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The role of dispositional goal orientation and team climate on situational self-handicapping among young athletes.

A plethora of sport research has identified heightened social evaluation as a prominent source of stress among athletes (Gould, Jackson, & Finch, 1993; Feltz, Lirgg, & Albrecht, 1992; Stratton, 1995). The normative performance expectations reflected in parental behavior and coaching practices significantly impact the quality of an athlete's sport experience which is evidenced in her or his emotional responses to competitive sport participation (Rosenfeld, Richman, & Hardy, 1989; Scanlan & Lewthwaite, 1989; Black & Weiss, 1992). For example, Scanlan, Stein, and Ravizza (1991) revealed that a large proportion of competitive stress reported by elite figure skaters involved social evaluative themes such as 'falling in front of the crowd', and 'not wanting to let others down if I perform poorly'.

As part of the competitive process athletes are often placed in a tenuous position with the potential of projecting self-deprecatory images to coaches, parents, and teammates. These images may convey negative, self-referent information such as low personal competence, inadequate physical fitness, and lack of mental fortitude. Leary (1992) suggests that the social evaluation aspect of competitive stress can be described largely as a function of an athlete's motivation to create and maintain a self-effacing impression on others as well as the perceived probability of doing so. For example, elevated levels of competitive stress would be expected among athletes who a) consider the self-presentational aspects of the performance setting as important and b) perceive the probability of achieving positive self-presentation as unlikely (Leary, 1992). James and Collins (1997) have recently provided empirical evidence to support this contention, estimating that approximately 70% of the competitive stress reported by athletes stems from various self-presentational concerns. Although a substantial theoretical link has been established between competitive stress in sport and an athlete's ability to create a positive impression of her or himself, only recently has sport psychology research investigated the self-presentational strategies employed by athletes to control the perceived threat of competition.

The theory of self-handicapping (Jones & Berglas, 1978) proposes that individuals make proactive use of effort reduction and performance excuses in order to protect one's self-esteem from potential negative feedback within a social evaluative setting. Several studies within non-sport settings generally indicate that effective self-handicapping preserves the protagonist's sense of control when confronted with social comparison (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Paisley, 1985; Rhodewalt & Davison, 1986; Schouten & Handelsman, 1987). These self-effacing tactics are utilized as a means of coping with evaluative situations characterized by uncertainty of successful outcome which is indicative of competitive sport. Initial studies in sport have focused on the prevalence of self-protective behaviors among athletes within the contexts of training, (Rhodewalt, Saltzman, & Wittmer, 1984), team cohesion (Carton, Prappavesis, & Grove, 1994; Hausenblas & Carton, 1996), and competitive anxiety (Ryska, Yin, & Cooley, 1997).

The process of self-handicapping is paradoxical in the sense that what appears to be a performance-debilitating excuse or behavior forwarded by the athlete actually has a positive influence in reducing the threat of potential competitive failure. This self-reported obstacle serves to minimize the athlete's responsibility for potentially unfavorable outcomes as well as reduce the expectations of others within the competitive setting. Through the repeated use of self-handicaps, the athlete "weakens the causal linkage to bad acts" (Snyder, 1990, p. 122) which suggests that success may have been possible had the handicap not been present. Therefore, the perceptions of others regarding the athlete's personal attributes are left uncompromised. Alternately, self-handicapping may be viewed in terms of its attributional qualities. The athlete is able to control the perceived causes of potential success or failure, thereby minimizing loss of self-esteem and any accompanying emotional distress. The principles of discounting and augmentation (Kelly, 1972) help describe the ego-preserving function of self-handicapping in competitive sport. A potential failure may be attributed to temporary, malleable aspects of the athlete or competitive setting, whereas self-referent attributes such as ability, competence, or intelligence are discounted as salient sources of performance failure. Conversely, should the lodging of a self-handicap be followed by successful performance, others' perceptions of the athlete's sport competence would be augmented due to the fact that success had been achieved despite the reported obstacle.

