1. UK study suggests sports psychologists working with elite footballers may suffer fear and uncertainty

    November 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Exeter press release:

    Sports psychologists have to cope with “fear and uncertainty”, job insecurity and long working hours when working with elite footballers, research shows.

    The experts are being increasingly used to give teams a competitive edge, but they have to face the pressure of losing their job when the football managers they work with are sacked or move, as well as long working hours and the constant need to prove themselves and to please others.

    The study, carried out with a psychologist who worked with a Premier League team, also suggests clubs are using sports psychologists who are untrained and unqualified and this could be dangerous for players. It warns there are few job opportunities for sports psychology and no structured career path.

    The profession is relatively new, but sport and exercise psychologists are now regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council in the UK. The role of a sports psychologist is diverse, but it typically includes working with athletes, coaches, and teams to enhance performance or support athletes who are injured, stressed or having difficulties managing their emotions. They also help sportsmen and women to better communicate, develop leadership skills, build confidence and find motivation and make the transition to a different career. Psychologists can be based in universities or with directly with teams or players.

    The research gives a rare glimpse into the working life of a sports psychologist in the English Premier League. “John”, who co-authored with study with academics from the University of Exeter and University of Portsmouth, is in his mid-30s and had worked for over a decade as a sports psychologist within the English Premier League (EPL) and the higher echelons of English County Cricket.

    John described how the role of a sports medic or psychologist can be incredibly rewarding when the team wins. But it is also precarious, and they often don’t benefit from job security or statutory entitlements because of their links with managers and coaches, who themselves often dismissed with no notice. Managers and coaches usually bring their own, trusted, staff with them when they move from role to role, as well as their own practices and regime. This means there can be a high turnover of medics and psychologists in clubs, and the job is highly competitive.

    John described how the changeover in managers could be “very volatile and unpleasant”. He had seen five managers come and go in five years.

    “This brings fear and uncertainty because any time there’s change you don’t know whether your face is going to fit. A lot of people will not believe that psychology has a place and that’s not a reflection on you or your capabilities, it’s just that they don’t want it in their team, or say they do and just sideline you. Or they have their own people, or a friend or a psych who they’ve used before, so you’re always at the mercy of one person’s attitude or perception, their team and their networks. All of this adds to the precarious nature of the work. You do the best you can to survive and hopefully thrive as well.”

    John described sometimes having to “hide” what he did. He worked with two coaches who didn’t believe in sports psychology. They wouldn’t let him speak to any of their players but he was able to work with players as part of a programme designed to support them off-field. Once the coaches saw this was successful they allowed him to carry out more sports psychology work.

    John helped professional sportspeople to improve their performance, develop and secure a place in the first team and helping them with issues or crises. He used different techniques, including one-to-one sessions with players to help them regulate their emotions and concentrate and set goals. He has now left club football for a more secure career in performance research and consultancy.

    John said: “It’s a life decision that you make to be fully involved in a team. You live and breathe what happens to them. You do whatever it takes. Everything must be done now, it’s a very instant culture and if you can do something to help the team win the next game then you need to do it. Ultimately it consumes your whole life and makes you vulnerable to change because you’re invested in it.”


  2. Study suggests football position and length of play affect brain impact

    November 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Radiological Society of North America press release:

    Researchers have found that damage to white matter in the brains of former college and professional football players due to recurrent head impacts can be related to playing position and career duration, according to a new study published online in the journal Radiology.

    Most previous research on head impacts in football has focused on cognitively impaired former football players. This is the first neuroimaging study to compare former football players with no evidence of cognitive impairment to analyze the effects of different playing histories and concussion exposure.

    “Our study, by including both former collegiate and professional players, gives us the ability to examine career duration and playing position along with concussion history,” said study author Kevin Guskiewicz, Ph.D., research director for the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill). “By doing so, we found that these factors are all important when considering the long-term effects of playing football.”

