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Disordered Eating in Athletes: Understanding the Basics and What We Can Do About It

Published July 31, 2014

By Dana K. Voelker
West Virginia University

Disordered eating encompasses a wide range of problematic eating attitudes, behaviors and body image distortions that adversely impact physical and psychological health. Unfortunately, student-athletes are not exempt from the dangers of disordered eating, a complex phenomenon that includes a range of genetic, environmental, psychological and behavioral factors. However, by understanding a few key principles, athletics healthcare professionals, athletics administrators, coaches and student-athletes can work together to create a healthy, body-positive environment.  

What is Disordered Eating and How Often Does It Occur in Sport?
Disordered eating encompasses a wide range of problematic eating attitudes, behaviors and body image distortions that adversely impact physical and psychological health. Unfortunately, student-athletes are not exempt from the dangers of disordered eating symptoms, which have been reported to occur in approximately 25 percent of collegiate female athletes and 20% of male collegiate athletes competing in a diverse range of sports. The prevalence of disordered eating is highest among those competing in aesthetic sports in which student-athletes are judged on both technical skill and the artistic quality of their performance (e.g. gymnastics). However, student-athletes participating in any sport may show signs and symptoms of disordered eating, including excessive body and appearance-related concerns and unhealthy weight control behaviors (e.g., restrictive dieting, binge eating, over-exercise, self-induced vomiting, or abuse of laxatives, diet pills, and diuretics).

What Is the Role of Disordered Eating in the Female Athlete Triad?
Dietary energy (the energy that comes from food) not only supports athletic performance but also sustains life. After energy is expended through exercise, the energy remaining is used to support the body’s metabolic processes. Thus, when athletes have not adequately fueled, little energy is left to support the body’s critical functions after intensive sports training. Declines in reproductive health and bone density are primary areas that may be adversely affected and thus comprise the other two components of the triad.

For some student-athletes, low energy availability occurs in the absence of disordered eating. In these instances, low energy availability is an unintentional, but negative byproduct of not consuming enough calories to offset the energy expenditure of sport training. In contrast, other athletes purposefully engage in disordered eating often in an attempt to achieve greater athletic success and meet appearance standards for their sport, for society or both.

How and Why Does Disordered Eating Occur in Athletes?
Disordered eating in student-athletes is a complex phenomenon and includes a range of genetic (e.g., heritable characteristics), environmental (e.g., peer and family modeling), psychological (e.g., body dissatisfaction, perfectionism, low self-esteem) and behavioral factors (e.g., dietary restraint). In sport, the role of weight management pressures has become a popular research topic. Sources of pressure to lose, gain or maintain weight in sport may include: (1) demands to meet technical aspects of performance such as speed and agility; (2) demands to meet appearance-based aspects of performance such as long lines and aesthetically pleasing routines; (3) conventions of sport such as requirements for form-fitting or revealing athletic attire; (4) expectations of others such as coaches, parents, judges, peers and teammates; (5) media images of elite or professional level athletes that emphasize stereotypically attractive bodies for sport (e.g., slender and tone); and (6) societal demands to achieve stereotypically attractive bodies for society in general (e.g., tall and thin). All are critical considerations in the prevention of disordered eating in athletes.

Weight Pressures in the Athletic Environment

Source of Weight Pressure


Technical Demands of Sport

Achieving faster race times, higher flight patterns

Aesthetic Demands of Sport

Achieving grace, beauty, and long lines during performance

Rules or Conventions of Sport

Form-fitting or revealing athletic attire, team weigh-ins

Important Others

Critical comments from coaches, parents, judges, peers, or teammates about weight, shape, or body size


Images of high level athletes that promote lean, tone, and stereotypically attractive bodies for sport

Societal Demands

Images of models that promote tall, thin, and stereotypically attractive bodies for society in general

Note. This table was adapted from Voelker, D. K. (2012). Weight pressures: What coaches need to know. Game Plans: Coaching Advancement Program Newsletter, VIII (5), 2-3.

How Can Disordered Eating in Athletes Be Prevented?
Important stakeholders in the collegiate athletic community play key roles in the prevention of disordered eating in athletes. Athletics healthcare professionals, athletic administrators, coaches, and student-athletes may consider the following reflective questions and prevention principles.

Consider your influence on others in your athletic community. Are you a positive role model for healthy nutrition, exercise habits and body image? What messages do you send to student-athletes about weight? Practicing healthy habits of your own can set a good example for others around you and promote a body-enhancing versus body-disparaging athletic culture. Additionally, athletes often cite that their disordered eating behaviors began or were reinforced after belittling comments from a coach about their weight, shape or body size. Even a comment intended to be helpful (e.g., “Losing a bit of weight will help your presentation and improve your scores”) may be perceived as harmful (e.g., “Coach thinks that I’m fat and not good enough”). Help athletes to feel comfortable in their own skin and show them how to appreciate their body’s health and function above and beyond what it looks like.

Consider your understanding of disordered eating in sport. How well educated are you on healthy eating and exercise behaviors for student-athletes? Where do you get your information? How well do you know the signs and symptoms of disordered eating and is there a referral protocol in place if disordered eating were detected? Research indicates that a minority of collegiate coaches have adequate knowledge on eating disorders. Seeking resources that will provide this education from credible sources (i.e., science versus the popular media) is important (e.g., The American College of Sports Medicine at

Moreover, eating disorders are not a phase and must be treated by a team of licensed professionals (e.g., physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, and sports dietician). When those closest to student-athletes know the signs and symptoms of disordered eating, they are able to quickly recognize when help is needed and pursue the appropriate resources.

Consider the athletic culture you help to change and grow. Would you describe your athletic department as promoting a body-positive culture? Do you ascribe to a health first focus and prohibit unhealthy weight control practices? Working together to promote a healthy culture can improve the developmental outcomes of student-athletes.  

Student-athletes are deserving of the benefits that their sport has to offer. Maximizing these benefits means using athletics as an opportunity to show athletes how to maintain proper eating and exercise habits as well as how to take care of and take pride in their bodies. Such efforts will both promote athletic performance and build healthy lifestyles.

Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating Resources
National Eating Disorders Association – Tool Kits

National Institute of Mental Health – Eating Disorders

The Victory Program at McCallum Place

De Souza, M. J., Nattiv, A., Joy, E., Misra, M., Williams, N. I., Mallinson, R. J., . . . Expert, P. (2014). 2014 Female Athlete Triad Coalition Consensus Statement on Treatment and Return to Play of the Female Athlete Triad: 1st International Conference held in San Francisco, California, May 2012 and 2nd International Conference held in Indianapolis, Indiana, May 2013. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(4), 289-289. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-093218
Greenleaf, C., Petrie, T. A., Carter, J., & Reel, J. J. (2009). Female collegiate athletes: Prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors. Journal of American College Health, 57(5), 489-495.
Petrie, T. A., & Greenleaf, C. (2012). Eating disorders in sport. In S. Murphy (Ed.), Handbook of sport and performance psychology (1st ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Petrie, T. A., Greenleaf, C., Reel, J. J., & Carter, J. (2008). Prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors among male collegiate athletes. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 9(4), 267-277. doi: 10.1037/a0013178
Reel, J. J., Petrie, T. A., SooHoo, S., & Anderson, C. M. (2013). Weight pressures in sport: Examining the factor structure and incremental validity of the weight pressures in sport – females. Eating Behaviors. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2013.01.003
Torres-McGehee, T., Pritchett, K. L., Zippel, D., Minton, D. M., Cellamare, A., & Sibilia, M. (2012). Sports nutrition knowledge among collegiate athletes, coaches, athletic trainers, and strength and conditioning specialists. Journal of Athletic Training, 47(2), 205-211.


NCAA, Volume 2, Issue 4, April 2014
Disordered Eating In Student-Athletes: Understanding The Basics And What We Can Do About It

Published in: Athletes, Mental Health, Health & Fitness

How Sport Psychology Can Work for You: Lessons from NCAA Athletic Administrators

Published July 31, 2014

By Ian Connole
K-State Athletics

Where high performance sports exist, psychological demands and athletes’ abilities to cope with them are often the unseen elements influencing performance1. Enhancing performance through psychological skills training and helping athletes deal with critical developmental, personal, and psychosocial issues are specialties of many sport psychology professionals (SPPs).  Therefore, in recent years, several coaches (e.g., Nick Saban2,3 or John Calipari4) have commented publically on the important role SPPs played in their title runs. However, most SPPs are behind the scenes providing services in a quiet and confidential manner to help student-athletes, coaches, and athletic departmental staff deal with the many demands that have their roots in the mind5.  Yet, while any coach can tell you, no two athletes are going to have the exact same skill set; the same is true for SPPs. Finding the right skill set begins with defining the position that is the best match for each athletic department. This article helps to outline some of those options and provide examples of what a nation wide sample of NCAA athletic administrators had to say about sport psychology positions at their colleges and universities. Specifically, each of the following three sections will provide athletic administrators, coaches, and other university affiliates information to consider when weighing in on the integration of sport psychology positions at their respective institutions:

