Relationship between competitive sport and self esteem

The present study examined the relationship between competitive sport and self esteem. The sample included both female and male participants who were divided into two groups, athletes (N=20) and non-athletes (N=20)

An athlete was defined as an individual between the ages of 15-25 years old who was currently involved in organized competitive figure skating for at least 10 hours per week. A non-athlete was defined as an individual between the ages of 15-25 years old who was not currently involved in organized, competitive skating for at least 10 hours per week. The measures used in this study were Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (1965), the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory (1981), for all participants to measure their self esteem. In addition, the figure skater’s athletic identity was evaluated by using the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale developed by Brewer et al. (1993). The global hypothesis was that competitive sport would have a negative impact on the individuals and that there would be a significant difference in self esteem scores between the athletes and non-athletes. More specifically it was hypothesized that the athletes would present trends as to why their self-esteem was lower than the non-athletes. Results of the independent t Tests refuted the hypothesis that there would be a significant difference between athletes and non-athletes.

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Sport is commonly defined as an organized, competitive and skillful physical activity requiring commitment and fair play. It is practiced all over the world in different countries. A competitive athlete is proficient in their sport and dedicates their time and money to competition and training. A competitive athlete is someone who has competed in organized, competitive figure skating sport for more than 10 hours per week. Competitive athletes can fall under the amateur level (college and university) or the professional level (not attending school). Being a competitive athlete involves time, dedication and hard work. It involves being at the rink, tennis court or pool all the time.

To simultaneously develop a career in competitive sport and commitment to education, work and personal life is not easy today as it was a few years ago (Bussmann,1995). This challenge will become more difficult in the future because the competitive calendar is becoming more demanding each year. (Bussmann, 1995). A career in competitive sport is only possible if an athlete commits themselves to hard work, dedication, training, and a tight time structure with their competition season.

Coakley (1992) found that a major aspect that leads athletes to experience feelings of entrapment included identity development, self esteem and life balance issues. If athletes have more facets to their personal identity that just sport, they are less likely to burnout. It is important for athletes to have a healthy balance. Focusing too much on any given sport can lead to feelings of hopelessness, failure and resentment to their sport. A healthy balance is the ultimate goal in an athlete’s life.

Despite the importance of a healthy balance in an athlete’s life, Orlick and Partington (1988) pointed out that the key to elite athleticism was a total commitment to pursuing excellence. This total commitment to sport was found to be the distinguishing factor between successful and unsuccessful competitive athletes. Therefore, in order to achieve or maintain athletic success, an athlete must sacrifice this healthy balance to capitalize on their physical talents.

Self esteem is an example of a sacrifice some athletes experience, to attain success. Often athletes push themselves so hard, that failure or lack of perfectionism can negatively affect their self esteem. Athletes are especially vulnerable to this problem of attaching self-esteem to one’s performances because they are judged by how well they perform. This is specifically evident in figure skating, where participants are constantly judges by their coaches in practices, judges in competitions, and themselves almost daily. However, society sends subtle signals that they must achieve in their sport to feel worthy as a person and that is the trap that many athletes fall into. In addition, if an athlete is a perfectionist, it can further affect their self-esteem because they have such high expectations and are always so critical and hard on themselves. If athletes fall into this trap, their emotions, and how they feel about themselves, are heavily influenced by the perceptions of their performance, which can naturally vary from day to day. Your self esteem may fluctuate based on performance or practices.

Although previous research has investigated the psychological effects of competitive sport, few studies have examined competitive figure skaters and their self esteem. The research area studied was sport psychology, and the topics were athletes, non-athletes and self esteem. A subtopic measured was athletic identity.

The global hypothesis was that competitive sport would have a negative impact on the individuals and that there would be a significant different in self esteem scores between the athletes and non-athletes. More specifically it was hypothesized that the athletes would present trends as to why their self-esteem was lower than the non-athletes.

