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Relationships between shame-coping, fear of failure, and perfectionism in college athletes.

Shame is one of many emotions that can result from an athletic performance. The public nature of sport and the salience of competitive outcomes can cause strong emotional reactions for athletes. Although many of these emotions, such as joy and pride, are positive, many are not, such as anger and shame. In the emotion literature, shame and its variants (e.g., embarrassment, humiliation) are typically conceptualized as a basic emotion family whose antecedent is the perceived experience of being seen by others as something "less than" how we would like to be seen (i.e., devaluation; Elison, 2005; Partridge & Elison, 2009). The social experience of shame is central to its occurrence. Thus, it is critical that research should explore the relationships among shame and other socially based constructs in sport. To date, limited research in sport contexts has identified the issue of shame as an emotional response to participation (Crossman, Gluck, & Jamieson, 1995; Lewthwaite & Scanlan, 1989; Ruiz & Hanin, 2004), therefore shame as a precipitating factor in behavioral outcomes in sport has yet to be fully explored (Partridge & Elison, 2009).


From an evolutionary perspective, humans are social beings that rely on the benefits provided by living in groups; thus, social inclusion is necessary for survival (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Parker, 1998). Shame functions as a warning signal to indicate the threat of social exclusion. It signals that one's status within a social hierarchy has been threatened, and in turn, can motivate damage-limitation strategies (Elison, 2005; Gilbert & McGuire, 1998). These strategies may take numerous forms, and an important aspect of the experience of the emotion of shame is the way in which one copes with, or defends against, it. Shame and shame-coping may be adaptive or maladaptive (Elison, Pulos, & Lennon, 2006). Nathanson (1992) proposed a model of emotional coping specific to shame: the Compass of Shame. This model describes four maladaptive shame-focused coping styles, represented by the poles of the compass and labeled Attack Self, Withdrawal, Attack Other, and Avoidance. Each coping style is associated with different motivations, affects, cognitions, behaviors, and outcomes. The four poles of the Compass of Shame characterize the styles by which shame is reduced, ignored, or magnified, without addressing its source. In contrast to these four maladaptive strategies, an adaptive shame-coping style is to attend to the source of shame and evaluate whether or not one cares to address it. A shamed athlete might choose to work on his or her weaknesses, or come to realize that the shame is the result of unrealistic expectations of others and move forward. Nathanson takes a trait perspective on these shame-coping styles, viewing them as relatively stable dispositions exhibiting individual differences.

Given the fact that shame may be adaptive or maladaptive, theorists (Ferguson & Stegge, 1998; Tangney & Dearing, 2002) have recently pointed to the need to investigate when and under what conditions shame leads to one direction or the other. We believe part of the answer lies in shame-coping styles; different styles lead to different outcomes. For example, we have all witnessed athletes who have reacted admirably or poorly to their shame-eliciting mistakes.

At the Withdrawal pole of Nathanson's (1992) Compass of Shame, the person acknowledges the experience as negative, accepts shame's message as valid, and tries to withdraw or hide from the situation (Elison, Pulos, & Lennon, 2006; Nathanson, 1992; Partridge & Elison, 2009). For example, a basketball player who misses a crucial free throw might withdraw from other teammates or in the extreme case quit. Emotions tend to be negative and include shame, sadness, and anxiety. Cognitions include awareness of one's discomfort with others (i.e., social anxiety and concern over others' perceptions), and possibly awareness of faults. However, these negative experiences may not be identified explicitly as shame; people may simply say they feel "bad" or "bad about themselves." The motivation is to limit shameful exposure via the action tendency of withdrawing.

At the Attack Self pole, the person again acknowledges the experience as negative, accepts shame's message as valid, but in this case, turns anger inward. For example, the free-throw-missing basketball player above might feel self-directed rage for being a "loser." The emotional experience is negative, including self-directed anger, contempt, or disgust, which magnifies the impact of shame. Cognitions include awareness of one's shameful actions, faults, or characteristics. As in Withdrawal, negative feelings and cognitions may be acknowledged, but may not be identified as shame. The action tendency is to criticize the self, engage in self-deprecating remarks, conform, show deference to others, or prevent reoccurrence of the shameful situation through change. Attack Self is essentially an intrapunitive response. In contrast to the other poles, Attack Self is designed primarily to take control of shame with the ultimate goal being to win acceptance by others. This unique role is of particular importance in our study.

At the Avoidance pole, the person typically does not acknowledge the negative experience of self, does not accept shame's message as valid (i.e., denial, minimization), and attempts to distract the self and others from the painful feeling. Our basketball player might joke about missing the free throws or disavow interest in the sport altogether. Cognitions include little awareness of shame or one's shameful actions, faults, or characteristics. The motivation is to minimize the conscious experience of shame or show oneself as being above shame.

At the Attack Other pole, the person may or may not acknowledge the negative experience of self, typically does not accept shame's message of being lacking, and attempts to make someone else feel worse. For example, our basketball player might tease someone else or externalize the experience of shame by blaming the crowd for being distracting. The phenomenological experience is negative; anger is directed outward, perhaps toward the source of the shaming event. The cognitive experience is an awareness of someone else's actions or faults and may or may not involve awareness of shame. The motivation is to enhance one's own self image and externalize the shame. The action tendency is to verbally or physically attack someone or something else in order to make someone else feel inferior.

