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Reversal Theory in Sports

“The true measure of an individual is how they perform under pressure.” – Peter Salovey

Reversal Theory in Sports PHABRIQ

Reversal Theory is a psychological framework that explains how individuals switch between different motivational states, or metamotivational states, which affect their behavior, emotions, and performance. Developed by Michael Apter in the late 1970s, Reversal Theory has been applied in various fields, including sports, to understand how athletes manage stress, motivation, and performance. This article explores the core principles, theoretical foundations, practical applications, and case studies of Reversal Theory in sports, illustrating its significance for athletes, coaches, and sports organizations.

Core Principles of Reversal Theory | Metamotivational States

Telic and Paratelic States: The telic state is a serious, goal-oriented state where individuals are motivated by achieving specific outcomes. The paratelic state is a playful, spontaneous state where individuals are motivated by immediate enjoyment and excitement.

Conformist and Negativistic States: The conformist state is characterized by a desire to follow rules and fit in with social norms. The negativistic state is characterized by a desire to rebel against rules and assert individuality.

Mastery and Sympathy States: The mastery state is focused on power, control, and achievement. The sympathy state is focused on care, compassion, and interpersonal relationships.

Autic and Alloic States: The autic state is self-oriented, with a focus on personal goals and needs. The alloic state is other-oriented, with a focus on the needs and goals of others.


Switching Between States: Reversal Theory posits that individuals switch between these metamotivational states based on various factors, such as changes in the environment, personal experiences, and internal psychological processes. These switches, or reversals, can significantly influence behavior and emotions.

Influence on Performance: The state in which an athlete finds themselves can affect their performance. For instance, being in a telic state may help an athlete focus on achieving long-term goals, while a paratelic state may enhance creativity and enjoyment during training or competition.

Theoretical Foundations | Development of Reversal Theory

Michael Apter’s Contribution: Michael Apter developed Reversal Theory to provide a dynamic view of personality and motivation. Unlike traditional theories that view personality traits as stable, Reversal Theory emphasizes the fluidity and variability of human motivation and behavior.

Conceptual Framework: Reversal Theory’s conceptual framework includes the idea that individuals experience a continuous alternation between opposing states, which influences their perception of experiences, motivation, and behavior.

Applications in Sports Psychology

Understanding Motivation: Reversal Theory offers a nuanced understanding of motivation in sports by recognizing that athletes’ motivational states can change rapidly and significantly impact their performance and well-being.

Managing Stress and Anxiety: By identifying the states in which athletes perform best and understanding how to facilitate reversals, coaches and sports psychologists can help athletes manage stress and anxiety more effectively.

Practical Applications in Sports | Coaching Strategies

Facilitating Reversals: Coaches can learn to recognize the signs of different metamotivational states in their athletes and use strategies to facilitate beneficial reversals. For example, if an athlete is overly serious and stressed (telic state), the coach might introduce playful activities to encourage a shift to the paratelic state.

Balancing States: It’s essential for athletes to find a balance between different states. Coaches can help athletes develop awareness of their states and use techniques to switch between them as needed. For example, balancing telic and paratelic states can help athletes stay focused on their goals while also enjoying the process.

Creating a Supportive Environment: Coaches can create environments that support the desired states. For instance, fostering a supportive and positive team culture can help athletes stay in the sympathy state, enhancing teamwork and mutual support.

Athlete Performance and Well-Being

Enhancing Performance: Understanding an athlete’s dominant metamotivational states can help tailor training and competition strategies. Athletes who thrive in the telic state may benefit from structured, goal-oriented training plans, while those who perform best in the paratelic state might excel with more flexible and varied training.

Managing Stress and Anxiety: Reversal Theory provides tools for managing stress and anxiety by helping athletes recognize when they need to switch states. Techniques such as relaxation exercises, mindfulness, and visualization can facilitate these transitions.