Conceptual Framework

The main theory behind the study was the need for research. More research was required on competitive figure skaters and self esteem, as figure skating can produce high fluctuations of self esteem. Theory plays a large part in my study because the ideas behind my theory came from personal experiences as an athlete. I have a close personal connection to my study, as I was once a competitive figure skater, who was immersed in the sport and identified quite strongly with the athlete role. When I retired, I experienced low self-esteem and identity foreclosure. Attempts were made in the study, to see if there were similarities between my experiences as a competitive figure skater and my participants.

The study was both descriptive and explanatory in nature. I attempted to describe my data and explain why and how it happened. Descriptive statistics were used to analyze the quantitative data obtained through the surveys. It was explanatory in nature and I attempted to explain my findings and why self esteem affected competitive athletes. An attempt was made to understand of why competitive sport affects athletes so strongly, specifically self-esteem.

My paradigm and perspective was post-positivist and deductive. I developed a hypothesis and set out to prove it with my data. I attempted to produce factual information through my survey research, however I still had a personal connection to the topic.

Literature Review

Self Esteem

Self-esteem reflects a person’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own image, perception. The term self-esteem encompasses beliefs and emotions such as triumph, despair, pride and shame. A person’s low self-esteem may be reflected in their behaviour, such as shyness, or caution.

Self Esteem and the Competitive Athlete

In a study done by Koivula (2002), 30 Swedish elite athletes were assessed on their self esteem and perfectionism levels. It was concluded that the setting of high standards is an integral part of elite sports, and often beneficial for the athlete’s performance. However, individuals who suffer from perfectionism may have heightened levels of anxiety, due to discrepancies between ideal and current self/situation. This could, of course be detrimental to their sport performance.

The differences cited between athletes and non-athletes in self-esteem in the Huddy and Cash (1997) study were based on comparing athletes involved in individual sports (running and swimming) to a group of non-athletes. Therefore, it may be the case that individual-sport athlete’s benefit more from participation in physical activity than do those athletes involved in group-type sports when it comes to having a positive effect on self- esteem. This could also be detrimental to their self-esteem because an individual sport requires extreme mental toughness, concentration, pressure and a much higher degree of accountability.

Most research hasn’t focused on figure skaters, their self-esteem and the impacts of this competitive sport. There is a definite need for research in this area, because figure skating demands psychological and mental strength from an athlete. The present study will add to the work done by Hall and Durborow (1986) and Frost (2005) who studied self esteem in high school college athletes, with Hall and Durborow, studying specifically female athletes. These studies failed to include figure skaters as a competitive sport. It is hoped that from the present study that some insight will be found on if and why figure skaters suffer from low self-esteem and future research may come from it.

Athlete Identity

Most research done on athletic identity was done in the early twentieth century. Identity answers the question “Who am I”? Athlete identity is “the degree to which an individual identifies with an athlete role.” (Brewer, et al) Sense of self is the realization and knowledge of who you are as a person; athletes might know who they are and define themselves through sport. Having a strong sense of self is important in shaping your identity.

Brewer, Van Raalte, and Linder developed the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS) and tested it with college students (athletes and non-athletes). They tested based on a rating scale handed out in the form of a survey. Athletic identity differences between males and females were tested and in three studies, they found that males had a significantly higher athletic identity than females. The researchers reasoned that American society places a greater emphasis on sport for males than for females. Coakley (1990), supported this finding with his analysis that girls are less likely to learn that physical activities and achievements in sport can or should be uniquely important sources of rewards in their lives. If girls do not receive as many rewards for their participation in sports, they are less likely to develop a strong athletic identity. (Coakley, 1990)