Elison and colleagues developed the Compass of Shame Scale (CoSS), a self-report measure, to assess individuals' use of the shame-coping styles described by Nathanson's (1992) model. We modified the CoSS to create a sport-specific version, the Compass of Shame Scale--Sport (CoSS-Sport), for use in this and other studies (described in the Methods section). Both measures consist of four subscales: Attack Self, Withdrawal, Attack Other, and Avoidance.

Fear of Failure

Shame has long been conceptualized as a central component of fear of failure (FoF). Atkinson (1966) defined fear of failure as a "disposition to avoid failure and/or a capacity for experiencing shame or humiliation as a consequence of failure" (p. 13). The connection between shame and fear of failure has been supported in both non-sport and sport samples. McGregor and Elliot (2005) found a positive relationship between shame proneness and fear of failure, as well as a positive relationship between parental shaming and fear of failure. Specifically, individuals who were higher in fear of failure reported greater shame than those who were lower in fear of failure. The authors also found that higher levels of fear of failure increased the globalization of shame experiences, thus supporting the centrality of shame in the fear of failure experience.

This shame and fear of failure connection has been identified in the sport domain as well (Conroy, 2004; Conroy, Willow, & Metzler, 2002). As a motive disposition, individuals exhibit large differences in the degree to which fear of failure shapes their overall motivation. Couroy (2001) found that those who fail have the notion they will experience social isolation, which according to Katz (1999), is a direct cause for shame. Utilizing the tenets of cognitive-motivational-relational theory (Lazarus, 1991, 2000), Conroy, Poczwardowski, and Henschen (2001) explored this concept through interviews with sixteen elite athletes and performing artists and found support for the existence of several fear of failure appraisals that are consistent with shame, such as "demonstrating that I have low ability" (p. 319) and "experiencing an embarrassing self-presentational failure" (p. 319).

The five core components to fear of failure have been identified as (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 et al., 2002). Furthermore, the fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment is believed to be at the center of the dysfunctional nature of FoF in sport (Conroy, 2004), underscoring the significance of these emotions. Many individuals believe that by failing they are exposing a personal character flaw (Lazarus, 2000). In a study on sport and exercise avoidance, Ellis (1994) found that many people avoid exercise because they are afraid of failing in the public eye; thus, their avoidance is essentially a shame-coping strategy. For an athlete, the threat of failing and the associated shame can also elicit feelings of anxiety, in that they become nervous from a fear of experiencing shame or a threat to one's self-esteem (Spielberger, 1966).


Although definitions vary, theorists currently view perfectionism as a multidimensional construct (Hewitt & Flett, 1991; Hewitt, Flett, Tumbull-Donovan, & Mikail, 1991; Hill, Huelsman, Furr, Kibler, Vicente, & Kennedy, 2004). At its core are the setting of unrealistic goals, a self-focus on performance, and self-criticism over flaws and mistakes. Related tendencies may include high levels of planning, organization, and striving for excellence--on the adaptive side--and need for approval and rumination--on the maladaptive side. Thus, perfectionism has its adaptive and maladaptive aspects. On one hand, striving for excellence and facilitating its attainment via careful planning and organization, may lead to success. On the other hand, concern over mistakes and rumination may cripple or derail one's motivation. Both adaptive and maladaptive characteristics of perfectionism have been identified in sport (Stoeber & Becker, 2008; Stoll, Lau, & Stoeber, 2008).

Tangney (2002) rightfully argues that perfectionism and self-conscious emotions, such as shame, embarrassment, and guilt are intertwined because these emotions are often elicited by self-evaluation, a core component of perfectionism. Perfectionists may set high standards for themselves or take on high standards set by others, but in addition, they focus on evaluating themselves against these standards. Any shortfall is likely to elicit shame or embarrassment. Hewitt and Flett (1991) found moderate positive correlations between perfectionism and shame-proneness. Similarly, Tangney explored the relationships between shame-proneness and perfectionism in three recent investigations. Focusing on socially-prescribed perfectionism, a maladaptive dimension, she found correlations between perfectionism and shame ranging from. 15 to .33.

In the physical domain, Conroy, Kaye, and Fifer (2007) have also examined the link between perfectionism and fear of failure within a population of college students enrolled in physical activity classes. Their findings support the connection between socially prescribed perfectionism and beliefs that failure will lead to negative interpersonal consequences such as upsetting important others. Sagar and Stoeber (2009) also found support for the centrality of the fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment in the relationship between fear of failure and perfectionism, as well as a relationship between certain forms of perfectionism and negative affect following a failure experience in a sample of college athletes.

These studies, while supportive of the connection between shame and fear of failure, have not investigated the role of shame-coping, a factor that we predict should mediate between the experience of shame and other variables, such as perfectionism. Indeed, Reed (unpublished) and Webb and Elison (2008) investigated the hypothesis that the four shame-coping styles described by Nathanson (1992) would be differentially related to perfectionism. Webb surveyed college students; Reed surveyed patients being treated for hypersexuality, as well as a college student control group. In all three samples, strong correlations between shame-coping and perfectionism were observed (rs > .60).

