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Concepts for Coaches: Personality

(A long read on the science behind how we are)

The best coaches work hard to understand their athletes. 

To get the most out of anyone, you need to understand both who they are and how they do things. Though personality psychology has a varied and at times inconsistent history, it can provide a useful framework for making sense of some simple dimensions of human existence.

Of course, nobody can be boiled down to just 5 categories (try as we might), but to ignore that there are personalities - consistent patterns of behavior, emotion, motivation, and cognition over time - is to ignore common frameworks we all use to make sense of ourselves and the world.

Personality evolved to help people attain their goals and self-regulate. Sometimes, these goals are explicit, like making the all-star team, and other times implicit, like self-protection. To reach our goals and make it happen, we evolve these consistent patterns, which are each person's unique combination of:

  • Dispositional traits

  • Characteristic adaptations

  • Personal, self-defined life stories

Each of these interacts with and is influenced by our larger social and cultural contexts to form a cohesive picture of "who we are."

I think this way of understanding personality gives us the best and most flexible picture of making sense of our teammates and who we perform with. Rather than seeing them as static and stable ("that's just who they are"), we appreciate how context, narrative, adaptations, and the tendency to be in certain states (more on that below) influence behavior over time.

With a clearer understanding of personality, we can more effectively coach people and help them move forward while staying patient with the parts of the person that make them uniquely them.

Adding some nuance to the personality picture

When coaches typically describe personality, they do so in a way that creates a static image of a person. We talk about people "being" a certain way instead of appreciating that all behavior is probabilistic. We can say that someone is "likely to be", and that gets us much closer to understanding the true nature of another person's personality.

In scientific terms: "Personality traits are probabilistic descriptions of relatively stable patterns of emotion, motivation, cognition, and behavior, in response to classes of stimuli that have been present in human cultures over evolutionary time" (DeYoung et al. , 2015).

Let's unpack personality, one feature at a time.

Traits = Regular States

Instead of thinking of traits as permanent fixtures or features of who someone is, it's more useful to think of them as a tendency to be in certain states.

It's now a function of probability, which more closely matches how we make sense of the world anyway, instead of a function of a person's inner core. This slight adjustment allows us to accommodate basic understandings we all have about ourselves, but seem to overlook in other people.

For example, most people are aware of the fact that they think, feel, or behave differently at home than at work, at practice or during a game. All of our levels of a particular state ebb and flow over the day.

Just appreciating and acknowledging that people are not always one way can make room in our narrative and behavior for how we interact with them. 

Traits are situation-specific

The natural extension of this line of reasoning is that what we typically consider stable is much more situationally determined than we might feel comfortable with.

If the situation is constant, it may be fair to say that a person "does X in Y situation," but it's not quite right to say that a person "is X", implying that in any situation, they're consistent.

This understanding can help explain some of the surprises we feel when a player we're coaching spontaneously elevates (or tanks) their game or why they tend to play up a level or down to the opponent. These situations, and their relevant contextual features, end up dictating a lot of behavior. 

Appreciating the role of context can help us make more accurate inferences and generate more accurate hypotheses when we're trying to understand the behavior of a given player in a given situation.

Too often we look for the "essence" of who someone is, mostly so we can put them in a neat category and streamline our ability to make sense of them. Of course, none of us likes to be categorized, and we often feel that categories misrepresent who we are and what we stand for, but we do that as a part of a natural simplification exercise, or heuristic, for our mind. Categories make it easier to predict how someone will behave but fail to account for other conditions that may alter those predictions.

This nuance also means that it's important to practice "being" the way we want our players to be in certain situations.

For example, if you want players to more readily demonstrate composure, you need to intervene on two levels. First, you need to address state-level anxiety. If anxiety is the regular state, then it's likely under pressured circumstances, that's only going to get more, not less, intense. Second, you need to address managing anxiety in a pressure-packed situation, and teach players what stimuli to look for in those situations to both keep composed and elevate performance. By addressing state-level anxiety, you change the likelihood that anxiety manifests under pressure. By addressing the second, you address the stimuli likely to be associated with increased anxiety and provide a new narrative for how to best perform in those situations.

