Can our personality impact sporting success?

Exploring the potential of the human mind and body

Personality is a collection of psychological qualities that contribute to an individual’s lasting way of behaving, thinking, and feeling, and according to research, impacts the behaviour of competitive athletes. An improved understanding of personality traits may assist athletes to achieve their optimum performance.

Breaking down personality

Analysis of human language has identifed five basic personality dimensions in which people are said to differ (McCrae & John, 1992; Allen et al., 2013). This five-factor model of personality captures variation between individuals, and is consistent across multiple situations.

The 5 dimensions are as follows:

  • Neuroticism, encapsulates depression, anxiety, and self-consciousness and can be contrasted with emotional consistency, and even-temperedness.
  • Extraversion, suggests an energetic response and an inclination to experience positive emotions, and self-assurance.
  • Agreeableness, may be identified with an orientation towards being social, helpful and trusting. 
  • Conscientiousness, describes the capacity to control impulses and may assist task and goal-directed behaviours. 
  • Openness to experience, suggests creativity, unconventionality, inventiveness, and flexible thinking.

Research into Personality in Sport

Research into individual personality differences in sport usually measures diverse populations, including athletes, non-athletes, and different sports. However, in contrast to research in both educational and business settings, studies have failed to identify consistent patterns of personality or consistent links to performance success in sport.

However, key psychological studies worth noting have identified the following (Allen et al., 2013; Nia and Besherat, 2010):

  1. Athletes tend to be more extravert and less neurotic, than non-athletes
  2. Personality appear to shape long term success in sport.
  3. Scores from personality tests may differentiate between athletes and non-athletes and between athletes in different sports
  4. Athletes have been recognised as more conscientious, but less agreeable, than team sport players

In summary

Overall, though inconsistent, research suggests that the Big 5 personality dimensions influence both appraisal and selection of coping strategies. Indeed, neuroticism has been associated with the selection of less successful coping strategies whilst conscientiousness, openness, extraversion and agreeableness has been linked to more adaptive, effective coping strategies (Kaiseler et al., 2012). Furthermore, increased extraversion, conscientiousness, and reduced neuroticism, scores are likely to benefit athletes, and increase their participation in sport, possibly as a result of improved preparation and early involvement (Nia & Besherat, 2010).

Horsburgh et al. (2009) performed research into the factors that contribute to individual differences in behavioural traits and identified a 50% heritability of each of the 5 personality traits, openness, extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, along with numerous correlations with the dimensions of mental toughness.

Personality in Endurance

Research into personality in endurance athletes is less common, but has increased over the last ten years.

In a study by Hughes et al. (2003), a group of ultra-marathoners participating in a single event scored highly in both extraversion and openness. More recently, a study including participants in the TransEurope footrace, a 4487k, multi-day event, identified ultra-marathoners as having a low perception of pain, being more self-centred, and less cooperative (Freund et al., 2013). A further, qualitative study, to explore competition and training experiences, identified ultra-marathoners as having a willingness to endure pain, whilst highlighting the importance, and reliance on, the ultra-running community to provide practical advice, camaraderie, and encouragement (Simpson et al., 2014).

References

Allen, M. S., Greenless I., & Jones M.V. (2011). An investigation of the five-factor model of personality and coping behaviour in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(8), 841–850. 

Allen, M. S., Greenlees, I., & Jones, M.V. (2013 ) Personality in sport: a comprehensive review. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6, 184- 208.

Allen, M. S., Vella, S. A., & Laborde, S. (2015). Health-related behaviour and personality trait development in adulthood. Journal of Research in Personality,59, 104-110. 

Horsburgh, V.A., Schermer, J.A., Veselka, L., Vernon, P.A.  (2009). A behavioural genetic study of mental toughness and personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 100-105. 

Kaiseler, M., Polman RCJ., Nicholls AR. (2012). Effects of the Big Five personality dimensions on appraisal coping, and coping effectiveness in sport. European Journal of Sport Science. 12(1), 62-72. 

McCrae, R. R., & John, O. P. (1992). An introduction to the five-factor model and its applications.Journal of Personality, 60, 175-215.

Nia, M. E., & Besharat, M. A. (2010). Comparison of athletes’ personality characteristics in individual and team sports. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 5, 808-812.