Hope and Athletic Performance

Both flow and hope have been apparent in high performing athletes since the first Olympic games almost 3,000 years ago. However, Curry et al. (1997) point out that psychology researchers had never explored it because there wasn’t a measurable theory to use. Enter hope theory in the early 1990s. C.L. Snyder and his colleagues proposed a mechanistic definition of hope as a person’s perception of their own agency, or motivation, and their ability to map pathways towards achieving goals. This two pronged theory with specific mechanisms made it possible to design and refine measurement tools for detecting levels of agency levels of agency and pathways relative to certain goals. Athletes were a natural place to start looking for how hope plays out in the real world. Curry et al. (1997) applied hope theory to college athletes’ academic and athletic performances. 

What:

Three studies to evaluate the role of hope in predicting academic and athletic performance.

Study 1: 46 NCAA Division 1 athletes and 44 non-athlete undergraduates at the University of Montana. They took dispositional hope surveys and researchers analyzed the survey results to see if they predicted semester GPAs. 

Study 2: nine cross-country runners at the University of Montana. They took hope surveys and surveys of other psychological indicators like self-esteem. Researchers analyzed their survey results to see if they predicted their athletic performance at seven track meets throughout the season. 

Study 3: 106 NCAA Division 1 track athletes from the 1993 Big Eight Conference schools. The participants took the dispositional hope survey. These results were compared with their athletic abilities and track season achievements. 

Hope predicted performance. High hope scale scores significantly predicted both academic and athletic performance across all three studies. 

Why:

Hope measures something different from other psychological scales. The evidence is clear here that hope predicted goal achievement more effectively than other theories like self-esteem or mood. 

Hope measures something different even within a person. By breaking down agency and pathways, hope theory provides a measurable framework for understanding peoples’ goal attainment capabilities. 

Aspects of hope theory line up with the coaching tenets of learn, be, do. To have agency, or the energy to pursue a goal, you need to learn and do. To create pathways to reach a goal, you need to learn and do. Achieving a goal is the result of doing, but it is ultimately a question of being. It’s an integrative understanding of some of the psychological mechanisms underlying the coaching methodology. 

How:

Curry et al. (1997) first compared college athletes with non-athletes to compare their general hope scores as well as how they related to academic achievement. Their hypothesis was that college athletes would score higher on both counts because they are inherently goal oriented. 

The 170 participants in the first study were from two distinct groups from the University of Montana. The first group was 46 NCAA Division 1 athletes enrolled at the university. The second group was 44 non-athlete undergraduate students. 

All participants filled out the Dispositional Hope Scale, which Snyder and others proposed in 1995. This scale is designed to measure general hope attitudes, or dispositions, rather than hope oriented towards any specific goal. Participants score themselves on a scale of 1-8 for 12 questions. The score itself is the sum of questions that measure agency and questions that measure pathways. Since there are different questions targeting each of the two hope mechanisms, the scale can reveal whether someone has low hope on just one of them, or both. The scale scores were compared with semester GPA. 

The athletes scored higher in dispositional hope than non-athletes, and high hope scores correlated significantly with high GPAs. The researchers’ hunch was right – athletes’ inherently goal-oriented thinking spilled over to their academic performance. 

In a second study, the researchers examined their hypothesis that hope scores would correlate with athletic performance in nine cross-country runners at the University of Montana. The researchers gave the participants hope scale questionnaires to fill out, measured their practice training effort during the season, and collected their event results from seven track meets, totaling 51 results.  

The nine athletes filled out a dispositional hope scale, a state hope scale, a state self-esteem scale, a state sport confidence scale, and a mood scale. The dispositional scale is the same tool used in the first study. The State Hope Scale is targeted to specific goals – the questions are re-worded to the present tense (“At the present time, I am energetically pursuing my goals,”). The state self-esteem, sport confidence, and mood scales were included for comparison purposes to reveal whether the hope scales were more accurate predictors of performance. The researchers performed a statistical analysis to compare how all the scales lined up with athletic performance during the track season.

The results revealed that both hope scales (dispositional and state) significantly predicted athletic performance. The most interesting piece, however, is that the other psychological indicators (self-esteem, sport confidence, and mood) did not. This suggests that hope could be a unique indicator of the likelihood of goal achievement, at least in athletic settings. 

A third study elaborated on the above findings. The researchers examined whether hope scores were better predictors than raw athletic ability at actual goal attainment. They also looked at how positive and negative emotions compared with hope at correlating with performance.

For study three, 106 NCAA Division 1 track athletes from 8 schools participated. They took the dispositional hope survey and a survey targeting positive and negative emotions for comparison. To measure their physical ability, their coaches took surveys targeting the athletes’ raw physical talent with explicit instructions not to consider anything else such as work ethic or attitude.

Results of the third study showed that hope was a solid predictor of athletic performance. In contrast to the first two studies, the measured variables also showed some correlation. The negative psychological affect factor was also significant, suggesting that athletes that worry experience reduced performance. 

References:

Curry, L.A., Snyder, C.R., Cook, D.L., Ruby, B.C., and Rehm, M. 1997. Role of Hope in Academic and Sport Achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73(6): pp. 1257 – 1267.

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