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Back in the late 1950s, Victor Frankl (1959) suggested that the most powerful human motivation is the need to find meaning or purpose in life. Apart from a brief burst of empirical interest in purpose during the 1960s, inspired by Frankl's theorizing, psychologists were slow to pick up on the importance of purpose to human well-being. However, the past 2 decades have seen a burgeoning emphasis on meaning and purpose largely inspired by the positive psychology and character education movements. Having a sense of purpose in life has emerged as an important component of mental and physical health, and a predictor of many positive outcomes such as self-esteem (Bigler, Neimeyer, & Brown, 2001), resiliency (Benard, 1991), effective coping (Whitty, 2003), happiness (French & Joseph, 1999), life satisfaction (Bronk, Hill, Lapsley, Talib, & Finch, 2009), and overall well-being, thriving or flourishing (Benson, 2006; Bronk, 2012; Ryff & Singer, 2008; Seligman, 2011). Conversely, as predicted by Frankl, a sense of purposelessness is related to a range of negative outcomes, such as antisocial behavior (Shek, Ma, & Cheung, 1994), substance abuse (Okasaka, Nobuaki, Nakatani, & Fujisawa, 2008), and depression (Bigler et al., 2001). Because of its relevance to a broad range of positive qualities and outcomes, purposefulness has been referred to as a virtue or character strength (Malin, Liauw, & Damon, 2017; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

Damon, Menon, and Bronk (2003), in their influential paper on purpose, define it as "a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self" (p. 121). This definition captures four critical elements that are shared by many researchers in the field. Purpose involves sustained personal commitment, far-horizon goal-directedness, personal meaningfulness, and a focus on impacting the world beyond the self (Bronk, 2014). Even though a sense of purpose is often considered to be a character asset, it is worth noting that purposefulness does not necessarily imply a moral commitment. Purposes can focus on ethical goals, goals that are morally neutral, and even ignoble ends. Presumably, many terrorists have a strong sense of purpose. Still, most researchers have focused on the development of positive or prosocial purposes (Bronk, 2014).

If character is defined broadly to include intellectual, moral, civic, and performance dimensions (Shields, 2011), it is easy to see how helping people develop a sense of purpose is central to many aspects and goals of character education. A sense of purpose tends to deepen relevant intellectual motivation and achievement (Pizzolato, Brown, & Kanny, 2011; Yeager & Bundick, 2009), gives focus and expression to moral values (Damon, 2008; McAdams, 2009), often connects one to civic causes (Benson, Clary, & Scales, 2007; Damon, 2008), and encourages the development of capacities for dedicated and effective action (Bronk & Baumsteiger, 2017; Cote, 2002).

Developing a sense of purpose is a key developmental task of later adolescence and early adulthood (Bronk & Baumsteiger, 2017; Eccles, Brown, & Templeton, 2008), and it is certainly an important task for college students (Flowers, 2002). Most researchers who have investigated the developmental pathways to purpose have employed a dynamic and layered perspective of contextual influences (Bronk, 2012). Certainly, parents may play a prominent role in nurturing purpose (Damon, 2008), as can teachers and other adult mentors (Hill, Sumner, & Burrow, 2014; Parks, 2011; Pizzolato, Brown, & Kanny, 2011). Peers, too, may be influential, especially when they share common interests, activities, and values (Bronk, 2012). And all of these relationships are interactional (Lerner, Lerner, Bowers, & Geldhof, 2015); adolescents, for example, may reject parental values, respond to some teachers more than others, gravitate to certain peers, and engage in activities that connect them with a limited set of potential adult mentors. And these relationships take place in, and interact with, broader circles of influence, including local communities, multifaceted media cultures, societal power hierarchies, and national politics, to name a few.

While researchers have paid considerable attention to homes and schools as potential sites for purpose development, Bronk (2014) suggests that an important and largely unaddressed question is how extracurricular activities, like sports, might support the development of purpose. Such activities place adolescents or emerging adults under the supervision of mentors who may share similar perspectives and who may be equipped and well-positioned to recognize and support budding talents, interests, and values (Bronk & Baumsteiger, 2017; Parks, 2011). Extracurricular activities are also contexts within which relationships with like-minded peers can be built and directed at goal-driven pursuits.

