In recent years, East Africans have dominated the middle- and long-distance running domains, Jamaicans prevail in sprint distances whilst the USA predominates in basketball. There are many reasons for this, including: physiological factors (such as muscle fibre consistency), infrastructure and culture. ‘Stereotype threat’ can also contribute to this explanation in addition to describing why some groups are rarely successful in particular sports.
Stereotype threat describes how an individual’s behaviour and ability change to align with a negative stereotype of a group they belong to (Steele and Aronson, 1995). It may occur in any group for which stereotypes exist, including: class, gender, race etc. Examples of modern day stereotypes in sport are “white men can’t jump” and “black people can’t swim”.
The first research on stereotype threat provided Caucasian and African-American participants of matched intelligence with a section of the Graduate Record Examination (Steele and Aronson). They were informed it was either a measure of intellectual ability or was problem solving task which diagnosed nothing. When told it showed intelligence, black participants greatly under-performed in relation to Caucasians. It was proposed that this was due to the triggering of the racial stereotype that “blacks are not as intelligent as whites” and therefore the African-American’s ability worsened to fit this suggestion.
A concerning series of research has since looked at the effect of stereotype threat on sports performance. In one of the earliest papers, golf-putting was used as a measure of ability on white and black participants (Stone et al., 1999). It was found that when the putting task was described as a reflection of “sports intelligence”, black participants’ performance decreased when compared to their control group. This is due to the activation of the stereotype that Caucasians are more intelligent. Similarly, when it was said to diagnose “natural athletic ability”, the performance of white participants declined to fit with the associated stereotype that black people are more athletic than whites.
Later research has shown the same effects using gender instead of race. It has been found that the putting performance of men declined if they were informed that women are generally better at the task (Beilock et al., 2006). Furthermore, the dribbling ability of women playing football is hindered after the task is said to show “athletic ability” or “technical ability”, traits associated with males (Chalabaev et al., 2008).
Although there is little research on preventing stereotype threat, advice for coaches and athletes can still be drawn from the existing papers. It is imperative that coaches and peers don’t become subject to stereotypes. Even if not deliberate, this would lead to different treatment towards athletes of certain groups, initiating stereotype threat. For example, feedback to a black sprinter and white sprinter needs to be of the same nature, content and delivery, whilst emphasis on high performance also needs to be identical. Members of groups prone to this effect may also benefit from examples of times the stereotype has proven to be incorrect. For instance, a coach could show female footballers the finish by Stephanie Roche which was nominated for the goal of the year alongside goals by James Rodriguez and Robin van Persie. In doing this, the stereotype held by women that men have better technical ability, will diminish, to an extent. Finally, it is essential that coaches don’t promote comments regarding stereotyped groups, even if light-hearted in nature. A basketball coach joking to a player that they were out-jumped because they are white would only provoke stereotype threat.
In conclusion, from the research it is clear that groups of individuals with performance-related stereotypes are prone to stereotype threat, leading to reduced ability. This may be partly responsible for the dominance of some ethnicities in certain sports; the stereotype that no other nation is as successful in that area hinders the performance of other countries. Additionally, it may also assist in explaining why England are so poor at penalty shootouts!
Beilock, S. L., Jellison, W. A., Rydell, R. J., McConnell, A. R., & Carr, T. H. (2006). On the causal mechanisms of stereotype threat: Can skills that don't rely heavily on working memory still be threatened?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(8), 1059-1071.
Chalabaev, A., Sarrazin, P., Stone, J., & Cury, F. (2008). Do achievement goals mediate stereotype threat? An investigation on females' soccer performance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psycholoy, 30, 143-158.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.
Stone, J., Lynch, C. I., Sjomeling, M., & Darley, J. M. (1999). Stereotype threat effects on black and white athletic performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1213.
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About Tom Hodgins
Currently working with the academies at Sale Sharks & Bath Rugby. Studying for a Masters in Psychology of Sport and Exercise at Loughborough University commencing in September.