Psychologists have studied personality development for over a century, and have developed countless adjectives to describe personality types and traits (“Type A,” laid back, etc.), as well as psychological theories to describe how personality develops (for example, Freud would say through early development, while behaviorists would say through the environment reinforcers). In sports, some coaches ascribe to the belief that athletes need to have a tough personality in order to be competitive and reach their full athletic potential, while other coaches adapt their coaching style to the unique personalities of the players on their team. This leaves us with two big questions:
1.) Can personality be significantly modified and made “tougher?”
2.) If you can change a personality to make it tougher, should you try to do this as a coach? And does it make any significant difference if these changes can be made?
Over the years I have been asked these questions by coaches (and even some athletes), and after drawing on my own clinical experiences as well as theories and applications from the field of sport psychology, it is my belief that trying to fundamentally change an athlete’s personality is not only near impossible to do, but also not worth the effort even if it can be done. In other words, good coaches have learned how to get the most from their players, not change their players into something they’re not.
The real challenge….
Rather than trying to make an athlete a tougher person at the core, it might be a more worthwhile task to learn how to teach athletes how to know themselves, as well as learn how to moderate and control their own arousal while increasing confidence and minimizing anxiety. More simply, whether an athlete is fundamentally “tough” and spits nails each morning or more on the laid back, easy going side, the real question has less to do with personality and everything to do with working with what you have.
In the case of the tough athlete, he or she may need to learn skills around arousal reduction when emotions become so intense that it negatively affects mind-body synchrony. Similarly, a more laid back athlete will also need to learn the importance of arousal regulation, but may need to focus more on arousal inducing strategies in order to “pump up” for pressure situations.
Perhaps the best athletes are the one’s who have learned to master the skills and abilities they have, as opposed to trying to become something they are not. Still, the question of modifying/changing a person’s personality will likely be one coaches ask themselves for as long as sports exist, leaving this as a hot topic for debate.