Athletics as a Predictor of Self-esteem and Approval Motivation

Abstract

Past research has found a negative correlation between the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation (Larsen, Martin, Ettinger, & Nelson, 1976). This relationship has not been explored specifically for individuals who participate in athletics. The purpose of this study was to compare athletes and non-athletes on their levels of self-esteem and approval motivation, and to determine if a positive correlation exists for athletes in contrast to the negative correlation found in the general college population. A significant difference was found between athletes and non-athletes in their levels of self-esteem and approval motivation.

Previous research has been conducted in order to identify and explore personal attributes which are associated with participation in sports. There has been a significant relationship found between athletics and the attribute of self-esteem (Kumar, Pathak, & Thakur, 1985). Studies based on the general population suggest a significant negative relationship between self-esteem and an attribute known as approval motivation. Self-esteem is defined as, “an intrapsychic structure: an attitude about the self” (Baumeister, Tice, & Hutton, 1989, p. 547). Coopersmith (1967) defined self-esteem as “the evaluation which the individual makes and customarily maintains with regard to himself” (p. 4-5). Kawash and Scherf (1975) asserted that, “there is probably no personality trait more significant in the context of total psychological functioning than self-esteem” (p. 715). Approval motivation is defined as the desire to produce positive perceptions in others and the incentive to acquire the approval of others as well as the desire to avoid disapproval (Martin, 1984; Shulman & Silverman, 1974).

Geen (1991) listed three conditions that he felt must be met before he considered approval motivation to have occurred. First, an individual must be in direct contact with a person or a group of people, such as an audience or a partner or partners in interaction. Next, the social presence has a nondirective effect. This means that the social group does not provide direct cues on how the person should act in the situation. Finally, the socially generated effect on the individual is considered an intrapsychic state, and this state is capable of initiating and/or intensify behavior.

Research has shown that an individual’s level of approval motivation can be used to predict how he or she will react to expectations or influences of others. Smith and Flenning (1971) conducted a study that investigated the connection between subjects’ need for approval and their susceptibility to subtle unintended influence of biased experimenters. They found that individuals with a high need for approval altered their behavior in the direction of the experimenter’s expectancy, while those in the low approval motivation group did not. Past research has also found a negative correlation to exist between self-esteem and approval motivation (Larsen, Martin, Ettinger, & Nelson, 1976). This indicates that as an individual’s level of self-esteem increases, their need for approval from others decreases. There is no research at this time that has examined the relationship of athletic participation on the negative correlation between self-esteem and approval motivation or on approval motivation alone. However, research has examined the affect of athletic participation and coaching style on self-esteem.

Taylor (1995) conducted a study where he compared athletic participants and nonparticipants in order to ascertain if participating in intercollegiate athletics had an effect on self-esteem. He reported that athletic participation did have a positive effect on self-esteem, but it was not strong enough to have a statistically significant effect on its own. Kumar, Pathak and Thakur (1985) compared individual athletes, team athletes, and non-athletes on their levels of self-esteem using the Self-esteem Inventory (Prasad & Thakur, 1977). The Self-esteem Inventory (Prasad & Thakur, 1977) had two subscales: the personally perceived self, and the socially perceived self. They found that individual athletes were significantly higher on personally perceived self and socially perceived self than team athletes and non-athletes.

Research examining coaching behaviors has found that a coach’s instructional style can have an impact on individual’s with low self-esteem. Smoll, Smith, Barnett, and Everett (1993) examined the effect of coach’s instructional style on self-esteem. Eighteen male head coaches and 152 male Little League Baseball players were studied with 8 of the head coaches participating in a workshop that was designed to increase their supportiveness and instructional effectiveness. A preseason measure of self-esteem of the 152 players who played under the 18 coaches was taken. Post-season measures of the players’ self-esteem were assessed and compared to their preseason score. It was found that players who scored low on self-esteem in the preseason assessment showed a significant increase in their general self-esteem scores in the postseason assessment.

There has been no research conducted at this time that has examined the variable of approval motivation among athletes. However, research investigating other aspects of athletic participation suggests a need for approval among athletes. For example, research in conformity has found that rookies and newcomers to teams quickly learn and adopt attitudes and behaviors of veteran players and team leaders. This influence can be found to affect the athletes’ beliefs and behaviors in both athletic and non-athletic situations (Carron, 1980). Also, Harris (1973) examined the motivational factors related to athletic participation and concluded that motivational forces such as love, social approval, status, security and achievement are basic components to the overall motivational structure which would encourage someone toward athletic participation. Finally, additional research conducted by Smith (1990) indicated that some athletes continue to participate in sports although they do not want to in order to avoid letting down coaches or family members (as cited in Thorton, 1990).

The purpose of this study was to compare athletes and non-athletes on levels of self-esteem and approval motivation. The researchers proposed the following hypothesis. First, there would be a significant difference between athletes and non-athletes in levels of self-esteem and approval motivation. Second, for non-athletes, as supported by past research, there would be a negative correlation between the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation. Finally, for athletes, the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation would be positively correlated.

Methods
Four hundred ninety-two undergraduate students over the age of 18 attending core courses at a small southern university volunteered to participate in this study. There were 94 athletes and 398 non-athletes with the participant’s ages ranging from 18 years to 49 years, with a mean age of 21.95 years. Participants were provided with a description of the project and inform consent forms prior to receiving the questionnaire.