Athletes who are more immersed in their role in sport will identify themselves with more certainty than others (Adler, 1991). Forty college basketball players competitive in their sport were tested by Adler and Adler (1991) and were found to identify themselves as “student-athletes”. This is a common identification among college athletes and is a desirable status symbol with a strong sense of belonging and self esteem. Those with a very strong athletic identity tend to interpret events, such performance and practice sessions, in terms of how it affects their athletic involvement. A strong athletic identity tends to increase an individual’s commitment to sport, but those with an exclusive athletic identity tend to have emotional difficulties when they had performances or their competitive careers end. Those with a strong athletic identity spend more time with teammates and coaches who further strengthen their athletic identity. These were findings done in a recent study by Horton and Mack (2000). Alpine skiers were tested and viewed in conjunction with other aspects of one’s self-concept, that “athletic identity plays a significant role in understanding one’s cognitive structure and social role composition”. (Horton, 2000) However, if an athlete exclusively identifies with the athletic role, he/she has an increased risk of experiencing a severe emotional disruption during a career transition

One very interesting study previously conducted involved identity and athletic retirement. It is the most recent and relevant study done that relates to my own intended research. The study was conducted by Lally (2007), to examine the relationship between identity and athletic retirement using a longitudinal, prospective design. One-on-one in-depth interviews were conducted with three males and three female university student competitive athletes at three times: at the outset of their last season of competition, approximately 1 month after their retirement, and approximately 1 year later. The results revealed that the participants committed themselves strongly to their athletic goals and anticipated disrupted identities upon retirements. The study concludes that the redefinition of self long before sport career termination may protect one’s identify during this transition process. (Lally, 2007)

The Importance of Sport

Sport is a great way to get involved and stay active and healthy. Evidence has shown that there are significant benefits to participating in sport. For example in a study done with high school students states that “extra-curricular sport participation throughout high school is a good predictor of having a good job with autonomy at the age of 24” (Eccles, 2003). This study looked at sport and youth development and shows only the impact of sport at a high school level.

Sport is a social process and involves engaging with others and meeting new people. Many important relationships are formed in sport and an athlete often forms relationships solely within their sport. Athlete-coach, athlete-athlete and athlete-parent are examples of important relationships developed in the sport environment (Jowett, 2006). These examples were studied by Jowett among Olympic medalists, who trained very hard and fall under the competitive athlete category.

Sport can positively affect a person’s self esteem and give them a sense of satisfaction. A study done by Findlay and Bowker (2009) explored specific aspects of sports and individuals on 4 levels (physical competence and physical appearance self-concept, global physical and general self-esteem). Three hundred and fifty one adolescents were studied from elite sports and regular school classrooms. Participants were separated into group based on sports participation (elite athletes, competitive athletes, and non-athletes). The level of athleticism was found to be “positively related to physical competence and appearance self-concept and general self-esteem.” (Findlay, 2009) This study is a positive indicator as to why people compete and identity with sports. Unfortunately this study was very large and broad and therefore wasn’t overly clear and concise.

Competition and Sport

Competition is a large part of sport and involves a direct comparison of performance against others or one’s own goals. Sport needs to have goals or the outcomes seem meaningless. Athletes are driven to achieve goals and improve on performance.

Competitors enjoy winning. This simply put is the driving force behind competitive sport and athletes. There is a joy from accomplishment and an intrinsic value with competing and performing at your best. A competitive athlete trains day after day to perform their best when the day of competition arrives. Although many athletes see positive effects from competition, there are also are many negative side effects to competitive sport. Competition can be difficult from a practical standpoint because it doesn’t, contrary to public belief, improve performance, creativity or productivity. It can also be psychologically detrimental because it leads to anxiety, lower self-esteem and dependence on external evaluation (Kohn, 1992). This was argued in Alfie Kohn’s (1992) book, No Contest: the Case against Competition. However athletes still pursue further training and dedicate themselves to becoming a competitive athlete. It is also the love of their sport that drives them to continue to train hard and push themselves to be the very best. Athletes often become so involved and immersed in their sport that training and competing becomes an everyday routine and way of life, therefore identifying with the sport. The sense of accomplishment and pride that comes with winning a prize or medal is huge. There is no greater feeling in the world. To obtain this feeling, athletes often have to push themselves to the point of psychological impact. With success, comes sacrifice, often affecting self-esteem and confidence.