Several factors must be considered in order to relate the social evaluative aspect of competitive sport to the prevalence of self-handicapping behaviors among athletes. Situational factors include the types of performance standards and expectations present in the team context as well as the degree of outcome uncertainty in competition. Intrapersonal factors include the types of causal attributions made by athletes for their performance and the manner in which they develop perceptions of personal competence. An area of sport research which encompasses these factors is the goal perspective theory of achievement motivation (Duda, 1992; Roberts, 1992; Duda & Nicholls, 1992). Task and ego goal perspectives reflect the manner in which an athlete construes success, failure, and consequently, her or his level of sport competence. Educational researchers have found that task-involved individuals characteristically define competence in terms of self-referenced standards of performance such as task mastery, fulfillment of one's potential, and skill improvement (Ames & Archer, 1988; Nicholls, 1992). Whereas, ego-involved individuals judge personal competence on the basis of other-referenced standards such as outperforming opponents and demonstrating superior ability (Jagacinski & Nicholls, 1987; Nicholls, 1989).

The particular motivational goals adopted by an athlete may be influenced by the overall goal orientation promoted within the evaluative setting (Duda, 1992). Mastery- and performance-oriented climates within the classroom have been linked to task-involved and ego-involved motives, respectively, suggesting that motivational climate plays an influential role in the development of individual goal orientations among students (Ames & Archer, 1988). A mastery climate tends to promote positive affect towards the class, more adaptive learning strategies, and greater challenge-seeking behaviors among its students, whereas a performance climate encourages normative or other-referenced standards of success which typically produce lower perceived ability in students (Ames & Archer, 1988; Ames, 1992). Within the realm of sport, athletes appear to differ considerably in their sport-related affect and cognitions depending on whether they perceive themselves as participating within a mastery or performance team climate. Athletes involved in a mastery climate distinguish themselves from performance climate athletes by reporting greater effort-based beliefs of success in sport, more favorable perceptions of leader behavior towards low achievers, more positive attitudes towards physical activity, and lower performance-related worry (Seifriz, Duda, & Chi, 1992; Walling, Duda, & Chi, 1993; Theeboom, DeKnop, & Weiss, 1995).

To date, no empirical evidence exists which addresses the degree to which particular coping strategies such as self-handicapping are utilized by athletes who differ in their perceptions of individual and situational goal orientations. Thus, the purposes of the present study were to assess the relationship between dispositional goal orientation, team motivational climate, and trait self-handicapping, as well as determine the utility of these variables in predicting the level of precompetitive self-handicapping evidenced by youth athletes.



Participants were 206 soccer players (male = 149, female = 57) with an average of 6.21 years playing experience (SD = 3.91) and ranging in age from 10 to 17 years (M = 12.5, SD = 1.5). Teams consisted of primarily white, middle-class youths with a coach/athlete ratio of 1:12.8, although league policy allowed each team to roster two assistant coaches who were typically parents of team members. The league was comprised of a recreational level (n = 89) and a competitive level (n = 117) which differed slightly in terms of number of scheduled games, participation policy, and post-season play.


Team Motivational Climate. The Perceived Motivational Climate in Sport Questionnaire (PMCSQ) (Seifriz, Duda, & Chi, 1992) was administered in order to determine each athlete's perceptions of the relative emphasis placed on mastery and performance goals within her or his respective team. Athletes read a stem of "On my soccer team..." and then responded to statements concerning an aspect of team environment along a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). "The coach focuses on skill improvement", and "Out-playing teammates is important" are example items from the mastery (9 items) and performance (12 items) climate subscales, respectively. Both the factorial validity and internal consistency of the PMCSQ have been demonstrated within youth sport samples (Seifriz, et al., 1992; Walling, Duda, & Chi, 1993).

Achievement goal orientation. In order to assess dispositional goal orientation, players were administered the Perception of Success Questionnaire (POSQ) (Roberts & Balague, 1991). The stem "I feel most successful in soccer when..." was provided for each item which was rated on a 5-point scale anchored by I (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The POSQ generates an ego orientation factor (6 items) including "...I show other people I am the best" and a task orientation factor (6 items) including "...I perform to the best of my ability". Adequate internal consistency and construct validity of the POSQ have been demonstrated within several sport samples (Roberts & Balague, 1989, 1991; Treasure & Roberts, 1994).

