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Sport and self-worth: the impact of success and failure

Elite runners at the 2014 Boston marathon (photo by John Hoey via Flickr)

In sport, dealing with loss is inevitable. Even the most accomplished athlete will have off days.

But how difficult is it for an athlete to shake off the agony of defeat?

Fourth-year kinesiology student Zoe Poucher asks this question in her current research on athletic identity and contingent self-worth.

“There’s been a lot of research on how an athlete begins to define themselves by their sport, but little study on how performance is tied to self-worth,” says Poucher. “How does winning or losing affect an athlete’s overall confidence? How are their social relationships impacted? My research looks at the psychological effects of sport outside of the sport itself.”

Poucher, a former track and field athlete, became interested in this subject after taking a stress and coping class with her supervisor, Katherine Tamminen and presented her findings at the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education’s 16th Annual Bertha Rosenstadt National Undergraduate Research Conference March 27. This multidisciplinary conference brings undergraduate students from all over Canada to discuss their research and share ideas with their peers. 

“I started volunteering in Dr. Tamminen’s lab and was exposed to more and more research in sport psychology,” says Poucher. “I noticed there was a gap in the literature when it came to how confidence is affected by a win or a loss. I thought it would be really interesting to examine.”

In her study, Poucher has been interviewing five athletes who represent a variety of sports and varying degrees of athletic success. All of the study’s participants have received national accolades during their careers and some have their sights set on Olympic gold. So far, Poucher’s  findings indicate that athletic performance is strongly tied to feelings of self-worth.

“All of the participants have said that their self-esteem and self-worth are highly dependent on athletic achievements,” says Poucher. “Some participants purposefully link one with the other, while others view it as a burden.”

Poucher has also found that multiple instances of high-level success in an athlete’s career seem to offset the negative impact of one or two losses.

“I’ve asked participants about successes as well as failures. They all have many positive stories to tell and I find that their negative experiences aren’t as impactful because overall, they are very successful.”

While individual losses don’t seem to undermine a participant’s overall confidence, Poucher wants to delve deeper into this research as a graduate student. She hopes to explore the impact of more grave instances of perceived failure.

“In the future, I’d like to look at what happens to athletes who sustain career-ending injuries,” says  Poucher. “I also want to examine how retired athletes redefine themselves after their sporting careers end. How do they make that unexpected transition from athlete to non-athlete?”

Varsity Blues Track and Field head coach Carl Georgevski believes that coaches can ultimately put research like Poucher’s to good use when developing training strategies.

“Sport psychology research teaches coaches how to connect with athletes as people,” says Georgevski. “As coaches, we are not training a ‘football player’ or a ‘sprinter’, but rather, a person. And if you look after the person, the performance results take care of themselves.”