Sport psychologists have long been intrigued with the question of whether or not successful athletic performance can be accurately predicted on the basis of personality or psychological assessment. Effectiveness of psychological testing in predicting athletic success is quite frequent. A large percentage of professional teams use psychological testing to assist them in making personnel decisions. In the 1960s and 1970s, research involving the athlete and personality assessment was very popular. Ruffer (1975, 1976a, 1976b), for example, cited 572 sources of original research in a compilation of references on the relationship between personality and athletic performance. In recent years, however, interest in this kind of research has waned because of lack of consistent correlations between personality factors and athletic prowess. The concepts to be introduced and studied in this lecture are:

  • Definition of personality
  • Theories of personality
  • Measurement of personality
  • The credulous versus skeptical argument
  • Personality and sport performance.

Personality Defined

Personality is defined as an individual’s characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting. In other words personality is “all the consistent ways in which the behavior of one person differs from that of others, especially in social situations.” The key words in this definition are basically “consistent” and “differs”. An individual’s personality defines the person in unique ways that remain stable and consistent over time. If an athlete consistently exhibits the characteristics of being assertive on and off the athletic field, we might say that he is an assertive person.

Theories of Personality

The four major theoretical approaches to the study of personality are as follows:

1. Psychodynamic theory

2. Social learning theory

3. Humanistic theory

4. Trait theory

1. Psychodynamic Theory:

This theory basically deals with Unconscious conflicts between internal impulses and social restraints. Perhaps the most influential proponent of psychodynamic theory was Sigmund Freud. Among the neo-Freudians are Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, and Eric Erickson. Freud’s psychodynamic theory and his method of treating personality disturbances were based primarily upon self-analysis and extensive clinical observation of neurotics. Two distinguishing characteristics of the psychodynamic approach to personality have been its emphasis upon in-depth examination of the whole person, and its emphasis upon unconscious motives. In Freud’s view, the id, ego, and superego form the tripartite structure of personality. The id represents the unconscious instinctual core of personality; in a sense, the id is the pleasure-seeking mechanism. In contrast, the ego represents the conscious, logical, reality-oriented aspect of the personality. The superego represents the conscience of the individual; it is the internalized moral standards of society impressed upon the person by parental control and the process of socialization. Freud proposed that the ego aids in the resolution of conflicts between the id and the superego.

Essentially, Freud advocated a conflict theory of personality. In this respect, the three parts of the psychi structure are always in conflict. The individual’s personality is the sum total of the dynamic conflicts between the impulse to seek release and the inhibition against the impulses. The individual’s unconscious sexual and aggressive instincts are major determinants of behavior according to Freud. Athletic aggression represents a potential example of this approach. Instinct theory provides one explanation for the phenomenon of violence in sport.

2. Social Learning Theory:

The basic position of the social learning theory is that human behavior is a function of social learning and the strength of the situation. An individual behaves according to how she has learned to behave as this is consistent with environmental constraints. If the environmental situation is prominent, the effect of personality traits or unconscious motives upon behavior should be minimal. According to social learning theory, a child’s performance and behavior is a function of the child’s experiences and environment. The origin of social learning theory can be traced to Clark Hull’s 1943 theory of learning and to B.F. Skinner’s (1953) behaviorism. Other researchers, such as Miller and Dollard (Miller, 1941), Mischel (1986), and Bandura (1977, 1986), extended the Hullian notions of human behavior. Two of the primary mechanisms through which individuals learn are modeling and social reinforcement. Modeling, or imitative behavior, refers to the phenomenon of learning through observation. Albert Bandura’s social learning theory is based primarily upon this important concept. According to Bandura, behavior is best explained as a function of observational learning. Social reinforcement is based upon the notion that rewarded behaviors are likely to be repeated. For example, a young cricket player observes on television that professional athletes are often able to intimidate bowlers through aggressive behavior. Using the professional athletes as his model, he tries the same tactics in his game, and is reinforced by the coach with a pat on the back. This example illustrates how young athletes develop questionable behaviors through modeling and social reinforcement.

3. Humanistic Theory:

The major proponents of the humanistic theory of personality are Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. Rogers and Maslow argued that human nature is inherently healthy and constructive. At the center of the humanistic theory of personality is the concept of self-actualization. The human organism possesses an innate drive or tendency to enhance itself, to realize capacities, and to act to become a better and more self-fulfilled person. In the developing personality, openness to experiences that then shape the individual is of c critical importance. It is not necessarily the experience that shape the individual, but the individual’s perception of that experience. Self-actualization is an on going process of seeking congruence between one’s experience and one’s self concept. Maslow’s contribution to the humanistic theory is in the development of his hierarchical motive system based on the notion of hierarchical needs. For Maslow, the end goal of all human experience is self-actualization, but to get there the person must first have lesser needs fulfilled.

4. Trait Theory:

The basic position of trait or factor theory is that personality can be described in terms of traits possessed by individuals. These personality traits are considered synonymous with dispositions to act in a certain way. Traits are considered to be stable, enduring, and consistent across a variety of differing situations. Among the most ardent advocates of trait psychology are psychologists such as Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell, and Hans Eysenck. Cattell (1965, 1973) identified thirty-five different traits that he believed described a personality. Using a similar approach, British psychologists (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1968) concentrated on the dimensional traits of neuroticism-stability and introversion-extraversion. Cattell emphasized the importance of the environment. Cattell (1965) believed that typical responses are a function of both the situation (environment) and the personality disposition. This is evident from his formula, R = S x P in which, R= response, S= situation, and P= Personality. The thirty-five specific personality traits originally identified by Cattell in 1965 form the basis of the fifth edition of the 16PF, a measure of personality. In recent years, traits psychologists claim to have identified the big five personality traits (John & Srivastava, 1999; Kalat, 1999). The big five traits which are believed to represent a consolidation of Cattell’s original thirty-five personality traits are the following:

1. Neuroticism

2. Extraversion

3. Agreeableness

4. Conscientiousness

5. Openness to new ideas.’

The greater strength of the trait theory of personality is that it allows for the easy and objective measurement of personality through the use of inventories. If it can be demonstrated that a collection of traits can accurately describe a person’s psychological profile, then this certainly is superior to a psychoanalytic approach, in which personality is inferred through less objective techniques. Conversely, the weakness of the trait approach is that it may fail to consider the whole person, since according to this approach; personality is represented by a collection of specific traits.


Cox, H. Richard. (2002). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications. (Fifth Edition). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Lavallec. D., Kremer, J., Moran, A., & Williams. M. (2004) Sports Psychology: Contemporary Themes. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Publishers

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