    The research team recruited 64 former collegiate and professional football players, aged 52 to 65. Half of the former athletes played only college football, and half continued on to the professional league. Half of the former players reported three or more prior concussions, while the other half reported one or no prior concussions. The researchers recruited an equal number of speed and non-speed playing positions. The non-speed positions consisted of offensive or defensive linemen.

    Two MRI techniques — diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and functional MRI (fMRI) — were used to examine 61 of the former players. MRI data from the other three players were excluded due to excessive movement or inability to complete the MRI exam. DTI was used to analyze white matter structural integrity, while fMRI was used to assess brain function while the players performed a memory task.

    “While DTI and fMRI have been used previously in the field of concussion research, we are among the first to combine the two techniques,” said co-author Michael Clark, medical student at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We were interested in how white matter and the ability to recruit brain resources to complete a memory task might be affected by head impact exposure in terms of career length and the position played. By using two different and complementary types of MRI, we were able to see the relationship between structure and function, both of which are affected by head impact exposure.”

    The results showed a significant interaction between career duration and concussion history. Former college players with three or more concussions had lower integrity in a broadly distributed area of white matter compared to those with one concussion or less. However, the opposite was true for former professional players.

    The researchers speculate that players with a long career duration, exposure to recurrent concussive events, and who are cognitively normal in their late 50s may not be reflective of the highly exposed former professional football player population as a whole.

    “We’re not exactly sure why this is the case for the former pros,” Clark said. “It may have to do with the sample of athletes we recruited into the study. But the findings could suggest that a career with additional exposure to football is not necessarily worse than a shorter duration of exposure.”

    The non-speed players with a history of recurrent concussion had reduced integrity in the frontal white matter and lower measure of activation during the fMRI task than those with one concussion or less. This was not the case for the speed players.

    The interactions observed between concussion histories and playing positions suggest there may be important differences in the mechanisms of injury between speed and non-speed players. The magnitude, location and frequency of head impacts in football differ by position. Offensive backs experience impacts at greater acceleration. Linemen, however, tend to experience a greater overall frequency of impacts, and have the greatest proportion of impacts to the front of the helmet. The high proportion of frontal impacts experienced by non-speed players may result in more localized damage to frontal white matter tracts as compared to the more variable impact locations experienced by speed position players.

    “These findings suggest the playing position of an athlete may change the effects of concussions on the brain,” Dr. Guskiewicz said. “The mechanisms of concussions in non-speed players are fundamentally different from those of speed position players, suggesting that perhaps position-specific helmets are warranted.”

    The researchers added that more work is needed to better understand the results and to determine the underlying mechanisms regarding how subconcussive and concussive impacts affect brain health later in life.


  3. Little known theory could hold key to sporting success

    September 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Manchester University press release:

    An established but little known psychological theory is likely to improve performances across a range of activities, including sport, according to new research.

    Perceptual Control Theory can be applied to amateurs or skilled performers alike says psychologist Dr Warren Mansell, from The University of Manchester.

    The theory argues that when trying to improve performance, teaching people what to do is less effective than teaching them how to picture the outcome.

    It has been already been used to accurately model the skills necessary for fielders to get to the right location on the pitch to catch a ball, such as in baseball or cricket.

    But according to Dr Mansell, it could be used across sport and the performing arts.

    To test the theory, the 48 participants in Dr Mansell’s study were asked to draw images using different instructions.

    The images ranged from complex to simple symbols and participants were asked to either copy them directly, copy from memory, or copy by giving instructions on how to move the pen. They were also told draw the image after being told what it looked like.

    Describing the image led to significantly more accurate drawings than giving the instructions for what movements to make.

    He said: “We commonly instruct people in terms of the physical actions they must carry out in order to perform any task.

    “Our study — which we think is the first of its kind — tests the effect of describing how to perform a skill in terms of the perception of the outcome compared to the observable actions.

    “And the results were fascinating: the accuracy of the drawings where participants were told what to perceive was almost as good as copying the image directly.”