  • Options: Common options that can exist for the format of a sport psychology position
  • Directors’ Voices: What athletic administrators have to say about developing sport psychology positions
  • Questions: Questions to ask at your institutions when considering integrating sport psychology services

The data provided is based on a survey of NCAA DI, DII, and DIII athletic administrators (head athletic directors and select assistant or associate athletic directors) during the spring of 2013. 

The types of sport psychology positions that currently exist vary a great deal from one university to the next. In a sample of 96 NCAA DI institutions, Voight and Callaghan (2001) found that there were at least ten different kinds of sport psychology positions that varied based upon department affiliations and time-commitment. In the past decade, creative formations and increased demand for sport psychology services have seen even greater variability in position design. In a review of previous literature, Connole et al. (in press) identified five characteristics of sport psychology positions that varied from one university to the next: 1) time commitment, 2) affiliation, 3) payment, 4) services, and 5) clients.  For these characteristics the following options were identified as the most common options present for the aforementioned characteristics.

Time Commitment





Full-time with Athletics

Athletic Department

Annual Salary

Performance Consulting


Part-time with Athletics

Academic Department

Fees for Services

Mental Health Counseling

Teams & Staff


Counseling Center

Teams’ Budgets

Both Performance & Mental Health

Athletes, Teams & Staff


Private Practice




These options represent those that have been addressed in scholarly publications. While these options may represent some of the more common choices when structuring a sport psychology position, these are not the only options that can exist. Other options to consider include additional roles, teaching duties, advising responsibilities, committee involvements, office location, psychological testing, and division of duties between sports (e.g., male vs. female sports).

Directors’ Voices
Developing new sport psychology positions
Recent surveys found 38-61% of responding NCAA DI institutions and 10-23% of both DII and DIII institutions reported having access to sport psychology services (Connole et al., in press; Kornspan & Duve, 2006; Wrisberg et al., 2012). Of those who did not have access to sport psychology services, the following responses were provided regarding their intent to develop a sport psychology position in the next five years: 






“We are developing a plan to add a position.”

“[We] want to start a center in conjunction with a graduate program”



“Will be based on available budget support”

“We are noticing that this is a legitimate need for staff and student-athletes given the changing dynamics in the athletics culture and the current generation of student-athletes and their ability to balance societal/social/academic/sport demands.”



“Budgets are limited, it would be a great service but not feasible - probably even 5 years from now.”

“[We] do not have the money to hire.  There are greater needs for our department and college.”

Exploring the need for more than one sport psychology professional
Budget has historically been the primary issue cited by athletic administrators to explain why their universities did not have sport psychology services (Kornspan & Duve, 2006).  Therefore, to understand departmental needs independent of finances, the question was asked, if budget were not an issue would there be a need for more than one SPP in order to meet the needs of their athletic department. It is clear that taking budget off the table is never truly possible. Even when asked to consider needs alone many athletic directors cited budgets as the explanation for why they do not feel more than one SPP would be needed. Alternately, there were numerous athletic administrators who cited a need for division of responsibilities related to specific sports, mental health vs. performance, male vs. female sports, team vs. individual sports, various specialties (e.g., eating disorders, alcohol and other drugs, learning disabilities) and sheer numbers of teams, coaches, and student-athletes. Here are a few representative quotes for or against the need for more than one SPP:






“Between performance and mental health, more than one is needed on all campuses.”

“With 600+ student-athletes and in order to be truly effective it is about creating opportunities.  One person can not truly serve all those teams and students.  You need to have 2-4 on staff if budget were not an issue in order to be truly effective.”

“As is our current situation, we likely would use a menu of sports psychology professionals covering a diverse range of expertise and specialization”



“I think one would be busy and consistent with the patient care load unless they would need to travel with a team then a second individual would need to utilized.”

“I think our student-athlete population is such that one would be full-time person would be sufficient.”

