Virtue Interventions in Adolescent Athletes: Context and Framing Effects

Project Leaders: Dr. Sarah SchnitkerDr. Benjamin Houltberg
Thrive Center Staff: Kristen Capodanno
Doctoral Student Researchers: Amber Blews, Luke Davidiuk, TJ Felke, Nathaniel Fernandez, Nanyamka Redmond, Abigail Shepherd
Project Dates: January 2, 2015 – December 31, 2017
Funded By:The John Templeton Foundation at $780,159

Fuller Theological Seminary’s Thrive Center for Human Development has received a three-year, $780,159 research grant from the Templeton Foundation to examine the best ways to develop character strengths and virtues in adolescents. The study—the first of its kind to be focused on youth—is led by Dr. Sarah Schnitker, Assistant Professor of Psychology, in collaboration with Dr. Benjamin Houltberg, Assistant Professor of Human Development, from 2015 to 2017.

The grant, titled Virtue Interventions in Adolescent Athletes: Context and Framing Effects, will allow Schnitker and Houltberg’s research team to conduct an experimental study with adolescents in the greater Pasadena area, as well as with those who are training for Team World Vision’s half-marathon, to develop a youth-focused smartphone application to promote character development, and to propose additional studies that will bring together scholars and youth professionals. Schnitker stated that the study will examine “whether extracurricular activities increase important character virtues such as patience and self-control. Does being a part of these activities impact teens’ lives in positive ways? Do the ways in which they look at these activities make a difference in how these activities impact their lives?”

Schnitker and Houltberg’s team will scientifically test the types of contexts that can promote or hinder character strength development as well as the most impactful ways to frame character and virtue development activities when presenting them to adolescents. The phone app—currently in use during the 2015/16 research phase—will play an important role in collecting this research data by helping adolescents improve patience and self-control in their daily lives, which the researchers hope “will be helpful for teenagers and will also encourage others to develop cool technology to help teens live happier and healthier lives.” By the end of the grant, the research team aims to have an increased understanding of what tools and interventions successfully promote character virtues in youth (particularly those in sports), to engage other researchers in exploring important questions about sports, to create additional useful technology that can improve the lives of youth, and to better understand the role of spirituality and religion in positive youth development.

“It is often taken for granted that it is important to get youth involved in after-school activities and that sports, in particular, is an important context for character development,” Houltberg says. “However, the jury is still out on whether involvement in activities alone is related to positive youth development. This study will shed light on what is working in these programs and examine the impact of being intentional about shaping sporting experiences in moral and spiritual ways.”

The 12 graduate students working on this project have carried out the data collection for the first phase of the two studies funded by this grant. For the Team World Vision study, we completed 24 qualitative interviews of Chicago and Los Angeles participants and collected final questionnaire data from Chicago and Long Beach marathon participants (N = 297). Participants running the LA marathon (N = 100) completed the initial survey in fall 2015 and ran the marathon February 14, 2016. Data collection was finished in April 2016.

Regarding the phone app intervention, the pilot study testing of framings and measures took place over the 2015–2016 high school academic year (N = 180 adolescents). We created videos for enhancing our framings and tested whether the framings were effective in an additional pilot. Time 1–3 data collection for the full study ran from mid-February 2016 through June 2016 (N = 265), and we are scheduled to collect more data this fall. Time 4 data for the first round and Time 1–2 data for the second round will be collected by December 2016. The follow-up questionnaires will be sent out 2 and 6 months post Time 2 data.

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CharacterMe is a mobile app developed by the Thrive Center that combines technology and cognitive behavorial therapy to help teenagers practice emotional regulation while also delivering real-time data to researchers.

Our app, CharacterMe, has been available to be downloaded for IOS and Android to student participants using an enrollment code for the research phase. The public launch of the Smartphone app is delayed as we need to make adjustments and fix bugs based on our beta testing and feedback from study participants.

In addition, the app developer, Matt Lumpkin, along with Drs. Schnitker and Houltberg have been seeking funding needed for him to make the improvements to the app for the public launch.

Drs. Schnitker and Houltberg presented the findings of these studies at five academic conferences over the 2015–2016 academic year. Moreover, this work has already appeared in scholarly publications: “Charitable sporting events as a context for building adolescent generosity: Examining the role of religiousness and spirituality,” by Fernandez, Schnitker, and Houltberg, was published in Religions, vol. 7 (2016), 35–48. The article “Efficacy of self-control and patience interventions in adolescents,” by Schnitker et al., in Applied Developmental Science, was published online in May 2016.

The large, diverse worldwide readership of Fuller magazine learned about this research project through an engaging article by Drs. Schnitker and Houltberg: “Building virtues in youth: A developmental take on spiritual formation” in Fuller magazine, issue 5 (Winter 2016), which is available online on fullerstudio.com and on the Thrive Center website. Ben Houltberg’s article “Moving from performance to purpose in youth sports” appears in the Fall 2016, issue 7, of Fuller magazine, as well as online on fullerstudio.com and the Thrive Center website.

Thrive faculty and students have also brought this research to lay audiences of athletes, coaches, and parents through various community talks. This research team is building connections that include Hope Sports, Fuller Youth Institute, US National Junior Swimming, Nashville Coaching Coalitions, IMG Academy, local high schools, elite sport clubs, and several university sport programs.

These connections are producing an unanticipated result: considerable impact on the elite athletic community, especially through Dr. Houltberg’s presentations to Olympians, professional athletes, and elite-level coaches. Though unanticipated, this impact may be highly strategic for us to change the zeitgeist of elite athletics, which can trickle down to produce a broad, long-term impact in the culture of youth and college-level sports.