Passion for Sports

The  dualistic  model  of  passion  (DMP)  describes two  types  of  passion,  namely  harmonious  and obsessive  passion.  This  model  allows  for  a  better understanding of the passion of people involved in sport (athletes, coaches, referees, and fans) as well as the outcomes they experience.

The DMP defines passion as a strong inclination toward  a  self-defining  activity  (person  or  object) that  one  likes  (or  even  loves),  finds  important, and in which one invests time and energy. In fact, passionate  activities  become  part  of  one’s  identity  because  they  are  so  important  and  valued. The process through which the activity comes to define  someone  is  called  the  internalization  process. In other words, with the internalization process, what was once external to the self becomes a part of it. More specifically, the internalization of  a  passionate  activity  can  take  place  in  two different ways, which lead to two different types of passion.

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First,   harmonious   passion   results   from   an autonomous  internalization,  which  occurs  when individuals freely accept the activity as important for them and choose to engage in their passionate activity, without any contingencies attached to it. With harmonious passion, there is a smooth integration  between  the  passionate  activity  and  our identity.  Thus,  the  activity  occupies  a  significant, but not overpowering, space in the person’s identity and remains in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life. Consequently, people with a harmonious passion are able to fully focus on the task at  hand  and  experience  positive  outcomes  both during  and  after  task  engagement.  Furthermore, when  prevented  from  engaging  in  their  passionate activity, people with a harmonious passion are able to adapt well to the situation and focus their attention  and  energy  on  other  tasks  that  need  to be done. Thus, there is little or no conflict between the  person’s  passionate  activity  and  other  life domains.  Finally,  with  harmonious  passion,  the person can decide when to and when not to engage in  the  activity.  This  is  because,  with  harmonious passion, the person is in control of the activity.

In contrast, obsessive passion is the product of a controlled internalization. This type of internalization originates from intra and/or interpersonal pressure  such  as  of  self-esteem  or  social  acceptance contingencies that are attached to the activity  or  because  the  feeling  of  excitement  derived from  activity  engagement  is  uncontrollable.  With obsessive  passion,  the  activity  becomes  a  part  of one’s identity because it is loved but also because it  brings  other,  more  extrinsic  benefits  such  as  a boost of self-esteem or a reward. Therefore, people with  an  obsessive  passion  find  themselves  in  the position  of  experiencing  an  uncontrollable  urge to  partake  in  the  activity  they  view  as  important and enjoyable. This is because, with obsessive passion, the person is not in full control of the activity. Rather, the activity controls the person.

On  the  foregoing  basis,  the  DMP  posits  that harmonious   and   obsessive   passion   for   sport ought to lead to different affective, cognitive, and behavioral consequences. Specifically, harmonious passion  is  conducive  to  more  positive  outcomes compared with obsessive passion.

Passion, Affective Consequences, and Well-Being

The type of passion one holds toward an activity plays a significant role in the affective consequences that individuals are likely to experience both during and after activity engagement, as well as when prevented  from  engaging  in  the  passionate  activity.  With  harmonious  passion,  people  volitionally engage in the passionate activity with an openness and a mindfulness that allow them to fully partake in the activity and thus to experience positive affective experiences more fully. This is not the case with obsessive passion, where one’s engagement is more defensive and is less conducive to full engagement in the activity. Specifically, research has shown that harmonious passion is positively related to positive affect in sport as well as in life in general, while it is  unrelated  to  negative  affect.  In  contrast,  obsessive passion is conducive to negative affect and is unrelated or only slightly related to positive affect in sport as well as in life in general.

Along  the  same  line,  harmonious  passion  is associated  with  higher  levels  of  psychological well-being (PWB) compared to obsessive passion. In  line  with  Barbara  Frederickson’s  broaden-and build theory, the positive relation between harmonious passion and PWB is mediated by the effects of positive emotions experienced with harmonious passion.  This  is  because  positive  emotions  allow one  to  have  access  to  the  self  by  broadening  the attention  and  thought–action  repertoires  made available to the person, and subsequently facilitating  the  use  of  adaptive  processes,  such  as  coping with adversity and stress. This is not the case for obsessive  passion,  as  it  is  typically  unrelated  to positive emotions.

Passion and Cognitive Processes

Harmonious  passion  entails  an  open  and  mindful  form  of  task  engagement,  whereas  obsessive passion facilitates a more defensive form of activity  engagement.  Therefore,  harmonious  passion facilitates  adaptive  cognitive  processes  (such  as concentration,  flow,  and  better  decision  making [DM]),  whereas  obsessive  passion  leads  to  less positive cognitive processes. In fact, empirical evidence  shows  that  soccer  referees  with  an  obsessive passion make worse decisions during a soccer match  than  those  with  a  harmonious  passion. Another study shows that obsessive passion from fans prevents full concentration in other life activities taking place on the same day as the passionate activity (i.e., game). In contrast, this is not the case for harmonious passion.