“Probably not the first couple of years until the athletes got used to dealing with a [sport] psychologist.”

Speaking Freely: Open-Ended Comments
Athletic administrators also provided a host of additional comments regarding sport psychology and NCAA athletics. These comments represent the individuals who were particularly interested in sharing their experiences with sport psychology. Comments fell in the following primary themes:

Response Theme



Position Information:
Detailed the specific position and services at their universities


“At our institution, we've distinguished between our Sports Psychologist and our Psychologist.  It's been an important distinction.”

“I like our model where our sports psychology pro is employed by the campus counseling center (but funded by transfer of funds from athletics) he is full time with athletics in practice.  [He] definitely does general counseling as well as performance coaching.  Our staff, coaches and athletes utilize our Sports Psychology Pro.  He has made a tremendously positive impact on our department.”

Positive statements in support of sport psychology services


“Sport Psychology services can make [a] meaningful impact on student-athlete performance and welfare.”

“Hugely valuable.  Working on getting a new one - hopefully full time.”

Recommendations: Suggestions for effective sport psychology services


“It is important that sport psychologist understand how to communicate effectively with not only athletes, but coaches as well.”

“It is very important to make sure you have the RIGHT person.”

Statements that the budget is the largest barrier


“Budget is the biggest obstacle in our case.”

“Most who do not provide more robust services are unable, from a resource standpoint, to do so.”

Unsupportive: Negative statements in opposition to sport psychology services



The Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) recommends searches for sport psychology consultants begin by identifying the types of sport psychology services you wish to receive8.  This can be easier said than done. In order to navigate this process the following questions might be useful in determining the needs, niche, and structure of sport psychology services that would be the best fit for your institution:

  • Could bringing in a sport psychology professional enhance athletic performance and/or personal well-being of our student-athletes?
  • Is there a greater need for mental health services for student-athletes than is currently being met by existing university services?
  • Is there a greater need for enhancing performance related psychological skills (e.g., confidence, composure under pressure, concentration, team cohesion, leadership) than is currently available at my institution?
  • Are coaches and student-athletes interested in having performance or mental health related services available?
  • Who will the sport psychology professional(s) work with (e.g., working with coaches and administrators on leadership development, early identification and treatment of mental health issues, integrating psychological skills into training or with the student-athletes directly)?
  • Can one professional meet the various needs of our department or are multiple individuals needed (e.g., one for men’s and one for women’s sports, one for mental health and one for performance, or a head SPP and team of graduate students or interns)?
  • Can we include a full-time or part-time position in the athletic department budget?
  • Can services and salary be shared with another department (e.g., an academic department, sports medicine, or counseling and psychological services)?
  • Are there speaker, student-athlete development, or other yearly funds available to bring in sport psychology professionals for short-term consultations?
  • Are teams interested in having their own sport psychology professionals? If so, do team budgets provide enough resources for teams to bring in individuals who are unaffiliated with the university?

There is no one size fits all position or sport psychology professional, but if universities are truly interested in finding a way to integrate sport psychology services, it can be done. These questions, department wide discussions, and surveys of student-athletes and coaches are great places to start. In the end it is important to consider all the departmental needs and really ask, “Are we doing enough to promote excellence and provide psychological support on and off the playing fields?”

Administrators, coaches, and any individual seeking qualified sport psychology professionals can contact AASP [] for help designing positions and job postings, advertising to sport psychology professionals, and ultimately finding qualified candidates that meet your needs.

The Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) promotes the ethical practice, science and advocacy of sport and exercise psychology. Founded in 1986, AASP is an international, multidisciplinary, professional organization that offers certification to qualified professionals in the field of sport and exercise psychology. With more than 1,700 members in 42 countries, AASP is a worldwide leader, sharing research and resources with the public via its website,


October 2013
NCAA, Volume 1, Issue 5
How Sport Psychology Can Work for You

Published in: Coaches, Athletes

NCAA Swimmer Develops Mental Skills That Carry Her Beyond Olympic Medal

Published July 31, 2014

By The Association for Applied Sport Psychology Public Relations Office

Western Kentucky University graduate Claire Donahue set many records as a swimmer for her NCAA Division I school. Today she is a member of the USA Swimming team competing internationally, as well as an Olympic Gold Medalist. She credits some of that success to the mental skills training that carried her through the Olympic Trials to where she is today.

