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Posted 03/03/2022 in Category 1

Does your personality matter to get to the top in sport?

Does your personality matter to get to the top in sport?

So many sports fans talk and reflect upon the characteristics, attributes and traits of the best players in their sport. Often these discussions do not reflect upon the many other factors that might influence excellence at the highest level such as genetics, body size, shape and its components, psychological skills, motivation, environment, support from parents, coaches, peers and pals, volume of sport-specific practice, training and specialisation.     

Fans being fans, (which includes everyone) comment like pundits on what they see in front of them. For instance, a free kick by Lionel Messi or a forehand by Roger Federer seems so sublime it must be within the player, but we miss so many of the influencing factors that led to that superlative performance. For now, we shall focus on personality traits. The accumulated research suggests that the more successful athletes show greater conscientiousness, optimism, and hope than less successful athletes. The more we work on these elements, the more they have to return to us when we train and compete. The good news is that conscientiousness, optimism, and hope are skills and behaviours we can develop with practice. 

One element that causes many problems for athletes is the perfectionism. Trying to get better is a battle between what is good enough and what needs improving. When our perfectionism is striving and adaptive, it means we are happy trying to improve but not dissatisfied with our progress. There is a point of acceptance, for now, that allows us to keep working and acknowledge the usual setbacks and plateaus in all sports. When we demand perfection all the time, we are likely to fall into a preoccupation with mistakes, self-doubt and burnout. We need to get the balance right.

Competitive sport demands athletes to compete against others. It’s reasonable to assume that athletes become focused on themselves, their needs, and how they measure up more favourably than their competitors. Narcissists believe in their ability; however, it is often unrealistic. Despite this tendency, they can often perform well under pressure.

But what do we know overall about personality? The issue is that we have some research to answer the question, but not enough high-quality research covering all relevant aspects of the question and answer.  What we do have, however, is some acknowledgement of conscientiousness, optimism and hope. To develop talent, it seems sensible to work with one’s personality and to develop thinking skills and behaviours that get the best from the athlete, most often. Our level of acceptance and support for the athlete will honour the athlete who wishes to get to her destination. As the research grows, we shall have more ideas and interventions to help athletes on their journey to the top. 

Rees, T. (2016). The Great British Medalists Project: A review of current knowledge on the development of the world’s best sporting talent. Sports Medicine (Auckland), 46(8), 1041–1058. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0476-2

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay