Self-perception of competence in sports may be more important than actual skill

The connection between exercise and sports participation in the physical and emotional well-being of adults has been well established. While not as extensive, there is also research showing links between exercise, sports participation and reduced emotional and behavioral problems in children and adolescents.

In a recent article published in Adolescence, researchers Sarah. J. Donaldson and Kevin R. Ronan advance that research by focusing on the impact on adolescents, ages 11-13.

The study of 203 adolescents in New Zealand found that greater participation in sports enhanced emotional and behavioral well-being and a sense of competence. The children, primarily from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds, reported significantly lower levels of social problems compared with those who engaged in fewer formal sports.

One important finding of the research is that young adolescents “may not necessarily have to be competent at sports in order to gain psychological benefits from participation.” Participants who perceived themselves to be competent at a sport reported fewer emotional and behavioral problems than those judged competent by an outside observer. A positive relationship was found between the young adolescents’ participation in sports and some domains of self-concept.

“Young adolescents who were classified as high participators in a range of formal and informal sports activities reported significantly higher levels of perceived athletic competence, social competence, and global self-worth as compared to low participators,” the researchers write.

This finding contradicts previous studies, which did not find a connection to other non-sport-related domains of self-concept. They suggest that one reason their study found a connection that others did not is that they used a multi-dimensional measure of self-concept. Also, the connection is much stronger for formal sports rather than informal sports.

Students who thought of themselves as competent in athletics were less likely to report problems such as somatic complaints, anxiety/depression problems, social problems, and attention problems on the Youth Self- Report. The researchers caution, however, that teachers reported only that they were less likely to have attention problems.

Emphasize mastery over winning

The researchers suggest that their findings may point to the need to focus more on enhancing perceptions of athletic competence rather than focusing solely on increasing actual competence. They cite New Zealand’s “Look Sharp” holiday sport program in which youth get a chance to try a variety of physical activities, as one potential model. In this program focused on getting youth to adopt exercise habits as part of their life skills, adolescents get to try sports in groups of peers of similar ability in a safe, non-threatening environment.

To encourage improved self-perception of athletic competence, the researchers suggest that educators encourage a learning environment while promoting autonomy. “Success defined in terms of mastery-based and person-based goals rather than on winning may have long-term psychological benefits,” they say.

Some 203 participants ages 11-13 years completed a self-reported battery of instruments: the Youth Self-Report, the Self-Perception Profile for Children and a sports questionnaire developed for the study. A teacher rating was also included to provide an independent rating of participants’ sports ability. The battery of three questionnaires took about 30-45 minutes to complete.

The Youth Self Report is a widely used assessment of the social and emotional development of youth designed to capture reports of competencies. The Self-Perception Profile for Children also measures children’s judgments of their competence as well as sense of self-worth and self-esteem.  The third measure, The Sports Participation and Attitudes Questionnaire for Children and Adolescents, asks students questions about what sports they have participated in, for how long, and if they have won prizes, awards, etc. The study is based on an analysis of these assessments.

“The Effects of Sports Participation on Young Adolescents’ Emotional Well-Being”, by Sarah J. Donaldson and Kevin R. Ronan, Adolescence, Summer 2006, pps. 369-388.

Published in ERN, October 2006, Volume 19, Number 7

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