The Tennessee native had been swimming for 17 years and had never worked with a sport psychologist until she was looking for an extra advantage as she started to prepare for the 100-meter butterfly at the USA Olympic Swimming Trials in 2012. “Four years earlier, when I swam at the Olympic Trials, it was extremely nerve-wracking and it actually hindered my time and my place a little bit,” explained Donahue. “I’ve really been working on controlling my nerves and it was the suggestion of my coach that I start working with sport psychology consultant Betsy Shoenfelt, Ph.D., who is a professor of psychological sciences at Western Kentucky University,” said Donahue.

A Coach’s Perspective
“It was fun to watch Claire progress,” said WKU swim coach Bruce Marchionda. “She came in as a freshman and did not qualify for the national championships. Then her second year, she qualified for the national championships, but did not score. Her junior year she qualified for the championships and was fourth. Her senior year she qualified for the national championships – got second. Just making the finals at the Olympic Trials was a phenomenal accomplishment.”

“At this level when the difference in making the team is hundredths of a second, we were looking for anything that would give Claire an edge,” said Marchionda. “I think it was priceless for her to be able to work with Betsy Shoenfelt on being able to handle anything that might come along like a sub-par performance at a race, an audience of 13,000 people, the pressure of making the team and the journey to get there with all the hard work-outs. The different perspective and mental rehearsal for the race helped so much and by the time Claire got to the race she had already done it hundreds of times in her mind. It was great to have Betsy as part of our staff—she was excellent.”

Developing the Mental Edge
“I have worked with WKU athletes and coaches teaching mental toughness skills and team building for the past 30 years,” explained Shoenfelt, who is a Licensed Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, and CC-AASP. “My training is in Industrial/Organizational Psychology with a Sport Psychology second emphasis and in both areas, I have a performance orientation rather than a clinical or counseling orientation.”

According to Donahue, she worked with Shoenfelt for a short period of time—about eight months. “I met with her every week and sometimes she would come and watch me swim. For the Olympics I  still talked to her by phone and I had printed sheets with me to remind me of our work. Most of the mental skills will come natural now. She helped me focus on the 3 Ps – present, positive, performance – to keep a positive outlook and turn negatives into positives.”

“Swimmers can really benefit from mental training. There are some people who are great in practice but at a big meet they psych themselves out; or they are very negative at practice and that impacts the entire team,” Donahue added.

“I used the tools, didn’t get nervous and knew how to calm myself down. I realized compared to my friends at practice, I was the calmest.” She recognized her weak areas and addressed them using the tools practiced with Shoenfelt. “When I would warm up, I would think about how I don’t feel good and look at things that didn’t matter, like other athletes that were in better shape,” said Donahue. “But what I learned was to not focus on them because that stuff didn’t matter. I thought about what I could control and focused on myself. Sport psychology should be part of every college program—it should be considered the norm.”


With the approval of Donahue and her coach, Shoenfelt shared some of her techniques—information that is typically confidential between an athlete and his or her sport psychology consultant.

“One of the important things for Claire was her ability to separate the context from her task. The context is all of the potentially distracting things in the environment. The task is to swim 100m – the same task she has performed successfully a thousand times,” explained Shoenfelt. “During the Olympic Trials she was able to focus really well in the preliminary round and swam a personal best of 57.83 seconds – the second fastest time of all the women in the 100m fly trials. That carried through during her Olympic performance individually, on the Gold Medal relay team, and continues today as she competes internationally for USA Swimming.”

Perfecting Practice
“Her practices leading up to the Trials were extremely demanding. So, our first focus working together was to help Claire remain motivated during these grueling practices.” Shoenfelt shared those important details:

  • We set goals for the important components of her swim. The goals helped Claire focus her attention and provided feedback that enabled her to track her progress over time. Goals were set for things like stroke maintenance (maintaining proper form and technique even when she was very tired), underwaters (staying strong after the turn while under water), and turns.
  • She also set goals for percentage of positive self-talk and for visualization. Claire had used visualization previously; we worked together to help her learn positive self-talk. Claire kept a notebook with all of her goal charts. The progress she made was gradual, but by tracking each goal she could see the great progress she made over the months of practice.
  • Keeping perspective – if working hard today made the difference in making or missing the Olympics could you find the energy to go hard all practice? Of course.
  • I would look for quotes or other stories that might help motivate her. I would give these to her. One that Claire found helpful was from a Women’s Sport Foundation story on Title IX. It quoted a previous Olympic gold medal swimmer who talked about how she had to practice hard even when she did not want to with everything she had – she still had to go hard. It was only a minor part of the story, but Claire could see how this previous gold medal swimmer experienced the same exact thing she was dealing with.
  • We also used some simple techniques for motivation. For example, when she had really tough combinations of sets for practice, we broke it down into smaller pieces. If she had to swim six 200’s, it can seem overwhelming, but if you ask yourself can you swim one 200 – the answer is sure, no problem. Another technique was, for example, if she had six sets, putting six pennies on the end of the pool and moving one each time she completed a set. Simple, but it showed progress and the feedback helped Claire stay motivated.

