Personality in sport: Everyone is different1 Opinion
Personality is difficult to define due to its complex nature; however one definition in the literature is ‘the characterisation of individual differences’ (Wiggins, 1996). It’s a well-known fact, and often cliché that ‘everyone is different’, but it is true. The fact that everyone is different is extremely important when it comes to sport and coaching. As a coach it is essential that you understand the personality of your athlete in order to optimise the transmission of your message and their subsequent performance; as an athlete it is important you understand the significance of personality and its potential effect on performance.
It is considered that personality relates to the specific traits a person displays. A trait is a characteristic, which can be related to a person, for example ‘laziness’. Therefore Peterson (1998) suggests that is a combination of these traits which results in personality. As with any construct in psychology there are numerous theories behind personality. The most common used theory in the literature currently is The Five Factor Model of Personality (FFM) used by many in their writing (Wiggins, 1996; Bleidorn et al. 2010; Allen et al., 2013). The FFM, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, includes extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience as the factors which effect personality. Extraversion relates to interpersonal relations, neuroticism relates to the likelihood the individual may suffer from emotional instability with conscientiousness the factor which deals with goal-related behaviour. Finally agreeableness concerns their focus on co-operation and openness to experience is self-explanatory (Roccas et al., 2002; Allen et al., 2013). Roccas et al. (2002) claim that the traits of the FFM can interact, which supports the notion that no one trait is independent from another and it is the interaction of the traits which results in the person’s personality. Roccas et al. (2002) goes further to suggest that traits influence individual’s on the subconscious level, meaning that they cause behaviour which is out of the cognitive control of the person. As a result it can be seen how important it is for a coach to appreciate the personality of a player, as their personality traits may result in behaviour which is unexplainable by the player themselves.
The degree to which an athlete presents one of the traits outlined in FFM can determine their sporting performance. Allen et al. (2013) suggest, for example, that those competing at International level are likely to display lower neuroticism and higher levels of conscientiousness. It is also discussed how the direction of causality may not be fully known with a study of British Gymnasts demonstrating greater conscientiousness following good quality preparation in the lead up to a competition (Allen et al., 2013).
Personality also plays an important role in goal setting and the types of goals people set. It has been noted that goal setting and personality are closely linked, with goals likely to be set in order to compensate for or complement an individual’s personality (Salmela-Aro et al., 2012; Reisz et al., 2013). Goal-setting is an important aspect of sport, and a very large concept in itself. However it is noted by Reisz et al. (2013) that goals are usually set to relate to the individual’s personality. Therefore should they be low in extroversion, their goal may be focussed around improving that. When goal setting, it must then be noted, that it is important to consider and understand the individual’s personality in order to appreciate why a certain goal has been set.
Another aspect of sports performance linked to personality is that of coping behaviour and strategies. This relates to the ability or techniques used by an athlete to deal with psychological stressors such as anxiety. Allen et al. (2011) have discussed how different trait dominance results in different coping strategies being displayed. This could be important form a coach’s perspective due to the fact that understanding their trait dominance and the coping strategy which is associated with bringing the best results for that trait, it is possible to individualise direction given to players regarding coping. In return, an athlete who is able to cope with the psychological pressure present in sport is likely to perform better. Furthermore, as a coach you are in a position to see whether an athlete is adopting an undesirable coping strategy and can work to improve the coping strategy to improve its effectiveness and benefit subsequent performance.
Outside of the natural realms of sport, personality is also said to influence psychological well-being and physical health (Ozer & Benet-Martinez, 2006). Ozer and Benet-Martinez (2006), highlight how those with a more positive personality, higher in extraversion and conscientiousness, are likely to live longer.
To conclude, it can be seen how personality is based around 5 key traits according to FFM. These traits are not isolated and it is the interaction and individual dominance of these traits which results in personality. Personality itself can influence many aspects of sport performance and behaviour, some of which may well be out of the athlete’s cognitive control. It is important to understand personality if dealing with athletes to promote the best coping strategies and goals to assist in improving their performance.
Allen, M. S., Greenlees, I. & Jones, M. (2011) An investigation of the five-factor model of personality and coping behaviour in sport. Journal of Sport Sciences, 29(8), 841-850.
Allen, M. S., Greenlees, I. & Jones, M. (2013) Personality in sport: a comprehensive review. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(1), 184-208.
Bleidorn, W., Kandler, C., Hulsheger, U. R., Riemann, R., Angleitner, A. & Spinath, F. M. (2010) Nature and nurture of the interplay between personality traits and major life goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(2), 366-379.
Ozer, D. J. & Benet-Martinez, V. (2006) Personality and the prediction of consequential outcomes. Annual Review of Psychology, 57(1), 401-421.
Peterson, C. (1998). Personality (1st ed.). USA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Reisz, Z., Boudreaux, M. J. & Ozer, D. J. (2013) Personality traits and the prediction of personal goals. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(6), 699-704.
Roccas, S., Sagiv, L., Schwartz, S. H. & Knafo, A. (2002) The big five personality factors and personal values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6), 789-801.
Salmela-Aro, K., Reada, S., Nurmi, J., Vuoksimaa, E., Siltala, M., Dick, D. M., Pulkkinen, L., Kaprio, J. & Rose, R. J. (2012) Personal goals and personality traits among young adults: Genetic and environmental effects. Journal of Research in Personality, 46(3), 248-257.
Wiggins, J. (1996). The Five-Factor Model of Personality (1st ed.). New York: The Guildford Press
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About Ben Sheath
I am a qualified Strength and Conditioning coach and Personal Trainer. I have experience working with elite athletes in elite sporting environments such as Saracens and observing England Rugby. Alongside my work with elite athletes I also have extensive experience working with your every day gym goer, giving me an ability to work with and help a wide variety of people. I am currently studying at the University of Bath for a BSc (Hons) Sport and Exercise Science degree. I am particularly interested in motivation and leadership, understanding what makes people ‘tick’ and how to maximise their potential.