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How personality affects sporting achievement

At the highest level of sporting performance, the difference between winning and losing may have more to do with your personality than your sporting prowess.

To achieve ‘Gold’, athletes need to be able to perform at a high level while under an immense amount of pressure. The key to success is the combination of the highest level of athletic performance and the ability to perform while also under great personal stress.  While some individuals thrive under pressure, others will ‘choke’ and fail to perform as well as in training - when the stress is reduced.

Recognising this combination of athleticism and personality, researchers at the Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance (IPEP) at Bangor University have been revealing more about the personality types that perform best under stress. They’re also examining how different coaching strategies can support and motivate different personality types.

The Institute, part of the School of Sport, Health & Exercise Sciences, have furthered current understanding in this field, finding that ‘narcissist’ types (people who think highly of themselves and their own abilities); the personality types who perform well under pressure, actually increase their effort under pressure. Conversely, they perform less well in situations where they are less likely to attain glory.

Dr Ross Roberts, Institute member and LecturerDr Ross Roberts, Institute member and Lecturer, Dr Ross Roberts, explains: “We think the reason why narcissists thrive in these stressful situations is because when they excel under these circumstances, they receive the admiration and adulation that they crave: you could say that they’re personalities that are ‘driven by glory’. People with these personality types perform less well in situations where their desires will not be met - where pressure is lacking. For sportsmen and women, that might be in training or when coaches don’t give individual attention to the athlete during ‘team’ activities.”

Their research has demonstrated that introducing or increasing an element of inter-personal competition and rivalry during coaching sessions can keep narcissists performing to a high level during training sessions or other situations lacking the pressure or challenges needed to inspire them.  But the researchers also found that introducing the competition or rivalry had a negative effect on the individuals who are not ‘narcissist’ personalities.

Calum Arthur, Co Director of the Institute explains: “Given that athletes at the Olympics and or at other international levels, have to perform under intense pressure, understanding how and why different personalities perform differently under pressure is paramount. As sport psychologists, we are able to work with coaches to tailor coaching methods to meet the specific needs of individual athletes. This should result in more effective coaching and successful athletic performance.

Members of IPEP have worked with the England & Wales Cricket Board, the British Armed forces and work closely with Sport Wales.

This is one of two pieces of research from Bangor University highlighted in the UUK Report, Supporting a UK success story: The impact of university research and sport development.

Read more about Bangor University Olympics related stories on our Mini site here:

Watch a short film of Ross discussing this topic on BangorTV.

Publication date: 2 May 2012