Production of the Competitive Athlete

For athletes in highly competitive sports, discipline and dedication are required to pursue excellence in sport. Success depends on multiple factors an athlete must strive to work towards in order to gain maximum results. Coaches and athletes understand that repetitive training and immersion in practice drills will develop the athletes’ skills necessary to perform well and to reach their goals. A large part of sport involves mental toughness, focus and concentration. “Concentration and determination and focus are often the deciding factors in the outcome of athletic competition” (Nideffer R. &., 2001). Regardless of the specific sport, attention and concentration are essential for success. These were findings by Nideffer and Sagal (2001) in their study done with elite skiers. They found that attention and control are keys to becoming successful athletes. The more concentrated and focused on a sport an athlete is, the greater the results will be.

Continuing success at an elite level requires athletes to devote more time to their sport and focus their entire life on training, managing specific diets, maintaining fitness levels and preparation and focus for competitions. Competitive athletes who tend to spend more time immersed in the sport, will get transformed, and often identify themselves strongly as an athlete. As the competitive athlete devotes more of their life involved in their sport their ability to identify with that sport becomes increasingly evident (Horton, 2000). Significant life changes can happen in competitive sport. As the world of sport gets faster, stronger and more successful, the demands from training and performance increase.

Psychological Impact of Competitive Sport

Injuries are on example of why self-esteem may be lower in competitive athletes. Some research has been done to date on the psychological effects from an injury however within the last decade; the main physiological dimensions of sport injury to the exclusion of psychological dimensions have been looked at in detail (Petitpas, 1995). *** injuries with figure skaters

In an argument and analysis done by Cupal (1998), from Utah State University, psychological interventions are needed when an athlete suffers from an injury. Most of this article focuses on what needs to be done and what has been done in the past with post injury psychological testing and intervention of athletes. More work is needed on illustrating how an athlete’s injury affects their sense of self and identity. The mind is very powerful and can be greatly affected by injury (Cupal, 1998).

In a study done by Johnston and Carroll (2000); looked at the variation of psychological impact of injury based on sport. It was mentioned that “to date there are only 4 published reports of sports involvement as a factors of injury” (Johnston and Carroll, 2000). They also concluded that the more involved an athlete is within their sport the greater negative impact, and injury will have psychologically. This study was completed by giving them questionnaires, highlighting which sport they were involved in, training regimens and post injury effects. It was an important study because it showed more competitive athletes having experienced the greatest hardships when an injury happens. It also gave the reader an indicator of which sport-related injuries have the greatest psychological impact.

Mental toughness and focus are contributing factors of success in sport. Sports psychology has a distant role in the acceptance and recovery of athletic injuries. Stress-related factors are the most common among psychological factored to influence an injury. (Anderson & Williams, Psychological risk factors : Injury prediction and preventive measures, 1998) They developed a theory on psychological factors that contribute to injuries. They vaguely show how injuries can develop from stress, depression, lack of motivation, but fail to show how the mind is affected when the injury occurs.

An athlete’s recovery can be vastly influenced by their mental ability to cope. After an injury the brain goes through psychological reactions to what has just happened. The five stage process includes denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (Hardy, 1990). This five stage process fails to consider athlete identity after injury.

There are four other psychological reactions associated with athletic injuries. Identity loss, fear and anxiety, lack of confidence and performance decrements are all part of the mind’s way of dealing or reacting to what has happened (Petitpas, 1995).

Figure Skating as a Competitive Sport

For the purpose of the present study figure skating will be the competitive sport of choice. Figure skating is the epitome of all things sport. Athletes must have the stamina of both a short and long distance runner, strength of a hockey player and the grace of an equestrian rider. Figure skating offers its participant’s unparalleled opportunity to achieve personal success, fitness and strength. The competitive figure skating experience lends itself to the acquisition of life skills including determination, mental toughness, focus and respect. Figure skating teaches good, wholesome values, commitment, the pursuit of excellence, healthy competition, resources and health and well being. Achieving excellence demands a lot of time, most competitive figure skaters are at the rink 10-15 hours per week depending on age and achievement level desired. Their training regimens include on-ice training, off- ice conditioning workouts, ballet classes and nutrition and psychology seminars among other demands.