Given the four characteristics embedded in Damon's definition of purpose, it seems probable that high-level sport experiences might be associated with purpose development, especially when those sport experiences reflect a collaborative and growth-oriented approach to competition. Similar to the enduring commitments evoked by purpose, years of dedication almost invariably precede being able to compete at the college level (Debois, Ledon, & Wylleman, 2015), and few athletes would sustain their resolve through the years of training and preparation if they did not find sport personally meaningful (Jackson, Gucciardi, Hodge, & Dimmock, 2017). While most collegiate athletes do not see themselves entering professional sports, many do perceive sport as serving, at least indirectly, their far horizon goals (Finkenberg & Moode, 1996; Jackson et al., 2017); and many athletes experience a significant "beyond-the-self dimension to their sport experience as they are often called upon to sacrifice for the sake of the team, and often willingly do so (Prapavessis & Carron, 1997). Even if sport itself may not be the primary focus of purpose for most athletes, the sport experience may still scaffold processes useful to forming a purpose and thereby may make purpose identification more likely.

Most research on purpose has focused on external influences, rather than personal characteristics that facilitate the identification of a purpose. In the research reported here, we focused on purpose among a large sample of intercollegiate student-athletes representing a diverse range of sports. Rather than focusing on coaches or other external influences, we examined the ability of several psychological variables to predict purposefulness, drawing from a set of constructs that have been linked in previous sport research to other positive character qualities, like sportspersonship and moral development. Specifically, we investigated contesting orientations, empathy, moral identity, athletic identity, and fear of failure. We used contesting theory, introduced below, as the primary theoretical framework.

Contesting Theory and Purpose

Contesting theory is about the way contestants think about--using primarily nonconscious "fast thinking" processes, to borrow Kahneman's (2011) term--the competitive process, their relationships within it, and the contest's normative structures. Building on research into the cognitive function of conceptual metaphors (Lakoff, 2014; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, 1999; Landau, Keefer, & Meier, 2010), Shields and Bredemeier (2009, 2011a) have identified two contesting orientations, each rooted in one or the other of two root metaphors: contest is partnership and contest is war.

Conceptual metaphors are important to the mental processing of abstract concepts or experiences (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). A conceptual metaphor, which typically operates below awareness, works by creating a conceptual mapping between elements of a target concept (e.g., the contest) and analogous elements of a source concept (e.g., a partnership or a war). The resulting concept map promotes particular ways of perceiving the contest and those involved in it. While it is likely that athletes have access to and utilize both conceptual metaphors, only one can be cognitively active at a time, and research suggests that athletes have dispositional preferences between the metaphors (Funk, Shields, & Bredemeier, 2016; Shields, Funk, & Bredemeier, 2015a, 2016a). A person's relative preference for activating the different metaphors is referred to as their contesting orientation (Shields et al., 2015a). And a person's contesting orientation has important implications for character-related behavior and dispositions (Shields, Funk, & Bredemeier, 2015b, 2016b, 2018a).

When utilizing the contest-is-partnership conceptual metaphor (hereafter abbreviated partnership), contests are construed in a largely collaborative light. While participants who frame the contest as a partnership certainly want to win, and may even exhibit more grit and self-control than others (Shields, Funk, & Bredemeier, 2018b), striving to win is still more important than winning itself. Such participants seek to use the contest's oppositional tension to promote mutual enjoyment and performance excellence. In contrast, when employing a contest-is-war conceptual metaphor (hereafter abbreviated war), contests are interpreted in a more narrowly antagonistic light and the goal is largely reduced to designating a winner or winners who receive tangible, symbolic, or psychological rewards. Opponents are metaphorically rendered into enemies.

It may be that the two contesting orientations offer different affordances when it comes to developing a sense of purpose. Those athletes prone to perceive contests through the lens of partnership tend to see their sport experiences as opportunities for growth and mastery, and their relationships within sport as enabling a mutually enjoyable quest for excellence (Shields et al., 2015a). These characteristics of the partnership mindset may help facilitate a robust, activity-rich setting for sharing values, goals, and aspirations both within and beyond the team, all of which are important for developing a sense of purpose (Bundick, 2011). Of course, experiencing competition as more warlike can promote in-group harmony and clear, shared goals. Correspondingly, we hypothesize that both the partnership and war contesting orientations will be positively related to purpose. Still, we anticipate that the partnership orientation will be a better predictor of purposefulness because of its more prosocial nature--evidenced, for example, by its higher correlation with empathy (Shields et al., 2015b) and respect for opponents (Shields et al., 2015a)--and the wider mutuality of relationships it affords.

