INTRODUCTIONEmbed from Getty Images
Every athlete is different. Every athlete has a unique set of characteristics, behaviours, dispositions and traits that make them who they are and can directly affect their ability to perform. Managing these different personalities can be a daunting task for any sport manager, coach or leader, particularly in a team setting where a multitude of conflicting personalities may require managing. Some athletes may be extraverted leaders, constantly voicing their opinions; while others may be shy, introverted and just want to get on with the sport. Some athletes can be positive thinkers, while others can ruminate in the negative. Some may be extremely competitive, while others completely lack drive altogether. Understanding how to manage these different personalities is a complex subject. However, harnessing the ability to do exactly that can be a defining principle of a great sports coach.
Understanding Our Athletes’ Personality TraitsEmbed from Getty Images
Personality – The overall organization of psychological characteristics such as thinking, feeling & behaving, that differentiate us and lead us to act consistently over time and context in a certain way (Crocker, 2016).
As evidenced from the definition above, one’s personality is not just the traits and values that a person holds, but also the ways that they think, feel and behave over time. That being said, many different “traits” can contribute to this way of thinking, feeling and behaving. In fact the list is exhaustive. For athletes, we might be particularly interested in traits such as self-esteem, anxiety, openness, leadership, mental toughness, risk-taking, emotional stability, conscientiousness, aggression, competitiveness, self-interest, self-belief, goal orientation, optimism, introversion vs. extraversion, perfectionism and agreeableness. The list goes on.
Anyone who has studied personality psychology before will notice that Digman’s Big 5 characteristics: Conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism (emotional stability), openness and extraversion were all mentioned. These five characteristics are integral to studying and understanding ones personality. That is, most personality traits in existence, most adjectives you could use to describe someone, fall under the broader headings of one of these five categories. However, more crucially than these five characteristics are the even larger headings – BIS and BAS.
The two key headings of differentiation for personality psychologists is the difference between being higher in BAS – Behavioural Approach System or BIS – Behavioural Inhibition System (Gray, 1981). Essentially, are you more approach-oriented? (extraverted, open, optimistic, sensation seeking, etc.). Or are you more avoidance-oriented? (introverted, anxious, pessimistic, emotionally unstable, etc.). For example, when walking down the street, do you scan your surroundings for all the good things in the world? (birds singing, leaves changing colours, etc.). Or do you scan your surroundings for all the bad things in the world? (avoiding other pedestrians, walking in fear of what’s around you). Recognizing whether our athletes are more approach or avoidance oriented is a key starting place to unlocking the greater whole of their personality. By understanding this, you can understand things like who on your team is likely to be a good leader and why, how self-interested vs. team-oriented each player is and what motivates them to perform. It can also be particularly useful in predicting how players might react to various coaching styles, philosophies, approaches and directions. For example, asking an athlete who is higher in BIS to play a position they are not comfortable with can be much more damaging to the athlete’s performance than asking a player who is higher in BAS to do the same thing. Athletes higher in BAS tend to be more open-minded and optimistic about their abilities to perform. Athletes higher in BIS on the other hand will likely approach the uncomfortable situation full of anxiety and with a lack of self-belief. So asking them to branch out of their comfort zone may be a great lesson, but can also hinder their performance. This is just one example. In regards to coaching athletes in training, “freezing” play and walking through a specific coaching point for the whole team may be ineffective for athletes higher in BIS, who won’t want to be the centre of the spotlight and have their mistakes highlighted in front of the larger group. They may prefer 1on1 coaching points instead. Recognizing whether are athletes are more approach-oriented (higher in BAS) vs. more avoidance-oriented (higher in BIS) is essential to understanding them as both athletes and human beings, and can help us as coaches to get the best out of every athlete.
