Stereotype threat is the perceived risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group. Over 300 studies on academic testing show that the threat of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group sets into motion a sequence of psychological processes that inhibit cognitive capacity and exacerbate performance monitoring. As a result, stigmatized individuals underperform relative to nonstigmatized individuals and relative to members of the stigmatized group not under stereotype threat. Several studies indicate that stereotype threat processes can reduce achievement in sports when athletes perceive that their performance might be evaluated through the lens of racial or gender stereotypes.
Evidence for Stereotype Threat in Sports
Jeff Stone and colleagues conducted the first study of stereotype threat in sports to test whether the salience of negative racial stereotypes about Black athletes (i.e., low sports intelligence) and White athletes (i.e., low natural athletic ability) could cause each group to perform more poorly on a golf putting task. The participants were Black and White former high school athletes, and some participants were told that the test measured their sports intelligence, while others were told that the test measured their natural athletic ability. Participants in a control condition were told that the test measured their sport psychology, a stereotype-irrelevant attribute. As predicted by stereotype threat, the results showed that (a) both Blacks and Whites performed equally well on the putting task when it was framed as a measure of sport psychology, (b) Whites performed significantly worse than Blacks when performance was framed as a measure of natural athletic ability, and (c) Blacks performed significantly worse than Whites when performance was framed as measuring sports intelligence. Thus, simply framing the task in terms of a negative racial stereotype about each group was sufficient to activate the threat processes that reduced their sports performance.
Female athletes suffer stereotype threat when their natural athletic ability is linked to gender differences in sports. For example, Jeff Stone and Chad McWhinnie had White females complete a golf-putting task. To explicitly induce stereotype threat, participants were told that the test measured gender differences in athletic ability. In addition, to create an implicit cue for stereotype threat, a male experimenter ran the testing session. The results were that female athletes required significantly more strokes to finish the putting task when it was explicitly framed as measuring gender differences in athletic ability compared to control conditions. In addition, women performed less accurately on their final putt when run by a male compared to a female experimenter. Thus, both explicit (e.g., the test frame) and implicit (i.e., experimenter gender) reminders of the negative stereotype about female athleticism impaired different aspects of their performance. Similar effects are found for female athletes on the soccer field and in competitive chess tournaments.
Elite-level athletes are not immune to the stereotype threat. Sian Beilock and colleagues recruited expert male golfers who had 2 or more years of high school or college varsity experience or a Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) of America handicap of at least eight. After a baseline round of putting, expert golfers in the stereotype threat condition were significantly less accurate during the second round. Aïna Chalabaev and colleagues reported a similar finding with elite female club soccer players in France, who were unable to match their baseline time on a dribble test when it was framed as measuring their natural athletic ability.
The anticipation of being negatively stereotyped in a sport can engage defensive responses, like self-handicapping, that have a negative effect on how athletes prepare for an important competition. For example, in one study, White athletes were told that a putting task measures their natural athletic ability and were then told they could practice on the first hole of the course for as long as they wanted before the test began. The results showed that when under stereotype threat, White athletes self-handicapped by practicing less compared to White athletes in control conditions. These results suggest that stereotype threat processes can start to impair athletic performance well before a competition begins.
Stereotype threat primarily impacts the performance of athletes who maintain their self-worth through their achievements in sports. Consistent with this reasoning, several studies show that the salience of negative stereotypes primarily reduces the practice and performance of psychologically “engaged” athletes. Psychologically “disengaged” athletes, in contrast, are less affected when a negative group stereotype is salient. However, over time, athletes may respond to stereotype threat by psychologically disengaging from competitive outcomes and eventually by misidentifying and withdrawing from the performance domain. These coping responses may not only cause some talented individuals to quit playing a sport, but to avoid being the target of threat in the future, they may give up participation in recreational sport, which has important consequences for their health.
Reducing Stereotype Threat in Sports
One way to reduce stereotype threat effects in sports is to emphasize the racial or gender neutrality of a competitive performance context. When negative stereotypes are salient during competition, athletes can deflect stereotype threat if they learn to view characteristics like athletic ability or sports intelligence as malleable attributes they can improve with practice. They can also strengthen their sense of efficacy to overcome a stereotype threat through exposure to in-group role models who exhibit strong counter stereotypic attributes. Finally, teaching athletes to recognize the causes and consequences of stereotype threat can empower them to defend against its detrimental effects when they prepare for and perform in their sport.