Promoting Enjoyment and Engagement: Ensuring that athletes spend time in the paratelic state can promote enjoyment and engagement in their sport. This can lead to increased motivation, persistence, and overall satisfaction with their athletic experience.

Case Studies and Examples | Michael Jordan

Balancing Telic and Paratelic States: Michael Jordan exemplified the ability to switch between telic and paratelic states. His intense focus and goal orientation (telic state) were evident in his dedication to training and competition. However, he also displayed a playful and spontaneous side (paratelic state) that allowed him to enjoy the game and stay motivated.

Managing Pressure: Jordan’s ability to manage pressure and perform under stress can be attributed to his skill in switching states. By recognizing when to shift from a serious, goal-oriented mindset to a more relaxed and playful one, he maintained high performance levels and resilience.

Example: Youth Sports Programs

Facilitating Enjoyment in Youth Sports: Youth sports programs can benefit from applying Reversal Theory to ensure that young athletes enjoy their sports experience. Coaches can create a fun and engaging environment that encourages the paratelic state, helping young athletes develop a love for the sport.

Balancing Structure and Play: Programs that balance structured training (telic state) with playful activities (paratelic state) can enhance both skill development and enjoyment. This approach can lead to higher retention rates and long-term participation in sports.

Philosophical Debates and Criticisms | Stability vs. Fluidity in Personality

Dynamic View of Personality: Reversal Theory’s emphasis on the fluidity of personality and motivation challenges traditional views that see personality traits as stable. Critics argue that this dynamic view complicates the predictability of behavior.

Implications for Coaching: Understanding that athletes’ motivational states can change rapidly requires coaches to be adaptable and responsive. This dynamic approach can be challenging but offers a more nuanced understanding of athlete behavior and performance.

Practicality and Application

Implementing Reversal Theory: Another criticism involves the practicality of implementing Reversal Theory in real-world settings. Coaches and sports psychologists need to be skilled in recognizing and facilitating reversals, which requires training and experience.

Balancing Complexity and Simplicity: While Reversal Theory provides a comprehensive framework, its complexity can be a barrier to practical application. Simplifying the concepts and developing clear strategies for coaches can enhance its usability.

Future Directions in Research and Practice | Integrating Reversal Theory with Other Theories

Self-Determination Theory (SDT): Integrating Reversal Theory with Self-Determination Theory can provide a deeper understanding of how different states influence intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Combining these theories can offer insights into how to support athletes’ basic psychological needs.

Achievement Goal Theory (AGT): Combining Reversal Theory with Achievement Goal Theory can enhance our understanding of how goal orientations influence motivational states. Understanding the interplay between goal orientations and metamotivational states can help develop more effective coaching strategies.

Technology and State Monitoring

Wearable Technology: The use of wearable technology in sports, such as heart rate monitors and mood tracking apps, can provide real-time data on athletes’ physiological and emotional states. These technologies can help identify when reversals are needed and track their effectiveness.

Virtual Coaching: Virtual coaching platforms that provide personalized feedback and support can help athletes manage their motivational states. These platforms can offer guidance on state management, track progress, and create a sense of relatedness through online communities and peer support.

Mental Health and Well-Being

Addressing Mental Health in Athletes: Reversal Theory provides a valuable framework for addressing mental health issues in athletes. By helping athletes recognize and manage their motivational states, coaches and sports organizations can promote mental well-being and reduce the risk of burnout, anxiety, and depression.

Integrating Mental Health Support: Integrating mental health support into sports programs and providing resources such as counseling, mindfulness training, and stress management techniques can enhance athletes’ overall well-being and performance. These interventions can help athletes develop resilience and cope with the pressures of competitive sports.

Practical Examples and Case Studies

Implementing Reversal Theory Principles in Coaching

Case Study: Competitive Swimming Program

Balancing States for Optimal Performance: A competitive swimming program implemented strategies to balance athletes' telic and paratelic states. Coaches designed training sessions that alternated between structured, goal-oriented practices and fun, spontaneous activities.