    The theory could also be applied to dance, says Dr Mansell: learning a complex routine is all about an internal sense of where it feels right, rather than obsessing on movements, he argues.

    He added: “There is a physiological explanation to this: muscle groups interfere with each other by contracting against another when performing a variety of tasks — whether that’s drawing, dancing or catching a ball.

    So you may not be able to accurately instruct your limbs what to do, but creating a mental picture of the desired outcome gets around that in efficient manner.

    Carla Brown-Ojeda, the student who conducted the study, explained: “Different coaches in sport use a wide array of methods, some of which involve the coach directly instructing the learner how to move. Yet if our research generalises, then a simpler, purely ‘perceptual’, method might be developed.”


  4. New mindfulness method helps coaches, athletes score

    August 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Psychological Association press release:

    When it comes to success in sports, coaches and athletes understand that there’s a mental component, but many don’t have an understanding of how to prepare psychologically. That’s where the concept of mindfulness can be beneficial, via a program to help athletes and coaches at all levels develop that mental edge and improve their performance.

    “It’s been suggested that many coaches regard sport as at least 50 percent mental when competing against opponents of similar ability. In some sports, that percentage can be as high as 80 to 90 percent mental,” said Keith Kaufman, PhD, a Washington, DC-area sport psychology practitioner and research associate at The Catholic University of America presenting at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. His six-session program, developed in collaboration with Carol Glass, PhD, also of The Catholic University of America, and clinical psychologist Timothy Pineau, PhD, is outlined in the book “Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement,” to be published by APA later this month.

    A number of psychological studies support the importance of mental preparation, according to Kaufman. One involved more than 200 Canadian athletes from the 1984 Olympics who were assessed for three major readiness factors: mental, physical and technical. Of the three, only mental readiness was significantly associated with how successful they were at the Olympics.

    “With popular belief and scientific evidence being in such harmony, one might expect that mental training would be a top priority within the athletic community. However, curiously, this is not the case,” said Kaufman. “We have met so many athletes and coaches who know that mental factors, such as concentrating, relaxing and letting go of thoughts and feelings, can aid performance, but have no idea how to actually do those things under the pressures of training and competition.”

    Kaufman outlined a multi-step program he and his co-authors developed based on the practice of mindfulness, by which coaches and athletes at all levels can increase their mental readiness.

    Mindfulness entails being aware of the present moment and accepting things as they are without judgment. When people are able simply to watch experiences come and go, rather than latch onto and overthink them, they are better able to intentionally shift their focus to their performance rather than distracting negative experiences such as anxiety, Kaufman said.

    “For example, an athlete could identify that ‘right now, I’m having the thought that I can’t finish this race,’ so rather than reflecting an objective truth, it’s seen as just a thought,” said Kaufman.

    The program itself consists of six group-based sessions that contain educational, discussion and experiential components, as well as recommendations for daily home practice. The training begins with sedentary mindfulness practice, where participants are instructed to focus on experiences like eating and breathing, but gradually more and more movement is incorporated, culminating in a sport-specific meditation in which athletes or coaches apply a mindful style of attention to their actual sport performance. In addition to formal exercises, the program emphasizes informal mindfulness practice, which involves engaging in daily activities with mindful intention, helping participants to integrate mindfulness into their workouts, practices and competitions, as well as everyday life.

    The training is easily adapted to accommodate any sport at any level, from amateur to professional, he said. It can also be adapted for use by a single performer or by those in other high-pressure domains such as the performing arts or business.

    Recent research cited by Kaufman points to the significant potential for this approach. Two studies involving 81 university athletes found that athletes who completed the program showed significant increases in various dimensions of mindfulness and flow, which is the mental construct often associated with being “in the zone.” They also rated their own performance higher and experienced less sport-related anxiety. At a follow-up months later, these gains were maintained and in one of the studies, involving two teams that had losing records the previous year, both had winning seasons following mindful sport performance enhancement.