Identity, Empathy, Fear of Failure, and Purpose

Previous research (e.g., Shields et al., 2015a, 2016b, 2018b) has demonstrated that contesting orientations relate to a number of other constructs that are both important to character educators and may well relate to purpose. The first is identity. Developing a sense of identity is largely an adolescent and emerging adulthood phenomenon and is closely tethered to the development of purpose (Bronk, 2012; Damon, 2008; Erikson, 1968). Erikson (1980) proposed that the successful formation of identity leads to a corresponding commitment to a specific set of values and beliefs. Such commitment can be the foundation on which a sense of life purpose is built. Identity itself, however, is a complex and multidimensional construct (Wren & Mendoza, 2004).

Given the opportunities embedded in sports, in this investigation we focused on two aspects or dimensions of identity: athletic identity and moral identity. In light of the level of commitment required for participation in college sports, it is not surprising that many intercollegiate athletes build an important part of their identity around their role as athlete (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993). Whether this gives them an adequate far-horizon perspective for consolidating a sense of purpose is an open question, however. But athletic identity is not the only type of identity that can be developed through sports participation. Sport is also an important achievement setting where participants must often make rapid and consequential decisions about ethical behavior (Shields & Bredemeier, 1995). Consequently, it offers many opportunities for moral engagement and reflection that can, especially if supported by peers and mentors, build a strong sense of moral identity. Given the interdependence between identity and purpose, we hypothesize that both athletic and moral identity will predict higher purpose scores.

Quality relationships with peers and significant adults are important to the development of purpose (Bronk, 2014). In sports, two personal qualities may be among the influences that promote or impede the development of such purpose-supporting relationships: empathy and fear of failure. Neither have received much attention from purpose researchers to date. Empathy may be particularly important for connecting to others and supporting the "beyond the self" component of purpose. As Damon (2008) suggests, purpose often develops as a person perceives, and responds with empathic concern, to unmet needs in the world around them. While the competitive structure of sport has sometimes been theorized to reduce empathy (Shields & Bredemeier, 1995), it can also provide opportunities for expanding empathic concern. In fact, learning to expand concern to opponents may be one of the important ways that sports can contribute to positive development. We hypothesize that higher scores on empathic concern will predict purpose.

Fear of failure, on the other hand, may diminish a person's ability to develop and sustain close and open relationships and take the long-horizon perspective necessary for establishing purpose. When experiencing a fear of failure, energies are directed toward avoiding embarrassment and disappointing others. Rather than focusing on the strengths that one can devote to a purpose, fear of failure tends to lower one's self-estimate and create a sense of uncertainty for the future (Conroy & Elliot, 2004). For these reasons, our final hypothesis is that fear of failure will negatively predict purpose.



Participants were freshman student-athletes (N = 2374, 51.0%) male) drawn from multiple institutions from across the United States belonging to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). The NAIA is the second-largest intercollegiate athletic association in the United States and considers promoting character as one of its goals. Participants were of multiple racial identities (68.3% White/Caucasian, 11.2% Hispanic/Latino/a, 10.3% Black/African American, 1.1% Asian/Asian American, 7.6% Multiracial/Multiethnic, 1.5% other, 0.2% not given), ranged in age from 18 to 41 (M = 19.0, SD = 1.37), and had competed for a mean of 9.1 years (SD = 4.4) in their primary sport: soccer (n = 826), football (n = 571), volleyball (n = 409), cross country (n = 267), cheer (n = 98), lacrosse (n = 94), bowling (n = 65), and dance (n = 44).