In the current study, we examined similar variables and their relationships to coping with a shaming experience. Specifically, the relationships among perfectionism, fear of failure and the shame-coping styles described by Nathanson (1992) were explored in a college athlete sample.

Objectives & Hypotheses

Relationships between Shame-coping, Fear of Failure, and Perfectionism

Our primary hypotheses involve relationships between the CoSS-Sport subscales and fear of failure and perfectionism. Elison et al. (Elison, Lennon, & Pulos, 2006) argue that the CoSS subscales can be ordered by the degree to which they involve consciousness and internalization of shame. A related point is because Attack Self is an intrapunitive response, involving self-directed anger and disgust, Attack Self goes beyond mere internalization to magnification of shame. Given these considerations, we predict that with respect to other maladaptive variables, the magnitude of the CoSS correlations should generally be ordered from high to low: Attack Self, Withdrawal, Attack Other, and Avoidance. In other words, in relation to a maladaptive outcome variable such as depression, we expect Attack Self to demonstrate the largest correlation and Avoidance the smallest. This order has been observed with respect to self-esteem (Yelsma, Brown, & Elison, 2002), psychological symptoms (Elison, Lennon, & Pulos, 2006), perfectionism (Reed, unpublished; Webb & Elison, 2008), and self-compassion (Price & Elison, 2009). We anticipate the same order for the CoSS-Sport in relation to the maladaptive subscales of our fear of failure and perfectionism measures.

As mentioned previously, perfectionism can have adaptive aspects, including motivating individuals to try harder. Because Attack Self is the primary shame-coping strategy involving the motivation to be accepted by others, we predict a positive correlation between it and perfectionistic "striving for excellence." This result has been observed in prior studies on perfectionism (Reed, unpublished; Webb & Elison, 2008). In contrast, Attack Other and Avoidance may demonstrate negative correlations with striving for excellence; those who adopt the former style blame others instead of taking responsibility for their shortcomings; those who adopt the latter, deny those shortcomings or disavow their goals (Partridge & Elison, 2009).

Sport Type

Partridge and Elison (2009) suggested there might be differences in how athletes cope with shame based on the type of sport in which they participate. Perhaps individual sports lead to greater internalization (Attack Self, Withdrawal) in contrast to team sports, which might lead to increased externalization (i.e., Attack Other). Avoidance might be expected in individual sports more so than team sports for a number of reasons. The most obvious seems to be self-selection bias; avoidant athletes might be more likely to choose to compete individually. In addition, team sports may not offer the luxury of disavowing one's mistakes and shortcomings, as teammates might not let them pass unnoticed.

Similarly, participants in contact versus non-contact sports might differ in their use of shame-coping styles. The team vs. individual and contact vs. non-contact classifications are not independent as there are few individual contact sports. However, we might expect athletes in contact sports to show lower levels of Avoidance for another reason; namely, contact seems to be antithetical to avoidance. Another conjecture offered by Partridge and Elison (2009) is that participants in contact sports might be more likely to favor Attack Other coping. However, this seemingly obvious hypothesis should be tempered by two observations. First, Attack Other, especially as operationalized in the CoSS, may be quite passive, involving angry thoughts and fantasies as opposed to physical confrontation. Second, performance in individual sports may often be assessed by judges on a relatively subjective basis, opening the door to externalization of blame.

Finally, we approach fear of failure and perfectionism in an exploratory fashion, without focused hypotheses with regard to sport type. On the one hand, mistakes and poor performances by athletes in individual sports may rest solely on the athlete; however, only the athlete him or herself is directly affected. In contrast, when an athlete makes a mistake or has a poor performance in team sports, an entire team pays the price.

Sex Differences

Differences in use of shame-coping styles between males and females have been observed in the past (Elison, Lennon, & Pulos, 2006). Women tend to use the internalizing styles of Attack Self and Withdrawal, so we predict the same for the CoSS-Sport. In contrast, men tend to favor Avoidance. Although sex differences in use of Attack Other have been equivocal, in the context of sport, we expect men to use Attack Other more than women.

Although men and women may differ in their use of shame-coping styles, it does not necessarily follow that a given style is more maladaptive for the sex that favors it. Therefore, of more interest than simple sex differences in use is whether correlations with fear of failure and perfectionism differ by sex. We approached this issue in an exploratory fashion without focused hypotheses; however, prior data (unpublished data from Elison, Lennon, & Pulos, 2006) suggest that Avoidance may be more maladaptive for males.

In summary, the present study will serve as a test of our hypotheses regarding the relationships between shame-coping, fear of failure, and perfectionism, as well as our hypotheses regarding mean differences based on sex and sport type. As with any study employing a relatively new measure, data supporting our hypotheses would also support the validity of the CoSS-Sport, and the CoSS upon which it was based.



