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Virtue Interventions in Adolescent Athletes: Imbuing Activities With Positive Meaning

Project Leader: Dr. Sarah Schnitker
Doctoral Student Researchers: TJ Felke, Amber Blews, Nathaniel Fernandez, Nanyamka Redmond, Abbie Sheppard, Luke Davidiuk
Project Dates: February 1, 2013 – March 31, 2014
Project Amount:$140,951
Funded by:The John Templeton Foundation

The purpose of this study is to begin to examine the effect of character building interventions on adolescents participating in high school athletic programs.  Athletic programs are popularly touted as primary conduits of character strength development in adolescents, but empirical research has yielded mixed results as to the efficacy of sports participation to instill virtue (Dierdorff, Surface, & Brown, 2010).  This study begin with pilot testing in order to see which interventions have a significant effect on character development amongst high school athletes, in order to be able to know how to proceed in future studies looking more broadly at the effect of sports participation on virtue development.

Why athletics? Adolescents spend more free time in athletic activities than any other type of extracurricular activity (Larson & Seepersad, 2003), and over 57% of high school students play on a school or community athletic team (Grunbaum et al., 2004). The Search Institute reports that participation in sports, athletics, or other physical activities is the most commonly endorsed “sparks” or driving passion for adolescent males and is the second most endorsed for females. By recruiting athletes from sports teams as well as recruiting adolescents involved in other youth activities (e.g., drama, band), we can explore how character interventions in the context of athletic participation compared to other activities can maximize the development of virtue.

Why meaning?  People report higher commitment, effort, and meaning for goals that they imbue with spiritual meaning (Mahoney & Pargament, 2005), and sacred strivings have been associated with greater goal achievement (e.g. higher rates of alcohol abstention for people in AA; Hart, 2007). This study aims to contribute to the literature by (1) using an experimental design (rather than correlational) to test if imbuing activities with moral or spiritual meaning promotes achievement and virtue development, and (2) comparing effects of imbuing activities with moral vs. spiritual meaning.

Why “positive” meaning?  Virtue ethics theory contends that the mechanisms amplifying moral virtues are distinct from those diminishing vices (Leffel, 2008), and positive psychologists claim that interventions building strengths have beneficial effects on well-being beyond traditional approaches that repair deficits (e.g., Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Research from the motivation literature shows that people are more successful in the pursuit of approach vs. avoidance goals (Elliott & Friedman, 2007), and the pursuit of avoidance goals tends to have negative correlations with subjective well-being and physical health (Elliott, 2008; Emmons, 1999). However, studies on character strength interventions have yet to directly compare the effects activities framed as building strengths versus fixing vices. This study will allow us to experimentally test the efficacy of a character development interventions framed either as building strengths or, conversely,  fixing weakness.

a.) We hypothesize that participation by adolescents in all of the exercises will be shown to predict higher levels of self-control and patience, in line with findings in adults.

b.) We hypothesize that the group of athletes that is undertaking these exercises will show increased athletic performance as compared to a control group of athletes.

c.) The study includes a group of non-athlete adolescents, and we hypothesize that there will be some interaction effect of group (athlete vs. non-athlete) by intervention status (experimental vs. control group) on the development of self-control and patience.

d.) The study will frame the interventions in a number of different ways (e.g., building strengths vs. fixing weaknesses; instrumental vs. moral vs. spiritual).
d1 – We hypothesize that framing these activities as moral (i.e., they will help the adolescent become more virtuous) will promote higher levels of self-control and patience than when they are framed as instrumental (i.e., they will help the adolescent achieve more athletic success).  Additionally, we hypothesize that framing these activities spiritually (i.e., they will help the adolescent develop spiritually and realize their purpose in life) will promote higher levels of self-control and patience than either framing them morally or instrumentally.
d2 – We hypothesize that framing these exercises as increasing virtue (“approaching” virtuous behaviors) within the adolescent will promote more self-control and patience than framing these exercises as decreasing vice (“avoiding” vicious behaviors).  We also hypothesize that the “approach” or “avoidance” framing will moderate the effect of the spiritual framing on the development of self-control and patience.

e.) We hypothesize that an adolescent’s God-concept and mindset will interact with the framing conditions.

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