Facilitating Reversals: Coaches were trained to recognize signs of different states and use techniques to facilitate reversals. For instance, they introduced playful games when athletes appeared overly stressed and serious, helping them switch to a more relaxed state.

Positive Outcomes: The program saw improvements in athletes’ motivation, performance, and overall satisfaction. Swimmers reported feeling more balanced and less stressed, demonstrating the positive impact of Reversal Theory principles.

Case Study: Professional Basketball Team

Creating a Supportive Environment: A professional basketball team implemented strategies to create a supportive environment that facilitated beneficial reversals. Coaches fostered a team culture that valued both competition and camaraderie.

Enhancing Enjoyment and Engagement: The team balanced intense training sessions with fun, team-building activities. This approach helped players stay engaged and enjoy their time, enhancing their overall performance and well-being.

Positive Outcomes: The balanced approach to Reversal Theory principles contributed to the team’s success, with players exhibiting higher levels of motivation, resilience, and performance. The supportive environment also enhanced players’ overall well-being and satisfaction.


Reversal Theory, developed by Michael Apter, provides a comprehensive framework for understanding how individuals switch between different motivational states and how these states influence behavior, emotions, and performance. In sports, Reversal Theory has significant implications for athletes, coaches, and sports organizations.

In sports, Reversal Theory has significant implications for athletes, coaches, and sports organizations. By recognizing and facilitating beneficial reversals, coaches can enhance athletes’ motivation, performance, and well-being. Practical applications of Reversal Theory in sports include balancing different states, providing feedback and support, and creating a supportive environment.

Philosophical debates and criticisms surrounding Reversal Theory in sports include discussions on stability vs. fluidity in personality and the practicality of implementing Reversal Theory. Integrating Reversal Theory with other theories, such as Self-Determination Theory and Achievement Goal Theory, can provide a more comprehensive understanding of motivation in sports.

Case studies and practical examples demonstrate the effectiveness of Reversal Theory-based interventions in sports. By supporting athletes’ motivational states and creating positive environments, these interventions enhance motivation, engagement, and well-being.

As we continue to explore and expand our understanding of Reversal Theory in sports, this concept provides valuable insights and practical guidance for addressing the challenges and opportunities of modern sports environments. By recognizing the importance of motivational states, we can cultivate more motivated, engaged, and fulfilled athletes and sports communities.


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  2. Apter, Michael J., and Kerrie H. Smith. Stress and Anxiety: Application to Health, Work Place, Community, and Education. John Wiley & Sons, 1977.

  3. Kerr, John H. Motivation and Emotion in Sport: Reversal Theory. Psychology Press, 1997.

  4. Apter, Michael J., and Janet K. Kerr. "Adult Play: A Reversal Theory Approach." Recreational Sports Journal, vol. 33, no. 2, 2009, pp. 131-138.

  5. Males, John R., and David J. Kerr. "Stress, Emotion, and Performance in Sport: Reversal Theory." The Sport Psychologist, vol. 10, no. 3, 1996, pp. 297-312.

  6. Smith, Nick G., and Michael J. Apter. "Reversal Theory in Sport." Psychology of Sport and Exercise, vol. 4, no. 1, 2003, pp. 61-76.

  7. Kerr, John H. Counseling Athletes: Applying Reversal Theory. Routledge, 2001.

  8. Apter, Michael J., and Ian Kerr. "The Role of Reversal Theory in Sport and Exercise." International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, vol. 3, no. 2, 2010, pp. 175-191.

  9. Hanin, Yuri L. "Emotions in Sport: Current Issues and Perspectives." Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, vol. 5, no. 2, 2001, pp. 83-108.

  10. Robazza, Claudio, and Yuri L. Hanin. "Perceived Control and Emotions in Competitive Sport: The Dynamic Interaction of Two Appraisal Processes." International Journal of Sport Psychology, vol. 30, no. 4, 1999, pp. 425-437.



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