Reversal Theory in Sport | Psychology
Posted 09/02/2021 in Category 1

Reversal Theory in Sport

Reversal Theory in Sport

The role of emotions in sport can be explained through Apter’s reversal theory (1989) which was first applied to sport by John Kerr (1990, 1997). Reversal theory considers a broad range of emotions and how they link to sport performance, compared to anxiety-sport performance approaches such as Multidimensional Anxiety Theory (MAT), and Catastrophe Theory (Hardy, 1990; Hardy & Fazey, 1987).

In Apter’s reversal theory emotions are a result of the various combinations of metamotivational states (or frames of mind) that an individual is in at any given time. There are four pairs of metamotivational states: Telic-Paratelic; Conformist-Negativistic; Mastery-Sympathy; Autic-Alloic. These pairs of opposite states exist in a bistable system. That is, when one of each pair is active the other is inactive. For example, if someone is in a telic state they cannot be in a paratelic state. However, one can reverse back (hence the name of the theory) between opposite states. Reversals occur in response to external events, frustration from not experiencing the emotion associated with the current configuration of metamotivational states, and from satiation, which is being in the same metamotivational state for an extended period of time (Blaydon, Lindner, & Kerr, 2000). Because there are four pairs of metamotivational states, at any given moment an individual is experiencing a total of four states (one from each pair), however, typically one or more of the states will be salient (Frey, 1999), reflecting a person’s motives at a particular time. For example, when the telic state is most salient a person is goal oriented and has a preference for low levels of arousal. 

Eight somatic emotions (anxiety, anger, excitement, provocativeness, relaxation, placidity, boredom, sullenness) are generated from possible combinations of the telic-paratelic and negativism-conformity pairs of states in relation to the individual’s felt level of arousal. For example, an individual experiencing high felt arousal in a telic-conformity state will be anxious, yet an individual experiencing high felt arousal in a paratelic-conformity state will experience excitement. Eight transactional emotions (humiliation, resentment, modesty, virtue, pride, gratitude, shame, guilt) are generated by possible combinations of the autic-alloic and mastery-sympathy pairs of states and the levels of felt transactional outcome (i.e., net gain or net loss) at any time (Kerr, 1997). For example, an individual experiencing a net loss in an autic-mastery state will experience humiliation, yet an individual experiencing a net gain in the same autic-mastery state will experience pride. 

Using reversal theory as a framework Males and Kerr (1996) conducted a study with elite slalom canoeists in which they examined the canoeists pre-competitive mood state by asking them to estimate the degree to which a list of unpleasant and pleasant moods were being experienced prior to competing.  It was found that pleasant mood levels (e.g. excitement and pride), in the pre-competitive period were consistently higher than unpleasant mood levels (e.g. humiliation and shame), illustrating that pleasant moods are a salient aspect of an athlete’s pre-competitive experience. Further research has shown that metamotivational states may be related to participation (e.g., Linder & Kerr, 2000) and change at different stages of competition (Males, Kerr, & Gerkovich, 1998). 

While there is a comprehensive body of empirical evidence related to reversal theory, it may be may argued the approach is somewhat limited in that the combinations of the metamotivational states do not appear to account for all the emotions thought to be experienced by athletes. For example, there is no combination of metamotivational states that can account for happiness, an emotion thought to be related to sport performance (Lazarus, 2000). Also, from an applied perspective more research is needed to investigate how individuals can obtain the optimum configuration of metamotivational states to ensure an appropriate emotional state for performance. 


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


Blaydon, M. J., Lindner, K. J., & Kerr, J. H. (2002). Metamotivational characteristics of eating-disordered and exercise-dependent triathletes: An application of reversal theory. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 3, 223-236. 

Hardy, L. (1990). A catastrophe model of performance in sport.  In G. Jones and L. Hardy (Eds.), Stress and performance in sport. (pp. 81-106).  Chichester, England:  Wiley.

Hardy, L., & Fazey, J. (1987). The inverted-U hypothesis: A catastrophe for sport psychology? Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity, Vancouver, June. 

Frey, K. P. (1999). Reversal theory: Basic concepts. In J. H. Kerr (Ed.), Experiencing sport: Reversal theory. Chichester, UK: J Wiley & Sons. 

Kerr, J. H.  (1990).  Stress and sport: reversal theory.  In G. Jones and L. Hardy (Eds.), Stress and performance in sport. (pp. 107-131).  Chichester, England:  Wiley.

Kerr, J. H.  (1997).  Motivation and emotion in sport.  East Sussex.  Psychology Press Ltd.

Lazarus, R. S. (2000b). How emotions influence performance in competitive sports. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 229-252.

Lindner, K. J., & Kerr, J. H. (2000). Metamotivational orientations in sport participants and non-participants. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 1, 7-25.

Males, J. R., & Kerr, J. H.  (1996).  Stress, emotion and performance in elite slalom canoeists.  The Sport Psychologist, 10, 17-36.

Males, J. R., Kerr, J. H., & Gerkovich, M. M. (1998). Metamotivational states during canoe slalom competition: A qualitative analysis using reversal theory. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 10, 185-200.

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