    “We wrote this book so that sport psychologists, athletes, coaches, psychotherapists with clients who are athletes or performing artists, researchers, educators and anyone else interested in applications of mindfulness for their own personal fitness or performance can have access to a complete guide to mindful sport performance enhancement exercises, materials and theory,” he said. “No background in psychology, mindfulness or the sport sciences is required to benefit from the content.”


  5. Study examines effects of testosterone surges in competitive sports

    August 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wake Forest University press release:

    As student athletes hit training fields this summer to gain the competitive edge, a new study shows how the experiences of a tiny mouse can put them on the path to winning.

    Scientists examined how surges of testosterone both before and after aggressive encounters led the male California mouse to win in future matches.

    “Every time you experience a competitive situation, hormones such as testosterone are released to help you win, and they change your brain to get ready for what comes next,” said Matthew Fuxjager, an assistant professor of biology at Wake Forest University.

    Fuxjager, lead author of the study, has conducted research for about decade about California mice and how testosterone influences their ability to win. The paper, “What can animal research tell us about the link between androgens and social competition in humans?,” appears in the June 2017 issue of Hormones and Behavior, the peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology.

    He published his first paper on the subject, “The ‘home advantage’ is necessary for a full winner effect and changes in post-encounter testosterone,” in 2009 in the journal Hormones and Behavior.

    For the 2017 paper, Fuxjager and colleagues Brian Trainor of the University of California-Davis and Catherine Marler of the University of Wisconsin-Madison reviewed studies focused mainly on male California mice (Peromyscus californicus) to prove that such research provides an excellent window into exactly how androgenic hormones such as testosterone influence aggression and, by extension, lead to winning competitions.

    Such insights, Fuxjager said, can help athletes and coaches develop training routines that foster winning.

    Consider the boxing world, in which training often involves pitting an up-and-coming fighter against a series of lesser opponents to build up a run of wins. In California mice, researchers have found that post-win pulses of testosterone increase aggression and likelihood to win in future encounters.

    They call this phenomenon the “winner effect.”

    “There’s this idea that winning begets winning,” Fuxjager said. “Accruing these experiences can increase your chances of winning. In terms of training, you want to have a taste of victory. I’ve talked to a lot of sports trainers over the years, and they relate to what we have been seeing in California mice.”

    But just because trainers have seen that winning effect in their athletes, they didn’t know why it happens or even how to best replicate the experience. Research on California mice shows that winning changes the way the brain detects androgens such as testosterone in future encounters. Testosterone fuels competitiveness and can raise confidence.

    Researchers have focused on California mice because they are extremely territorial, strictly monogamous and co-parent with their mate, so they closely reflect aspects of human behavior. The study of the link between baseline testosterone levels and aggression has been inconsistent in humans, so the California mouse provides a good model for understanding why the body and the brain react to testosterone in certain ways.

    “Through the California mouse work, we have shown that aggression is not just about testosterone, it’s about where it acts in the body and the brain,” Fuxjager said. “Your baseline level of testosterone isn’t always going to predict how you’re going to behave — it depends on what’s going on in the brain with androgen receptors.”

    Scientists have found evidence of this across species, according to Fuxjager’s latest study:

      • -The context of a fight makes a difference in hormone release. Male cichlid fish normally experience a large hormone release after winning a fight. But there is no hormone surge when that fight is with its own reflection in a mirror. This suggests that the competitor’s evaluation of his performance affects hormone release.

    -Male California mice that win a series of three competitions in their home cage are more likely to win subsequent competitions. That’s the home field advantage sports teams talk about.

    -Chimpanzees experience anticipatory testosterone release before regular territorial patrolling, likely to prepare them for an aggressive encounter. Pre-competition rituals could provide humans with the same pre-game surge to help them perform better and win.


  6. Daily movement program has positive impact on children’s learning

    July 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Loughborough University press release:

    Following a daily movement program can improve children’s physical development levels and has the potential to boost their chances in the classroom, researchers from Loughborough University have found.

