Have you ever wondered why you enjoy group fitness and exercising with others? Or do you prefer to train by yourself with no one else to disturb you? We are all uniquely different from each other, and our differing personalities define who we are. This article looks briefly at some of the psychological theories which define us, and why we may like to exercise with or without friends.
The next time you go to the gym to train, have a quick look around to see who is exercising by themselves or in a class. Is there a chance that their personality has helped them to choose that mode of exercise?
A good starting point is asking: what is personality? Eysenck (1967) suggested personality is inherited, and inherent within the athlete’s genes. This theory maintains that all behaviour is innate and a person has a natural tendency to act a certain way in any given situation. Eysenck called this Trait Theory. Trait Theory has two dimensions to personality; introverts and extroverts.
Introverted personalities tend to be individuals who are more reserved and less confident in social situations. As a result they may prefer individual sports or activities. The Trait Theory suggests that these individuals generally have more fine motor skills, determination and concentration. For example, golfers, snooker players or long distance runners may be more introverted in their personality behaviour, and may prefer to play or train by themselves. They are highly confident in their own capabilities, when not having to rely on others around them. Are you one of these introverts, who ideally like to exercise or train by themselves? Does this maybe help to explain why you have chosen your method of exercise training or the sport you play?
Below are some introverted personality traits:
- Generally shy and reserved
- Fast arousal levels
- Prefer isolation from others
- Predictable moods and emotions
- Tend not to experience intense stress
Extroverted personalities tend to be individuals who are very confident and outgoing in all situations. These types of individuals tend to prefer team sports or activities with other players or participants around them. With team or group activities there can be more uncertainty, so extroverts also need to be dynamic and to be able to implement strategies and tactics on demand. Some extroverts also like being part of a team because they enjoy working to the same goals as others.
Do you enjoy playing team sports, and the interaction and camaraderie you have with your teammates? When you are exercising, do you like to participate with others around you, such as Crossfit or an F45 session? When you visit the gym, do you like to train with a partner, who pushes and motivates you through your programme? If the answer is yes to these questions, then there is a greater likelihood that you may have an extroverted personality.
Below are some of the extroverted personality traits:
- Outgoing and stable
- Slow arousal levels
- Interact well with others
- Unpredictable and extreme emotions
- Unreliable moods
- High degree of stress and anxiety
The Trait Theory of Personality makes interesting reading and may help to explain why some individuals choose their type of sporting or exercise activity.
However, it is also very unlikely that you would call yourself a total introvert or total extrovert – there are too many variables in anyone’s individual personality, sport or exercise activity. For example look at Tiger Woods, a golfer who is categorised by the Trait Theory of Personality as an introvert: fine motor skills, high levels of concentration and determination. But away from the golf course and driving range, his personality has been seen to change dramatically for all to see – which would seem to suggest that the environment also plays a part when determining our personality and behaviour. Other notable sporting introverts who challenge the Trait Theory are golfer John Daly and snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan. Both are successful in their chosen sport, which challenges them to have fine motor skills, concentration and confidence. But away from the sport their personality behaviour has landed them on the front pages of newspapers for all the wrong reasons.
Although personality is likely to affect sporting behaviour, research is still unsuccessful in determining if one type of personality is likely to succeed in particular sports. But as you have read, there is limited research to suggest that the traits we were born with may play a part in determining the sporting or exercise activity we choose.
Cattell, (1973) proposed a 16 Personality Factors Questionnaire (16PF). This theory suggested that to get a better understanding of our personality we need to look at a wider view of personality traits. This suggested that individuals could have high or low personality traits; but more importantly, you would score yourself on a continuum depending on the environment or situation you find yourself in. Hence, you could display both introvert and extrovert traits depending on the situation or environment you find yourself in.
Are you a team player who enjoys others around them, or do you enjoy the solitude of your own company when exercising or playing sport? Is it possible that our personality may change depending on the situation or environment we find ourselves in? It would seem very likely that our personality can change regularly.
There are many theories proposed of personality and how it may help to predict human behaviour. Have you ever thought that the shape of your body may determine your personality characteristics? In other words, your physical, biological make-up may also determine the type of sport or mode of exercise you enjoy? Sheldon, Stevens & Tucker (1973) stated that our personality was categorised by our physical attributes and the relationship between our build and our behaviour. Sheldon et al suggested that there were three categories or what we now call somatotypes:
This is someone who is physically round (pear shaped), with wide hips and narrow shoulders, and quite a lot of fat spread across the body. But from a personality point of view, their traits or characteristics are interesting to read. Sheldon et al proposed that endomorphs are relaxed, tolerant, comfortable and sociable. They are fun-loving, good humoured and love food and affection. Does this type of body shape determine our personality behaviour to the extent that it dictates what type of exercise or sport we may choose to play? It is well advertised that larger people are reported to be more embarrassed by their bodies – is this a trait that may cause some endomorphs to not exercise enough, or not to play sport? It is worth noting for further discussion.
