The Interactional Approach in Sport Psychology

Updated on November 16, 2016
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Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. A keen cyclist, runner, and obstacle racer, he ran his first ultra-marathon in 2016.

Assessing Co-Determinants of Behavior in Sport

Over the years, sports psychologists have proposed many approaches to personality. Initial approaches were often very simplistic, focussing on aspects of either personality traits or states.

The Interactional Approach to psychology allows for a degree of interaction between states and traits. This approach seeks to to understand how behavior is influenced by both personality and social learning in the environment.

Situation and Environment as One

Sporting performance can be affected by the environment: a hot sunny day has a different effect than a cold one.
Sporting performance can be affected by the environment: a hot sunny day has a different effect than a cold one. | Source

Understanding Psychological Traits and Situational States

The Trait Approach Within Psychology analyzes personality based on the assumption that a subject shows a stable set of traits which are consistent across a series of situations and interactions.

Using the trait approach, a psychologist has to assume that the general causes of behavior are independent of sporting environment or situations.

The downside of such an approach is that it assumes an athlete will act in a particular way, irrespective of the sporting situation. The unfortunate truth is that an athlete will not respond in exactly the same way on every occasion and the best sports-people are often those who are best able to react perceptively to their circumstances.

On the other hand, the Situational Approach to Personality showcases behavior based specifically on a particular situation or environmental constraint. Psychologists look at an individual's observational learning and the learning aspects of social reinforcement seen as a result.

An extreme example is the case of a man who can be confident around women in the workplace. However when he enters a city centre bar his confidence may drain away based on previous situational experience and he becomes incapable of conversation with members of the opposite gender.

What Is the Interactional Approach?

When a sports psychologist uses an interactional approach, they have to consider both situational determinants and personality traits exhibited by the individual.

The interactional approach considers both psychological traits and situational influences on behavior. The two aspects mix and can alter behavior. Your psychological traits and environmental influences interact and combine in unique ways to sculpt your behavior.

As an example, a soccer play may have a 'short fuse' which often leads to rash and potentially hostile actions. Yet the soccer player will not show that behavior consistently. Only when he is forced to react to psychological behavior triggers does the player become aggressive and snap in a violent manner.

Typical Questions of the Interactional Approach

Typical questions sports psychologists ask when they're using an interactional approach include:

  • Who performs better within a team: introverts or extroverts?
  • Can a person with high levels of personal motivation adhere to a long term sports training program better than someone with lower levels of motivation?
  • Are individuals with heightened self confidence more predisposed to competitive situations?

Sports Specific Examples: Basketball

By investigating how athletes react to certain situations, it is possible to put into place interventions and strategies to address the behavior.

A sports psychologist therefore needs to assess behaviors at different stages within sporting performance and preparation.

Consider the following situations during a basketball game:

  • Your opponents call a time out while in possession with 15 seconds left as they trail your team 67-68 points and the next basket effectively seals the play-off game.
  • You're publicly criticised by your team coach.
  • It's time for the tip off and you're standing in the centre circle.

Consider how you would react in each of these situations. Some athletes might react by rising to the challenges, whilst others may 'choke.'

A Case Study on the Interactional Approach

Two women who are close friends start taking a circuit training class once a week as part of their quest to lose weight and get themselves fitter. The instructor encourages each person within the class to take the lead by explaining at least one of the stations.

Lisa has very high self confidence and is extremely comfortable talking in social circumstances, whereas her close friend Rachel has very low self confidence and is very uncomfortable presenting in front of a group.

As a result Rachel loses interest in attending the class regularly.

The interactional approach considers both psychological traits and situational influences on behavior. You can see in the examples above how this plays out in examining and addressing behavior in athletes.

Questions & Answers


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        Btecsportlover 6 weeks ago

        Thanks* man love this.this will help

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        Saarah 5 months ago

        This helped me get a distinction in my BTEC Sport assignment THANKS MUCH LOVE!!!

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        bridie (pimp) 5 months ago

        billy from 11 months ago if you do not have anything nice to say don't say anything at all, whoever wrote this you follow your dreams. THINK BIG! have a growth mind-set and enjoy time with your cohort.

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        dannyboi 5 months ago

        this info helped me pass my exam thank you

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        chubba chup 7 months ago


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        big boy 11 months ago

        very good

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        Liam Hallam 14 months ago from Nottingham UK

        Thanks Billy, what were you looking for as this information is what will show in a number of different textbooks related to the approach. I hope you found what you were looking for

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        billy 17 months ago

        not helpful at all.

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        Liam Hallam 3 years ago from Nottingham UK

        Cheers Rio, I hope it's helped you in your studies

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        rio burke 3 years ago

        these thing are really interesting that u all very much, much love

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        Willam Lane 4 years ago


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        Liam Hallam 5 years ago from Nottingham UK

        Thanks Carol for your feedbck. Sports psychology is becoming much more prominent in even amateur sports. Liam

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        carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

        Interesting and things I have never thought of. You presented this well and full of good information.