After returning the signed informed consent forms, participants were given a questionnaire that contained a demographics sheet, Revised Martin-Larsen Approval Motivation Scale (MLAM) (Martin, 1984), and the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale (RSS) (Rosenberg, 1989). The MLAM is a questionnaire consisting of 20 statements designed on a five point Likert-type scale. This instrument measures an individuals level of approval motivation “by assessing both the desire to receive positive evaluations and social reinforcements and avoid negative evaluations and social punishment” (Martin, 1984, p.509). The MLAM has a total range of summative scores from 20 to 100 and a total range of mean scores from one to five. Higher scores indicate a greater need for social approval while lower scores indicate a lower need for approval. This scale has stability coefficients ranging from .73 to .93, and a reliability coefficient of .79.

The RSS is a ten item Guttman scale designed to measure an individuals level of self-esteem. It is unidimensional, which means that individuals may be ranked along a single continuum from very low to very high. Scores range from 10 to 40 with higher scores indicating a higher level of self-esteem and lower scores indicating a lower level of self-esteem. This measure has been found to have a test-retest reliability of .85 (Rosenberg, 1989).

The survey required approximately 35 to 40 minutes to take and participants were allowed to withdraw at any time without penalty. Participants did not place their names on the answer sheet and their signed informed consents were kept separate from their answer sheets to insure anonymity. All participants were treated according to the ethical guidelines concerning research set forth by the American Psychological Association.

Results
The data was analyzed using a multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) to determine if there was a significant difference between athletes and non-athletes on the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation. The MANOVA revealed that there was a significant main effect found between the two groups (see Table 1). The results of the MANOVA also revealed that there were no interaction effects between the two groups. This supported the first hypothesis that there was a significant difference between athletes and non-athletes on the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation.

Table 1
Degrees of Freedom, F Values, and Levels of Significance for Self-esteem and Approval Motivation
df F Sig.
Self-esteem 1 21.8685 .0001
Approval motivation 1 4.2735 .0392

A Pearson r correlation was computed to examine the nature of the relationship between the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation for both the athlete and non-athlete groups. For non-athletes, a negative correlation was found to exist between the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation (r = -.4503, p< .001). This finding is consistent with the findings of past research that examined the relationship between self-esteem and approval motivation in the general population (Larsen, Martin, Ettinger, & Nelson, 1976). The second hypothesis of this study was supported.

A negative correlation was found to exist between the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation for the group consisting of college athletes (r = -.4534, p< .001). Resulting in the rejection of hypothesis three. This finding suggests that athletes, like non-athletes, exhibit a negative correlation between the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation.

Discussion
The findings of this study suggest that there is a significant difference between athletes and non-athletes on the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation. These findings mirror those of Kumar, Pathak, and Thakur (1985) who found that athletes have higher levels of self-esteem than non-athletes. In this study, a portion of the subjects were Division I college aged athletes. There are several factors that may have contributed to these athletes having higher self-esteem than non-athletes, such as receiving special treatment. For example, many of these athletes may have received scholarships to college for their athletic skills, been allowed to travel to other schools to compete, and had access to uniforms and other athletic wear that served to set them apart from their non-athletic peers. In addition, these athletes may have received special attention from the press and fans, and received certain rewards that non-athletes have not received. Further, athletes have the unique opportunity to develop close friendships with team members and identify with the team itself.

Results of the current study indicate that there is a statistically significant difference between athletes and non-athletes on the variable of approval motivation. However, despite being statistically significant there is some question as to whether these findings have everyday applicability (see Table 2). Further research is needed to determine if there is a true behavioral difference between athletes and non-athletes on the variable approval motivation, and if so what aspect of athletic participation is responsible for this difference.

Table 2
Means and Standard Deviations for Athletes and Non-Athletes
on the Variables of Self-esteem and Approval Motivation
Mean Standard Deviation
Self-esteem Approval Motivation Self-esteem Approval Motivation
Athletes 34.1064 2.5840 4.6315 .4373
Non-athletes 31.3668 2.7045 5.2139 .5234

There are a number of possible reasons why the need for athletes to receive praise or to avoid the rejection of others, is met through sport participation. Athletes, especially at the collegiate level, receive many benefits from participating in sports. For example, athletes receive praise and support from their parents, peers, coaches, fans, and community. In addition, personal rewards are obtained through the athlete’s athletic prowess and identity with the team. Many of the athletes competing at the Division I collegiate level bring with them to college successful high school experiences in athletics. Therefore, athletes in this study may have received approval for a number of years through athletic participation. Due to the history of approval and reward associated with athletic participation, athletes may not need to engage in further approval seeking behaviors.

It should be noted that the athletes in this study are most likely the elite athletes from their high school programs. They are good at what they do and have excelled in athletics for many years. Therefore, the athletes in this study due to their history of athletic success, may be more likely to participate in Division I athletics. Athletes with low self-esteem and high needs for approval may not be as likely to reach Division I college athletics. Future research may wish to examine approval motivation and self-esteem in youth sports and high school athletics to determine if there is consistency of findings.

As predicted, there was a negative correlation found between self-esteem and approval motivation for non-athletes. This finding was consistent with those of Larsen, Martin, Ettinger, & Nelson (1976) who also examined the relationship between approval motivation and self-esteem in the general population. However, what was not predicted was the negative correlation that was found between the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation for the group of collegiate athletes. Although there was a significant difference between athletes and non-athletes on their levels of approval motivation, these results imply that athletic participation does not alter the negative relationship between self-esteem and approval motivation. The results of this study suggest that athletes are more likely to view themselves positively and see themselves as worthy and are less likely to engage in approval seeking behavior than non-athletes.

The findings of this study lead to several additional questions concerning the difference between athletes and non-athletes on the variables of self-esteem and approval motivation. Future research may wish to explore factors that contribute to the differences found in self-esteem and approval motivation for athletes, such as the number of years experience, ethnicity, gender, and types of athletic experience.

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