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Learned helplessness and basketball playoff performance.

Research in sports psychology indicates a relationship between anxiety and both the level of competition and the importance of the athletic event. Klavora (1974) observed that state anxiety was lower in preseason practice than prior to competition in high school and college basketball and football players, and that state anxiety increased for college basketball players from regular-season games to playoff competition. Gill (1980) reported that state anxiety for competitive basketball players is higher prior to competition than during practice sessions. Leonard (1986) in his comparison of 505 university athletes, found that Division I athletes perceived being under greater pressure in their sport than athletes competing in Division II or Division III.

In general, greater perceived stress leads to a decrement in athletic performance. Regression analyses of a study by Cox (1986) of 157 female college volleyball players showed a significant linear relationship between spiking performance and competitive state anxiety with spiking performance decreasing with increases in anxiety. Williams and Jenkins (1986), using a small sample of college basketball players, found that high anxiety in a competitive situation was debilitating to athlete performance.

Krane, Williams, and Feltz (1992) reported a reciprocal relationship between performance expectations and cognitive anxiety among 100 female collegiate golfers. They also found previous performance to be the best predictor of golfing performance. Kleine's (1990) meta-analysis of the effects of anxiety on sport performance, using 50 studies published between 1970 and 1988 yielded a weighted mean of all correlations of r = -. 19, indicating a negative relationship between anxiety and sport performance.

Anxious athletes are often athletes who are also depressed. A number of studies have indicated that it is especially difficult to discriminate between symptoms of anxiety and depression as the diagnoses for both tend to covary (Bystritisky, Stoessel, & Yager, 1993; Jolly, 1993; Jolly, Aruffo, Wherry, & Livingston, 1993; Somer & Klein, 1993; Tambs & Moum, 1993). In addition, it has been shown that measures of self-esteem correlate significantly and negatively with depression and anxiety (Rawson, 1992).

According to Seligman (1975, 1991), depression is associated with a state known as "learned helplessness." Seligman states that learned helplessness develops from the belief that one's actions are futile. This belief, Seligman postulates, is engendered by defeat and failure as well as by uncontrollable situations. Seligman's theory predicts that a person suffering from learned helplessness will lose interest in their usual activities, show psychomotor retardation and lost energy, not think well, have difficulties remaining attentive, and blame their failure to solve problems on their own lack of ability and worthlessness.

Elite athletes would appear to be less likely to develop symptoms of learned helplessness. In his study of male and female weightlifters, Mahoney (1989) collected self-rating data showing elite athletes to be significantly lower than their less successful peers in depression and psychoticism. Overall, they rated themselves as more psychologically healthy than other athletes. Previous research by Mahoney, Gabriel, and Perkins (1987), using questionnaire data collected from 713 athletes from 23 sports had found differences between elite, pre-elite and non-elite collegiate athletes in the areas of concentration, anxiety management, self-confidence, mental preparation, and motivation.

A review of the literature indicates that a lack of research in the area of elite professional athletes and anxiety-producing events such as the championship games. Specifically, the performances of elite basketball players in playoff competition has yet to be studied. According to popular sportswriters such as Menzer (1993), during the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs, players perform differently than they do during the regular season. Menzer states that while great players continue to play great, average players perform below the level they played in the regular season. He failed to defend these notions with objective data.

The present study tested the relationship of learned helplessness to professional basketball performance in the playoffs. It was hypothesized that professional basketball players with high production during the regular season would maintain their level of performance during playoff competition, while players with lower regular-season production would decline. Players with the lowest regular-season production were executed to decline the most.


Data were obtained from The Points Created Pro Basketball Book (Bellotti, 1993-1994). In this publication, Bob Bellotti lists the points created per minute (PC/M) and the minutes per game (MPG) of each NBA player who played at least 1000 minutes during the 1992-93 NBA season. The PC/M is a production efficiency figure for each player and is determined by a formula using a player's points scored, assists, rebounds, blocked shots, steals, fouls committed, missed shots and minutes played.

This study used PC/M figures for each player who played at least 1000 minutes during the regular season and also participated in at least three playoff games. Three playoff games were chosen because that is the minimum number of losses needed for a NBA team to be eliminated from the playoffs. The 134 players who met these criteria were categorized as High Ability (n = 45), Medium Ability (n = 44) and Low Ability (n = 45) based on their regular-season PC/M figures.

