Attributional style and athletic performance: Strategic optimism and defensive pessimism

Randall A. Gordon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Objectives: Two studies examined the relationship between explanatory style measured with the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ), Peterson, Semmel, von Baeyer, Abramson, Metalsky, and Seligman (1982. The Attributional Style Questionnaire. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 6, 287-299) and athletic performance. Design: Correlational designs were used to examine relationships between the predictor variables of attributional style and dispositional optimism and the criterion variable of athletic performance. Study one also examined the effect of soccer match outcome as a moderational factor. Method: For study 1, 20 male soccer players completed the ASQ and their performance across eight matches was videotaped and coded on a variety of measures (goals, fouls, attempted passes, completed passes). For study 2, 18 female basketball players completed both the ASQ and the Life Orientation Test (LOT), Scheier and Carver (1978. Optimism, coping and health: Assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies. Health Psychology, 4, 219-247). Relationships between these scales and a variety of performance measures were examined. Results: Consistent with findings from Seligman, Nolen-Hoeksema, Thornton, N., and Thornton, K. (1990. Explanatory style as a mechanism of disappointing athletic performance. Psychological Science, 1, 143-146), a significant positive relationship was found between the ASQ measure of optimism and athletic performance among the soccer players in study 1. In addition, optimistic soccer players demonstrated better performance during a loss than did pessimists, whereas no significant performance differences were found between these two groups during a subsequent win. Findings from study 2 were less consistent, revealing both positive (optimists had more assists and steals) and negative (optimists had fewer rebounds and more fouls) relationships. A subsequent content analysis of the open-ended responses on the ASQ suggests that the observed negative relationships were a function of these female athletes attributing negative outcomes to lack of effort (defensive pessimism) as opposed to lack of ability (depressive pessimism). Conclusions: The findings highlight the need to differentiate between these two forms of pessimism and their differential impact on performance. The importance of including an assessment of perceived controllability as an attributional dimension in future research is discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)336-350
Number of pages15
JournalPsychology of Sport and Exercise
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2008


  • Explanatory style
  • Sport psychology

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Attributional style and athletic performance: Strategic optimism and defensive pessimism'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this