Our sample consisted of 285 colege athletes (154 men, 54%; 131 women, 46%) with a mean age of 19.8 years (SD = 1.54) from two universities in the United States, one in the Midwest (148, 52%) and one in the West (137, 48%). Most participants identified themselves as Caucasian (182, 64%) or African-American (63, 22%), with the remainder (40, 14 %) identifying themselves as Other or Multi-ethnic. Table 1 lists the frequencies and percentages of participants who played the various sports, as well as our classification of the sports as team versus individual, and contact versus non-contact. Eighty-eight percent of participants identified themselves as varsity athletes, 10% as club, and 2% as other. The mean number of years participants had been playing their sports was 9.01 (SD = 4.20).


Shame-coping. Participants completed the Compass of Shame Scale--Sport (CoSS-Sport), a modification of the Compass of Shame Scale (Elison, Lennon, & Pulos, 2006; Elison, Pulos, & Lennon, 2006). Elison and colleagues developed the Compass of Shame Scale (CoSS), a self-report measure, to assess individuals' use of the shame-coping styles described by Nathanson's (1992) model. The CoSS presents 12 general (i.e., not specific to sport) shame-eliciting scenarios that may be encountered in daily life. In response to each scenario, participants respond by indicating the frequency with which they would be likely to use each of the four Compass of Shame responses. A sample item is:

When an activity makes me feel like my strength or skill is inferior:

1. I don't let it bother me. (Avoidance)

2. I get mad at myself for not being good enough. (Attack Self)

3. I withdraw from the activity. (Withdrawal)

4. I get irritated with other people. (Attack Other)

The CoSS has been translated into ten languages and employed in a wide variety of studies. Elison, Lennon, and Pulos (2006) describe the development and validation of the CoSS. They found that shame-coping styles are differentially related to psychological symptoms, suggesting that shame-coping styles may play a mediating role between the experience of shame and symptoms. Campbell and Elison (2005) also found that the CoSS subscales differed in the magnitudes of their correlations with psychopathy, with Attack Other showing the highest correlation. Yelsma et al. (2002) found Attack Self and Withdrawal to be the CoSS subscales with the strongest correlations (negative) with self-esteem. Thus, results have supported the validity of the CoSS, and these supportive results continue to accumulate.

To assess use of the Compass of Shame coping styles in the domain of sport, we created the Compass of Shame Scale--Sport (CoSS-Sport) by modifying the CoSS. The scenarios from the CoSS were replaced with sport-specific scenarios of a similar nature. For example, the CoSS scenario regarding unfavorable comparisons to others with regard to strength or skill was replaced with the CoSS-Sport scenario "In competitive situations where my strength or skill can't match my opponent's." The CoSS-Sport consists of 13 brief scenarios with four responses to each, representing Attack Self, Withdrawal, Attack Other, and Avoidance. Likert-type responses range from 1 (never) to 5 (almost always). The 13 items for each of the four subscales were summed to produce four subscale total scores. The alpha reliabilities for the four subscales were: Attack Self, .88; Withdrawal, .86; Attack Other, .88; Avoidance, .73.

Fear of Failure. Participants completed the Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory (PFAI; Conroy, 2001), which is a 41-item measure with subscales for Fear of Shame and Embarrassment (FSE), Fear of Devaluing One's Self Estimate (FDOSE), Fear of Having an Uncertain Future (FHUF), Fear of Losing Social Influence (FLSI), and Fear of Upsetting Important Others (FUIO). The PFAI consists of 1- or 2-line, first-person statements starting with "When I am failing" or"When I am not succeeding," with responses ranging from -2 (Do not believe at all) to 2 (Completely believe) with 0 (Believe 50% of the time) being the midpoint. A sample Fear of Shame and Embarrassment item is "When I am failing it is embarrassing if others are there to see it." For each subscale, all items were summed to create subscale total scores. The alpha reliabilities for the five subscales, in the order listed previously, were .79, .72, .81, .76, and .72.

Perfectionism. Participants completed the Perfectionism Inventory (PI; Hill et al., 2004), which is a 59-item, multidimensional measure with subscales for Self-Evaluative Perfectionism (maladaptive) and Conscientious Perfectionism (adaptive). The PI consists of single-line, first-person statements, with responses ranging from I (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Specifically, Conscientious Perfectionism consists of 28 items and assesses four domains (Striving for Excellence, Organization, Planfulness, and High Standards for Others), while Self-Evaluative Perfectionism consists of 31 items and assesses four domains (Concern over Mistakes, Need for Approval, Rumination, and Perceived Parental Pressure). A sample self-evaluative (Need for Approval) item is "I compare my work to others and often feel inadequate." A sample conscientious (Striving for Excellence) item is "I drive myself rigorously to achieve high standards." For the current study, we used only the subscales for Concern over Mistakes, Need for Approval, Rumination, and Striving for Excellence, as these were most relevant to our hypotheses. For each subscale, all items were summed to create subscale total scores. The alpha reliabilities for these four subscales, in the order listed previously, were .81, .81, .80, and .77.


We asked college coaches to allow us to invite their athletes to participate anonymously in our study. Most coaches consented, with some allowing us to collect data during practice, while the majority allowed us to send questionnaire packets home with their athletes. Packets contained a sheet for demographic information, followed by our three measures in random order to prevent ordering effects.