Statistical analyses on data were done as follows: One-way analyses of variance (ANOVAs) were used to test for the effect of the ability variable on playoff PC/M. Following ANOVAs, the honestly significant difference test (HSC)) was used for multigroup comparisons (Tukey, 1984). In addition, comparisons of regular season versus playoff performance of players within ability groups were done using paired t-tests.


A one-way (ANOVA) found regular-season PC/M to have a significant effect on playoff PC/M, ,F(2, 131) = 30. 15, p [less than] .01. Multigroup comparisons using Tukey's HSD showed that players with high ability in the regular season, as measured by PC/M, performed better in the playoffs (M = .498) than players with medium ability (M = .396), n [less than] .01, and also better than players with low ability (M = .304), p [less than] .01. Players who exhibited medium ability (M = .396) in the regular season performed better in the playoffs than those with low ability (M = .304), p [less than] .01.

For all 134 players, regular-season PC/M was found to be an excellent predictor (r = .68, p [less than] .01) of playoff PC/M. Players who played well in the regular-season tended to play well in the playoffs. Regular-season MPG was also found to be an excellent predictor (r = .87, p [less than] .01) of playoff MPG. Players who played a lot of minutes per game in the regular season also played often during the playoffs.

T-tests were conducted comparing regular-season PC/M with playoff PC/M for high, medium, and low ability players. All three groups of players showed a significant decrement in playoff PC/M from their regular-season PC/M. The mean PC/M for high-ability players fell from .589 in the regular season to .498 in the playoffs, t(44) = -5.65, p [less than] .01. The mean PC/M for medium-ability players fell from .450 in the regular season to .396 in the playoffs, t(43) = -2.98, p [less than] .01. The mean PC/M for low-ability players fell from .366 in the regular season to .304 in the playoffs, t(44) = -4.90, p [less than] .01. When all players were considered together, the mean PC/M dropped from .469 in the regular season to .399, t(133) = -4.44, p [less than] .01.

Comparisons were also made of players' playoff MPG with their regular season MPG. High ability players showed a significant increase in their MPG from the regular season (M = 33.23) to the playoffs (M = 35.45), t(44) = 3.72, p [less than] .01. This means that star or elite players were given more minutes per game in the playoffs than during the regular season. Although medium-ability players increased their mean MPG from 26.94 in the regular season to 27.29 in the playoffs, the increase was not significant, t(43) = .417, p [greater than] .05. Low-ability players experienced a nonsignificant drop in MPG from the regular season (M = 21,131) to the playoffs (M = 20.15), p [greater than] .05.

In order to isolate the effect of different ability levels on playoff performance, Playoff indexes were formed for PC/M and MPG for each player. This was done by dividing players' playoff figures by their regular season figures. Results of a one-way ANOVA failed to show an effect for player ability level on playoff PC/M Index, F(2, 131) = .54, p [greater than] .05.

Players with high regular-season PC/M figures, the elite players, contributed only 84.2% of their regular-season PC/M during the playoffs. Players with medium regular-season PC/M figures contributed only 88.2% of their regular-season PC/M during the playoffs. Players with low regular-season PC/M figures contributed only 83.5% of their regular-season PC/M during the playoffs.

Because this study had earlier discovered that players with high regular-season PC/M had played significantly more minutes per game in the playoffs than they had during the regular season, it was suspected that fatigue had lowered their playoff productivity. This was explored by correlating each players playoff PC/M index with his playoff MPG index. Surprisingly, a small positive correlation rather than negative correlation was found between playoff PC/M index and playoff MPG index for high-ability players (r = .08, p [greater than] .05), as well as for medium-ability players (r = . 12, p [greater than] .05), and low-ability players (r = .14, p [greater than] .05). Additional minutes per game in the playoffs did not prevent players of any ability level from playing well.


This study tested the applicability of Seligman's (1975) concept of learned helplessness to professional basketball players in playoff competition. It was predicted that players who performed best during the regular-season would be inoculated from the effects of learned helplessness. High-ability or elite players were not expected to decline in their productivity during the playoffs. Other players were expected to show a decline in their performance according to their ability, with low-ability players expected to decline greatest between the regular season and the playoffs.

Hypotheses based upon the theory of learned helplessness were only partially supported. Players of all ability levels - high, medium, or low, showed a decrease in production efficiency during the playoffs. Basketball players who had established themselves as elite or high-ability players continued to outperform other players, but only to the degree that their production efficiency established during the regular season would have predicted. They were no more or less immune to the effects of learned helplessness than their less talented peers.

