READING GUIDE TO: Li, W., Lee, A. and Solmon, M.  (2006) Gender Differences in Beliefs About the Influence of Ability and Effort in Sport and Physical Activity, in Sex Roles,  54(1/2): 147—156

This study looks at gender differences in beliefs about the relations between natural ability, skill and effort in various physical activities (16 in all).  153 college students were given two questionnaires.  The results were quite complex.  For example men rated natural ability as influential in success in physical activity, but they varied in their ratings if the activities were gender linked.  Overall, all the students agreed that natural ability had more of a role in elite sport and recreational sport.  Coaching implications follow.  [This study is a real puzzle for those not familiar with the psychological literature.  I also gave up on some of the more complex statistics.  One problem is that it is difficult to work out that the word ability is used in two different senses, for example.  I still don’t know if I have it right].

Beliefs are important in motivation, and in sport it is beliefs about the relations between ability effort and performance that count.  Ability can also be split into two types—individual and genetic on the one hand, or influenced by experience and training on the other.  These sorts of beliefs are important for coaches to understand.

In psychology, motivation is usually studied either in terms of attribution theory or achievement goal theory.  Studies show that athletes attribute their success to a number of factors including luck, but the most important ones concern ability and effort: the same seems to apply to academic work.  Some of these factors are seen as stable: ability might be, and this would lead to pessimistic conclusions about the possibility of altering it. 

In general, we need to study dispositions rather than factors operating with concrete achievement contexts, which is what attribution theory tends to study, including conceptions of ability and goal orientations.  [Yes -- what a dull way to study dispositions though!] Beliefs about ability seem to operate in two dimensions, ‘entity’ and ‘incremental’ (in the latter, ability is affected by effort, and this leads to positive motivational patterns; the former is the opposite).  There seem to be two major types of goals too—performance and learning goals.  Performance goals are norm-referenced, comparing the athlete to others in the competition, and new tasks are seen as a way to increase competence.  Performance goals lead to a lack of motivation if perceived levels of ability are low.  Learning goals are more positive, because athletes see it is possible to increase their personal competence.  In actual competition, those with a performance orientation become ego oriented, and ‘believe that high effort means low ability’ (148), while learning oriented athletes think that effort increases their abilities.  This is also connected to an ego oriented state for performers, where success is related to ability alone, and a task oriented stance for learners, where success is related to effort.  [Presumably these links and connections depend on massive efforts to correlate various scales together].

When discussing gender differences, it is suggested that men are more likely to go for stable attributions, while women tend to stress effort.  This seems to be related to expectations.  In activities ‘labelled as male dominated’ men have higher levels of expectations of success, and are likely to see ability as the most important factor (149).  When women are asked to do ‘gender atypical tasks’, they suffer from low confidence and develop low expectations.  There are certain task specific beliefs too [there are lots of studies are cited in this section in support].  It seems that beliefs are the important thing, as well as expectations.  Gender differences arise from socialization not from biology [although there is a weird aside about puberty].  Despite increased participation, there is still some gender typing in sport which has limited the participation of women, and also deepened gendered expectations.

The various weightings of ability and effort in athletes’ beliefs can vary.  For example, one experiment offered athletes negative feedback and studied their reaction: those who held an incremental belief in ability tended to increase their effort.  However, those holding entity beliefs and those holding incremental beliefs both raised their beliefs in the effects of ability overall.  The researchers confess they are puzzled by these results, unless it means that when encountering failure, everyone tends to resort to a belief in ability rather than effort.  Work in academic settings also shows some interesting gender differences.  Intelligent women tend to rate ability over effort.  Other studies show there are little differences in sport—if anything men are more likely to go for effort rather than ability.  These puzzling findings might be explained by an argument that women have learned to be helpless (150).  [We start to see here some fascinating special pleading to weave a way round inconvenient results.  We find the same thing happening with their own results lower down.  The ultimate rationalisation seems to be to insist that it all means that more research is necessary, as you would expect].

Other factors might also influence the beliefs in the relation between ability and effort.  Coaches certainly need to investigate these beliefs in order to encourage effort and engagement.  Certainly, the settings of activities and skills might have varied impacts.

This particular project set out to investigate these relationships, and to test the hypothesis that, in general, men tend to believe in the importance of ability more than do women.  However the team expect that this will vary according to gender related tasks.  They are also interested in beliefs in general about performance, whether people see effort as important, and whether people tend to hold an entity view of ability rather than an incremental one.  [Rather a muddled piece then!  A cynic might suggest that the last two interests only arose because of the failure of the hypothesis in the first place].

