Attribution Theory in Sport Psychology

Updated on April 17, 2020
CyclingFitness profile image

Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist as well as being a lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.

Attribution theory focuses on how people explain their successes and failures
Attribution theory focuses on how people explain their successes and failures

Perception Within Attribution Theory

When athletes are asked what they consider has attributed to their greatest success, we're focusing on their perception of why and how they were able to achieve their goals. Despite potentially predictable outcomes, perception is a very subjective matter.

Imagine you score a 73 on a new 18 hole Golf Course

You feel on top of the world and believe you're finally showing your true ability. Until you return to the clubhouse and discover that one of your regular playing partners who never scores below 80 has also scored in the low 70's.

As a result, you struggle to attribute your low score internally as the course must not be as a result of your own ability, instead due to a lack of difficulty.

Attribution Theory and Motivation

Attribution theory is a cognitive approach to athlete motivation, assuming the athlete wishes to explain sporting scenarios based upon their cognitive perception. The causal attribution is based upon perception.

The acknowledged founder of attribution theory is Fritz Heider (1944).

Causal Attribution in Sport

Model of Causal Attributions as taken from Heider (1958)
Model of Causal Attributions as taken from Heider (1958) | Source

Attribution Theory Within Sport Psychology and Motivation

Based upon how we explain our successes and failures, it's possible to classify explanations of performance into three distinct subcategories.

  • Stability of attribution
  • Locus of causality
  • Locus of control

Basic Attribution Categorisation

Basic categories of attributions
Basic categories of attributions

Stability of Causal Attribution

A performer's successes and failures can be attributed to a great variety of factors. Stable factors are those which remain a constant, such as your own level of talent if you beat a less talented opponent.

An unstable factor in your performance could be considered luck in the form of the decisions made by an umpire (or referee's decisions in the case of many a soccer fan who is insistent that such a decision shaped a game).

If an athlete with a history of success is unexpectedly defeated, it can be hard to determine to what effect the athlete is likely to attribute the failure. If the outcome is inconsistent with previous scenarios, we would definitely expect a degree of instability.

Locus of Causality within Success and Failure

Your locus of causality within attribution theory focuses on internal and external factors influencing a performance

Internal causality could be in relation to your mental tenacity. Mental toughness in an athlete is deemed to be a weapon within their sporting arsenal. Internal causes can often lead to poor performance as well, such as procrastination after a poor shot in tennis.

External causality is based upon factors outside of your control. Poor weather may have attributed to a weaker field of competitors for a road cycling event.

Locus of Control

There are many factors that and athlete can control. From their pre-event preparation and training to an opponent's shot-making and physical shape.

The Importance of Attributions in Sport

Attributions are important within sportspeople as they have the ability to affect our expectations for future performance. By attributing our success to stable factors, an athlete is able to expect future occurrences of that performance. If the performance was successful, this can subsequently enhance motivation and confidence.

In contrast, an athlete who has been seen to 'choke' at important points in events may attribute such performance outcome to an unstable causality leading to decreased motivation.

Emotions such as pride and shame are often associated with attribution to internal factors and those beyond our control.

Attributions- Considerations for Coaches

  • Reality: The attributions an athlete chooses to explain their performance reveal much about their own motivational structures.
  • Application for coaches: Coaches should pay attention to the attributions an athlete uses to explain their performance without dismissal. By analyzing, a coach can gain a better understanding of their athlete's basic attribution structures.

It may be necessary for a coach to sit down with their athlete in the assessment if inappropriate attributions are made.

Attributions and Learned Helplessness in Sports

Within life and competitive sports, there are some athletes that behave as though situations are completely outside of their control. This is often referred to as learned helplessness and is a psychological state where a loss of control is shown.

Under the threat of failure, athletes may attribute the situation to a lack of ability. For a coach, it is key to ensure that a developing athlete can attribute success to stable factors to give realistic future expectations by developing self-confidence and self-efficacy whilst ensuring the factors in successful performance remain based on stable and internal attributions.


Heider. F (1958) The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York, John WIley and Sons


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Marra profile image

      J McRae BA MA Psy 

      8 weeks ago from Desert Southwest U.S.

      Liam, super great article! Enjoyed the photo display. One thing I learned from your article, is that stable attributions helps self confidence, for athletic performance. Thank you!


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)