After approval by the institutional review board, participants were recruited through the NAIA's national office. Specifically, the NAIA had implemented an online educational program for its student-athletes and the registration procedure was modified so that prior to accessing the educational content, the athletes were given the option to participate in this study. Interested students were directed to an external site (SurveyMonkey), which housed both the consent form and survey; those who declined to participate were taken directly to the program's educational materials. Approximately 96% of eligible student-athletes agreed to participate in the study. Student-athletes who were under 18 or failed to indicate their age were not included. All instruments were administered in random order. All information was collected anonymously and securely, and no incentives were provided. After collection, data were imported into SPSS for screening and analysis.


Demographic and control variables. To control for their potential effects, we collected participants' age, gender, primary sport, and years of participation in their primary sport. Low- or noncontact sports (e.g., bowling, cheerleading, cross-country, dance, and volleyball) were coded 1, while medium- and high-contact sports (football, lacrosse, and soccer) were coded 2. Gender was coded 1 for males and 2 for females.

Purpose. To assess participants' sense of having a life purpose, we administered the Purpose in Life Test-Short Form (PLT-SF; Schulenberg, Schnetzer, Buchanan, 2011). This 4-item measure, drawn from the widely used Purpose in Life Test (PIL; Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1964, 1969), was developed to avoid some of the psychometric difficulties that have plagued the 20-item PIL. In previous research, the single-factor PIL-SF was supported via confirmatory factor analysis, and strong evidence was provided for its concurrent and predictive validity (Schulenberg et al., 2011); the PIL-SF was also reported to have good reliability ([alpha] = .84), and nearly identical reliability ([alpha] = .83) was found in the current investigation. Like the PIL, the PIL-SF employs a 7-point Likert-type response format with different anchors for each item, depending on item content. For example, the stem of one item reads "I have discovered," with response options ranging from 1 (no mission or purpose in life) to 7 (a satisfying life purpose).

Contesting Orientations. The Contesting Orientations Scale (Shields et al., 2015a) was used to assess the degree to which participants endorsed a partnership and/or war conceptual metaphor for contesting. The Contesting Orientations Scale asks participants to rate their agreement or disagreement with 12 statements, using a Likert scale anchored by 1 (strongly disagree) and 5 (strongly agree). Six items reflect the partnership conceptual metaphor (e.g., "The purpose of competition is to bring out the best in everyone") and six items reflect the war conceptual metaphor (e.g., "In sports, like in war, opponents stand between you and success"). Since both scales reflect openness to competition, they are not completely orthogonal; still, respondents can score high on both orientations, low on both, or high on one and low on the other. Previous research (Funk et al., 2016; Shields et al., 2015a) has demonstrated that the measure has good factorial and concurrent validity, as well as strong gender invariance. Reliability in the current study ranged from good (partnership [alpha] = .84) to excellent (war [alpha] = .90).

Moral Identity. Moral identity was measured with the internalization subscale of Aquino and Reed's (2002) Moral Identity Scale (MIS). Participants are presented with nine moral traits (e.g., caring, fair, honest, helpful), asked to envision a person having those traits, and then asked to respond to five items related to the imagined person (e.g., "It would make me feel good to be a person who has these characteristics"). Participants respond to each item on a Likert scale anchored by 1 (strongly disagree) and 5 (strongly agree). The mean score across items is then calculated. Previous research has shown good internal consistency for the internalization subscale items ([alpha] = 0.85; Reed & Aquino, 2003). Reliability in the current study was [alpha] = .86.

Athletic Identity. To assess athletic identity, we used two slightly modified subscales of the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale-Plus (Cieslak, 2004; Cieslak, Fink, & Pastore, 2005), the self-identity and positive affectivity subscales. Originally, the self-identity subscale included four items designed to assess the extent to which an individual perceives him- or herself to be an athlete. However, following analyses of model fit, Cieslak (2004) recommended omitting one item, which we did, leaving a 3-item subscale ("I consider myself an athlete;" "I have many goals related to sport;" and, "Being an athlete is an important part of who I am"). We also dropped the poorest fitting item from the positive affectivity subscale, resulting in three-items measuring the degree to which the respondent experiences enjoyment or satisfaction from being an athlete ("When I am participating in sport, I am happy;" "I get a sense of satisfaction when participating in sport;" and, "My participation in sport is a very positive part of my life"). Respondents indicate their level of agreement with each statement on a 10-point scale anchored by 1 (strongly disagree) and 10 (strongly agree). The two resulting subscales had moderate to strong alpha coefficients: self-identity ([alpha] = .84) and positive affectivity ([alpha] = .93). For the correlational and regression analyses, we combined the two sub-scales and divided by two to form a single measure of athletic identity. The combined scale had a Cronbach alpha of .94.