    Academics from the University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences have been working with two schools and more than 40 Foundation Stage children in a year-long study.

    They found that those who took part in a daily movement program for one academic year showed greater improvements in throwing/catching, balance and manual dexterity compared to those not taking part in the program.

    The participating children also improved their overall levels of physical development from the 32nd percentile to the 50th (an improvement of approximately 18 percentile points) bringing them back in line with scores for children of the same age established in 2007.

    A child’s physical development level impacts their ability to complete simple tasks such as sitting still, holding a pencil, putting on their shoes, and reading — all skills essential for school.

    Tests carried out by the team in 2016 found a larger number than previously estimated were starting school with lower than desirable levels of physical development, with almost 30% of children presenting with symptoms typically associated with dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia), and ADHD.

    To try and redress this decline in pupils’ physical development Loughborough’s Dr Rebecca Duncombe and Professor Pat Preedy created ‘Movement for Learning’.

    The daily program gives children opportunities to move, improve fine and gross motor skills and inhibit primitive reflexes (baby reflexes that should no longer be present). Activities include throwing, catching, balancing, drawing large letters in the air, articulating sounds and skipping.

    To assess the effectiveness of the program the team recruited children from two schools, with some doing the daily Movement for Learning exercises and others not.

    “The results show a definite improvement for those children that took part in the Movement for Learning program,” explains Dr Duncombe. “We know that there is a link between physical development and achievement in the classroom so the findings of this research are especially important. We are hopeful that, as a result of this project, we will be able to help reverse the recent decline in physical readiness for school and for learning.”

    Professor Pat Preedy added: “Changes in our modern world mean that many children are moving less and are not developing the physical skills that they need for learning. It has been most rewarding to see how a short, daily program can help children to get back on track for learning.”

    Fifty other schools are currently following the Movement for Learning program and are due to provide feedback after the summer. The team plan to make the program freely available for all schools by 2018.


  7. Slow motion makes soccer referees more likely to give a red card

    July 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the KU Leuven press release:

    Video assistant refereeing in soccer has to be used with caution. Researchers at KU Leuven (University of Leuven), Belgium, have shown that refs are more likely to give red when they see a foul committed in slow motion, even when a yellow card is more justifiable. This is because fouls viewed in slow motion appear to be more serious.

    Soccer referees and the decisions they make are the subject of very heated debates in the canteen, at the kitchen table, and in the TV studio. soccer fans keep a vigilant eye on their every move and decision. These high demands have led to professionalization: more and more elite referees are full-time professionals and follow specific training programmes. Another consequence are the experiments with video assistant refereeing, whereby video assistant referees (VARs) support the referees and check the accuracy of decisions by replaying game situations in real time and in slow motion.

    Under the supervision of Professor Wim Helsen, sport scientist at KU Leuven and referee training expert, Jochim Spitz wrote a PhD on the impact of slow motion videos on soccer referees’ perception and decision-making process. He found that the effect of slow motion greatly depends on the type of decision that the referee has to make, as well as on the situation.

    For technical decisions on whether or not a foul was committed, watching slow motion videos only improved the accuracy in corner kick situations. “Corner kicks always involve many players, so slow motion may help spot the right fouls in the commotion,” Spitz explains.

    But for disciplinary sanctions on whether or not to give a card — and if so, which one — slow motion had a significant impact on the decision-making process. “We asked 88 European referees to take a disciplinary sanction for 60 game situations — yellow, red, or no card at all. They had to assess half of the situations after watching a video in real time and the other half based on slow motion videos. For each of these situations, a panel of UEFA experts had given us a benchmark decision. We found that referees judge more harshly when they are exposed to fouls in slow motion. In situations for which the benchmark decision was a yellow card, 20% percent of the referees gave red after watching the video in slow motion. In real time this was only 10%.”