Traits are evolved

The final dimension to note is that there have been some fairly consistent pressures on humans throughout evolution, which is why we seem to have some universality in traits across cultures in time. For example, about 30 traits have the same genetic structure across Canadian, German, and Japanese samples (Yamaga et al., 2006).

What this means in simple terms is that all traits have social implications, as these traits evolved to help us select more adaptive social behaviors and survive. Personality is a function of goals, not a static picture of who somebody is and will be.

The hierarchy of personality

You might be familiar with the Big 5 of personality: neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness to experience.

These dimensions of personality have had a massive amount of empirical support and conceptual alignment, and for a long time were thought to be the broadest classes of personality characteristics we could find. 

Recently, we've discovered that there are meta-traits that guide these Big 5 factors: stability, or the drive to protect our goals and pursuits, and plasticity, or the drive to explore new strategies and new goals to move us forward.

Our personalities change as a function of what we're trying to accomplish relative to our goals. That's why you might see different behaviors from the same person under different conditions, and people can end up behaving in ways we didn't expect. Depending on which goal and meta-trait that's activated, different facets of someone's personality may come to play out. Though we might have a general sense of how someone will behave, the activation of different goals can lead to departures from these expectations.

Take the player who you believe needs to emerge as a leader on the team. Perhaps you've seen them thrive as the second or third man up and they appear to have the social skills necessary to bring the group together (you've rated them high on extraversion). When you go to promote him to captain, however, they become shy and seem to back away from the responsibility.

What happened? Did they change? Did we misread their personality?

In these instances, we tend to assume that someone "doesn't have what it takes" to make it to the next level. We suppose that something is wrong with them internally, rather than recognizing that the shift in role may have activated a different goal. Perhaps their behavior as the second or third man up is motivated by fitting in, and you promoting them to captain decidedly makes them stand out. You've activated a different goal (lead vs. fit-in), and as a result, are seeing different behavior.

Below the Big 5, we have what scientists call "characteristic adaptations." These are the personality factors that coaches typically want to see in their players and that front offices try to draft for, like grit, growth mindset, persistence, and "killer instinct." Characteristic adaptations reflect how individual people have adapted their goals and strategies to current circumstances.

This explains why not all players react to the same situation the same way. When the game is on the line, some players want the ball in their hands, and others would rather stand on the sideline. These choices reflect differences in goals, understanding of how to pursue them, and strategies or tools they believe they have (or don't) to get the job done.

Some other examples of characteristic adaptations include:

  • Each player's unique set and order of virtues and values

  • The roles they play on the team

  • How a player responds to a coach’s feedback

What's important here is to recognize that the way people behave is much more flexible and varied than we typically feel comfortable accounting for. Though we can create broad categories of behavior to describe people like "extraverted" or "agreeable," these categories and labels come with their own assumptions about what behavior should go with those labels. Deviations from those labels are hard to make sense of and often lead us to treat people like the label, instead of like the individual, idiosyncratic person they are. These labels also obscure our view of personal goals that guide behavior and limit our own flexible responding to the people we lead.

The cybernetic mechanisms behind personality

To best make sense of personality and behavior, it's helpful to link personality constructs to their relevant functions. Personality didn't evolve in these large, covarying structures for no reason. The dominant traits we appreciate in personality - the Big 5 - serve a purpose.

That purpose is namely to help people go after goals and self-regulate in the process. The scientific terminology behind this is "cybernetics," which gives us a 5-step framework to use:

  • goal activation (illuminating a goal)

  • strategy selection (choosing how to go after it)

  • action (pursuing it)

  • outcome interpretation (evaluating if we did it or not)

  • goal comparison (comparing the new end state to the goal and seeing if there's a mismatch).

If we go through this cycle effectively, we iterate again with a new goal. If not, we start over basically with the same goal but a different plan and action.

With this simple structure in mind, we can look at personality traits and their characteristic adaptations as patterns of behavior that serve to move a person through one part of this cycle.


We typically think of extraversion the way it's been described by the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, which is, unfortunately, a load of crap. (In case you need more evidence, you can look here, too.)