Empathy. To assess respondents' empathy, the empathic concern subscale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1983) was utilized. The Interpersonal Reactivity Index asks respondents to assess how much they are like (or not like) each statement listed on the instrument. Respondents make their assessments on a 5-point scale anchored by 1 (not at all like me) and 5 (very much like me). The empathic concern subscale includes statements such as, "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me." The widely used Interpersonal Reactivity Index has received support for its psychometric properties with [alpha] coefficients generally ranging from .71 to .77 (Davis, 1983). In the current sample, the empathic concern subscale demonstrated good reliability ([alpha] = .81).

Fear of Failure. Fear of failure was measured with the 5-item Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory-Short Form (PFAI-S; Conroy, Willow, & Metzler, 2002). The long-version PFAI consists of five factors that assess fears of (a) experiencing shame and embarrassment, (b) devaluing one's self-estimate, (c) having an uncertain future, (d) important others losing interest, and, (e) upsetting important others (Conroy, 2001). The short form is made up of the most representative item from each of the five factors. Research indicates that the PFAI-S demonstrates good construct validity, is internally consistent and reliable, and shows factorial invariance across groups and over time (Conroy & Elliot, 2004; Conroy, Metzler, & Hofer, 2003). The short form is also highly correlated with the long-form measure (r = .92; Conroy et al., 2002). Sample items include "When I am failing, I am afraid that I might not have enough talent" and "When I am not succeeding, people are less interested in me." Respondents indicate how frequently they believe each statement on a 5-point scale ranging from -2 (do not believe at all) to 2 (believe 100% of the time). Scores were summed to provide a general index of students' fear of failing. In the current study, the PFAI-S demonstrated good reliability ([alpha] = .82).


Descriptive Statistics and Correlation Analyses

Descriptive statistics for all variables, internal reliability values, and zero-order correlations are presented in Table 1. Study measures demonstrated good to excellent internal reliability, ranging from .81 for the empathic concern scale to .94 for the athletic identity scale. A review of the table further reveals that the Purpose in Life scale correlated positively, as expected, with partnership contesting orientation (.35), the war contesting orientation (.15), athletic identity (.42), moral identity (.24), and empathy (.21). Also consistent with expectations, it correlated negatively, but weakly, with fear of failure (-.12).

Regression Analyses

The primary aim of the current study was to investigate potential predictors of a person's sense of life purpose. We examined this question using sequential regression, conducted in two steps, with purpose serving as the outcome variable. To control for their effects, we entered sport type and demographic variables (age, gender, and years competed) in the first step. In Step 2, we entered our six primary predictor variables: partnership and war contesting orientations, athletic identity, moral identity, empathic concern, and fear of failure. Results are presented in Table 2.

The initial model that included sport type and demographic variables was significant, but only accounted for 1% of the variance in purpose scores. Older athletes scored higher on purpose than younger athletes, and males (M = 4.23) scored slightly, but significantly, lower than females (M = 4.31). Neither sport contact level nor years competed were significantly related to purpose scores.

The model including our primary predictor variables added significantly to the Step 1 model, accounting for an additional 24% of the variance in purpose scores. All variables predicted positively to purpose scores except fear of failure which was a significant negative predictor. Examination of the [beta] values and partial [[eta].sup.2] suggests that athletic identity contributed the most unique variance to the prediction of purpose, followed by the partnership contesting orientation.


Substantial evidence supports the contention that having a sense of life purpose is a key component of, and contributor to, many aspects of well-being, and can be a potent character asset (Bronk, 2014; Damon, 2008). Researchers have also identified emerging adulthood as a critical time for developing a sense of purpose, as the young person seeks to establish and sustain significant relationships, develop a value-oriented internal sense of coherence, and find direction and meaning (Bronk & Baumsteiger, 2017; Eccles et al., 2008). Despite its benefits, only about a third of emerging adults report having a purpose in life (Damon, 2008). Given its relative scarcity and its potential to contribute to positive development, a critical task for character educators is to identify and nurture pathways to purpose.

