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Attribution Theory in Sport Psychology

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Attribution theory in sport psychology focuses on how people explain their successes and failures

Attribution theory in sport psychology focuses on how people explain their successes and failures

Perception Within Attribution Theory

When athletes are asked what they consider to be the causes for 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.

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).

Model of Causal Attributions as taken from Heider (1958)

Model of Causal Attributions as taken from Heider (1958)

Attribution Theory in 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 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 are 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.

Example Scenario of a Golfer's Attribution

Imagine a scenario in which 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 70s.

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

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

© 2020 Liam Hallam


J McRae BA MA Psy from Desert Southwest U.S. on April 04, 2020:

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!