    “The reason is that fouls viewed in slow motion appear to be more serious” Professor Werner Helsen explains. “This has major implications for the adequate use of video technology in soccer. Based on the results of this study, the International soccer Association Board (IFAB) has already issued guidelines for the use of slow motion videos: they can only be used to determine whether a foul was committed inside or outside the penalty area, or to locate the impact of a tackle on the opponent’s body.”


  8. Sport feels less strenuous if you believe it’s doing you good

    July 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Freiburg press release:

    “Sport is too much like hard work.” For many, that is reason enough to pass when it comes to exercise. But does sport really have to make you break into a sweat? Psychologist Hendrik Mothes of the Department of Sport Science at the University of Freiburg and his team discovered that one’s own expectations have a major influence on just how strenuous one perceives a unit of sport to be. The researchers also found that how the person doing the sport felt about himself or herself played a big role in this feeling of strain. Moreover, it can sometimes be smart to enlist help from supposedly useful sports products — if you believe in them. The results of the study have been published in PLOS ONE.

    The research team invited 78 men and women between 18 and 32 into the laboratory, where these test persons rode a stationary bicycle-ergometer for 30 minutes. Beforehand, they were asked to say how athletic they thought they were. And they were asked to put on a compression shirt produced by a well-known sporting goods manufacturer. During their exercise, they were asked every five minutes what level of strenuousness they were experiencing. Right before the exercise, the participants were assigned to different groups and shown one of several short films that either stressed the positive health effects of the coming cycling activity, or dampened the expectations. And the compression shirts were mentioned: In some of the films, the shirts were praised as an additional help in cycling, while other films indicated that they would make the test persons’ sweating comparable. “What the participants did not know was that we used these film clips with the aim of influencing their expectations of the coming cycling session,” Mothes says.

    The results showed, as expected, a self-fulfilling prophecy that the training unit was less strenuous for the test persons when they started out with a positive attitude. The more athletic the participants perceived themselves to be, the stronger this effect was. However, positive expectations did not help participants who considered themselves not very athletic. They found the training unit strenuous anyway. The researchers also found that believing in the compression shirt helped. To the subjects who considered themselves athletic, it made no difference; but for those who said they weren’t much good at sports, there was quite an effect. “Merely the belief that the shirt would help, did help the ‘unsporty’ subjects to have a lower perception of strenuousness during the exercise,” Mothes explains.

    These findings are further evidence that the placebo effect works when you do sport. And they show that is it does make a difference what you think about sport and its effects. “Not least, the findings impressively show for all those who don’t consider themselves to be great sportsmen and -women – the right product really can make sport more pleasant, if ‘only’ you believe in it.”


  9. Study suggests how a girl is raised can influence her adult sporting success

    July 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    The ability to produce peak performance plays a decisive role in the success of athletes in competitive sport. A desire to be the best is one of the most important traits in a top athlete, but where does this desire come from — are we born with it or is it a learned characteristic?

    Traditionally, research on female sporting success has focused on biological and genetic differences. A new study, published in the open-access journal, Frontiers in Psychology, instead looks at the motivation level of successful female footballers and whether their upbringing influences this desire to succeed.

    “We find that at higher competition levels, the more likely it is for female athletes to savour the more aggressive elements of a sporting contest,” says Danie Meyer-Parlapanis, who conducted this research as part of her PhD thesis at the University of Konstanz, Germany. “This is particularly the case when they have been raised in less traditional families and have greater engagement with more masculine interests and role models.”

    Meyer-Parlapanis and her co-authors asked ninety female football players, from the German premier and regional leagues, to fill in a questionnaire based on aggressive behaviour research in military troops. That research found that long-term combat produced a fascination and enthusiasm for direct confrontation, which can override self-control and inhibition. The desire to beat an opponent, whether that be in military combat or on the playing field is similar and can lead to a single-minded approach where victory becomes paramount.