Results and Discussion

Correlations between Shame-coping, Fear of Failure, and Perfectionism

The results support our view that shame-coping styles are important predictors of maladaptive fear of failure and perfectionism among athletes. Across all eight maladaptive fear of failure and perfectionism scales (not including PSE as it is adaptive), the magnitudes of the CoSS-Sport scales are ordered perfectly with regard to our primary hypothesis about their differential relationships: Attack Self is greater than Withdrawal, which is in turn greater than Attack Other, followed by Avoidance (Table 2). The significances of the differences in magnitudes between these correlated correlation coefficients were computed (Meng, Rosenthal, & Rubin, 1992); these results are displayed in Table 2 as subscripts. In the vast majority of cases (48/54, 89%) the differences in magnitudes are significant. In other words, individual differences in one's proneness to the four shame-coping styles predict individual differences in tendencies toward fear of failure and perfectionism.

Attack Self is the strongest predictor of maladaptive outcomes (again excluding PSE), exhibiting correlations ranging from .39 to .54, all significant atp < .001. This is likely due to the intrapunitive nature of Attack Self. Athletes who favor Attack Self as a shame-coping response go beyond just internalizing their mistakes and shortcomings, they tend to blow them out of proportion and ruminate, magnifying their negative impact. Not surprisingly, the highest correlations are between Attack Self and Fear of Shame and Embarrassment, Concern over Mistakes, and Rumination. These correlations suggest that athletes who report using Attack Self more frequently fear shame (because they magnify its intensity) and are more concerned with their mistakes, being unable to let go of them.

The second most predictive style is Withdrawal, exhibiting correlations ranging from .35 to .46, all significant atp < .001. Its predictive power is most likely due to the internalization it shares with Attack Self. In addition, athletes who favor Withdrawal may experience fear of failure and be driven to perfectionism for another reason; they are more socially anxious, so shortcomings may lead to isolation. Supportive results are present in Withdrawal's correlations with Fear of Losing Social Influence and Fear of Upsetting Important Others. In particular, for individuals who employ Withdrawal coping, letting others down leads to self-imposed social isolation.

The Attack Other and Avoidance shame-coping responses are less predictive of fear of failure and perfectionism, likely due to the externalization they share. Athletes who favor these styles are less likely to take responsibility for their shortcomings or even acknowledge them. Attack Other correlations range from .24 to .37, all significant atp < .001. The highest of these was with Concern over Mistakes, suggesting that participants with a maladaptive concern over their mistakes are more likely to blame others or lash out in anger at others in an attempt to lessen their shame. Finally, the Avoidance correlations range from .02 to 22, with five of the eight being significant at p < .05 or better. Thus, the tendency to minimize emotions and disavow goals serves to reduce or hide rumination, need for approval, and fears of upsetting other people. However, these results do not mean Attack Other and Avoidance styles are without their own costs, as Elison and colleagues (Elison, Lennon, & Pulos, 2006) explain. In the present study, we only assessed fear of failure and perfectionism. Attack Other may be more strongly predictive of hostility, violence, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Avoidance may be more predictive of addictive behaviors or failure to persevere in, or even take part in, sports.

Our results are consistent with those from Sagar and Stoeber (2009), especially when considering Attack Self and Withdrawal, the two shame-coping styles where shame and embarrassment are most likely to be acknowledged and internalized. Sagar and Stoeber found Fear of Shame and Embarrassment to be the best predictor of negative affect after failure (r = .48); we found Attack Self and Withdrawal to be the shame-coping styles that best predicted Fear of Shame and Embarrassment (rs = .54, .46, respectively). They found perfectionistic Concern Over Mistakes to be most highly correlated with Fear of Shame and Embarrassment (r = .51; among the FoF subscales) and the most predictive of negative affect (r = .30; among the Perfectionism subscales); we found Attack Self and Withdrawal to be highly predictive of Concern Over Mistakes (rs = .53, .45, respectively) and other maladaptive forms of perfectionism: Need for Approval (rs = .52, .42, respectively); Rumination (rs = .53, .35, respectively). The Sagar and Stoeber study demonstrates the central role that fear of shame and embarrassment plays in perfectionism and fear of failure; the present study demonstrates the importance of shame-coping styles. These coping styles are differentially related to Fear of Failure and Perfectionism, with Attack Self and Withdrawal being strongly predictive of both.

Our second hypothesis regarding the adaptive side of perfectionism and shame-coping is supported, as Attack Self and Striving for Excellence are significantly positively correlated (r = .22,p < .001). Feelings of shame may motivate us to try harder. Similarly, Sagar and Stoeber (2009) found a small, but significant correlation between high personal standards and Fear of Shame and Embarrassment (r = .20). In contrast to Attack Self, the correlation between Striving for Excellence and Attack Other is negative and significant (r = -.13, p < .05), suggesting that blaming others reduces one's motivation to work harder.

Sport Type

To address differences in use of shame-coping styles, fear of failure, and perfectionism between athletes in different types of sports we classified sports as individual versus team, and contact versus non-contact (Table 1), allowing for comparisons of group means. Of course these classifications are not independent in that there are no individual contact sports represented. Thus, the following t tests are not completely independent. When comparing individual versus team sports, we observe two significant differences (Table 3). First, participants in individual sports report Avoidance to a greater degree than those in team sports. Second, participants in team sports report perfectionism in the form of Concern over Mistakes to a greater degree than those in individual sports.

