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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The following conclusions about sport personality appear to reflect the current literature:
- 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.
- Highly skilled athletes feel anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions but manage better than their less successful counterparts.
- Highly skilled athletes tend to be mentally tough, resilient, and tenacious in dealing with the array of “storms” that competitive sport regularly presents.
- Elite-level athletes, particularly from contact sports, are more tolerant of acute pain than non-athletes.
- 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.
- Finally, differences exist between personality traits, dispositions, styles, orientations, and behavioral tendencies, and some are more susceptible to change than others.
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