Performance Focus
Additionally, Shoenfelt worked with Claire on the performance components of her swim:

  • We discussed how repetitions of her swim components leads to automaticity (performance that is completed without attention, is more efficient, and faster than performance that we are consciously monitoring) and how this is especially important for performance in stressful conditions. You just do it. Claire focused on automating the components of her swim.
  • We used “performance thoughts” for certain components of her swim to help her focus on key components. For example, for the turn she used the performance thought “see the wall, give your all, knees up” – this summarized what she needed to do at the turn. By repeating this as she trained, she helped to automate that component of her swim.

Mental Toughness Training
Finally, the focus on teaching mental toughness skills was another important component of the preparation:

  • We spent a substantial amount of time with positive self-talk. Claire learned to recognize negative self-talk, to stop it, and to replace it with positive self-talk.
  • Focus – during practice and especially during competition to focus on the 3 P’s – the Present (what is happening right now, not the past or the future), Positive (the desired performance, not all of things that could go wrong), and Performance (focus on the process/performance not the outcome of the performance).
  • Problem Solving Skills – Claire had a tendency to worry about “what if’s” She learned to look at the concern and determine if it was realistic. If it was a realistic concern, she used visualization to see herself dealing successfully with the situation. Then if it did occur, she already had practice with the situation and knew she could handle it successfully. If it was not a realistic concern, then she used positive self-talk to deal with it.

The Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) promotes ethical practice, science and advocacy in the field of sport and exercise psychology. Founded in 1986, AASP is an international, multidisciplinary, professional organization that offers certification to qualified professionals in the field of sport and exercise psychology. With more than 1,900 members in 47 countries, AASP is a worldwide leader, sharing research and resources with the public via its website,


Published in: Mental Skills Training, Coaches, Athletes

Sport Fandom and the NCAA Athlete

Published July 31, 2014

By Frederick G. Grieve
Western Kentucky University

They come in all shapes and sizes, from the little tyke who is dressed in the University of Kentucky outfit coming home from the hospital days after birth; to the twenty-year-old walking around in maize and blue body paint with no shirt on at the Big House; to the parent wearing an old Ducks jersey around the house. Yes, we are talking about sport fans. But not just any sport fans; college sport fans.

Sports fandom is very popular. In fact, you could argue that it has never been more popular to be a sports fan. Millions of Americans consider themselves sports fans. An estimated 108.4 million people in the United States watched the Super Bowl in 2013 (ESPN, 2013). Sports fandom is not limited to professional sports. In March, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament (March Madness) is must-see viewing for the ultimate sports fan. It was estimated that at least 33 percent of Americans watched at least one game in the tournament (Smith, 2013), and 22.4 million people watched the men’s Final Four Championship matchup between the University of Louisville and the University of Michigan (Shuster, 2013); an additional 3.2 million fans watched the women’s Final Four Championship game between the University of Connecticut and the University of Louisville (Sports Media Watch, 2013). A recent survey concluded that being identified with their favorite team is more important to people than being identified with their work and social groups, and as important to them as being identified with their religion (Smith, Grieve, Zapalac, Derryberry, & Pope-Tarrence, 2011). Highly identified sports fans are passionate: They would consider doing a number of extreme behaviors, including aggressive actions, outrageous deeds (e.g., give up sweets for a year, destroy a favorite keepsake) and engaging in superstitious rituals (e.g., wearing lucky clothing, sitting in a lucky seat) if the action improved or guaranteed their team a championship or victory (Wann et al., 2005; Wann et al., 2011; Wann et al., 2013).