BISEmbed from Getty Images
Athletes higher in BIS tend to be higher in perfectionism, neuroticism, introversion, anxiety and lower in areas like motivation, drive, confidence and self-belief (Gray, 1982). They may be the athletes that we tend to in our everyday work, neglect. As coaches, we tend to focus on the talkers, the extraverted ones, the ones who want to make a connection with us. We focus on the ones who stand out, whether it be through their rambunctious behaviour or glowing, fun personality. We don’t tend to focus on the ones who fade into the background and go about their business without saying much. But these athletes are perhaps the ones we should actually be focusing on more. The ones that are anxious before every training session, respond to direction with fear and quickly become deemed “uncoachable”, are an important demographic for the harmony and success of our team and we often don’t do enough to manage these types of personalities. This is one of the main reasons why having a team captain, even multiple team captains, and/or assistant coaches can be absolutely critical. It is simply too difficult for a head coach to manage fifteen different personalities, especially when we in our everyday work focus far more on the pedagogical side of our jobs. What we often forget, is that we cannot teach or motivate our players effectively, if we do not understand them as people or as athletes. We need to understand what makes them tick, what motivates them, what they value, and importantly whether they are more approach or avoidant oriented.
BASEmbed from Getty Images
Athletes higher in BAS are approach-oriented. They may be more extraverted and open, but they also may be more impulsive and eccentric (Gray, 1982). Athletes high in BAS are also extremely important personalities to manage. Managed incorrectly, approach-oriented athletes can take their competitiveness to extreme heights, take unnecessary risks, make rash decisions and be more self-interested than the good of the team. Although typically these are our more motivated, open-minded athletes who we really enjoy being around, they can also be the disrupters and the trouble-makers who cause havoc for our coaching. As a result, it is important to understand what motivates these athletes and how we can best garner their focus, attention and composure in decision making. For some of these athletes, their sky-high confidence may need to be used to get the best results for the team, and for others, they may need to be taken down a peg in order for them to understand that they are indeed part of a team unit and cannot be successful without the success of their teammates.
Of course most athletes won’t be on either end of the extremes of BIS or BAS, but it is certainly important to recognize the ones that are and then work to manage their behaviour for the greater good of the team.
MANAGING THESE PERSONALITIESEmbed from Getty Images
Understanding our athletes’ personalities is one thing, but managing it is a much more complex task. As already mentioned, making use of a team captain(s), or assistant coach(es), can be a great method for delegating responsibility to others closely involved in the inner-workings of the team. Team captains may be given responsibilities to manage difficult personalities “on the field” such as those who don’t pass the ball or those who are prone to rash decisions, while assistant coaches may be given the difficult task of managing “off the field” issues such as dealing with nerves and anxiety of players on the bench.
Coaches can also manage the different personalities in their team by giving each athlete a “buddy” or “mentor”. There are a variety of benefits to this approach, such as ensuring athletes always have a partner for activities that require one. But it can also create a direct support system for each and every athlete, allowing athletes to more or less manage themselves and create a supportive environment. Opportunities for athletes to share their opinions on things, such as in warm-up or cool-down activities can also help to regulate athlete behaviour and give them specific times for when their voices are welcome and certain times for when they have to buckle down and focus.
After understanding our athletes more, we might also utilize that information to begin to focus on the athletes that we need to focus on more, rather than the ones that are naturally easy to be around. The athletes that are at the extremes of either BIS or BAS might be the ones that we choose to focus on. Or we might have an assistant coach or team captain focus on each of these individual athletes.
Essentially, effectively managing different personalities needs to arise out of first having an understanding of them. That way, you can then understand how to best approach different situations and conversations with them, and understand how to best regulate their behaviour and motivate them to perform to a high level. Managing different personalities within a sports team is certainly not easy, but emphasizing a positive team environment and actively working to understand your athletes better will set you on the right track towards effective management.
Understanding our athletes’ dimensions to their personality, such as their traits and whether they are more approach-oriented or avoidance-oriented, is essential to understanding how to get the best out of their performance. For more articles like this check out our Sport Psychology and Coaching sections.
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Crocker, P. (2016). Sport and Exercise Psychology. Toronto: Pearson Canada.
Gray, J.A. (1981). A critique of Eysenck’s theory of personality, In H.J. Eysenck (Ed.) A model for personality (pp 246–276).
Gray, J.A. (1982). The neuropsychology of anxiety: An enquiry into the functions of the septo-hippocampal system.