When comparing contact versus non-contact sports, we find three significant differences. First, participants in non-contact sports report Avoidance to a greater degree than those in contact sports. Second, participants in non-contact sports report fear of failure in the form of Fear of Devaluing One's Self Estimate to a greater degree than those in contact sports. Third, participants in non-contact sports report fear of failure in the form of Fear of Having an Uncertain Future to a greater degree than those in contact sports.

Our results with respect to sport type are merely suggestive. Replication with a more balanced selection of sports is warranted. As preliminary results, they may be useful in identifying shame-related issues that are particularly salient to athletes in different sports. It appears that athletes in team sports have greater concerns over their mistakes, while athletes in non-contact sports have greater concerns with what their mistakes say about their worth and implications for their futures. Differences in levels of Avoidance (higher in individual, non-contact sports) are likely due to selection bias, in that an avoidant athlete is more likely to choose to compete individually, a fact that may be helpful to know when dealing with these athletes.

Sex Differences

As predicted for the CoSS-Sport, females report Attack Self to a greater degree than males. Although females report more Withdrawal, the difference is not significant. As predicted, there is a trend where males report Avoidance to a greater degree than females. There is also a trend where males report Attack Other to a greater degree than females. Thus, males and females tend to favor different shame-coping styles.

The sex differences in use of shame-coping styles observed in the current study are generally consistent with those reported elsewhere (Elison, Lennon, & Pulos, 2006). Females tend to employ internalizing forms of shame-coping (Attack Self, Withdrawal) more than males. In contrast, males favor externalizing forms of shame-coping (Avoidance, Attack Other). Previous findings with regard to Attack Other have been mixed; however, we anticipated that within the sport domain males would score higher and indeed they did in the current study.

Significant sex differences for fear of failure and perfectionism consistently reflect higher levels for females. Females report Fear of Shame and Embarrassment to a greater degree than males and Fear of Devaluing One's Self Estimate to a greater degree than males. Females also report Need for Approval to a greater degree than males and Rumination to a greater degree than males. Thus, females tend to exhibit modestly greater fear of failure and perfectionism (Cohen's ds ranging from .25 -.38); however, these differences are not observed across all subscales.

A more interesting sex difference is apparent in the magnitudes of the correlations between shame-coping styles and fear of failure and perfectionism. These magnitudes are higher for males in 28 out of 32 cases (88%). None of the four differences where females are higher are significant. Seven of the 28 differences where males were higher are significant, with these differences in magnitude ranging from. 16 to .30. The largest sex differences are for Avoidance (Fear of Shame & Embarrassment: .26 vs. .02, males and females, respectively; Fear of Upsetting Important Others: .24 vs. -.06) and Attack Other (Concern over Mistakes: .47 vs. .28; Need for Approval: .41 vs. .23).

Thus, Avoidance and Attack Other, favored by males, appear to be more maladaptive for males than they are for females. This finding is consistent with unpublished data from the Elison, Lennon, and Pulos study (2006). We believe there are two related explanations for these findings. First, manifestations of each shame-coping style vary in their severity; for example, Attack Other responses could range from blaming an umpire to physically attacking the umpire. It may be that males, with their higher endorsement of Avoidance and Attack Other, use more severe forms that are more maladaptive. Second, moderate levels of Avoidance, especially in the form of emotional minimization, or Attack Other in the form of externalizing responsibility, may have a protective effect for females who tend to internalize (Attack Self). Due to the important implications of these explanations--that it may be advisable to focus interventions on different shame-coping styles for males and females--these explanations warrant future research.

Similarly, shame-coping styles predict more negative outcomes for males in terms of adaptive perfectionism in the form of Striving for Excellence (PSE). First, Avoidance and Attack Other are significantly negatively correlated with PSE for males (both rs = -.19, p < .05) but not for females (rs = .02, -.05, both ns). Second, Attack Self is more highly correlated with PSE for females (r = .30,p < .001) than for males (r =. 17, p < .05). Thus, for males in contrast to females, higher levels of Avoidance and Attack Other are more maladaptive in relation to Striving for Excellence, while greater Attack Self is less adaptive for males (i.e., it is less predictive of striving).


Perhaps the most serious limitation of the current study is the use of self-report measures. As such, they are subject to a number of weaknesses, including socially desirable responding and the fact that participants may not be explicitly aware of their emotional reactions (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). In addition, the current study is correlational, so we cannot determine whether cause and effect relationships exist between our constructs. For example, it is logical that use of Attack Self would increase Fear of Shame and Embarrassment, as Attack Self magnifies the intensity of shame or embarrassment. On the other hand, it could be that because one fears shame, Attack Self coping is employed to take control of shaming situations. Sampling is another limitation in that we were not able to secure cooperation from all the teams we approached.


