Playing position and psychological skill in American football

Playing position and psychological skill in American football

Richard H. Cox

An important topic of research that has not been adequately investigated, however, is the relationship between an athlete’s position on a team and his or her psychological characteristics. This would seem to be an important area of research, because demands placed upon athletes differ as a function of playing position. In the sports of basketball, volleyball and football, for example, the point guard, setter, and quarterback respectively play central and highly visible roles on their teams (Cox, 1987; Cox & McManama, 1988). Is it not reasonable to suspect that the psychological characteristics of athletes playing in key positions would differ from other less visible positions? Similarly, it could be argued that the psychological characteristics necessary to be an effective lineman in American football might differ from that of the backfield player. This line of research has been studied relative to leadership and to racial issues, but has not been studied extensively relative to psychological variables (Chelladurai & Carron, 1977; Fabianic, 1984; Grusky, 1963; Loy & McElvogue, 1970; Loy & Sage, 1970).

A review of the related literature reveals that four studies have specifically addressed the relationship between playing position and psychological characteristics of the athlete. Utilizing the Profile of Mood States (POMS), and LeUnes (1985) reported that defensive backs (safeties & cornerbacks) in American football exhibited the most favorable profile of mood states when compared with other offensive and defensive positions. Conversely linebackers exhibited the least favorable profile when compared with other positions. Schurr, Ruble, Nisbet, and Wallace (1984) studied the relationship beseen playing position in American football and personality The personality instrument utilized was the Meyen-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI). The MBTI yields four dichotomous scores that are indicative of dimensions of personality. Results of the investigation revealed that successful linemen (first & second string) tended to be realistic, logical, and analytical as a group. Successful linemen were more organized, predictable, and practical than successful backfield players. Successful defensive backs were reported to be decidedly more introverted than other categories of successful players, whereas successful defensive linemen were decidedly more extroverted. In a pooled sample of 199 team sport athletes, Kirkcaldy (1982) utilized the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ) to ascertain the personality traits of offensive, defensive, and mid-field players. The results of the investigation revealed that male offensive players tend to be more tough-minded, aggressive, and extroverted than field players. Finally, Cox (1987) reported that setters in volleyball exhibited the ability to widen their internal attentional focus to a greater degree than middle blockers and strong side hitters.

The results of these four investigations provide tentative support for the hypothesis that a relationship exists between psychological characteristics of the athlete and player position. The strength and nature of the relationship, however, remains unclear. Two of the reported investigations dealt with personality characteristics of athletes (Kirkcaldy, 1982; Schurr et al., 1984) while the other two focused upon mood state (Nation & LeUnes, 1983) and attentional focus variables (Cox, 1987). At least three different team sports were involved and four very different instruments were used to measure psychological variables.

Of the four studies cited, none of them addressed the important issue of psychological or mental skills associated with sports performance. Athletes possess both physical and psychological skills that make it possible for them to succeed in athletic contests and carry out demands of specific positions in team sports. While personality traits are believed to be relatively permanent and mood states are transitory (Spielberger, 1971), psychological skills are believed to be susceptible to improvement (Boutcher & Rotella, 1987). Psychological skills allow the athlete to approach a competitive situation with confidence and knowledge that the body and mind are prepared for optimal performance (Cox, 1994).

In response to the need to measure psychological skill, Mahoney, Gabriel, and Perkins (1987) developed an instrument for directly assessing an athlete’s mental and psychological skill associated with sports performance. The Psychological Skills Inventory for Sports (PSIS R-5) assesses psychological skill characteristics relevant to exceptional athletic performance. Utilizing a national sample of 713 male and female athletes from 23 sports, Mahoney et al. (1987) subjected the original 51 item true/false instrument to factor, discriminant and regression analysis procedures. They also demonstrated the instrument’s ability to discriminate among athletic groups differing in skill level (predictive validity). The original PSIS was later modified to 45 items with a five-point Likert scale format (PSIS R-5). More recently, Mahoney (1989) and Ostrow (1990) reported the internal consistency of the PSIS R-5 to be moderately respectable (Spearman-Brown coefficient = .72; Guttman coefficient = .70). The six subscales measured by the original and revised PSIS include (a) anxiety control, (b) concentration, (c) confidence, (d) mental preparation, (e) motivation, and (f) team emphasis.

Murphy and his colleagues (Lesser & Murphy, 1988; Greenspan, Murphy, Tammen, & Jowdy, 1989) demonstrated the ability of the PSIS R-5 to discriminate among world class, national team, junior elite, and control athletes. White (1992) differentiated between collegiate male and female skiers on the team emphasis subscale. Cox and Davis (1992) reported that elite wheelchair athletes score on the average higher than a sample of able-bodied collegiate athletes. Finally, Cox and Liu (1993) reported that a sample of Chinese collegiate athletes display higher psychological skill scores than their American counterparts in confidence, motivation, and total psychological skill.