Rather than reflecting how much energy we get from (or lose by) interacting with people, the data suggests extraversion is a reflection of how sensitive someone is to rewards (Depue & Collins, 1999; Smillie, 2013). 

In other words, high extraversion predicts who is most motivated by the chance to achieve a given reward and who will enjoy it most if it happens.

The main subfactors of extraversion are enthusiasm and assertiveness, which may help further explain how we popularly explain what extraversion is.

When we say someone is extraverted, we are usually referring to their enthusiasm. From the perspective of the science, a person being high on enthusiasm would mean that they are motivated by liking a reward - they enjoy the experience of receiving the reward or imagining it.

We rarely describe someone as extraverted if they are assertive, but the science suggests assertion is about wanting a reward - and reflects a motivation to attain a desired goal.

Taken together, these predict high levels of positive affect, like being energized, and are what we mean when we say someone is extraverted. Of course, this perspective (that extraversion reflects sensitivity to reward) matches neatly with our typical popular understanding - most human rewards are social. 

Extraversion is most closely related to goal activation in the cybernetic cycle but has links to the other parts. How sensitive someone is to the rewards they experience along the path to reaching their goals is a good indicator of how likely they are to keep going as they progress.


Neuroticism, on the other hand, most closely relates to goal comparison.

When the current state doesn't match with the goal we set, it's natural to get defensive. Though we may want to explore other strategies, we'll likely experience some negative emotions about the fact that we didn't accomplish what we had hoped. How sensitive and reactive someone is to those negative emotions and the resulting defensiveness is what we call neuroticism.

More simply, neuroticism reflects the degree of negative emotion we experience when progress toward our goal is frustrated or thwarted. Those barriers could come in the form of a signal that the goal won't ever be reached, like being cut from the team, or a signal that the goal is going to be unlikely to be met, like being down 15 points in overtime with 30 seconds to go.

How someone responds to these signals is a reflection of how individually threatened (not in terms of physical safety, but their psychological sense of comfort) someone feels. People higher in neuroticism experience a greater degree of threat and consequent negative emotions.

When we feel threatened, we have two types of defenses we activate: active defense or passive avoidance. 

Active defense is what we see when we describe someone as "emotional" - they get angry or upset easily. 

Passive avoidance is what we see when we describe someone as "withdrawn." In this instance, what we mean is that someone is reducing motivation in response to the uncertainty of reaching their goals.

Though everyone uses both strategies to some degree, what's important to note here is that someone high in neuroticism is going to be more motivated to avoid pain than to seek their goals. These are the players who tend to quit early, cop out when it gets tough, or don't do the extra work we think they need to get better. What's happening under the hood is that they're more motivated to resolve the uncertainty by backing off than by reducing the current discrepancy between their present status and desired end goal. 

In that instance, we need to find ways to "punish" (in the most behavioral sense of the word) behavior that, in the short-term brings comfort via withdrawal, makes the end goal more salient and rewarding, and then reinforces behavior that looks like a move toward that end state.

For example, that might mean committing extra playing time to a player who currently doesn't see the floor much and rarely sticks around after practice, if they stay and do extra work after practice to get better. That would enhance the importance of the end goal (playing) while making withdrawal (leaving practice early) less desirable.


Openness is a reflection of our desire to explore, understand, and use information (DeYoung, 2014).

In the case of our cybernetic model, it's about both strategy selection and actions, since actions can be used to uncover new information that helps us better adapt and make sense of the world moving forward.

At the core of openness are 3 factors we'd all love to see more of in our athletes:

  • Curiosity

  • Creativity

  • Innovation

Each is about making new meaning in the world and figuring out what's likely to work or succeed.

Like the previous factors, openness/intellect is comprised primarily of two components: (1) openness to experience, which reflects how people engage with sensory information, and (2) intellect, which reflects how people interact with abstract concepts and language.

These two pair together to help us make sense of the world through the ways we set goals, interpret new information, and move through the cybernetic cycle.

When you see an athlete stubbornly holding on to a pattern of behavior that doesn't work, or having difficulty detecting the nuance in the meaning behind some of the feedback you give, that's a sign that they might be low on openness (in the context of sport). In that case, being more direct and explicit can be useful, as well as creating rules that guide their behavior out of the rigid pattern. If you see an athlete who's getting creative in the course of the game and piecing together bits of data to do something special, it's a sign of both high IQ (which is accounted for in this model's intellect) and openness.