Trait self-handicapping. Trait self-handicapping was measured by a sport-modified version of the Self-Handicapping Scale (SHS) (Jones & Rhodewalt, 1982). The SHS consists of 14 items each on a 6-point scale anchored by 0 (disagree very much) and 5 (agree very much) and was modified for the present sample by adding "in soccer..." as a stem for each item. The SHS assesses two dimensions of trait self-handicapping, namely Excuse Making and Effort Expended. The excuse making dimension (9 items) of trait self-handicapping reflects an athlete's proclivity to report self- or situationally-imposed obstacles which supposedly would prohibit her or him from performing adequately (e.g., "I would do much better in soccer if I didn't let my emotions get in the way"). The second dimension of effort expended (5 items) reflects an athlete's concern regarding her or his level of motivation in preparing for performance (e.g., "In soccer, I try to do my best no matter what"). Adequate internal consistency, test-retest reliability, and divergent validity of the SHS have been reported among a variety of sport-related samples (Carron et al., 1994; Rhodewalt, 1984, 1990; Ryska, Yin, & Cooley, 1997).

Situational self-handicapping. The actual strategies employed by athletes prior to competition may differ based on various situational and personal factors. As little empirical data exists regarding the variety of salient self-handicaps forwarded by youth sport competitors, an open-ended response format was utilized similar to Hausenblas and Carton (1996) in order to minimize any demand characteristics which might occur with a forced-choice approach. Athletes were asked to list a maximum of four events they experienced during the preceding week which would prohibit them from performing successfully in the upcoming competition. Athletes also rated the degree of disruption each obstacle presented on a 6-point scale ranging from 1 (minimally disruptive) to 6 (completely disruptive). As the number of reported obstacles varied considerably across respondents, a single score of "situational self-handicapping" was generated for each athlete by summing the reported disruption scores. Situations which possess high evaluative potential, uncertainty regarding performance success, and substantial ego-threat pending performance failure tend to be associated with higher incidences of self-handicapping behavior (Self, 1990). Insofar as self-handicapping strategies are most frequently utilized and accurately assessed prior to events which pose sufficient threat to self-esteem, this aspect of the competitive team environment was evaluated. Athletes were asked to rate the degree of personal importance of the upcoming game on a 9-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all important) to 9 (extremely important). In accordance with the procedure set forth by Carron et al., (1994), only those cases with an event importance score of 8 or higher were used for analyses involving situational self-handicapping.

Perceived soccer competence. In order to assess the perceived level of soccer competence among the athletes, each participant was asked to rate her or his soccer skills compared to other players on the team, other players in the league, and any soccer player he or she knows. Ratings were measured by a 5-point scale from 1 (not good at all) to 5 (very goad) and summed to create an overall perceived competence score.


Upon approval by the league commissioner and age-group coordinators, the general purpose and procedures of the study were presented to coaches at their preseason meeting. Twenty-one of the 24 league coaches agreed to have their respective teams participate in the study and complied fully with data collection procedures. Parental consent for athlete participation was secured as a part of the preregistration and medical clearance process. In order to accurately assess athletes' perceptions of team motivational climate, interview sessions occurred at weeks 7 and 8 of a 12-week season. Players were approached on a team-by-team basis and asked to complete the trait-oriented measures and demographic items following a scheduled practice. Situational self-handicapping was assessed one day prior to a scheduled game. Due to the relatively young age and varying reading comprehension levels of the sample, individual items were read to respondents during questionnaire administration. This procedure appears warranted based on empirical evidence within the sport psychology literature which suggests that the readability of research materials may influence the reliability of self-reported information (Cardinal, Martin, & Sachs, 1996; Cardinal, & Sachs, 1992).