    The answers to the questionnaires revealed that players from the premier league, deemed as the more successful athletes, exhibited greater fighting spirit and more pleasure in the game of football itself. When this result was compared to similar findings in the combative field, it suggested these players are less susceptible to distraction, fear and stress during the game.

    “But rather than focusing solely on the player’s appetite for success,” explains Meyer-Parlapanis, “we also examined how their upbringing and exposure to gender stereotypes influenced this feeling.”

    She continues, “How a child is raised, what toys and games are accessible, and what role models they see — both in and out of the home — all play direct roles in how they view themselves and experience the world around them. Non-traditional socialization can yield non-traditional outcomes. In this case, female athletes breaking with tradition to perform in a sport that, until 1970, was exclusively reserved for males. Additionally, moving further away from female stereotypes, many of these female athletes do more than simply play the game, they savour the battle on the pitch.”

    The authors of this study hope that their research will be used as a basis for examining how those with a minority status deal with and succeed in areas where they have not traditionally been expected to do well.

    Meyer-Parlapanis concludes, “In sport, there is a long road ahead for male and female equality in pay, status and media attention. Further research will serve to reduce stigma and raise more awareness to the challenges facing female athletes around the world.”


  10. Study suggests tennis cheats may be predicted by their moral standards

    July 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    When top athletes cheat it makes headline news. Retaliating badly to a foul, faking an injury, or deliberately harming an opponent can all result in a loss of credibility and respect. In some cases, it can lead to a loss of sponsorship and even long-term disqualification.

    So why do some athletes engage in immoral sporting conduct, when there is so much to lose?

    Previous research has discussed how the motivation for playing sport in the first place, as well as overall sporting morals and values, can lead to cheating behavior. A new study, published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology, examines these personal characteristics and links them to direct observations of cheating during tennis matches.

    “We find that tennis players who use sport to boost their egos, and view success as their ability to outperform others by winning at all costs, tend to condone cheating and other dubious methods of gaining an advantage during match play. However, those players who strive to be the best they can be, and interpret success through their own personal improvement, tend to respect sporting rules and social conventions,” says Fabio Lucidi, Professor of Psychometrics at Sapienza University of Rome, Italy and lead author of the study. “Our most important discovery is that these attitudes can have a direct influence on whether a player cheats during a tennis match.”

    Lucidi and his colleagues surveyed hundreds players participating in the 2012 LemonBowl in Rome — one of the most important international tennis tournaments for young competitive players. They asked questions that could be used to measure a player’s sporting values, ultimate sporting goals (self-improvement or increased status), and attitudes towards cheating and dubious match play. Rather than ask the players directly whether they cheated or acted immorally during a match, a number of independent observers were used to record this behavior.

    “We used trained observers to assess cheating and dubious behavior during competitive matches. By doing this, we could rule out any bias from answers given by the players themselves. Cheating behavior is generally viewed as socially and culturally undesirable and their answers would be likely to reflect this,” says Lucidi.

    The answers given by the players revealed a connection between certain moral values and the acceptance of cheating behavior. These characteristics were then directly linked to the observation of cheating behavior during match play. While previous research has discussed the possible link between cheating and moral attitudes, this is the first study to have linked them directly.

    “Parents often encourage sporting activities for their children, assuming that it will help them develop a correct sense of morality. While this assumption might hold true in some cases, our study suggests that playing sport may actually elicit behavior that is ethically or morally inappropriate” says Lucidi.

    He continues, “Indirectly, our study highlights ways that parents or coaches can promote good sporting behavior in children. For instance, coaches should promote values of personal success and achievement, rather than those of ego and status, in order to decrease the risk of antisocial or ethically inappropriate behavior in sport.”

    It is hoped that this research will act as a basis for future studies clarifying the psychology of cheating in sport. “More direct observations of cheating across different sporting disciplines and professional levels are needed. It would be interesting to see how sporting values, moral standards and views on cheating develop over an athlete’s sporting career,” concludes Lucidi.