel, M. H. (2012). Sport psychology: From theory to practice (5th ed.). San Francisco: Benjamin-Cummings.
  2. Lox, C. L., Martin Ginis, K. A., & Petruzzello, S. J. (2010). The psychology of exercise: Integrating theory and practice (3rd ed., Chapters 7, 8, & 9). Scottsdale, AZ: Holcomb Hathaway.
  3. Vanden Auweele, Y., Nys, K., Rzewnicki, R., & Van Mele, V. (2001). Personality and the athlete. In R. N. Singer, H. A. Hausenblas, & C. M. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (2nd ed., pp. 239–268).New York: Wiley.
  4. Vealey, R. S. (2002). Personality and sport behavior. In T. S. Horn (Ed.), Advances in sport psychology (2nd ed., pp. 43–74). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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