Narcissism, pressure and performance

Athletes at the Olympics will be required to attain the highest levels of performance whilst under considerable levels of pressure. 

While some athletes seem to thrive under pressure, others seem vulnerable to choking. For the past few years, researchers at Bangor University’s Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance have been examining how individual differences in personality might predict how well athletes perform under pressure.

One type of personality that has drawn our research interests is that of the narcissist. Research indicates that narcissists think of themselves as excellent performers and tend to perform very well under the pressure of competition, but perform poorly when the pressure is not on, such as in training. 

In contrasts, non-narcissistic individuals may be more susceptible to choking under pressure. Initial research extended the findings of previous research, which has shown improved performances for narcissists under pressure, by examining why this may be the case.

Results indicate that increased effort in pressure situations is responsible for narcissists’ improved performance. Subsequent studies have also examined how coach behaviours can motivate narcissists, particularly in situations such as training, which might be perceived as unchallenging but are vital for optimal performance. 

The research indicates that coach behaviours that emphasise team goals and behaviours, and thus limit the potential for narcissists to gain personal glory, have less of a motivational impact upon narcissists’ performance. In fact, narcissists seem to work harder when coaches promote interpersonal competition and rivalry, although such behaviours can have the opposite effect on low narcissistic athletes. In addition, research has also examined how the use of psychological skills such as self-talk and relaxation can help individuals who are not narcissistic perform better under pressure. 

Another key finding from this research is that low narcissists who have strong emotional control tend to perform better under pressure. Given that athletes at the Olympics will have to perform under intense pressure, understanding how (and why) different personalities perform under pressure is paramount.

Considering individual differences allows coaches and sport psychology practitioners to tailor their interventions to meet the specific needs of athletes. As a result such interventions are likely to be more effective and should increase the likelihood of successful performances.