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NEW YORK: Athletes who tend to be anxious, self-doubting and error-prone often undermine themselves, according to a new study of personality and sports performance.
But these athletes, who can be described as having a “Type D” or “distressed” personality, might benefit from learning different ways to cope with the stresses of competition, the researchers say.
The idea of personality types is familiar to most of us. We have heard of Type A people, who tend to be driven, impatient, ambitious and snippy, whereas Type Bs are laid back, passive and accepting.
These characterisations are not formal psychiatric diagnoses but pop psychology concepts about how people respond to life and stress. They have been tied, in some studies, to various health outcomes, including risks for heart disease.
TYPE D PEOPLE ARE PESSIMISTIC AND WITHDRAWN
And in fact, about 20 years ago, psychologists at Tilburg University in the Netherlands first identified the so-called Type D personality after noticing that many heart-disease patients displayed certain personality traits.
These patients tended to be pessimistic, resigned, worried and withdrawn, the researchers noted, like Eeyore, the melancholic grey donkey from Winnie-the-Pooh. Emotionally and socially introverted, they were reluctant to share their feelings with their families or physicians. They might be forlorn and stressed out but would rather not discuss it, thanks anyway.
The Dutch researchers described these traits – gloominess combined with emotional inhibition – as typifying the distressed, or Type D, personality.
Since then, various scientists have estimated that between 20 and 30 per cent of us have Type D traits and these traits raise the risk for heart disease and lower the likelihood that someone will stick to treatment routines. People identified as Type D often also are sedentary, a few studies show, in part because they feel inadequate about taking part in physical activities.
But whether possessing a Type D personality affects actual sports performance had never been investigated.
TYPE D ATHLETES RATE MINOR INCIDENTS AS EXTREMELY STRESSFUL
So for the new study, which was recently published in the PLOS One journal, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and other institutions gathered almost 500 experienced male and female athletes, most of them college students, and asked them about their feelings.
More specifically, they asked them to complete a personality questionnaire that included assessments such as “I make contact easily when I meet people” and “I often feel unhappy.”
They also had the athletes rate their most stressful recent moment during sports, using a spectrum from a low level of stress to extremely stressful.
Finally, for a separate portion of the experiment, the researchers asked 32 additional male college athletes to fill out the personality assessment as well as another questionnaire that delved into their current confidence and stress levels.
They then ran the men through a complicated, unfamiliar athletic drill, involving kicking balls and sprinting while being pressured and observed. Afterward, the men filled out a final questionnaire about how they had felt during the training.
Crunching the resulting data, the researchers found that 140 of the athletes in the first group qualified as Type D. These athletes were far more likely than the others to rate a relatively minor incident, such as a coach being sick and missing a game, as extremely stressful.
WITHDRAWAL IS NOT THE MOST EFFECT RESPONSE TO TRAINING
Similarly, almost a third of the athletes in the second group qualified as Type D and reported greater anxiety and less self-confidence before the drill than the others. They also were slower and slightly more inept during the routine and, afterward, signified on the questionnaire that they felt resigned about not having done well and did not wish to think about their errors.
This reaction, which the researchers designate as “resignation/withdrawal” is probably not the most effective response to sports training, says Erika Borkoles, a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology, who led the experiments.
“If you experience stress by making a technical mistake or because the coach keeps yelling and then you try to block that out, you don’t solve the problem,” she says.
Better, she says, to ask your coach directly what you are doing wrong and how you can improve.
But, of course, Type D personalities are not given to easy social interactions, she continues, even with their coaches or teammates.
COACHES, TEAMMATES AND PARENTS SHOULD REMIND THEM TO RELAX
So perhaps the implication of her results, she says, is that coaches, teammates, parents and others might want to watch for athletes who tend to be withdrawn and self-recriminatory and initiate gentle conversations about how they can improve their skills concretely.
Remind them, too, to relax, she says.
Of course, even with hundreds of athletes involved, these two experiments are relatively small and their designs cannot prove that having Type D traits directly affected how athletes felt and performed, but only that they were associated.
The study also cannot tell us whether the Type D personality is even real or permanent. Many of us might have elements of Eeyore in our outlooks sometimes and be cheery otherwise.
But the findings do indicate that when we feel incompetent or overwhelmed during sports and activities, we might want to reach out and ask for help and suggestions.
By Gretchen Reynolds © 2018 The New York Times