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Personality in Sport and Exercise Psychology:  Integrating a Whole Person Perspective

Tristan J. Coulter, Clifford J. Mallett, Jefferson A. Singer, Daniel F. Gucciardi

The Big Idea

There is nothing easy about the study of personality.  Over the years, psychologists who do so have generated an incredible number of ways to describe and depict who or what a person is.  One of the oldest and maybe the clearest ways of looking at what personality psychologists do is this:  they study how a person is like all other persons; like some other persons; and like no other persons.  Apparently each of us is a bit of all three likes.

In this paper we have an effort to explain the significance of the contemporary research approach in integrating a whole-person-perspective.  The authors argue that the field of personality psychology has been self-limiting by focusing so heavily on individual differences, such as personality traits.  Or too, that the popularity of studying motivation or disconnected constructs are but fragments of what makes up a whole person.

Instead, these researchers strongly advocate for a non-specialising approach to the study of personality.  In the last twenty years a growing trend in psychological research on personality has become what is called “generative.”  This means that as generations go, one generation is narratively oriented toward promoting the well-being of following generations.  One way to understand the nature and significance of this line of thinking is to integrate otherwise separate individual differences findings into a whole-person-personality framework.


  • The typical approach in the history of personality research in psychology is to focus narrowly on such subjects as individual traits or motivation.
  • This is true as well for the study of exercise and sport in psychology.
  • But a newer and more promising approach is to integrate the history of personality psychology into an integrated understanding of the whole person.
  • This integrated personality framework unfolds in three interconnected layers: person as social actor; person as motivated agent; and person as autobiographical author.
  • All three levels are need to understand who a person is.
  • The advantage of so layering personality studies is the way in which each layer includes the three existing branches of disposition, motivation, and personal identity in psychology research.
  • Using a hypothetical example, these researchers describe integrated learnings by understanding the potential nature of an adult elite male athlete who resorts to using performance enhancing doping in competition.
  • A primary benefit of using an integrated approach to study personality is to cultivate a more sophisticated understanding of how we are like all persons, how we are like some but not all persons, and how we are like no other person.

The Research

The whole person

The best known research psychologist promoting this integrative approach is Dan McAdams.  It is McAdams’ work these sport and exercise research psychologists apply to the study of physically active and sporting persons.  In this approach, there are three layers of integrated understandings: 1) the social actor; 2) the motivated agent; and 3) the auto-biographical author.  For those familiar with the history of personality theories, you will notice that each of these three layers represent a branch of personality theory.  In other words, to know a person requires information from all three of these levels.

  • The social actor is a dispositional perspective. Dispositions are the behaviours defining a person over time, such as their thoughts and feelings.  The contributions to one’s dispositions come from both genetic make-up and life experiences (nature and nurture).  Dispositions gradually stabilise from childhood and adolescence eventually creating the kind of person the persons become: parent, partner, athlete—how one is like some (but not all) persons.
  • The motivated agent is defined as striving. This layer includes one’s motives and goals, values and beliefs, and identity.  This layer is influenced heavily by social demands.  Hence goal setting, future planning, and life direction become the ways our striving materialises.
  • The autobiographical author is a self-narrator. Unless this third level is included in personality studies, we simply cannot know one another or ourselves.  This is how we integrate our past, present, and future.  In a sense, this is how we construct our lives.  This is how we create or discover purpose or meaning in our lives.  And this narration is a reflection of how every person is like no other.

A case example of these three layers in sport and exercise

This is a hypothetical example in sport where actor-agent-narrator levels appear.  Take the case of a male adult elite athlete who uses performance enhancing doping in training and competition.

  • The doping athlete as social actor. We could compare this athlete to others on particular dispositions such as risk-taking, self-esteem, integrity, or vulnerability to peer pressure.  This person is likely to show a consistent pattern of behaviour across situation, time, and role.  Thus we would likely find high vulnerability to peer pressure, high in risk-taking, and low in both self-esteem and integrity.  Additionally, besides such traits we would look at what defences or coping strategies he uses; his goals and aspirations as well.
  • The doping athlete as motivated agent. So the athlete’s behaviour is only one level.  We also need to look at what he thinks he needs to accomplish or avoid by way of his doping.  What is he striving to do or be?  What does he value or expect to derive from competing?  Does he feel coerced to dope?  Is he after fame?  Or does he see doping a the normal and therefore able to justify the risks to his personal health, career, and reputation?
  • The doping athlete as autobiographical author. In constructing his own story as an elite athlete, do we find a youngster trying to live up the expectations of others, maybe parents or friends?  Or was he thought of as a talented youngster with an exaggerated future career?  Maybe winning is a substitute for failures in other components of his life.  Could he identify with his personal heroes so much so that he wants to be the hero of his own story?  Answers to these kinds of questions about his personal narrative help us discover who he chooses to become, and who is like no other person.


  • The primary opportunity for understanding personality in this layered way is to cultivate a more sophisticated and complete picture of who we are as human beings.

We also stand to learn from integrated personality studies far more about the mysterious complexity of any and all of us as we journey through our lives with one another, in the midst of our cultural contexts, and sharing concerns for the well-being of future generations.