Learned Helplessness and Basketball Playoff Performance

By Thomas, Greg | Journal of Sport Behavior, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Learned Helplessness and Basketball Playoff Performance


Thomas, Greg, Journal of Sport Behavior


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

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

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

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

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

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

A review of the literature indicates that a lack of research in the area of elite professional athletes and anxiety-producing events such as the championship games. Specifically, the performances of elite basketball players in playoff competition has yet to be studied. According to popular sportswriters such as Menzer (1993), during the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs, players perform differently than they do during the regular season. …

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