Alan Smith

Alan Smith

Alan Smith

Alan Smith is a professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University, where he studies the link between youth sport involvement and their psychosocial functioning. He is best known for his work in peer relationships and in understanding their motivating effect in youth, currently working to develop strategies of dealing with ADHD through sport. He is very established in the field, most notably serving as past president of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity.

Peer relations

Al was a favourite speaker immediately. His amicable style and easy flow got our attention right from the start, and kept it so. He began his lecture on the importance of perception.

Perception of acceptance — in youth sport particularly — is much more adaptive than actual acceptance. Alan drew on the example of ADHD children, who act the way they do partially because they perceive their acceptance by peers to be much higher than it actually is. He then moved to perception of performance: children believe a good performance to be based on effort until the age of eight or so, after which they start to see it as measured by ability. However, in some children this maturation might not occur completely until they are closer to 12 years of age (again, an Eriksonian milestone as with Jean Côté’s early “specialization v. diversification” model).

Next, Alan surprised us by showing that peer acceptance is an even more important predictor of performance than friendship. This has immediate practical applications for teachers and coaches via Ullrich-French and Smith’s Buffering Hypothesis: having at least two good relationships in a group is enough to buffer against any negative relationships and so still keep motivation (and therefore performance) high — this even when all remaining relationships in the class/team are negative. Alan then highlighted the importance of not treating a sport environment as just another educational environment, if only because of the peer perceptions present and their effect on performance. In the classroom, for example, helping a friend complete a task is not only accepted but encouraged. In the gym on the other hand, helping a peer rarely goes beyond verbal encouragement; offering physical aid is generally seen as a sign of weakness by the group and so tends to be universally avoided.

Al just before our consultation sessions at the University of Leipzig

Lastly, Alan reminded us that task and ego orientation are unrelated constructs, contrary to what many had once thought. In other words, “orientation” is not a single scale with “task” and “ego” on either extreme, but a person can score high or low on both measures.

Alan closed his lecture off with some great thesis advice: “Mentally prepare for what all your expected outcomes, ideal and failed, and be prepared to explain them. Ask yourself if you’ll need to measure anything else for these explanations, and be sure to gather this data as you are gathering the rest of the data which you think will explain any discovered effects. It’s a pity to scrap some research only because the end result cannot be explained by any of the acquired data!”

Watching the game with Al in Leipzig

Q & A:

  1. What is one career-related regret you have? Focusing on work to the extent of sometimes putting personal relationships on the side.
  2. One satisfaction? Focusing on work so well, and being of service to the profession (editing journals, administrative roles in organizations). The latter helped with forming a rich professional network and continues providing great opportunities.
  3. A book you’d recommend? The Mismeasure of Man & Advances in Motivation in Sport and Exercise.
  4. What is your favourite technique when working with an athlete? Precompetition planning. Many athletes “just go to the competition” without planning anything — they should have mental cues and Plan Bs ready. What are you going to do if things don’t go as planned? Consider this ahead of time. A post-competition evaluation form is a handy tool to complete after your event. The bottom line: it is of utmost importance to be very cognitive and reflective of your performance instead of just “letting it happen”. The idea behind this is to get yourself to a point where you can trust your performance.

More of our Leipzig lecturers: Schneider, Côté, Watt, Hagger, Van Raalte (1, 2), Hanrahan (1, 2), Weinberg, Dawson, Wright.

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