Calling All Coaches: Using the ‘Big-Five’-For Assessing Athlete Personality

I’ve been having conversations lately with coaches about the best way trying to try to get a “read”  on an athlete’s personality or goodness-of-fit with particular coaches or coaching styles. Here in college sports it’s a common practice to try to vet out the best possible to assess a potential recruit’s personality at the outset to see if they will be successful in your program. On the latter end, coaches sometimes find themselves losing an athlete during the year and wondering how they could have prevented the lack of good fit or lack of success only after the fact. While there are many ways to go about assessing this issue for me, a sport and clinical psychologist, I always go back to how the  research can inform the issue or process.

I won’t bore you with all the details, however what I will say is that in graduate school, specifically doctoral programs in clinical psychology, we get a lot of education and training on assessment. Psychological testing is a hallmark specialty of a clinical psychologist and what delineates us from therapists, psychotherapists, life coaches, and counselors. We assess IQ, personality (my favorite), neuro-cognitive functioning, behavioral assessment, learning disability, and so on. Assessment in my field means using questionnaires, tests, instruments, processes and surveys that are standardized and have empirical (scientific) evidence to back it up reliability and validity. It’s not pulling questions out of thin air or inventing our own process of curiosity or ego’s sake.

With that said…

  • Would you like to know if your athlete, or prospective athlete, is going to be socialable and take risks, or will be withdrawn and prefers time alone?
  • Or if your athlete, or prospective athlete, can be empathetic and maintain positive relationships or less likely to express their emotions and be taken advantage of by others?
  • Would you like to know if your athlete, or prospective athlete, prefers to be organized, responsible, or dutiful versus careless?
  • Or how open your athlete, or prospective athlete, is to learning new experiences or can adapt to new situations easily or struggles when in unfamiliar situations or ridged in their beliefs?
  • Would you like to know if your athlete, or prospective athlete, will sweat the small stuff and is prone to negative emotions or if they can keep his or her cool under pressure?

Well I give you…The Big Five Personality Dimensions! The Big-Five has been used in Industrial Organizational psychology for years and has been applied all over the world to various business and organizations. “The Big Five dimensions of personality have been useful in providing a framework for organizing personality attributes used in industrial, work, and organizational psychology research and practice. They have been investigated in relation to many areas of interest, including occupational attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes.”  It has also been applied, to, no surprise, in sport organizations and with athletes. At the end of this post there are summaries and references to studies using the BFI with athletes.

The Big Five dimensions of personality are (1) Neuroticism (Emotional Stability), (2) Extraversion, (3) Openness, (4) Agreeableness, and (5) Conscientiousness. If you take the assessment (links provided below) you will get a percentage score for each five of the dimensions indicating if you are in the high range, moderate or low range. With the Free Online version you will actually get a mini report (example below) explaining what your scores indicate in relation or compared to the general population of people whom have take the test. The paper version will not do that, so the diagram below is helpful in interpreting the results. The online version takes about 10 minutes to complete.

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Sample report of Free online Big Five Assessment

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So there are many ways to incorporate the The Big Five Assessment in your coaching practice and with your athletes. You can simply email them the link or paper version and have them send back the report or their raw scores to you, or if you are doing a training camp or recruiting camp you can have all your athletes complete the assessment before-hand so you will have the results in hand as you observe their performance for the duration of camp.

On the other hand, if you are looking to select captains for your team you might want to think twice of choosing athletes low on extroversion or low on conscientiousness because their tendency maybe to be less organized and to stay more to themselves.

Let me remind you that any assessment, including this one, is an added piece or information backed by solid research. However, in the end, when evaluating an athlete, it’s important that you also use, and trust, your experience, expertise, and gut/intuitive instinct.

I hope this was helpful in providing an additional resource and approach to assessing if you and your athletes are good fit for your program.

Please, send me any feedback or comments if you decide to incorporate the the Big Five. I would love to hear how it goes. Additionally, if you would like a consult regarding the results and/or specific consultation feel free to reach out.

Reference articles and summaries on Big-Five Inventory with Athletes:
Using the ‘Big – Five’ – For Assessing Personality Traits of the Champions: An Insinuation for the Sports Industry

Openness to experience has been found to be positively related to performance; which implies, that open mindedness in athletes can enhance their performance. This is perhaps because, athletes with this trait can bear the pressure of a new environment; their open mindedness provides them with the pitch to handle competition related stresses, as they are more flexible, creative and intellectually oriented; which helps them in performing well in competitions, even under unfamiliar surroundings. Thus, this study supports the contention, that openness to experience is an important trait that has been found to have significant positive impact on the performance of all the champions.

Extroversion is another important trait that has been found to have a positive effect on performance. The athletes who have been identified as extroverts in this study have emerged as highly confident, excitement seekers and enthusiasts; who perhaps helps them in overcoming fears, insecurities, negative emotions, worry or anger, and thus performing better in the face of challenges. Conscientiousness, as a trait, helps in developing impulse control, and focus on specific goals; it makes a person persistent, responsible, dependable and to work in an organized manner.

Effects of the Big Five personality dimensions on appraisal coping, and coping effectiveness in sport

“The Neuroticism dimension was found to be associated with the selection of less adaptive coping strategies and lower levels of reported coping effectiveness. The other four personality dimensions were associated with more adaptive coping strategies that were rated as effective.”

Personality traits and relationship perceptions in coach–athlete dyads: Do opposites really attract?

“Positive actor effects emerged for commitment (i.e., agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion) and relatedness (i.e., agreeableness, extraversion), and partner effects revealed that dyad members reported favorable outcomes when their partner was highly conscientious and/or agreeable. The potential moderating effect of one’s role in the dyad was also examined. Conclusions: Consistent with mainstream relationship settings, the Big Five model may provide important insight into dyadic functioning in coach–athlete contexts.”

John, O. P., & Srivastava, S. (1999). The Big-Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. In L. A. Pervin & O. P. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (Vol. 2, pp. 102–138). New York: Guilford Press.

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Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli

Dr. Petruzzelli is sport and performance psychologist and mindfulness meditation teacher located in Sacramento, California and works with elite sport teams and athletes across the country. She is competitive athlete herself and enjoys practicing yoga, spending time with her family and traveling.

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