While the original 51 item PSIS was subjected to a factor analysis for purposes of establishing independence of subscales, the 45 item PSIS R-5 was only recently subjected to such psychometric testing (Chartrand, Jowdy, & Danish, 1992; Tammen, Murphy, & Jowdy, 1990). In the Chartrand et al. (1992) investigation, the PSIS R-5 was subjected to a confirmatory factor analysis designed to test the six factor model of the test. The sample consisted of 340 intercollegiate athletes from nine universities in the eastern United States. The results of the factor analysis revealed that several problems with the PSIS R-5 exist. The most serious problem involved the poorly defined nature of the Mental Preparation subscale. The authors recommended that this scale be dropped from the PSIS R-5. Not withstanding the limitations of the PSIS R-5, it was utilized in the current study to provide a comparison of psychological and mental characteristics among a sample of American football players categorized by playing position.

The purpose of this investigation was to study the relationship between selected psychological skills and playing position of American football players. To accomplish this purpose, the PSIS, as developed by Mahoney et al. (1987), was administered to a sample of collegiate level American football players.



The subjects for this research were 43 members of a large Division I Midwest collegiate American football team. The average age of the athletes who volunteered to participate in the study was 20.65 years with a standard deviation of 1.28 years. Informed consent was obtained from the subjects and confidentiality ensured.


Psychological skills of the football players were assessed using the Psychological Skills Inventory for Sports (PSIS R-5) as developed by Mahoney et al. (1987). The PSIS assesses an athlete’s psychological skill in the categories of anxiety control (AX), concentration (CC), confidence (CF), mental preparation (MP), motivation (MV), and emphasis upon team goals (TM). The PSIS R-5 is composed of 45 Likert type items designed to assess psychological skill in the six different psychological skill categories identified. In each case, a high score was considered to reflect a positive or desirable psychological skill.


Cooperation of coaches and consent of athletes who volunteered to participate were obtained prior to the administration of the inventory. In all cases, the athletes were assured that participation was voluntary and that results were confidential and would be used for purposes of research only. Athletes were instructed by the test administrator to be completely honest in order to render the results as accurate and valid as possible. The PSIS R-5 was administered to the athletes in a team group setting.

For purposes of the study, the athletes were categorized according to team (offense or defense), and by position (lineman or backfield). Consequently, the athletes were categorized into one of four groups. The categories and number of subjects per category were as follows: (a) offensive linemen – 14, (b) offensive backfield – 11, (c) defensive linemen – 8, and (d) defensive backfield -10. In this investigation, linebackers were categorized as defensive backs and wide receivers as offensive backs. Division into smaller more homogeneous subgroups was avoided due to the relatively small sample size.

Psychological skills testing took place in the spring of the year and prior to the beginning of spring practice.

Analysis of Data

Data were analyzed using multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) general linear models (GLM) procedures (Statistical Analysis Systems, 1985), with follow-up univariate analyses (ANOVA) to clarify the source and nature of significant relationships. When necessary, post-hoc comparisons were made using the Least Significant Difference (LSD) procedure as outlined by Kepple (1982). The general linear models procedure is used for unbalanced designs in which the number of subjects in each cell are unequal. As part of the GLM procedure, least-squares means are calculated. Least-squares means are estimators of the actual means that would be expected had the design been balanced. For the MANOVA, team (offense/defense) and position (line/backfield) served as the two independent variables, while the six categories of psychological skill served as the multivariate dependent variable. An Alpha level of .05 was adopted for all tests of significance.


A team by position (2 x 2) multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) resulted in a significant F-approximation main effect for position, F(6,34) = 3.02, p [less than] .05; and for the interaction between team and position, F(6,34) = 3.08, p [less than] .05. Displayed in Table 1 are actual means and standard deviations for categories of team and position.

Follow-up univariate variance analyses (ANOVA) were carried out separately for each psychological skill variable. Tests of significance were made using Type III sums of squares appropriate for unbalanced designs. The results of these analyses are illustrated in Table 2. Results of univariate analyses for each psychological skill will now be discussed and presented in detail.

A team by position (2 x 2) univariate analysis of variance (ANOVA) on the anxiety control variable resulted in significant main effects for team, F(1,39) = 6.05, p [less than] .05; and position, F(1,39) = 11.33, p [less than] .01. The marginal least-squares mean for offense was 25.04, while for defense it was 21.82. The marginal least-squares mean for linemen was 21.23, while for backfield players it was 25.63. Similarly, a team by position (2 x 2) univariate analysis of variance (ANOVA) on the concentration variable resulted in a significant main effect for position, F(1,39) = 4.61, p [less than] .05. The marginal least-squares mean for linemen was 14.13, while for backfield players it was 16.26. A team by position (2 x 2) univariate analysis of variance (ANOVA) on the confidence variable resulted also in a significant main effect for position, F(1,39) = 11.95, p [less than] .01. The marginal least-squares mean for linemen was 23.83, while for backfield players it was 29.00. Significant main effects, or their interactions, were not observed for the psychological skill variables of mental preparation or team emphasis. Finally, a team by position (2 x 2) univariate analysis of variance (ANOVA) on the motivational in a significant interaction effect between team and position, F(1,39) = 5.60, p [less than] .05. Post-hoc comparisons (LSD) of cell means revealed that a significant difference exists between offensive linemen and offensive backs on the motivation variable. The cell mean for offensive linemen was 15.71, while for offensive backs it was 19.90.

Table 1

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