Two main conclusions can be drawn from the current study: 1) shame and shame-coping are integral to sport contexts and the lives of athletes; and 2) the CoSS-Sport demonstrates validity. Participants in the current study acknowledged fear of shame and embarrassment, as well as use of various shame-coping styles. Furthermore, shame-coping styles are differentially related to fear of failure and perfectionism, supporting our second contention that coping is important; an individual's choice of coping styles is related to other adaptive and maladaptive individual differences. Thus, the current study expands our understanding of the dynamics of shame and shame-coping in sport. More importantly, our findings have important implications for athletes, coaches, and parents. Using Nathanson's (1992) model of shame-coping, we can recognize maladaptive shame-coping in its various forms and address it, helping athletes to better cope with the emotional demands of competition.

More specifically, how can our findings be applied? First, if shame is elicited by devaluation, then shame (embarrassment, humiliation) and fear of failure can be lessened by reducing athletes' perceptions that their shortcomings make them less worthy, as a person. Some coaches already do this intuitively. They avoid comparisons between participants and minimize the link between performance and acceptance--they convey the message that they value all their athletes. Such coaches also minimize the shame of mistakes by conveying the belief that mistakes are a normal and necessary part of learning. Second, they intuitively tailor the nature of their critiques to each athlete's ego strength; some athletes can take criticism more directly than others without resorting to maladaptive responses.

Another approach is explicitly directed toward the shame-coping styles themselves. The process for helping an athlete overcome maladaptive shame-coping is similar to the process for helping an athlete who has poor technique. Awareness is a first step toward change. In order to help an athlete who suffers from poor technique, a coach might make the athlete aware of the problem (verbally or via video), model proper technique (personally or via another athlete), and have the athlete replace the poor technique with proper form through repetition. Similarly, a coach or sport psychologist who recognizes maladaptive shame-coping can make the athlete aware of her or his responses, explain the costs (e.g., fear of failure), offer alternatives in the form of adaptive coping, model adaptive approaches, and encourage the athlete to practice new coping responses. Our recommendation begs the question: what is adaptive shame-coping? At a basic level, we believe an adaptive response to shame is similar to an adaptive response to any other emotion. Namely, to be aware of what you are feeling, identify why, evaluate the validity of the feeling, and consciously evaluate alternative ways of responding. The "what you are feeling" might be shame, embarrassment, humiliation, or guilt. The "why (i.e., cause) you are feeling it" might be a failure for which one should take responsibility, or a habitual emotional response (e.g., interpersonal sensitivity), or unrealistic expectations of others. The "validity of what you are feeling" would be high for the first cause and low for the second two causes. Conscious evaluation of alternatives might lead an athlete to take responsibility and strive for excellence in the first case of a failure. In the second and third cases, the athlete might free herself of the emotional burden, reducing the intensity of shame or embarrassment, once she realizes it was triggered out of habit or due to others' unrealistic expectations. Our data illustrates how shame may have an adaptive side, as in the first case involving failure, motivating athletes to strive for excellence. The alternative adaptive response we just outlined is less obvious; sometimes it is not necessary to embrace feelings of shame and the best course of action is to let one's self "off the hook." Thus, although shame may be an everyday experience in sport, its intensity and impact can be influenced positively.

The second main conclusion is that our results provide support for the overall validity of the CoSS-Sport. Due to the CoSS-Sport's relationship to the CoSS and the underlying compass of shame model (Nathanson, 1992), the results provide further support for them as well. The most notable result in terms of validity is the consistent order to the CoSS-Sport's subscales in terms of strength of relationships with maladaptive dependent variables. In the present study, the predicted order is observable in the case of each maladaptive dependent variable: Attack Self > Withdrawal > Attack Other > Avoidance. This order is consistent with results from prior studies: self-esteem (Yelsma et al., 2002), psychological symptoms (Elison, Lennon, & Pulos, 2006), perfectionism (Reed, unpublished; Webb & Elison, 2008), and self-compassion (Price & Elison, 2009). The mounting support for validity includes a wide range of variables, multiple versions of the CoSS (CoSS and CoSS-Sport), and various populations (college students, patients, athletes). In summary, the evidence supporting the convergent and discriminant validity of the CoSS and CoSS-Sport is quite strong.

Finally, the consistency of results obtained via multiple versions of the CoSS across various populations (athlete and non-athlete) point to the ubiquity of shame-related experiences and shame-focused coping. Nathanson (1992) claims the categories of experience that trigger shame (e.g., competition, ability, skill, physical appearance) and the four shame-focused coping responses are universal. The specific triggers, such as which skills or which mistakes matter, differ between groups. Focusing on college athletes, we created the CoSS-Sport to sample from situations particularly relevant to athletes. However, the CoSS, as a general purpose instrument samples broader categories of events. The relationships observed in the current study parallel relationships observed with the CoSS and other measures of perfectionism and maladaptive outcomes in non-athlete populations, suggesting these relationships are robust--occurring in everyday life. Thus, the results of the current study are relevant beyond the domain of sport.

Authors' Note

Portions of this paper were presented the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association convention, Albuquerque, NM, April, 2009 and the annual meeting for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), Salt Lake City, UT, September, 2009.