Figure skating is primarily an individual sport. Unlike more traditional sports, figure skaters do not have teammates to rely on for social and athletic support, and they alone are responsible for their competitive outcomes. Thus, figure skaters may experience considerable pressure and performance anxiety than athletes in other sports.

Figure skating requires its athletes to make sacrifices that are not required of athletes in many other sports. One such example is the significant financial investment for the athlete by his or her family, and the expenses are much greater than those incurred in many other sports. The cost of a pair of skates alone ranges from a minimum of $500 for relatively low level boots and blades to well over $1,000. Practice time, private instruction, off-ice training, practice apparel, routine equipment maintenance, music editing, competition entrance fees, competition apparel, and travel fees are all additional costs. This financial burden can negatively impact a figure skater into constantly feeling pressure to give 100 percent all the time and achieve considerable success.

A figure skater’s social life can be majorly impacted by the demands of this competitive sport. Figure skaters often have inconvenient times for practice, such as very early in the morning and in the early afternoon. In order to make these practice times, many figure skaters have shortened school schedules that allow them to leave school early. At the Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, Ontario there is a co-op program that allows figure skaters to obtain school credits while skating. However, this also eliminates times where students generally socialize with peers, such as lunch and recess. Practice schedules may also prevent figure skaters from becoming involved in school-based extracurricular activities, which frequently have meetings before and after school, eliminating another potential setting for peer interaction for figure skaters. Finally, figure skaters often are required to get up very early in the morning for practices. This also leaves little time for socialization with friends after school, as early morning practice requires skaters to go to sleep earlier than their non-skating friends. Other than that, figure skaters often devote what time they have left, to dinner and homework.

Figure skating can be tied into self esteem and sense of self-worth. Some competitive figure skaters may suffer from a foreclosed identity status. According to Marcia (1966), identity foreclosed individuals solely identify with their sport and fail to explore any other possible identities. The training demands leave little time to explore potential identity options specifically other sports or interests. Frequently, early and mid-adolescents make identity decisions based on their peers and significant others (Kroger, 2007). For figure skaters, there are few opportunities available to interact with and identify with peers and significant others other than fellow figure skaters. Studies done on self-worth and self-esteem has shown that there are numerous dimensions of self-esteem that can contribute to an individual’s overall sense of self worth (Harter, Waters, & Whitesell, 1998), and that the dimensions of self-esteem most valued by the individual are the best predictors of his or her overall sense of self-worth (Harter et al., 1998). The athletic identity measurement scale by Brewer (1993) further supports this as many studies have confirmed that the higher the immersion in their sport, the higher the athletes identifies with it. Often with competitive athletes their self-esteem and identity are tied into their athletic accomplishments and with each new accomplishment, comes new, higher expectations (Blansett & Blansett, 2002)

The task of controlling body changes during adolescence and early adulthood may be especially difficult for figure skaters. The increases in height, body fat, and weight distribution that accompany adolescent development in females (Kroger, 2007) may be especially detrimental for figure skaters because these biological changes greatly impact a skater’s ability to perform jumps and spins. The addition of body fat not only makes it more difficult for skaters to get the height necessary to complete rotations in their jumps, but changes in weight distribution can affect their timing and balance. Some studies like (Stoutjesdyk & Jevne, 1993; Sundgot-Borgen, 1994), suggest that athletes are at increased risk especially female athletes are at risk for eating disorders. Sports that have major aesthetic components such as gymnastics, cheerleading, ballet, diving and figure skating (Brooks-Gunn, Burrow, & Warren, 1988; DiBartolo & Shaffer, 2002; Reel & Gill, 1996; Sundgot-Borgen, 1994) may have higher eating disorder rates than others. Skaters are concerned about appearance, have lower than recommended daily caloric intake and often engage in caloric restriction due to dietary advice from nutritionists and coaches. A study done by Monsma and Molina (2004), investigated figure skaters and presented a profile of eating disorder risk; comparing different variables. Analyses indicated that the Body Mass Index (BMI) was the most robust biological variable for subsequent analyses. BMI’s among skaters were lower when compared to other athletes and individuals. The present study will attempt to garner similar results in the qualitative sections of the questionnaire.