Conscientiousness, one of the best predictors of performance from personality science across domains, is about how well people can adhere to rules or guidelines and prioritize or protect goals that aren't immediate. It's what allows people to act by their values and not the demands of the day, and allows us to work hard now in service of some larger mission we won't win for 6-7 months (if we're lucky to win at all).

Conscientiousness is comprised of industriousness, or self-discipline and focused hard work, and orderliness, which involves attending to rules (and at the extreme end, is linked to quality and perfectionism).

Taken together, it makes sense why this factor would play a huge part in long-term success and personal outcomes. It's what we're trying to coach our athletes to do - raise their standards and work hard to meet them - because we know this can lead to better outcomes.

Conscientiousness helps us activate long-term goals, select good strategies, and stay focused while we make progress. It can also help us effectively regulate our motivation and emotions, such that we respond less "neurotically" when we're frustrated in the progress of our goals.

If you were to pick one thing to select athletes for based on personality, conscientiousness would take the cake. Of course, there are more effective metrics to use, but many coaches and talent evaluators want to understand who a person is in the context of their sport. We'd do well to double down on conscientiousness as the trait selected for given both its behavioral manifestations and its connection to long-term outcomes. 


The final of the big 5 traits is agreeableness - our tendency to cooperate and act altruistically, rather than exploit or not care about others. Contrary to what the name suggests, it's not about going along to get along or always being nice. In the case of achieving our goals, agreeableness reflects the human need to cooperate and coordinate with other people to execute at the highest level.

Agreeableness is tremendously helpful in the context of team performance. Cooperating and acting in others' best interests or the collective interest of the team requires understanding how other people think and feel and making good sense of social information. It allows people to shut down disruptive behavior and engage effectively in social emotion regulation.

With this understanding of agreeableness in mind, we might come to see the behavior of our players or team members who avoid conflict in a more nuanced (and potentially more adaptive way). Often the signals we look for to understand someone's competitiveness (e.g., fighting, yelling, conflict) cut directly against behavior we'd expect to see from someone agreeable, yet the agreeable person may simply be redirecting disruptive behavior to a time when it's more adaptive and socially advantageous (e.g., criticizing privately). These players are also more likely to be the "glue" of the team and to help keep things together as difficulty arises in the team's process of moving toward its goals.

Putting it all together

We are all social scientists. The world we live in is inherently social and high performance in sport requires optimizing the way these social interactions take place in service of larger goals.

With the understanding of personality as a framework for organizing around pursuing goals, rather than a static description of how people are, we can better understand how people are instead of trying to figure out "who they are." Personality is malleable - we have different goals in different contexts, and these contexts are likely to also shape behavior in a way that we often fail to appreciate (fundamental attribution error).

Rather than trying to pigeonhole someone into a neat descriptor that we think captures the range of their behavior, we'd do well to do a few things differently with this framework in mind:

  1. When you see a behavior you don't like or don't understand, resist the urge to describe that person in a way that fits your framework. Instead, see if you can uncover the goal that might be guiding their behavior in that context.

  2. Look for a team composed of people who are different along these dimensions - but only to a degree. Difference is valuable for getting the most out of a team, but you don't want to introduce too much neuroticism, or you'll create a team that is easily swayed and discouraged by the ups and downs of the season.

  3. Recognizing that, for most people most of the time, there are several competing goals activated that they are trying to accomplish - like getting more playing time, feeding their family, buying a new car, not getting traded, and being a better teammate. Often these goals are going to drive behavior that seems contradictory or conflictual, because most people don't have all the characteristic adaptations they'd need to successfully pursue all of these goals simultaneously. The best thing you can do in this situation is help your athlete prioritize.

Personality is complex. People are complex. With a richer understanding of the link between personality and goals, we can better understand why people do what they do, and what we can do to shape it.


DeYoung, C. G. (2015). Cybernetic big five theory. Journal of research in personality, 56, 33-58.

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