Several possible explanations may account for the results of this study. Because defense is emphasized during the playoffs and the pace of the game is slowed (Menzer, 1993), it is not all that surprising that all players suffered a loss in productivity as measured by PC/M League statistics show that the average team scored 105.3 points during the regular season but only 95.2 during the playoffs (Carter & Sachare, 1993-1994). Most of the statistics used to determine players' PC/M ratings are based on offensive rather than defensive production.

More challenging to explain was that high-, medium-, and low-ability players tended to show a similar adaptation to the stress of playoff competition. One possible explanation is the extreme length of the NBA playoffs. Depending upon the team for which the player performed, the players participated in between 3 to 22 playoff contests. Perhaps, this large number of "big games" made them seem not so big. Many players participated in the playoffs for well over a month. It could be that because of the length of the playoff schedule, players began to perceive playoff games as only minimal stressors.

Perhaps the likeliest explanation for the study's results is that all professional basketball players, whatever their production levels in the NBA, are indeed elite athletes and are a singular group rather than a multitiered entity. At any given time, the 27 teams of the NBA can provide employment for only 324 players. Even the worst player in the league might count himself as one of the top athletes in the world.

Such an individual might have been immunized from learned helplessness at a very young age. Cole (1991) found competency based feedback in several domains, including sports, to be related to depression in young children. He obtained self-reports of depression from 1,422 elementary children as well as peer nomination of competency in five domains: academic, social, physical attractiveness, conduct, and sports. Being nominated as relatively incompetent in multiple domains corresponded with higher levels of self-reported depression.

Future research should investigate the process by which athletic achievement can work as a deterrent against later learned helplessness. It could be that the process works quite differently depending upon an individual's gender, race, family constellation, or socioeconomic status. There might also be a critical period during which immunization is most likely to achieve results.


Bellotti, R. S. (1993-1994). The Points Created Pro Basketball Book. New Brunswick, NJ: Night Work.

Bystritsky, A., Stoessel, P., & Yaeger, J. (1993). Psychometric discrimination between anxiety and depression. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 181, 265-267.

Carter, C., & Sachare, A. (Eds.) (1993-1994). The sporting news NBA guide. St. Louis: The Sporting News.

Cole, D. A. (1991). Preliminary support for a competency-based model of depression in children. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100, 181-190.

Cox, R. H. (1986). Relationship between skill performance in women's volleyball and competitive state anxiety. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 17, 183-190.

Gill, D. L. (1980). Comparison of three measures of pre-competition arousal. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 51, 765-766.

Jolly, J. B. (1993). A multi-method test of the cognitive content-specificity hypothesis in young adolescents. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 7, 223-233.

Jolly, J. B, Aruffo, J. F., Wherry, J. N., & Livingston, R. (1993). The utility of the Beck Anxiety Inventory with inpatient adolescents. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 7, 95-106.

Klavora, P. (1974). State anxiety and athletic competition. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Alberta-Edmonton.

Kleine, D. (1990). Anxiety and sport performance: A meta-analysis. Anxiety Research, 2, 113-131.

Krane, V., Williams, J., & Feltz, D. L. (1992). Path analysis examining relationships among cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety, state confidence, performance expectations, and golf performance. Journal of Sport Behavior, 15, 279-295.

Leonard, W. M. (1986). Exploitation in collegiate sport: The views of basketball players in NCAA Divisions I, II, and III. Journal of Sport Behavior, 9, 11-30.

Mahoney, M. J. (1989). Psychological predictors of elite and non-elite performance in Olympic weightlifting. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 20, 1-12.

Mahoney, M. J., Gabriel, T. J., & Perkins, T. S. (1987). Psychological skills and exceptional athletic performance. Sport Psychologist, 1, 181-199.

Menzer, J. (1993, May). The playoffs: It's a whole new ballgame, Basketball Digest, 7, 18-21.

Rawson, H. E. (1992). The interrelationship of measures of manifest anxiety, self-esteem, locus of control, and depression in children with behavior problems. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 9, 319-329.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Somer, E., & Klein, E. (1993). MMPI profiles of patients with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder: Relationship to diagnosis and time since onset: Erratum. Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 30, 60.

Tambs, K., & Mourn, T. (1993). How well can a few questionnaire items indicate anxiety and depression? Acta Psychiatrica Scandivica, 87, 364-367.

Tukey, J. W. (1984). The collected works of John W. Tukey. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Advanced Books and Software.

Williams, D. A., & Jenkins, J. O. (1986). Role of competitive anxiety in the performance of Black college basketball players. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 63, 847-853.
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Author:Thomas, Greg
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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