This is a person who is the opposite of an endomorph. Physically they generally have very little body fat, a thin and narrow chest and abdomen, and narrow shoulders and hips. Sheldon et al proposed that this type of person eats as much as an endomorph, but they never seem to put weight on. Their personality characteristics generally tend to include being introverted, self-conscious, socially anxious, artistic, thoughtful, quiet and private. A final observation is that ectomorphs like to keep to themselves. Does this body shape characterise the type of sport or mode of exercise we choose? There would seem a close comparison between an ectomorph and Eysenck’s introvert characteristics. Is it fair to assume that ectomorphs are more likely to be cyclists or long-distance athletes, or is that stereotyping? Are you an ectomorph? What sport or exercise mode do you prefer? If you are an ectomorph, do you play a sport which allows you privacy, peace and quiet? There is still more research to be completed on Sheldon et al’s theory, but it does provide a general observation of body shapes and personality.
A mesomorph is someone in between an endomorph and ectomorph. They have broad shoulders and a narrow waist, a muscular body, and little body fat. The psychological personality of an endomorph is characterised as sociable, fun-loving, even-tempered, tolerant and relaxed. They are assertive, courageous and like to try new things. They like to be seen as powerful, confident and risk-takers. So would being a mesomorph be the ideal body type or shape? Do we have friends who may fit these characteristics? For example, male Crossfitters who openly train and compete bare chested, or female Crossfitters wearing figure hugging apparel? Are these individuals highly assured of themselves and proud of how they look? Once again, more research needs to be completed on somatotypes and the way we behave. But the next time you are in the gym or exercise class, look out for any mesomorph. Look to see if their behavioural characteristics are inline with Sheldon et al’s theory.
To conclude, do our personalities define the exercise or sporting activities we participate in? The answer could be yes, but there are still too many variables to make or provide a conclusive argument to be confident. Psychological profiling on our physical features cannot be relied on comprehensively. More research needs to be completed to provide a clearer picture of why we choose to train or compete by ourselves or in a team. Eysenck’s Trait Theory of Personality also provides a little insight into how our personalities may determine the type of exercise mode or sporting activity we choose to participate in. Once again, this theory has limitations in its profiling capabilities. Cattell, (1973) further added a continuum to introvert-extrovert theory, suggesting that we have both introvert and extrovert characteristics which we use depending on the situations we find ourselves in. This too has merit, but is very subjectively reliant. There are many other personality theories that may help us understand our behavior when choosing a sport or mode of exercise to participate in. Freud, (1923) Tripartite Theory of Personality and Allport, (1937) Trait Theory both offer a further understanding of human behaviour but not necessarily a clearer understanding of why we choose certain sporting or exercise activities.
What we can be sure about is that our personalities and behaviours are at times complex and difficult to interpret and understand. Can personality define what mode of exercise we like? Probably not, but it may help as a broad gauge to help understand why some of us like to train and exercise by ourselves, or why some of us like to participate in large groups.
Allport, F.H. (1937). Towards a Science of Public Opinion. Public Opinion Quartely. Volume 1, Issue 1, pages 7-23.
Cattell, R.B. (1973). Cattell and the Theory of Personality. Institute of Psychiatry. University of London.
Eysenck, H.J. (1967). The Biological Basis of Personality. Springfield: Thomas.
Freud, S. (1923). Certain Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealous, Paranoia & Homosexuality. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 4:1-10.
Sheldon, W.H., Stevens, S.S., & Tucker, W.B. (1940) The Varieties of Human Physique. Harper: New York.
About the Author:
My name is Mike Clayton, I am the Head of Education at Fit Futures Academy. I was born and raised in York in the United Kingdom (UK). I am of mixed race, my mother is Chinese and my father, English. I have a younger sister who lives in the UK with her family. My education was based at Liverpool University & Chester University College. I have a BSc Hons in Sports & Biological Sciences, where I majored in Sport Psychology. I presented at the 1998 BASES conference at Portsmouth University “What is the advantage in home advantage”. I also have a Postgraduate Diploma in Sport & Exercise Psychology & a Post Graduate Certificate in Teaching Adult Education. Alongside my loving and supportive wife, I have two young lovely daughters who remind me every day of how lucky I am. My educational areas of interest include Contemporary Issues in Sport & Habitual Exercising.
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