In this investigation, we focused on emerging adults who experience one specific type of environment--U.S. intercollegiate athletics--and a set of related person factors that may interact with the affordances offered by sport to promote a sense of purpose. We found that sport participants' sense of purpose is related to two aspects of identity, their conceptual map of competition, their degree of empathic concern, and the extent to which they experience a fear of failure.

In the regression model, the most significant predictor of purpose was athletic identity, with moral identity also significant (though only weakly). In general, the connection between identity and purpose is hardly surprising. Ever since Erikson's pioneering work (1968, 1980), researchers have recognized that the development of identity and purpose are closely associated processes of adolescence or emerging adulthood (e.g., Bronk, 2014; Cote, 2002; Damon et al., 2003). The linkages between moral identity and purpose are relatively straightforward (Damon, 2008). As morality becomes more important to people and more deeply integrated into their identity, they are likely to develop purposes that reflect those moral commitments (Damon, 2012). As Erikson (1968, 1980) noted, fidelity to a core set of values anchors identity and provides direction to life.

An important contribution of the present study to theory and research on the purpose-identity link is the role of athletic identity. Since very few college athletes view themselves as becoming professional athletes, the connection between athletic identity and purpose is not as transparent as identity-purpose linkages more generally. One potential explanation of the athletic identity-life purpose link centers on what we might call transitional purposes. We use the term transitional purpose to refer to a quasi-purpose that (a) shares most of the major features of a life purpose except that it is geared to a medium-horizon, instead of a far-horizon, goal, and (b) scaffolds the development of attitudes, values, competencies, and/or dispositions useful to the identification of, and commitment to, a long-term, life-directing purpose. Athletic identity may be correlated with purpose because those who have developed a strong athletic identity tend to organize their time, relationships, and activities around athletic pursuits (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Petitpas, 2000), and these organizations of life experiences and commitments around athletic goals scaffold similar processes of life purpose development. A similar scaffolding process may explain, for example, why higher athletic identity is also predictive of self-efficacy in career decision-making (Cabrita, Rosado, Leite, Serpa, & Mousa, 2014). The following two paragraphs elaborate on this possibility.

Athletic endeavors at the intercollegiate level are highly demanding in terms of time and focus, so it is not surprising that "being an athlete" is an important component of identity for many students who compete at this level. The commitments involved in high level sports facilitate the formation of close friendships focused around common interests (Smith, 2007), provide adult mentors who encourage particular values and goal pursuits (Jowett & Poczwardowski, 2007), and promote joint activities (practices and competitions) that are emotionally engaging and recur over extended periods of time. Just such dynamics have been recognized as important processes prominent in purpose formation (Bronk, 2014; Shamah, 2011).

As students come to develop their identity as an athlete, sport can provide a nexus within which sport-transcending purposes can grow. Sport manifests risks, opportunities, and challenges; it requires a balancing of egoism and self-transcendence; it presents a host of small and large challenges to moral reasoning and action; and it is imbued with stories and traditions that connect the sport experience to life far beyond the playing fields. As has been recognized by many sport philosophers and social scientists (e.g., Coakley, 2009; Segrave, 2000; Shields & Bredemeier, 2011a), sport provides a large set of analogies and metaphors for broader social processes, and it may be that such performance character capacities as teamwork, resilience, goal setting, pursuit of excellence, and leadership can be nurtured in sport and extended to other domains (Hodge, Danish, Forneris, & Miles, 2016; Shields & Bredemeier, 2008). Again, sport mirrors similar dynamics that accompany identifying and acting on purpose beyond the bounds of sport. Thus, sports may provide a setting where an athletic identity may reciprocally relate to a budding sense of purpose, even if that purpose is not directly tethered to athletic goals.

A second major finding of the present investigation is that a person's contesting orientation is also significantly predictive of their sense of purpose, though the effect size is modest. While both the partnership and war contesting orientations were found to relate positively to purpose, the partnership orientation was a much stronger predictor than the war orientation. Thinking of opponents as "partners" in a mutually beneficial quest for enjoyment and excellence may create within the social networks of sport an environment more conducive to purpose formation. One reason this may be true is because the partnership orientation reduces the tendency to dehumanize, degrade, or diminish competitors (whether opponents or teammates vying for position or playing time) and, instead, fosters openness to the needs, interests, and perspective of others, thus allowing shared purpose-related interests to surface.