The role an athlete assumes in figure skating can be important in affecting their self worth and self esteem. The Charter for Competitors lists the following duties and responsibilities of all sport competitors: must abide by both the laws and spirit of their sport, must accept the decisions of umpires and referees without question or protestation, must not cheat and in particular must not attempt to prove their performance by the use of drugs, must exercise self control at all times, must accept success and failure, victory and defeat with good grace and without excessive display of emotion, and must treat opponents and fellow participants with due respect at all times (Kew, 1997).

The role of the figure skater requires the athlete to be responsible for his or her skating; their behavior, their fate and no one can do it for them. All of these responsibilities can be negatively damaging on a competitive figure skater. There is so much pressure on competitive figure skaters and without intense training and dedication, skills and achievements decline. Figure skaters repeatedly apply huge amounts of pressure onto their bodies, sometimes without success. Sometimes athletes will try so hard to achieve success, but at times, can fail. Fear of pain and failure are both paramount psychological challenges for athletes (Shogun, 1999) Fear of failure can also lead to decreased self esteem and self worth.



Athletic Identity Measurement Scale

The Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS) is a 10-item quantitative inventory measuring the level of athletic identity. It is designed to measure the degree in which an athlete identifies themselves with their sport.

The Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS) is a tool that assisted in the study. To examine the athletic identity of athletes, Brewer, Van Raalte, and Linder (1993) developed the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (AIMS). Brewer & Cornelius (2001) have since developed the most recent version of the scale. (B. &. Brewer, 343) this scale will be used to ask questions and for participants of my study to complete upon which additional open ended questions will be added. (See attached appendix) This scale is a highly validated scale, used in past research to measure athletic identity.

Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory (1978)

The Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory (CSEI; Coopersmith, 1989) was designed to measure the respondent’s attitudes toward self in personal, social, family, and academic areas of experience. The original Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory was developed for children. In the present study, a modified version developed by Dr. M.B. Ryden was used for adults and adolescence. It was then modified to fit the study, by only using 15 “like me” and 15 “not like me” questions. The participants had the option of checking “like me” or “not like me” for each question.

Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (1965)

The Rosenberg self-esteem scale, developed by Morris Rosenberg, is a widely-used self-esteem measure in social science research. The scale is a ten-item quantitative measure with items answered on a four-point Likert scale – from strongly agrees to strongly disagree.

Qualitative Questions

Two additional questions were added to the questionnaire, one for the athletes and one for the non-athletes. They are located in Appendix____. The purpose of these questions was to provide analysis and interpretation of the answers. Qualitative research gathers in-depth understanding of human behaviour and the reasons why such behaviour happens. For example, the athletes were asked to expand on any negative effects that competitive figure skating has brought about. It was hoped that if the figure skated experiences low self esteem, the qualitative questions would provide answers. For the non-athletes, a question was presented about being a non-athlete/inactive and any negative affects it brought with it. It was hoped that if they experienced any low self esteem from not being active or a competitive athlete, the qualitative questions would provide answers.


In order to insure consistency among test subjects the sport of figure skating was chosen for this study. Figure skating is a well-organized, professionally coached sport in which individuals between 15-25 years old, practice a minimum of 10 hours per week. The athletes were recruited from The Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, Ontario. There were 20 figure skaters who participated in the study.

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