College coaches who emphasize their players’ academic abilities may be the best defense against the effects of “dumb jock” stereotypes, a Michigan State University study suggests.
Researchers found that student-athletes were significantly more likely to be confident in the classroom if they believed their coaches expected high academic performance, not just good enough grades to be eligible for sports.
“Coaches spend a lot of time with their players, and they can play such an important role to build academic confidence in student-athletes,” said lead author Deborah Feltz, University Distinguished Professor of kinesiology at MSU.
Published in the Journal of College Student Development, the study focused on the concept of “stereotype threat.” The theory holds that stereotypes are self-fulfilling prophecies: They create anxiety in the stereotyped group, causing them to behave in the expected way.
Feltz and her graduate students wanted to see what factors influence student-athletes’ susceptibility to the “dumb jock” stereotype.
“It’s well-documented in the literature that many student-athletes hear prejudicial remarks from professors who say things like, ‘This test is easy enough that even an athlete could pass it,’” Feltz said. “They’re kind of the last group of students who can be openly discriminated against.”
The researchers surveyed more than 300 student-athletes representing men’s and women’s teams from small and large universities and a range of sports, from basketball and football to cross-country and rowing.
They found the more strongly student-athletes identified themselves as athletes, the less confident they were with their academic skills, and the more keenly they felt that others expected them to do poorly in school. Players in high-profile sports were more likely to feel they were weak students.
Feltz said the data suggest that coaches who put a premium on education may be in the best position to boost their players’ confidence in the classroom, but professors, academic advisers and classmates also have a part to play.
“They don’t have to do much,” she said. “It may be enough to just remind players they are college students, which is a big deal, you know? A lot of these students are the first in their family to go to college.”
Social scientists know that in research studies, minority and female students appear to be vulnerable to the phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” Aware that the group to which they belong is often stereotyped as intellectually inferior, their anxiety that a poor showing on a test will confirm the stereotype actually depresses their performance on the test, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now, new research suggests that stereotype threat is experienced by student-athletes, too. Conscious that they may be regarded by professors or other students as “dumb jocks,” they do less well on a challenging test when they’re reminded of their student-athlete identity beforehand.
The study, published in a recent issue of the journal Economic Inquiry, was conducted by Prof. Thomas Dee of the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Professor Dee gave a group of undergraduates — some athletes and some not — a test made up of questions from the Graduate Record Examination (G.R.E.), the admissions test for graduate school. Just before tackling the questions from the G.R.E., the students completed a questionnaire that asked whether they belonged to a sports team, what sport they played and whether they had experienced scheduling conflicts between athletics and academic activities like course meetings and laboratory sessions. (A control group received no questions about athletics, instead answering questions about the dining services on campus.)
Student-athletes who were reminded of their identity as members of a sports team did significantly worse on the test than student-athletes who were not so reminded, and the effect was stronger for male students than for female students.
Psychologists theorize that stereotype threat affects individuals’ performance in three ways. First, the physiological stress they feel at the prospect of being unfavorably evaluated impairs the operation of the prefrontal regions of the brain, the areas responsible for complex thinking. Second, in an effort to ensure that they triumph over the stereotype, people monitor their own performance closely — How am I doing? Am I smart enough for this? Do I belong in college at all? This monitoring, while intended to aid their performance, actually uses up mental resources that would otherwise be applied to the test. And third, individuals under stereotype threat try hard not to think about their performance worries, pushing away negative thoughts and feelings — another well-intentioned move that costs them mental resources needed for the test itself.
Professor Dee points out that research has identified several ways that stereotype threat can be defanged. Parents, professors, and coaches can explain to young people how stereotype threat works; simply being aware of the phenomenon can help reduce its effects. They can encourage students to adopt a “growth mind-set”: the belief that ability is not fixed, but can expand through effort and practice. They can suggest “external attributions” for academic struggles, as an alternative to the internal attributions students may make that place the blame on themselves — saying, perhaps: “All college students have to juggle lots of activities, but you face a special challenge because of the time demands of your team.” And they can offer feedback that conveys high expectations, along with a conviction that the student can meet them: “It’s a tall order being both a student and an athlete, but I expect you to excel at both, and I know that you can.”
Read more of the latest research on how students learn, like How to Give Good Feedback and How to Eliminate Test Anxiety on Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Blog. Ms. Paul is the author of “Origins,” a book about the science of prenatal influences, and “Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter,” to be published by Crown next year.