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Use caution when conducting psychological tests

This is an excerpt from Measurement and Evaluation in Human Performance, Fourth Edition With Web Study Guide, by James R. Morrow, Jr., PhD, Allen W. Jackson, EdD, James G. Disch, PED, and Dale P. Mood, PhD.

Psychological inventories are crucial to sport psychologists from theoretical and applied perspectives. Such tests help to evaluate the accuracy of different psychological theories and provide practitioners with a tool for applying theory to their practice. We focus on the use of psychological tests in applied settings because it is here that abuses of test results and misconceptions in analysis are more likely. Who is qualified to administer psychological tests to athletes? The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends that test givers have the following knowledge and offers some cautions when giving psychological tests:

1. An understanding of testing principles and the concept of measurement error. A test giver needs a clear understanding of statistical concepts such as correlation, measures of central tendency (mean, median, and mode), variance, and standard deviation. No test is perfectly reliable or valid. Tests work only in specific settings.

2. The ability and knowledge to evaluate a test’s validity for the purposes (decisions) for which it is employed. A qualified test administrator will recognize that test results are not absolute or irrefutable and that there are potential sources of measurement error. He or she will do everything possible to eliminate or minimize such errors. For example, testers must be aware of the potential influences of situational factors as well as interpersonal factors that may alter the way test scores are interpreted. In addition, cultural, social, educational, and ethnic factors can all have a large impact on an athlete’s test results. Finally an athlete may answer in a socially desirable light (i.e., “faking good”) such as saying on a test that he is calm, cool, and collected, when he really feels very nervous and tight in critical situations. As noted later, this distortion of information can render a test virtually useless.

A test not only has to be reliable and valid but also needs to be validated for the particular sample and situation in which it is being conducted. For example, you might choose a test that was developed using adults and administer it to athletes aged 13 to 15 years. However, the wording of the test might be such that the younger athletes do not fully understand the questions; thus, the results are not relevant. Similarly, a test might have been developed on a predominantly white population, and your athletes happen to be mostly African American and Hispanic. Cultural differences might lead to problems in interpreting the results with different populations.

3. Self-awareness of one’s own qualifications and limitations. Unfortunately, in sport psychology there have been cases in which individuals were not aware of their own limitations and were thus using tests and interpreting results in a manner that was unethical and in fact potentially damaging to the athletes. For example, many psychological inventories are designed to measure psychopathology or abnormality. To interpret the test results, a test giver needs special training in psychological assessment and possibly in clinical psychology. Without this background, it would be unethical for an individual to use such tests with athletes. Thus, test givers should make sure they have the appropriate training to administer and interpret the tests that they employ.

4. Some psychological tests are used inappropriately to determine whether an athlete should be drafted onto a team or to determine if an athlete has the “right” psychological profile for a certain position (such as a middle linebacker in American football). This practice was particularly rampant in the 1960s and 1970s but seems to have abated. These unethical uses of psychological tests can cause an athlete to be hastily eliminated from a team or not drafted simply because he or she does not appear to be mentally tough. In truth, however, it is difficult to predict athletic success from the results of these tests. An athlete’s or a team’s performance (often measured in terms of winning and losing) is a complicated issue affected by such factors as physical ability, experience, coach–player compatibility, ability of opponents, and teammate interactions. It would be naive to think that simply knowing something about an athlete’s personality provides enough information to predict whether he or she will be successful.

5. What types of psychological tests should be given to athletes, and what conditions should be established for test administration and feedback? Psychological tests have been abused in sport settings both during their administration and when feedback is provided to the athletes. In several cases, athletes have been given psychological tests with no explanation as to why they were taking the test; furthermore, these athletes received no feedback about the results and interpretation of the tests. This, again, is unethical and violates the rights of the individuals taking the tests. Before they actually take the tests, athletes should be told the purpose of the tests, what the tests measure, and how the tests are going to be used. In most cases, the tests should be used to help coaches and athletes better understand the athletes’ psychological strengths and weaknesses so that they can focus on building up the athletes’ strengths and improving their weaknesses. In addition, athletes should be provided with specific feedback on the results of the testing process. Administer feedback in a way that athletes can gain more insight into themselves and understand what the test indicates. The results and feedback can then serve as a springboard to stimulate positive changes.

6. If athletes are not told the reason for the testing, they will typically become suspicious regarding what the test is going to be used for. In such cases it is not unusual for athletes to start thinking that the coach will use the test to select the starters or “weed out the undesirables.” Given these circumstances, athletes will be more likely to attempt to exaggerate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. This response style of “faking good” can distort the true results of the test and make its interpretation virtually useless. Thus, it is important that athletes be assured of confidentiality in whatever tests they take, because this increases the likelihood that they will answer truthfully. Coaches should typically stay away from giving and interpreting psychological tests unless they have specific training in this area. A sport psychology consultant who has formal training in psychological assessment and measurement is the best person to administer and interpret psychological tests.

It is often a mistake to compare an athlete’s psychological test results with the norms, as explained earlier, when norms were used to draft players in American football years ago. Rather the more critical point is how the athlete feels in relation to him- or herself, which represents an intra-individual approach. In essence, the information gleaned by the use of psychological tests should be used to help athletes improve their skills relative to their own standards rather than comparing them against others.

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