Rasmussen, R , Esgate, A and Turner (2005) ‘On your marks, get stereotyped, go!”, in Journal of Sport and Social Issues, vol. 29 (4): 426 – 436

This article begins with some discussion of the cognitive mechanisms of stereotyping. One aspect is ‘cognitive economy’, which means rapid information processing in order to free up resources. Another is ‘schema theory’, involving a mental framework to categorize objects and individuals, drawing on ‘representations in memory’ (426). These representations are especially important where there is limited information. Schemas may be joined together into whole semantic networks. Well connected networks are more likely to be activated. This approach has been particularly useful in explaining stereotyping.

Stereotypes also draw strength from ‘intuitive statistics, that is, in the way in which individuals make use of evidence and information to arrive at conclusions’ (427). Of particular relevance is the ‘illusory correlation… [where ]… color and athleticism go together in a far more straightforward way than the true evidence would suggest’ (427) [see St Louis's article]. There is also ‘overestimation bias’ where differences between groups are overestimated and those within groups underestimated. This can result in support for a biological explanation of differences, which also suggests that any differences are relatively permanent. Finally, racial stereotypes are often based on generalizations about ‘skin colour, hair type and stature as well as aptitudes, intelligence, and physical ability’ (427).

Racial stereotypes persist in sport because there appears to be some evidence for them in the over representation of black athletes. Thus black males seem to dominate sprinting, but to under achieve in swimming. There are physiological explanations, seemingly, involving different proportions of fat and muscle mass, or a natural buoyancy. Obvious exceptions are overlooked: women should be better at swimming than men if this were true, and ‘endomorphs would be superior to ectomorphs leaving white men as a large nonswimming group’ (428). Biological explanations are also unevenly applied to black people: they are not used ‘to explain why the Swiss are such good skiers’ (428).

Stereotypes may be self fulfilling, encouraging black people to choose sporting careers [there are some interesting references to this effect PP 428 and 429]. But they can also affect actual practice as in stacking, where ‘a coach assigns athletes to certain playing positions in team sports based on their supposed racial attributes such as speed and power’ (429). Studies confirming this in the UK are mentioned on Page 429.

This study sets out to evaluate novice coaches use of stereotyping. It involves commenting on pictures of black and white individuals posing as sprinters. Photographs in particular are useful because they ‘evokes thoughts, reactions and feelings’ (429). Comments will evoke schema knowledge, because other knowledge is not available. The technique has been pioneered in an earlier study (429). It was hypothesized that novice coaches would attribute the success of white individuals to hard work and socioeconomic factors, and that of black people to genetic factors. Eight stereotype statements were provided, four for white people and four for black, and participants were invited to allocate them to the photographed individuals to explain their success. It is assumed that this will transfer to the real world with coaching [but this assumes that in the real world photographs alone will be used?].

38 students were recruited, all of them on coaching courses. They were mostly white, and slightly more likely to be male. In formal terms, the two variables were colour of athlete and statement. Participants were assigned a survey score. The photographs chosen were of black and white male and female characters, actually none of them sprinters or athletes. The statements to be applied were biological (‘relaxation and movement economy, natural speed and quickness, longer limbs and natural large muscle mass’), and cultural (‘knowledge and intelligent use of training methods, access to better facilities, hard work and dedication, and access to better coaching’). Each of these could be applied to individuals on a 7 point scale. Order of presentation was randomized. If a black stereotypical item was applied to a black photograph, this was called a ‘black consistent trial’, and there were clearly black and white inconsistent trials as well.

Responses were recorded on a seven point scale, and then Scores were added up for each picture. Scores could therefore range from 4 to 56 for each trial. Each participant’s responses were then aggregated and they were assigned to types such as black and white consistent or inconsistent. The results are shown in a table On Page 432. Basically, scores reveal a greater extent of consistency than inconsistency, and the differences were significant. [However, differences do not seem to be that large overall]. Oddly, although there is a significant interaction between colour and type of item, there is no evidence of an effect of colour [so a general correlation, but not a clear causal?].

Thus stereotyping appears present even with coaches, and biological and natural factors seem to be invoked in explaining the success of black athletes. It seems that white athletes are equally stereotyped, though: novice coaches seem to be stereotyping themselves! Further, these stereotypes seem to be more consistent. [My own view is that this also reflects the well known tendency of students specifically to a tribute to their success in getting to college as a result of their own hard work and family support] Earlier work is confirmed, although there are some minor details of difference which may be methodological: other studies used Hispanic as a third type, and chose basketball as a sport. In the UK as well, elite runners are often associated with public schools and social advantage.

There are implications for teaching novice coaches. There is an assumption that their stereotyping will have an actual effect in the real world, especially when dealing with activity which is not their main sport.

There are some methodological problems: a small sample, a single athlete within each photograph. There may also be social and cultural sources of information. It would be interesting to see if training coaches changed their levels of stereotyping, and if coaches were particularly prone to stereotyping. The schema knowledge approach is at least optimistic in predicting that extra information will change stereotyping.

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