Thus 153 students were questioned, 78 were male, 28 were African-American.  Ages ranged from 18 to 30.  All were enrolled on physical activity courses.  Two main instruments were used:

  1. A questionnaire by Dweck examined people’s beliefs about natural ability as compared to effort or practice.  Basically, students were asked to estimate the percentage of each factor as a contribution to final performance in 16 different physical activities.  They were asked to do this separately for elite sport and recreational sport.
  2. A pre-validated questionnaire, the Conceptions of Natural Athletic Ability Questionnaire which investigates the different conceptions of ability.  The questions were rephrased to relate to individuals.  The questionnaire seems to consist of 12 items which produces four initial factors (learning, improvement, stable and gift) and two higher order factors (our old friends incremental and entity conceptions of ability)  (150-51).  Apparently, these higher order factors are measured on various subscales—the learning scale (whether learning and training are important), and an improvement scale (whether people believe they have to work hard to get better).  These both relate to the incremental conception of ability.  The entity notion is measured by a stability subscale (whether the level of ability cannot be changed), and a gift scale (whether ability is the result of a gift).  In each case, respondents were asked to agree or disagree with a statement on a 5 point Likert scale.  The consistency of these scales was tested using the legendary Cronbach coefficient alpha (and the result was high consistency).  Aggregate scores on all the measures were obtained by adding all the responses and dividing by the number of items.

These instruments were administered face to face, with lots of examples and helpful instructions, and in the sequence questionnaire one followed by questionnaire two [important as we shall see below].  The team performed an ANOVA between gender and participation to see if gender affected beliefs about ability and effort.  Participation was seen as the treatment affect.  The dependent variable was the percentage score attributed to natural ability [from questionnaire one].  Generally, there were significant affects between gender and participation levels and the type of activity, although less than 5% of the variance was explained by these factors overall.  There is a general tendency to rate effort/ practice rather than ability as important except in a few cases involving elite football and baseball, and male dominated sports such as football and baseball in general.  Beliefs about the influence of ability depended according to the type of activity in question – male dominance tended to be seen as more influenced by ability.  In general, males attributed more to ability than females. 

Beliefs about male dominated sports were tested separately.  Males tended to attribute ability to successful performance here. Female dominated sports displayed no differences between men and women according to whether they rated ability or effort/practice.  It is possible that men were using their experience, and rating sports with which they were familiar.  [So the implication is that if women are not familiar with sports they tend to produce an indecisive attribution—a kind of don’t no answer].

The team also tested results across the 16 activities using correlations [why?  Were the results from the ANOVA unsatisfactory?] There is a negative relation between ability and incremental conceptions, [presumably showing that the scales are valid]. [I don’t really understand this—a negative relation between entity notions of ability and incremental ones?  Here, and possibly elsewhere, the term ‘ability’ is used as if it just means entity notions?].  There seem to be no significant correlations between those holding different conceptions of ability and the beliefs they then have about the importance of ability and effort [more scale testing?].  The team then develop a profile analysis [a new one on me] (153) to see if there are gender differences between those holding entity and incremental notions of ability, and apparently there were significant gender effects, so that ‘conceptions of ability varied as a function of gender’.  There were no gender differences in terms of a belief in incremental views of ability [pretty puzzling result then?  Gender works with one of these conceptions but not the other, even though they are being treated as opposites]. Overall, though, all the respondents showed a stronger preference for incremental views of ability rather than entity views [not surprising given that the students have had the idea rammed down their throats on their courses?].

Overall then, ‘the data did not provide strong evidence to support’ the specific hypothesis that men are more likely than women to believe that success arises from natural ability (153).  However, there was ‘some evidence’ for the relation between gender and different beliefs [the dodgy stuff in the paragraph above?] Men tended to rate natural ability as more influential, although this did vary according to how gender-typical the sports were.  With gender-typical activities there did tend to be a greater belief in competence and a higher expectation of success [for both genders?].  Males did see ability as more important in their specific activities, but women did not: here it might be a matter of a generally lowered perception of competence among women even in female typical activities (153).  This in turn could arise from limited experience and opportunities for women which will in turn limit their beliefs in competence.

These beliefs might be seen as developing, some research suggests.  Children change their conceptions of ability, for example, and gradually come to differentiate the types.  They also come to see more importance in effort, and in task mastery.  This sort of work needs to be applied to attribution theory, which is not developmental [so they really should have tested athletes at different ages here?  They say this should be done in future research]. 

To reiterate the main findings, males tend to have slightly stronger beliefs in the notion of innate ability, although this varies according to whether they are rating gender linked activities.  [I don’t think they have established that these differences are statistically significant though?  After having performed these clever analyses, it seems you can still deny the results!] All the participants did see an important role for effort.  They did tend to rate ability as more important for elite activities, but overall they rated effort as more important, except in the four cases above.

How much does participation affect this view [and how much does being a student on a physical activity schools affect it?]. If there is an effect, this is support for the policy of sport for all, especially for women.  Beliefs about effort and ability do not seem to be related to whether or not you hold a particular conception of ability [entity vs.increment].  Males are slightly more likely to go for an entity conception.  The genders are similar in terms of their preference for incremental conceptions.  This could be a result of administering the questionnaires in the particular way that they did [wrong result, so special pleading is needed?].  It is possible that taking questionnaire one first affected the answers on questionnaire two [a rehearsal effect?].  [Despite their own research!] the team suspect that there are real differences between the genders after all (155).

Implications for motivating athletes remain.  Coaches should emphasise effort and practice [they would be out of the job if ability really were innate!].  They should challenge gender stereotyping in sports.  They should do more research on the beliefs of athletes as a key variable affecting their motivation.

back to key concepts