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Jeff Elison

Adams State College

Julie A. Partridge

Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Address correspondence to: Jeff Elison, Department of Psychology, Adams State College, 208 Edgemont Blvd., Alamosa, CO 81102. E-mail:
Table 1
Frequency of Participants Playing the Various Sports

Sport                   Frequency      Percentage

Football - Men's        [66.sub.t,c]      23.2
Track - Men's           [37.sub.i,n]      13.0
Track - Women's         [43.sub.i,n]      15.1
Volleyball - Men's      [21.sub.t,n]       7.4
Volleyball - Women's    [29.sub.t,n]      10.2
Basketball - Men's      [20.sub.t,c]       7.0
Basketball- Women's     [15.sub.t,c]       5.3
Baseball - Men's        [6.sub.t,n]        2.1
Softball- Women's       [14.sub.t,n]       4.9
Gymnastics- Women's     [21.sub.i,n]       7.4
Swimming, Diving,       [13.sub.i,n]       4.5
 Golf, Tennis

Note. Subscripts indicate team (t) versus individual
(i) sports and contact (c) versus non-contact (n) sports.

Table 2
Correlation Matrix for Shame-coping, Fear of Failure, and

        Attack Self   Withdrawal    Attack Other     Avoidance

                            Fear of Failure

FSE     .54 (a) ***   .46 (b) ***    .29 (c) ***      .14 (d) *
FDOSE   .49 (a) ***   .42 (b) *      .33 (c) ***      .15 (d) *
FHUF    .43 (a) ***   .39 (a) *      .34 (a) ***      .22 (b) ***
FLSI    .46 (a) ***   .45 (a) *      .35 (b) ***      .18 (c) **
FUIO    .39 (a) ***   .38 (a) *      .24 (b) ***      .10 (c)


PCOM    .53 (a) ***   .45 (b) ***    .37 (c) ***      .14 (d) *
PNA     .52 (a) ***   .42 (b) ***    .30 (c) ***      .03 (d)
PRUM    .53 (a) ***   .35 (b) ***    .24 (c) ***      .02 (d)
PSE     .22 (a) ***   .04 (b)       -.13(c) *        -.10 (c)

Note. ns range from 267 to 277. Correlations with different
subscripts within rows differ significantly at p < .05 or better
(Meng et al., 1992). Fear of Failure (Performance Failure
Appraisal Inventory): FSE = Fear of Shame & Embarrassment; FDOSE
= Fear of Devaluing One's Self Estimate; FHUF = Fear of Having an
Uncertain Future; FLSI = Fear of Losing Social Influence; FUIO =
Fear of Upsetting Important Others. Perfectionism (Perfectionism
Inventory): PCOM = Concern over Mistakes; PNA = Need for
Approval; PRUM = Rumination; PSE = Striving for Excellence.
* p <.05. ** p <.01. *** p <.001.

Table 3
Mean Differences in Shame-coping Fear Failure, and Perfectionism
by Sport Type and Sex

                             Sport Type

                       Individual        Team

Subscale                M    (SD)     M     (SD)     df

CoSS: Avoidance       33.79 (6.40)   31.63 (7.09)    272
PI: PCOM              19.52 (5.86)   21.04 (6.02)    279

                      Non-Contact    Contact

CoSS: Avoidance       33.23 (6.66)   31.12 (7.14)    272
PFAI: FDOSE           -2.50 (2.77)   -3.48 (2.63)    283
PFAI: FHUF            -1.40 (3.08)   -2.26 (3.12)    282


                          Males          Females

CoSS: Attack Self     35.50 (9.88)   37.82 (8.96)    272
CoSS: Avoidance       33.10 (7.41)   31.75 (6.19)    272
CoSS: Attack Other    27.07 (8.61)   25.20 (7.85)    274
PFAI: FSE             1.16 (5.85)     3.39 (5.91)    280
PFAI: FDOSE           -3.16 (2.68)   -2.48 (2.82)    283
PI: PNA               21.81 (6.12)   24.19 (6.26)    279
PI: PRUM              19.22 (5.45)   20.72 (5.67)    275

Subscale                t              Size (a)

CoSS: Avoidance       2.55 *            0.32
PI: PCOM              2.09 *            0.26

CoSS: Avoidance       2.45 *            0.31
PFAI: FDOSE           2.89 **           0.36
PFAI: FHUF            2.18 *            0.28

CoSS: Attack Self     2.02 *            0.25
CoSS: Avoidance       1.65 ([dagger])   0.20
CoSS: Attack Other    1.88 ([dagger])   0.23
PFAI: FSE             3.17 **           0.38
PFAI: FDOSE           2.07 *            0.25
PI: PNA               3.22 **           0.38
PI: PRUM              2.24 *            0.27

Note. (a) Cohen's d. CoSS = Compass of Shame Scale. PFAI =
Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory; FSE = Fear of Shame &
Embarrassment; FDOSE = Fear of Devaluing One's Self Estimate;
FHUF = Fear of Having an Uncertain Future. PI = Perfectionism
Inventory; PCOM = Concern over Mistakes; PNA = Need for Approval;
PRUM = Rumination. ([dagger]) p < .10. * p <.05. ** p < .01.
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Author:Elison, Jeff; Partridge, Julie A.
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 25, 2012
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