Passion and Physical Health

Physical  health  can  be  affected  by  passion  in  a number of ways. For example, regularly engaging in  a  passionate  activity  such  as  sport  may  positively  contribute  to  health  by  leading  people  to experience  increases  in  physical  well-being  over time.  However,  obsessive  passion  can  also  put people’s  health  at  risk  by  leading  them  to  engage in risky sport or because of ill-advised rigid persistence in the activity, such as cycling on icy roads. In addition, obsessive passion can constitute such a  risk  factor  for  injuries.  This  is  because  with obsessive passion, people continue to engage in the activity when they should not and thus risk creating  or  aggravating  an  injury.  This  is  not  the  case for harmonious passion. In fact, research demonstrates  that  harmonious  passion  leads  individuals to  derive  positive  psychological  and  health  benefits  from  regular  engagement  in  the  activity.  On the  other  hand,  research  conducted  with  dancers reveals  that  obsessive  passion  is  a  risk  factor  for the development of chronic injuries.

Passion and Performance

Passion leads athletes to engage in deliberate practice,  a  specific  form  of  practice  that  focuses  on improving  one’s  skills.  In  fact,  one  must  love  an activity dearly and have the desire to keep on practicing  if  one  is  to  engage  in  the  activity  for  long hours  over  several  years  (sometimes  a  lifetime). Therefore,  both  forms  of  passion  lead  athletes  to engage in deliberate practice that, over time, leads to  improved  performance.  Research  has  shown that  achievement  goals  (i.e.,  competence-based aims  that  an  individual  seeks  to  accomplish  in an  achievement  setting)  serves  as  mediator  in  the relationship  between  both  types  of  passion  and performance.  Specifically,  people  with  a  harmonious  passion  pursue  mastery  goals  (i.e.,  a  focus on  the  development  of  personal  competence  and task mastery) that lead to deliberate practice that, in turn, leads to performance. In contrast, people with  an  obsessive  passion  also  pursue  mastery goals  (that  lead  to  performance  through  deliberate practice), but they mostly pursue performance approach goals (i.e., a focus on the attainment of personal competence relative to others) and especially  performance-avoidance  goals  (i.e.,  a  focus on avoiding incompetence relative to others) that negatively and directly influences performance. In addition, only individuals with a harmonious passion  experience  PWB  while  attempting  to  reach high levels of performance in sport.

In  sum,  both  types  of  passion  may  facilitate performance.  However,  it  appears  possible  that the  highest  levels  of  performance  can  be  reached through a painless, even happy, passionate engagement in the sport to the extent that it is harmonious in nature.

Passion and Interpersonal Outcomes

A   better   understanding   of   the   coach–athlete relationship  is  important  if  we  are  to  help  athletes reach their goals in sport while feeling good about their activity engagement. The type of passion  one  holds  for  sport  represents  an  important factor  that  allows  both  athletes  and  coaches  to experience  high-quality  relationships.  Specifically, athletes’  harmonious  passion  toward  their  sport is positively related to various indices of relationship satisfaction with their coach. In contrast, athlete’s obsessive passion is mostly unrelated to those relationship  indices.  This  is  because  harmonious passion  leads  people  to  fully  immerse  themselves in  the  activity  and  to  experience  positive  emotions that can be shared with others. Furthermore, positive  affect,  generally  experienced  by  coaches, serves  as  a  mediator  in  the  relation  between  harmonious  passion  toward  coaching  and  coaches’ perceived  relationship  quality  with  their  players. Conversely, obsessive passion for coaching is unrelated to positive affect or relationship with the athletes. In addition, obsessive passion for soccer can conflict with the romantic life of soccer fans. It is not the case for harmonious passion.

On the Development of Passion

There are at least three processes through which an interesting activity such as sport can transform into a passionate activity. These processes are (a) activity selection, (b) activity valuation, and (c) the type of internalization process that takes place. First, activity selection refers to the person’s preference for the activity over other activities. To the extent that the person feels that such selection reflects true choice and interests and is consonant with her or his identity, it should promote the development of passion toward that activity. Activity valuation (or the subjective importance given to the activity by the person)  is  expected  to  play  an  important  role  in  the internalization of the identity. The more valued the activity is, the more this activity will be internalized in the person’s identity and the more passionate the person will be toward this activity. The type of passion that will develop also depends on the type of internalization that takes place. A harmonious passion  will  develop  if  the  internalization  process  is carried in an autonomous fashion. In contrast, an obsessive passion will develop if the internalization takes place in a controlled fashion.

The internalization process is influenced by the social environment as well as by personal factors. More  precisely,  social  environment  (i.e.,  parents, coaches, peers) and personal factors (i.e., individual differences and personality processes) that promote a person’s autonomy will lead to the development of a harmonious passion by facilitating the autonomous internalization process. In fact, coupled with high-activity  valuation,  both  high  autonomy  support from close adults (parents, coaches, etc.) and autonomous personality style predict the development  of  a  harmonious  passion  over  time.  In  contrast, controlling social environment and personal factors will lead to the development of an obsessive passion  by  facilitating  the  controlled  internalization  process.  Specifically,  coupled  with  strong activity valuation, both the lack of autonomy support  and  controlled  personality  style  predict  the development of an obsessive passion.

In conclusion, the two types of passion, namely harmonious and obsessive, matter greatly for sport participants because they lead to a host of important  consequences  (affect,  cognitions,  subjective well-being  [SWB],  performance,  physical  health, etc.)  that  are  typically  adaptive  and  maladaptive, respectively.


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  4. Vallerand, R. J., Blanchard, C., Mageau, G. A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Leonard, M., et al. (2003). Les passions de l’Ame: On obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 756–767. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514-85.4.756

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