Psychological Constructs in Sport Research:
What Coaches Should Know

Psychological constructs are commonly used in sports. Knowing what they are can make a difference in how you interpret and apply research to sport performance.

Motivation, sport commitment, athletic ability, and sport fitness are familiar to anyone involved in sports. These are all examples of constructs. For coaches and other professionals who seek to understand how to correctly apply the findings of sport-related studies, knowing how researchers study these qualities can make a huge difference in how findings should be interpreted.

Definition of a Construct

concept is a mental image of something concrete that we create in our minds to represents something we have seen. When someone uses a term like, "athlete", we can create a mental picture of what an athlete looks like because we have directly observed different athletes. Specific individuals may come to mind, or at least an image that includes common qualities of athletes.   

Constructs, however, are more complex. They are "higher level abstractions" that people create that piece together simpler concepts into purposeful patterns. Constructs are useful in interpreting empirical data and building theories. They are used to account for observed regularities and relationships. They summarize observations and provide explanations.

Examples of Psychological Constructs

In sports, we commonly use many constructs to describe issues we encounter: athlete motivation, self-confidence, concentration, and sport anxiety are just a few examples in Sport Psychology.

Let's use "fitness" as an example because it is a bit easier to break down and measure.

The term "fitness" itself is not directly measurable. It is a quality that is observed when athletes perform various skills--any number of skills that researchers can decide upon, define, and test. Then they determine the extent to which abilities exists according to athlete' performances on these skills.

Fitness components are more easily defined:  strength, power, and endurance. But even these qualities can have different meanings and can be measured differently.

There are numerous tests that vary in their fitness components (e.g., leg strength, arm speed, vertical jumping, a mile run) depending upon how the researchers choose to define the construct.

The President's Fitness Challenge Test, for example, includes:

  • Curl-ups (or partial curl-ups)
  • Shuttle run
  • Endurance run/walk
  • Pull-ups (or right angle push-ups or flexed-arm hang)
  • V-sit reach (or sit and reach)

Each of these field tests measures different fitness components.  Taken together, these tests measure "fitness" as defined here.

In this case, the pull-up measures upper body strength.  The results of the fitness test might be different if upper body strength was measured by the bench press or an isokinetic device.

The main point is that fitness is not directly observable. We can use the same term, but it may be defined differently, have different meanings to different people, and be measured different qualities. Researchers can argue for the validity of a test or instrument by demonstrating the extent to which "construct validity" exists, as the define it.

Coaches and sport practitioners may avoid confusion and heated debates by clearly defining what they mean when they use psychological constructs.  If coaches know how researchers define their constructs in studies, they can better interpret the findings and decide how well the results apply to their own training methods.

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