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Personality and Sport: Basics of Sport Psychology examined

Personality is defined as “the sum of those characteristics that make a person unique” by Weinberg and Gould (2003). Sport psychologists study personality in an attempt to discover ever better ways of working with students, athletes and exercisers in general. Researchers use what is called a personality structure to organise and study personality.

The personality structure is made up of 3 components which are broken into related but separate levels; the psychological core (at the bottom), typical responses and role-related behaviour at the top. The psychological core is considered the most basic and deepest layer of our personalities, which include our values, interests, motivations, and beliefs of oneself and self-worth.

The typical responses  layer of personality has to do with the ways in which we learn to respond to our environment. Examples of this are what we'd refer to as happy go lucky, laid back, or shy. The role-related component is the way one acts based on how they perceive a particular social situation. This is the most changeable component of personality, because we are able to consciously change how we see the environment, and indeed, as we age, we naturally often do so. Also, different situations require different roles, as would being a parent and being a friend or coach, all in a single day.

In studying this personality structure, sport psychologists are able to examine a continuum of of internally driven to externally driven behaviours. While the base of our personalities are the most consistent and difficult to change, the other layers are more easy to alter and mould. Understanding the deepest layer of personality is essential to trainers and educators when it comes to understanding athletes and exercisers.

This is to essentially say that the better a leader knows their people, the better they will be able to facilitate the particular outcomes in behaviour. By understanding what makes someone tick makes them more easy to help and coach. 

In studying the success rate of athletes and personality types, no single personality has been found to have a conclusive effect on sport performance or athletic outcomes. This is to say that while there exists some kind of a relationship between the personalities of certain athletes- for example, hockey players to be aggressive, not all hockey players have aggressive personality types.

Athletes vs Non-athletes

Studies also show that there is no specific personality that is more conducive to being an athlete at all. There is actually no definitive personality difference between athletes and non-athletes, as both have personality types from all along the spectrum or introverted, extroverted, type A and type B, etc.

Gender differences

As more women participate in athletic endeavours, more research has been done comparing the personality types of each of the sexes, comparing athletes to non-athletes. Unlike their male counterparts, female athlete personalities could be profiled in a few ways. Female athletes compared to female non-athletes were more goal and achievement -oriented, independent, emotionally stable,  assertive, and aggressive.

Interestingly, however, at the elite level, most outstanding athletes do have more personality similarities regardless of being male or female. Most sport psychologists agree that there are few differences between the sexes when it comes to personality and elite performance.

Predicting Performance

While several predictive personality tests have been used in an attempt to predict performance outcomes in athletes, none have been able to provide a conclusively correct prediction. Though some tests have come close by accurately predicting the performance outcomes of a percentage of those who took the mental tests, researchers themselves agree that they are not yet accurate enough to be responsible for team selection. Performance can be drastically affected by poor nutrition.

Altering personalities


Conversely to what we've explained thus far, exercise has been shown to have an effect on personality as well. Taking a bottom-up approach, sport psychologists in the mid 1980's examined how individuals with varying perceptions of self-concept could use exercise to elevate and alter their self-concept. Not only was the general trait improved- especially in those with initially low self-esteem- but aside from global self-esteem, the smaller dimensions of it changed as well. Their social, academic and physical self-concept were all increased as a result of participating in a physical activity program.

These are some of the areas that sport psychologists have been studying for years, and is the basis of where we get generally accepted knowledge on physical activity and the positive mental and emotional effects it can have. Learning how personality is related to our participation in physical activity and fitness outcomes gives a little insight into the psychological factors behind what you do and why you do it.

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