Using Social Psychological Concepts to Help Students: Because Physical Activity Can Improve a Person's Mental Health, Psychological Concepts Deserve Attention from Physical Educators

Article excerpt

Physical educators share concern over their students' emotional and physical well-being. Such concern has grown as the levels of physical inactivity and obesity among youths have increased. In 1996, the Surgeon General's report (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS], 1996) characterized physical inactivity as a health risk. Regular participation in moderate to vigorous physical activity can improve health and reduce the risk of disease and premature mortality. Physical activity also improves mental health and reduces feelings of depression and anxiety (USDHHS, 1996). Despite this knowledge about the benefits of physical activity, many youths lead sedentary lives. Approximately half of youths between the ages of 12 and 21 do not engage in vigorous physical activity. Approximately 14 percent of young people report no engagement in light to vigorous exercise at all. In addition, females tend to be less active than males (USDHHS, 1996). Together, physical educators must find a way to combat these alarming statistics.

Individuals who are physically active express more confidence in their physical abilities, which leads to stronger motivation to be physically active (USDHHS, 1996). Therefore, educators need to find ways to develop confidence among youths in an effort to get them more physically active in and out of school. Self confidence can be improved with psychological concepts taught through a variety of physical activities and sports in physical education. Psychological concepts learned in physical education may be applied in other physical activity and sport settings; they also may be applied to aspects of everyday life. Psychological concepts are identified and studied by the discipline of sport and exercise psychology, which is the study of people and their behaviors in sport and exercise settings (Gill, 2000). Sport and exercise psychologists have developed guidelines for applying that knowledge to physical activity settings in an effort to encourage individuals to participate and gain benefit from activity and sports (Weinberg & Gould, 2003).

The purpose of this article is to describe two psychological concepts that may help improve confidence and motivation: motivation theory and achievement goal theory. In addition, the authors offer suggestions about how physical educators can help students learn about and apply these concepts to sport and physical activity through strategies for goal setting, self-assessment, and positive self-talk. Many of the steps discussed here also relate directly to both motor development and motor learning concepts.


Physical educators are usually quite good at recognizing which students in their classes are motivated to participate. For example, when Madeline prepares to teach her ninth-grade flag football unit, she is aware of the students who demonstrate commitment and a high level of effort in practicing skills and playing games. She is also aware of the small number of students who choose to miss class or remain on the sideline. Motivation is thought to be a social cognitive process whereby individuals become either motivated or demotivated based on the meaning that the activity holds for them and their assessment of their own level of competence (Roberts, 2001). Motivation is defined as the "direction and intensity of one's efforts" (Sage, 1977; Weinberg & Gould, 2003, p. 52). Direction refers to that which attracts people to a particular activity, whereas intensity refers to the degree to which people participate (Weinberg & Gould, 2003).

Direction and intensity typically go hand-in-hand, which is why Madeline is not surprised when some of her top performers in flag football class show no interest in the aerobics unit. Madeline knows that these students are not attracted to aerobics, which affects their level of intensity in that class. Motivation can certainly be affected by day-to-day situations too. …