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Various personality factors affect athletic success and exercise adherence

This is an excerpt from Introduction to Kinesiology, Fourth Edition, edited by Shirl J. Hoffman, EdD.


Understand the evolving and multifaceted discipline of kinesiology with
Introduction to Kinesiology, Fourth Edition.

Personality and Sport

Despite popular opinion, no distinguishable “athletic personality” has been shown to exist. That is, no consistent research findings show that athletes possess a general personality type distinct from the personality of nonathletes. Also, no research has shown consistent personality differences between athletic subgroups (e.g., team athletes vs. individual sport athletes, contact sport athletes vs. noncontact sport athletes).

Research has identified several differences in personality characteristics between successful and unsuccessful athletes (e.g., Krane & Williams 2010). These differences, however, are not based on innate, deeply ingrained personality traits but rather result from more effective thinking and responding in relation to sport challenges as well as higher levels of motivation. Specifically, successful athletes, compared with less successful athletes, are

  • more self-confident,
  • better able to cope well with stress and distractions,
  • better able to control emotions and remain appropriately activated,
  • better at attention focusing and refocusing,
  • better able to view anxiety as beneficial, and
  • more highly determined and committed to excellence in their sport.

Olympic and World champion athletes have defined mental toughness as the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to cope with competitive demands and remain determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure (Jones et al. 2007). These athletes identify the following as critical personality responses that represent mental toughness: loving the pressure of competition, adapting to and coping with distractions and sudden changes, channeling anxiety, not being fazed by mistakes in the process, being acutely aware of any inappropriate thoughts and feelings and changing them immediately to perform optimally when needed, using failure to drive yourself, learning from failure, and knowing how to rationally handle success—an impressive list of qualities that we all would like to have as part of a mentally tough personality!

Although most sport personality research has focused on the influence of personality on sport behavior, research has also examined the effects of sport participation on personality development and change. A belief commonly held in American society is that sport builds character or that sport participation may develop socially valued personality attributes. Research shows, however, that competition reduces prosocial behaviors such as helping and sharing and that losing magnifies this effect. Sport participation has been shown to increase rivalrous, antisocial behavior and aggression and has been linked to lower levels of moral reasoning.

Nevertheless, the sport story has a positive side. Research in a variety of field settings has demonstrated that children’s moral development and prosocial behaviors (cooperation, acceptance, sharing) can be enhanced in sport settings when adult leaders structure situations to foster these positive behaviors (Hellison 2003; Shields & Bredemeier 2007). Interventions with children were successful in building character when naturally occurring conflicts arose and were discussed with the children to enhance their reasoning and values about sport and life events. The moral of the story is this: Sport doesn’t build character, people do!

Personality and Exercise

As in sport, researchers have found no “exercise personality” or set of personality characteristics that predict exercise adherence. Exercisers cannot be differentiated from nonexercisers based on an overall personality type. Two personality characteristics, however, are strong predictors of exercise behavior. Individuals who are more confident in their physical abilities tend to exercise more than those who are less physically confident. A second important predictor of exercise behavior, obviously, is self-motivation, with self-motivated individuals beginning and continuing exercise programs and less motivated individuals dropping out or never starting at all.

A personality type termed “obligatory exercisers” describes individuals who participate in exercise at excessive and even harmful levels (Coen & Ogles 1993). For these individuals, exercise becomes the central focus of life, and their behavior becomes pathological in terms of their need to control themselves and their environment. Clinical evidence demonstrates a similar link between anorexia nervosa, a psychopathological eating disorder, and compulsive exercise. Specialists in exercise psychology attempt to help individuals plan and engage in exercise behavior that is healthy and noncontrolling to enhance total well-being.

Echoing the idea that sport builds character, exercise or fitness training has also popularly been associated with positive personality change and mental health (Landers & Arent 2007).

The personality characteristic that researchers have most frequently examined in this area is self-esteem. Self-esteem is our perception of personal worthiness and the emotions associated with that perception. Think of self-esteem as how much we like ourselves. Research has generally confirmed that fitness training improves self-esteem in children, adolescents, and adults. Research has also shown that exercise positively influences perceptions of physical capabilities, or self-confidence. Interestingly, the research indicates that these changes in self-esteem and self-confidence may result from perceived, as opposed to actual, changes in physical fitness. In addition, many aspects of intellectual performance have been related to physical activity, suggesting that cognitive functions respond positively to increased levels of physical activity.

Many people also associate exercise with changes in mood and anxiety. Most individuals say that they “feel better” or “feel good” after vigorous exercise, which emphasizes the important link between physical activity and psychological well-being. In addition, research documents that anxiety and tension decline following acute physical activity. The greatest reductions in anxiety occur in exercise programs that continue for more than 15 weeks. Much research has been conducted to determine whether exercise or fitness reduces people’s susceptibility to stress, and the generally accepted conclusion is that aerobically fit individuals demonstrate a reduced psychosocial stress response. A tentative explanation for this finding is that exercise either acts as a coping strategy that reduces the physiological response to stress or serves as an “inoculator” to foster a more effective response to psychosocial stress (Landers & Arent 2007).

Prolonged physical activity is also associated with decreases in depression and a lessening of depressive symptoms in individuals who are clinically depressed at the outset of the exercise treatment. Explanations for these changes range from the distraction hypothesis, which maintains that exercise distracts attention from stress, to other explanations that focus on the physiological and biochemical changes in the body after exercise.


Read more from Introduction to Kinesiology, Fourth Edition, edited by Shirl J. Hoffman, EdD.



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