Statistical Analyses

The main objectives of the study were to examine the relationship between dispositional goal orientation, motivational team climate, perceived competence, and indices of trait self-handicapping as well as determine the relative contribution of each of these factors in the prediction of situational self-handicapping. Thus, the statistical procedures of the study are divided into two major sections. First, a canonical correlation analysis was employed to explain the nature of the relationship between the set of predictor variables (i.e., ego and task goal orientation, performance and mastery team climate, perceived competence) and the set of criterion variables (i.e., trait excuse-making and effort expended). Second, a hierarchical stepwise regression analysis was performed to determine whether precompetitive self-handicapping was best predicted by perceptions of team motivational climate, dispositional goal orientation, trait self-handicapping, or a combination thereof.


Preliminary Analyses

Due to the fact that the present sample of athletes came from teams varying in organizational structure (i.e., recreational vs. competitive), a preliminary analysis was conducted to ensure the equality of variance-covariance matrices across the teams prior to collapsing the data. A Box M test was performed on variables relevant to the hypotheses. To account for the high level of sensitivity to multivariate normality of the test, an alpha level set at .005. The hypothesis of the equality of the covariance matrices was supported for each test which justified pooling the cases from recreational and competitive teams for all subsequent analyses. The means, standard deviations, ranges, and internal consistency estimates of the POSQ, PMCSQ, SHS, and perceived competence items are presented in Table 1. In order to test for the presence of multicollinearity among the variables, Pearson product-moment correlations were calculated and examined according to the level (r [greater than] .70) set forth by Tabachnick and Fidell (1989). No correlations exceeded r = .70 among the variables of athlete and team goal orientations, perceived competence, trait self-handicapping, and situational self-handicapping. Among the predictor set, relatively low correlations were found between task- and ego-involved goal orientations (r = . 15), and performance and mastery team climates (r = .-.37). Among the criterion set, relatively low correlations were found between the self-handicapping traits of excuse-making and effort expended (r = .27), as well as between excuse-making (r = .29), effort expended (r = . 17) and situational self-handicapping, respectively. Due the low degree of multicollinearity evidenced in the data, all variables were retained for subsequent analyses.

Relationship of Study Variables

A canonical analysis revealed two significant functions which accounted for the overall multivariate relationship between athlete goal orientation, team climate, and trait self-handicapping, Wilks's A = .72, F(14, 314) = 4.06, p [less than] .0001 (see Table 2). Functions 1 and 2 had canonical correlations of rc1 = .44 and rc2 = .34, respectively. Loadings equal to or greater than .30 are considered to contribute significantly to the multivariate relationship (Pedhazur, 1982; Tabachnick & Fidell, 1989). The redundancy statistics of the two functions revealed that 30.5% of the total variance in the trait self-handicapping dimensions was explained by athlete goal orientation and perceived team climate. Functions 1 and 2 explained 18.9% and 11.6% of the variance respectively, thus both functions were interpreted for the relationships among the goal orientation and self-handicapping variables.
Table 1

Descriptive Statistics for the POSQ, PMCSQ, SHS, and Perceived
Competence Items

Variable M SD Range Alpha


Ego orientation 19.13 6.12 6-30 .85
Task orientation 26.82 3.43 10-30 .89


Performance climate 28.02 9.05 12-55 .77
Mastery climate 37.67 5.68 13-45 .82


Excuse making 14.09 7.49 0-40 .72
Effort expended 12.76 4.19 4-24 .56(*)

Perceived Competence 10.55 2.21 4-15 .75
Situational Self-Handicapping 7.00 1.89 0-24 .83

* Note: Nunnally (1978) has proposed standards of internal
consistency (Cronbach alpha .50 -.60) which represent modest
reliability in the early stages of research and instrument
development. based on these criteria, the trait self-handicapping
factor of Effort Expended was retained for subsequent analyses.