It is important to distinguish between sports fans and sports spectators. Sports spectators are people who attend sporting events (or watch events on television) for a reason other than an attachment to the team. These reasons are usually social (e.g., a significant other or family member takes them to a game), but can include a number of different reasons (Wann, Melnick, Russell, & Pease, 2001). Sports fans, however, have a connection to the team (Funk & James, 2001; Wann et al., 2001). Researchers use different terms for this connection – points of attachment (Funk & James, 2001) and identification (Wann et al., 2001). In either case, it means the same thing: a psychological connection with the team that holds implications for the person’s self-image.

So, why are people sports fans? What benefits do they receive from being sports fans? Wann (2006) proposed a Team Identification-Social Psychological Health Model that argued that the social support fans perceive from like-minded fans leads to social psychological benefits. In this model, sport fans receive temporary support by connecting with like-minded fans one time (such as joining at a bar or pub to watch a game) or they can receive enduring support from those fans who live near them. This support allows the fans to cope with threats to their identity, such as bad calls during a game, opposing fans, and poor performance of the team in the short-term, and life hassles in the long-term. Thus, attachment or identification with a local team will be most likely to lead to the benefits of fandom. The social-psychological benefits of being a sports fan include lower levels of loneliness (Wann, Brame, Clarkson, Brooks, & Waddill, 2008) and lower levels of stress (Lee, 2011) during sporting events, a sense of belonging to a larger community (Reding, Grieve, Derryberry, & Paquin, 2011) and better psychological functioning (Wann, Dimmock, & Grove, 2003). These benefits generally accrue over the long term.

But, the relationship between fans and student-athletes is mutual. Not only can witnessing athletic events affect fans, fan behaviors can also influence athletic performance. However, it is often not in the way that most fans think (or hope). Fans want their behaviors at sporting events to matter. Indeed, they frequently view it as a responsibility to attempt to influence the outcome through acts of support such as cheering (Wann, Dolan, McGeorge, & Allison, 1994). Further, fans will often perform superstitious behaviors in an attempt to help their teams win. Such behaviors include chants, wearing certain items of clothing, eating specific foods and sitting in specific seats (Wann et al., 2013).

Fans may have an effect on the game by simply attending. Student-athletes performance is different when there are people in the stands from when the seats are empty. Part of this affect is through physiological arousal. There is a Zone of Optimal Arousal (Hanin, 2000) for each student-athlete and each position in which the student-athlete performs best. (Arousal here means the same thing as excitement or activation—or being “fired up.”) If the student-athlete is underaroused or overaroused, performance decreases. This becomes a bit more complex, as there are optimal levels of arousal for each position on a team. For example, in football, quarterbacks need to have a lower level of arousal than defensive lineman. Further, it may be that there are different levels of optimal arousal for different game situations. In basketball, a higher level of arousal may be more beneficial while playing defense as opposed to running an offensive play. The simple act of being observed increases the level of excitement in student-athletes and, hence, their level of arousal. If this added arousal moves athletes out of the Zone of Optimal Arousal, it will lead to poor performance. All of those fans sitting in the seats and watching the game can, therefore, have an influence on an athlete’s performance if, by their mere presence, they cause the athlete to become too excited. On the other hand, if athletes are not activated enough, they can play poorly. Thus, managing arousal/activation/excitement is an important skill for student-athletes to learn. This includes both psyching up and calming down so they can play at their best.

One of the few ways in which sports fans can affect athletic performance is by distracting student-athletes. Often fans attempt to distract student-athletes through a number of different activities. Some of the more recent distractors seen at college basketball games include students jumping up and down in different directions, the “big head” phenomenon where fans wave giant heads of famous people at the players, and loudly singing songs during free throw attempts. Obviously, if these behaviors take athletes’ attention away from the game, performance can suffer. Thus, the ability to focus and ignore distractors during competition is a very important skill for student-athletes to develop. 

These and other important mental skills can be developed via working with a sport psychologist. If you are interested in this, you should contact a clinical and sport psychologist on your campus or in your community. You can contact a Certified Consultant of AASP (CC-AASP) for assistance; these trained professional sport psychologists are qualified to aid athletes with the difficulties they face from performance problems to more personal or clinical issues.
Additionally, you may also contact the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) through its website: The website contains a number of free resources pertaining to enhancing athletic performance as well as other issues for athletes.

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NCAA, Volume 2, Issue 3, March 2014
Sports Fandom And The NCAA Student-Athlete

Published in: Athletes