This interpretation fits with two other research findings on contesting orientations, one from this investigation and a second from previous research. In the current study, we found that empathic concern was correlated negatively with a war orientation, but positively with both the partnership contesting orientation and purpose. The relatively high correlation between partnership orientation and empathic concern suggests that those high in partnership are not as closed off from the experiences of others and, consequently, may more easily build relationships that can nurture purpose. Second, previous research by Reed and Aquino (2003) has indicated that those who score higher in moral identity are more prone to include outgroup members in their "circle of moral regard." In sports, opposing teams may be thought of as "outgroups," so the consistent link found between the partnership orientation and moral identity (Shields et al., 2015a, 2015b, 2016c, 2018b) suggests that a more inclusive network of positive athletic associations may be one mechanism explaining the connection between the partnership contesting orientation and a greater sense of purpose.

Finally, fear of failure emerged as a negative, though again not particularly strong, predictor of purpose. A fear of failure attaches outsized significance to not doing well, anticipating shame and embarrassment, a devalued sense of self, more restricted future opportunities, and disappointment and/or loss of interest from significant others. Since forming an enduring sense of purpose is supported by a reasonable level of self-efficacy, perceived social support, and a future-orientation, it is not hard to see how fear of failure is a hindrance to focusing on purpose, especially self-transcending goals.

If these findings are sustained through further investigations, they carry important implications for coaches and other character educators working with student-athletes. Previous research has demonstrated that purpose is malleable (Parks, 2011), and character educators can help young adults develop their sense of purpose even through such brief interventions as a 45-minute interview (Bundick, 2011). Coaches are often trusted and influential mentors (Turnnidge, Evans, Vierimaa, Allan, & Cote, 2016), and can encourage and facilitate dialog about what it means to be an athlete and how being an athlete can benefit the pursuit of long-term goals. Bridging athletic and moral identity, as can be done with nuanced approaches to sportspersonship (Shields & Bredemeier, 2011b), may not only encourage more ethical sport behavior, but purpose-formation as well. Most likely, this will be happen especially if athletes are given ample opportunity to talk about how their values can be expressed not only on the playing field, but in other domains of activity as well.

The findings also suggest that coaches can create an atmosphere that affords opportunities for developing purpose if they promote a mindset about competition rooted in the partnership metaphor. Once again, doing so is likely to both increase ethical sport behavior (Shields et al. 2018b) and encourage reciprocal person-context interactions that are more conducive to purpose formation. Coaches can create purpose-supportive sport cultures by encouraging appreciative attitudes toward opponents, respecting officials, advocating for adherence to the spirit as well as the letter of the rules, upholding the best traditions of the sport, and emphasizing the pursuit of excellence over the pursuit of victory at all costs.

Developing a partnership approach to competition not only has advantages within sport, it may help athletes discover personally meaningful and socially beneficial goals in domains other than sports. Contesting orientations are not just about sport competition; they pertain to any setting (e.g., school, business, law, politics) where social interaction is structured by, or influenced by, competition (Bredemeier & Shields, in press; Shields, 2013; Shields & Bredemeier, 2010). Finally, engaging the team in community service and social justice work, whether sport related or not, may encourage a partnership culture that can help athletes discover how the character qualities that they are developing within sport can transfer to beneficial aims beyond themselves (Gould & & Carson, 2008).


While the current investigation offers important new insights about purposefulness among intercollegiate athletes, it also has numerous limitations that need to be recognized and addressed in future research. Perhaps most importantly, the present investigation, like much research on purpose, assessed only the extent to which an individual has a sense of purpose and not the content of that purpose. It did not, for example, capture whether a person's sense of purpose incorporated a positive beyond-the-self orientation, nor did it assess whether a person's purpose was oriented toward internal self-goals or more external political, religious, familial, or community goals. Future researchers may wish to consider drawing from recent advances in measuring, for example, the beyond-the-self dimension of purpose (Gitima, Mariya, & ZiYoung, 2018).