An examination of the standardized canonical loadings revealed that a higher level of trait excuse-making (.776) and not reduced effort (-.396) corresponded to low task-involvement (-.483), high performance team climate (.665) and low mastery team climate (-.779). The second function indicated that higher levels of trait self-handicapping in terms of both excuse making (.631) and reduced effort (.918) were associated with greater mastery team climate (.365), greater ego (.499) and task (.428) involvement and lower perceived competence (-.488).
Table 2

Canonical Loadings for the Predictor and Criterion Variables

 Function 1 Function 2
 Loading Loading

Predictor Variables

Athlete Goal Orientation

Ego .228 .499
Task -.483 .428

Team Motivational Climate

Performance .665 .288
Mastery -.779 .365

Perceived Competence -.066 -.488

Criterion Variables

Trait Self-Handicapping

Excuse-making .776 .631
Effort expended -.396 .918

Prediction of Situational Self-Handicapping

A hierarchical regression analysis was conducted to test the utility of self-handicapping traits (i.e., excuse making and effort expended), dispositional goal orientation (i.e., task and ego orientation), and motivational team climate (i.e., mastery and performance) in predicting the level of self-handicapping prior to competition. The descriptive statistics for each regression equation are presented in Table 3. The first analysis entered the excuse-making and effort expended self-handicapping variables in Step 1, the ego and task goal orientation variables in Step 2, and the performance and mastery team climate variables in Step 3. In the second analysis, the two trait self-handicapping variables were entered in Step 1, the two motivational climate variables were entered in Step 2, and the two dispositional goal orientation variables were entered in Step 3. If goal orientation and team climate are to improve the predictive validity of the model, as would be inferred from self-handicapping theory, both should add significantly to the amount of variance in situational self-handicapping accounted for by the trait self-handicapping dimensions. As indicated in Table 3, team motivational climate (mainly performance climate) emerged as the primary predictor of situational self-handicapping with [r.sup.2] change = .27, p [less than] .001 when entered on the third step and [r.sup.2] change = .28, p [less than] .001 when entered on the second step of the regression equation. Both trait self-handicapping ([r.sup.2] change = .03, p [less than] .05) and dispositional goal orientation ([r.sup.2] change = .05, p [less than] .05) also accounted for a significant proportion of the variance in situational self-handicapping levels demonstrated by athletes.
Table 3

Descriptive Statistics for the Hierarchical Stepwise Multiple

Step Variable Beta RsqCh RsqCum F p

 Excuse-making .15
1 Effort expended .04 .03 .03 4.58 .05
 Ego orientation .12
2 Task orientation -.13 .04 .07 3.65 .05
 Performance climate .35
3 Mastery climate -.16 .28 .35 8.70 .0001
 Excuse-making .15
1 Effort expended .04 .03 .03 4.58 .05
 Performance climate .35
2 Mastery climate -.16 .27 .30 11.62 .0001
 Ego orientation .12
3 Task orientation -.13 .05 .35 3.03 .05


Several studies have addressed the complex relationship between perceived sport competence and the developmental levels of young athletes (Horn, Glenn, & Wentzell, 1993; Horn & Harris, 1996; Horn & Hasbrook, 1986, 1987; Horn & Weiss, 1991). Sport participants 10 years and older have a tendency to emphasize peer-related criteria when assessing their sport ability and personal worth within the sport setting. This information is then used in developing a motivational orientation towards competitive sport pursuits.

The present canonical analysis provides theoretically consistent evidence that an athlete's motivational goals and her or his perceptions of the team's motivational climate are relevant factors when discussing the tendency to cope with competitive stress through self-handicapping behaviors. Specifically, it was found that athletes who a) largely disregard self-improvement and skill mastery information when forming perceptions of personal success and b) participate on teams which emphasize norm-based comparison, are also those athletes most likely to engage in self-handicapping behaviors. It was also found that low competent, high ego-involved athletes were more prone to use both excuse-making and effort reduction as protection from the threat of competition. These results extend the work of Duda and her colleagues (Seifriz, et al., 1992; Walling, et al., 1993) demonstrating that the use of self-handicapping as a self-protective device is greatest among athletes whose motivational orientation and/or team atmosphere overemphasizes personal competence information based on a comparison with others. Of the three independent variables used in the study, the situational variable of team climate was the best predictor of actual self-handicapping behavior exhibited by youth athletes prior to competition. This finding suggests that the motivational aspect of the team environment to which the athlete is exposed is more important in the development of self-handicapping behavior than the athlete's own motivational disposition. As proposed by Jones and Berglas (1978) the act of self-handicapping occurs in a social evaluative context and serves to protect the individual's perceived worth by controlling the causal attributions of important others. If an individual believes that her or his worth as an athlete is largely defined by how teammates and the coach view her or his competitive performance, it is understandable why the athlete might engage in self-handicapping behaviors in order to minimize the relevancy of low ability as a reason for competitive failure. In other words, the more importance a team places on competitive outcome, the more likely an athlete will engage in handicapping behavior in order to protect her or his self-esteem in front of teammates and coaches.

