Attributions in Sports Psychology
What is attribution theory? It is a “cognitive approach to motivation that focuses on how individuals interpret the causes of success and failure,” according to an article in the Australian Psychologist (Grove, et al., 1995, 92). In that regard, studies that Grove and colleague reference show that high achieving athletes tend to use internal attributions more readily after success than failure, which is reasonable considering that a successful baseball pitcher knows when he has his best “stuff” and when he wins a game, the attribution is rightly aimed at his skill. When that same pitcher loses, he can chalk it up to the fact that he faced outstanding hitters. And an athlete with less ability tends to use internal attributions “â€¦more after failure than success” (Grove, 92). He might say, “I just didn’t come up with the right pitches at the right time.” This paper delves into attribution and sports, a subject which has not seen a great deal of scholarship recently.
Why is it important to use attributions in sports?
According to a peer-reviewed article in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, there has been a “decline” in the number of published research articles on attributions, notwithstanding that the attribution theory was a very “hot topic” two decades ago (Rees, et al., 2005, 190). The authors see this decline as an unfortunate situation because attributions are actually explanations the causes of various events, and when people understand what caused an event — when there is an attribution they can relate to — they take that understanding with them into “future situations” (Rees, 190). This paper delves into the importance of attributions in sports, and reviews the literature related to sports attributions.
When an athlete or a recreationalist engage in activities — whether in competition or for one’s general healthy conditioning — discovering how and why that particular performance went the way it did is important. When the athlete’s performance turns out to be a failure (for example, a basketball player on a city recreation league becomes exhausted and can’t continue the game), pinpointing the cause for that is an attribution. The player may be thinking that no matter how hard he tries, he can’t get in good enough shape for a grueling one-hour basketball game. This is a chance for the basketball player to find a cause for his lack of conditioning — basically he then needs an attribution for his failing. He needs to attribute his failed conditioning to something, and therein is the issue that Rees and colleagues are addressing.
On page 194 Rees uses theories presented by Anderson (1983) and Anderson plus colleagues — Deuser (1993) and Riger (1991) — to dig deep into the psychology of attribution. Rees explains that people “â€¦engage in attributional activity to increase their control of the environment”; they attribute a certain event to a “controllable cause” which can lead to expectations of having control over events in the future (Rees, 194). In other words, that person who ran out of breath in the basketball game could use attribution theory to understand first why he ran out of gas and secondly to perhaps have more control over his conditioning in the future.
Stephen Zaccaro and colleagues presented an article in 1987 that compares how individuals and groups differ when it comes to attributions. That is, in their research of 549 statements of professional athletes, lone performers made more “self-serving attributions” after an athletic event than team performers did (Zaccaro, 1987, 257). Interestingly, studies referenced by the authors reveal that as group size increases, individual athletes “â€¦diffuse the responsibility for group action”; hence, individuals in large groups (such as a football team) are not apt to accept failure on their own shoulders (Zaccaro, 257).
And when it comes to group athletic behaviors, there are four characteristics that can result, according to Zaccaro’s (referencing Miller and Schlenker (1985). First, a quarterback after a winning performance can attribute the success to his play (“I threw the ball well”). Even though he had 10 players around him making it all work, the quarterback can take credit, the attribution in this case to a single player. Second, the winning game can be attributed to “â€¦factors of the group-including-the-self” (which Zaccaro calls “group-internal”) (258). The quarterback might use the tired cliche, “It was a team effortâ€¦and I couldn’t have done it without the team behind me”; what he really means is there was a sense of cohesiveness between the line and the backfield but he’s glad to take some of the credit. The third characteristic is what Zaccaro attributes to “group-excluding-the-self” (“group other); that would be a situation in which the quarterback or captain says “This team worked hard all week for this game and we showed what we can do when every unit is alert and well prepared.” And the fourth characteristic is said to be because of environmentally helpful conditions (“environment attributions”); this would be say a rainy day and the team always plays well in the mud. A key point for this article is that “â€¦attributions which enhance the group can raise self-esteem” — which makes sense because in team sports jealousy can occur if individuals take too much credit.
Ability and Effort in Sports vs. Intellectual Ability and Effort
An article in the Journal of Personality (1980) points to a study of 120 male college undergraduates, who were asked to ride a bicycle ergometer in a physical test. Following the manipulation of the bicycle (unknown to the riders it was made more difficult the second time) the riders experienced decreased performance (Rejeski, et al., 1980). The riders were then quizzed as to the attribution of their less impressive performance. “Successful outcomes were attributed to both ability and effort,” but as to the unsuccessful outcomes, they were “â€¦attributed to a lack of ability but not a lack of effort” (Rejeski, 233). The authors suggest that a “motivational bias appears to preclude low ability attribution in intellectual pursuits,” but when it comes to sports activities, “â€¦physiologically related ability may be viewed as relatively unstable” (Rejeski, 233).
In conclusion, it is important for sports teams and individual players to understand why and how attributions matter vis-a-vis performance. This paper outlines some of the scholarship on that subject.
Grove, J.R., and Prapavessis, H. (1995). The Effect of Skill Level and Sport Outcomes on Dimensional Aspects of Causal Attributions. Australian Psychologist, 30(2), 92-95.
Rees, T., Ingledew, D.K., and Hardy, L. (2005). Attribution in sport psychology: seeking
Congruence between theory, research, and practice. Psychology of Sport and Exercise,
Vol. 6, 189-204.
Rejeski, W.J., and Lowe, C.A. (1980). The role of ability and effort in attributions for sport
Achievement. Journal of Personality, 48(2), 233-242.
Zaccaro, S.J., Peterson, C., and Walker, S. (1987). Self-Serving Attributions for Individual and Group Performance. Social Psychology Quarterly, 50(3), 257-263.
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