Given its cross-sectional design, the study also presents only a snapshot of the relationships it addressed. While purpose is often defined as having enduring qualities, it is also something that evolves through the life cycle (Bronk et al., 2009). It is certainly possible that what gives collegiate student-athletes a sense of purpose may change, and possibly even disintegrate, as they move beyond their early college and athletic careers. Future researchers may wish to incorporate a longitudinal design to address these and related issues, as well as incorporate mixed methods and qualitative approaches.

Finally, the study was limited by sample characteristics and assessment methods. Results from the study cannot be generalized to other ages, competitive levels, or cultural contexts. Future researchers may wish to test the generalizability of our findings by assessing additional populations with other measures. Despite these limitations, the study provides strong evidence that appropriately guided sport experiences may support an important developmental task of emerging adults: commitment to purpose.

Acknowledgment: The authors wish to extend appreciation to Kristin Gillette and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for their invaluable assistance with data collection, and to Brenda Light Bredemeier for valuable comments on an earlier draft of the article.


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David Light Shields

St. Louis Community College

Christopher D. Funk

University of Missouri-St. Louis

* Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: David Light Shields,
Descriptive Statistics, Zero-Order Correlations and Alpha Coefficients
of Study Variables

Variables                   1            2            3

1. Purpose in Life          (.83)
2. Contesting-Partnership    .35 (***)   (.84)
3. Contesting-War            .15 (***)    .29 (***)   (.90)
4. Athletic Identity         .42 (***)    .40 (***)    .22 (***)
5. Moral Identity            .24 (***)    .37 (***)   -.04
6. Empathic Concern          .21 (***)    .27 (***)   -.16 (***)
7. Fear of Failure          -.12 (***)    .00          .10 (***)
M                           4.27         4.09         3.68
SD                           .65          .70          .96

Variables                   4           5           6           7

1. Purpose in Life
2. Contesting-Partnership
3. Contesting-War
4. Athletic Identity        (.94)
5. Moral Identity            .27 (***)  (.86)
6. Empathic Concern          .18 (***)   .51 (***)  (.81)
7. Fear of Failure          -.07 (**)    .04         .08 (***)  (.82)
M                           8.73        4.49        3.87        2.98
SD                          1.52         .67         .65         .84

Notes: Scale reliability (alpha) in parentheses on the diagonal. (**) p
[less than or equal to] .01. (***) p [less than or equal to] .001.

Sequential Regression of Purpose in Life

Variable                   B      SE    95%, CI      [beta]  t

Step 1
  Sport Contact             .00   .04   -.07, .07     .00      .10
  Age                       .03   .01    .01, .05     .07     3.00 (***)
  Gender                    .10   .03    .03, .16     .07     3.02 (***)
  Years Competed            .01   .00    .00, .01     .03     1.30
Step 2
  Contesting Partnership    .16   .02    .11, .20     .17     7.45 (***)
  Contesting War            .06   .01    .03, .09     .09     4.18 (***)
  Athletic Identity         .13   .01    .11, .14     .29    13.82 (***)
  Moral Identity            .05   .02    .00, .09     .05     2.00 (*)
  Empathic Concern          .09   .02    .05, .14     .09     3.93 (***)
  Fear of Failure          -.10   .02   -.13, -.07   -.13    -6.44 (***)
Total [R.sup.2]

Variable                   Partial [[eta].sup.2]   [DELTA] [R.sup.2]

Step 1                                             0.01 (***)
  Sport Contact            .00
  Age                      .00
  Gender                   .00
  Years Competed           .00
Step 2                                             0.24 (***)
  Contesting Partnership   .03
  Contesting War           .01
  Athletic Identity        .08
  Moral Identity           .00
  Empathic Concern         .01
  Fear of Failure          .02
Total [R.sup.2]                                    0.25 (***)

Notes: (*) p [less than or equal to] .05. (**) p
[less than or equal to] .01. (***) p [less than or equal to] .001.
Sport Contact coded: 1 = Low/no contact; 2 = Medium/high contact.
Gender coded: 1 = Male; 2 = Female.
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Author:Shields, David Light; Funk, Christopher D.
Publication:Journal of Character Education
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jan 1, 2019

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