Due to the fact that these results are correlational in nature and provide no clear evidence as to the direction of causality between motivational team climate and the use of self-handicapping strategies, further research must investigate several lines of inquiry regarding this relationship. Specifically, it is possible that motivational team climate, as a situational factor, plays a mediational role in the self-handicapping process. In addition, research must determine the specific qualities of mastery and performance climates and their relative influence on self-handicapping behavior across gender, sport type, and competitive level. based on the present results, one may contend that a team's motivational climate encourages athletes to engage in self-handicapping strategies based largely on how sport skill, personal control, and competitive success are construed within the team environment.

The relationship between an athlete's perception of team climate and his or her self-handicapping behaviors is best described in terms of the athlete's attempts at preserving an adequate level of personal competence and control within the competitive environment. Self-handicapping behaviors typically increase in situations which create a heightened "uncertainty of success" regarding important self-referent aspects of performance (Snyder, 1990). Such uncertainty is largely produced by noncontingent success feedback as well as the absence of ability information following performance failures. Both conditions tend to be more prevalent within a performance team climate. The lodging of a self-handicap may permit the athlete to lessen the salience of an ability attribution for failure, which is often a prominent feature of a performance team climate. In addition, Higgins and Berglas (1990) state that the values of others within an evaluative setting largely define the manner in which performance is judged and, in turn, influence the tendency of an individual to self-handicap. For example, the development of sport competence is considered a gradual process of establishing increasingly greater self-efficacious beliefs in one's ability as progress is made towards mastering challenges. However, the performance standards prevalent in highly evaluative sport settings may not allow for gradual progression towards mastery, but expect immediate competence in relation to others and promote an uncertainty in athletes as to whether such standards are achievable. Self (1990) contends that an individual should be more highly motivated to self-handicap within evaluative settings where immediate mastery is expected and failure is believed to reflect basic inabilities rather than insufficient effort (i.e., performance team climate).

Before research can adequately determine the role of self-handicapping in competitive sport, the questionable reliability and validity of the present trait self-handicapping measure (i.e., SHS) must be resolved. Although Rhodewalt (1982) and Rhodewalt and Jones (1990) have reported acceptable factorial validity and internal consistency for the Effort Expended subscale, Snyder (1990) contends that the distinction between self-reported and behavioral handicaps is unclear. Circumstances in competitive sport may exist wherein the self-reported and behavioral indices of reduced effort may not be consistent. In other words, an athlete might not necessarily make verbal claim of her or his reduced effort, or conversely, he or she may not act out the excuse of decreased effort which has been offered. It is possible that this ambiguity in the verbal excuse-behavioral handicap relationship prohibits the self-handicapping trait of reduced effort from being reliably assessed in the competitive sport setting. The ambiguity between these two aspects of self-handicapping may provide an explanation for the demonstrated lack of internal consistency in the SHS (Carron et al., 1994; Hausenblas & Carron, 1996; Ryska & Yin, & Cooley, 1997). Certainly, it is widely understood that minimal effort and persistence in sport training ultimately leads to poor performance, and thus might act as a plausible self-handicap. Hence, the equivocal role of reduced effort as a self-handicapping strategy in sport may likely reflect inadequate measurement rather than actual athlete behavior.


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Author:Ryska, Todd A.; Yin, Zenong; Boyd, Michael
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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