The Impact of Personality on Athletic Performance
The longer I’m in the business of mental performance and counseling, the more I see how much our personality impacts performance, both positively and negatively.
The most widely accepted theory of personality among psychologists is called the Big 5. The big 5 model can be very useful in understanding how an athlete’s personality relates to their success in competition and in training. There are certain characteristics of personality that may lend more toward athletic success but others that likely are weaknesses and hold them back in growth and in reaching their potential.
Having the understanding/self-awareness of an athlete’s personality can be useful to them, the coach, and/or their parents as they will be able to capitalize on their strengths but also work on their weaknesses, giving them the best chance at being consistent and confident, and performing at their peak potential in their sport.
The Big 5 model has 5 factors where you get placed on a continuum in each of the following traits:
openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Openness- How open and curious a person is to new ideas rather than closed, conventional, and rigid.
Conscientiousness- How goal directed, persistent, organized and dependable they are rather than impulsive, spontaneous, and disorganized.
Extraversion- How much a person is energized by other people and the outside world, rather than getting energy from being by themselves or being reserved/withdrawn.
Agreeableness- How much a person is cooperative and empathetic, often putting others needs ahead of their own rather than being critical, and uncooperative, potentially manipulating situations to get their way.
Neuroticism- The tendency for someone to have instability in their mood, being sensitive to stress and negative triggers, rather than being calm, stable, and consistent.
Where do you think you would put yourself? On the high, middle, or low end of these traits? If you would like to take a reliable free version of the big 5 to see where you fall, I recommend this option → https://www.truity.com/test/big-five-personality-test
So How Does Personality Impact Performance?
(And What Can We Do About It)
Clearly there is not a one size fits all to elite performers. Athletes are motivated and achieve due to a variety of reasons. However there are certainly trends in personality that lend an athlete to being more consistently successful than others.
Let’s look at each trait and the potential impact of that trait on performance!
An athlete that is higher in the trait of openness is more likely to be flexible in their thinking, more creative, and open to trying new things. Athletics is filled with constant evaluation, failure, and adapting to situations.
Athletes that are more open tend to try different skills or modify technique or tactics when something is not working. This trait is critical for constant development.
If an athlete would like to increase their openness…
- Try a different training routine than usual
- Talk to a variety of people about their process and how they do it
- Change up the little things in your day, like what tv shows or apps you look at
- Read up on a different topic in a new book, magazine, or app
- Try a new hobby!
This is a big one! And if I can get personal for a moment, perhaps my biggest challenge as an athlete (and also what I see as a big challenge for many of the athletes I work with). I was low (and still am not high) on the scale of conscientiousness, which made it hard for me to improve on the areas of my game that needed growth.
Being low in this personality trait makes it tough to stay disciplined to a routine, manage time effectively, and accomplish important tasks when they are due. One of the most important qualities of successful people/athletes is their ability to stay disciplined to their goals and training.
Most elite athletes have at least a moderate to high level of conscientiousness unless they are just insanely talented at what they do, but this a very rare percentage of athletes.
If an athlete would like to increase their conscientiousness…
- Create accountability partners like parents, coaches, or teammates that can help you stay disciplined to your goals
- Train with groups of people that expect you to be there
- Put reminders in your phone or in common spaces in your house so that you are constantly reminded of the goals you have and the action items you need to be doing to get there
- Create lists
- Work with someone (like a mental performance coach or counselor) to help you create appropriate goals and then make sure you set up future meetings with them to check in on progress
- Reward positive behaviors. If you meet your weekly goals- reward yourself!
It has been found that elite athletes tend to be higher in the trait of extraversion. This is likely because every sport is quite social. Sports require us to be around people! Even in the individual sports, there are coaches and trainers and other athletes you are competing against.
Extraverted people also like attention and don’t mind the spotlight, which is clearly a must needed attribute for those looking to compete and be successful at a high level.
If an athlete would like to increase their extraversion…
- Work on getting out of your comfort zone by talking to new people
- Do things in public that you would not usually do like perform, sing or dance
- Work on your social skills by asking people that are good at it, or looking at youtube, or talking to a coach or counselor.
- Respond to group messages on social media apps
- Compliment others that are not your best friends
- Try saying yes to the social opportunities that are presented to you
- Stay off your phone while in groups
- If you indeed an introvert, be sure to schedule time for yourself without feeling guilt or judgment so you can be more energized when you need it
This quality is tricky as neither a very high or very low level of agreeableness would be ideal for athletes.
Being on a team or working with your coaches requires a certain amount of connection, empathy, support, and trust as creating and maintaining relationships are critical to an athletes’ success.
Those that are high in agreeableness tend to do a good job with relationships; however, being too agreeable also doesn’t allow you to stick up for yourself. You likely are holding your opinions and feelings inside and modifying your beliefs and style based on whoever is around. Although this can ensure more comfortable relationships, it does not ensure you performing at your best. There is a certain level of conflict and competitive edge that needs to be there for high performing athletes, and a very high level of agreeableness just does not match well with that.
If an athlete would like to increase their agreeableness…
- Stick around people that model traits of agreeableness
- Look for opportunities where altruism and kindness are appropriate like volunteering or giving gratitude to someone
- Work with counselors or coaches to understand more about this personality trait, to talk through the pros and cons of it, and how to change it
If an athlete would like to lower their levels of agreeableness…
- Look for opportunities to give your opinion
- When friends are asking for ideas on what to do, where to go, or what to eat, give your opinion
- Learn different strategies to give critical feedback- such as the positive sandwich (Give a complement, give the criticism, give another compliment or encouragement)
- Use the strategy of “yes, and…” Yes I see your point of view, and this is also something that is happening”
- Work with counselors or coaches to understand more about why you have adopted this personality trait, and how you could work on it.
Elite athletes tend to be lower in the personality trait of neuroticism. They can manage the ups and downs of the sport. They are more able to manage their thoughts and perspective, reframing negative events, and coming back stronger. These athletes also tend to have more discipline in their training as intense emotions do not derail them as often from the daily requirements of the sport.
If an athlete would like to decrease their levels of neuroticism…
- See a therapist or mental performance coach! If we want to get better at managing thoughts and emotions, a therapist is the most appropriate choice in helping you to do that.
- Practice mindfulness - here is a blog I wrote on the topic : https://positivelyelite.com/blog/mindfulness-in-sports-and-performance/
- Practice self-talk- here is a blog that I wrote on that topic: https://positivelyelite.com/blog/the-power-of-thoughts-and-how-we-can-train-our-self-talk/
- Learn and practice your topic coping skills for stress- whether it is taking a walk, distracting yourself, talking to someone, or breathing. Know what works and use it.
Based on factors such as genetics, past experiences, parenting styles and, attachment, we all have developed a personality that comes with its advantages and disadvantages. The good news is that personality is not completely fixed. Although we may not be able to quickly change a personality characteristic, we do have the ability to work on the areas of our personality that create challenges for us in sport. Awareness is the first step! Action is the second!
Let me know if I can help : )
Powell Cucchiella, LMHC