Psychosocial development in college students

A cross-sectional comparison between college athletes and nonathletes

Dissertation Award Winner: Sarah S. Kohlstedt, PhD
Dissertation Advisor: Amanda J. Visek, PhD

American colleges and universities focus on students’ educational advancement and occupational preparation, but college life also presents students with opportunities for personal growth (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Still, multiple factors — both personal and environmental — have effects on students’ overall development during college (King, 1994; Montgomery & Côté, 2003; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). For example, studies have indicated that participation in college athletics may interfere with aspects of students’ development (Blann, 1985; Downey, 2005; Martens & Cox, 2000; Sowa & Gressard, 1983). The majority of studies have focused on academic or vocational differences between student athletes and nonathlete students, and few have compared psychosocial outcomes. The current investigation extends the existing literature by: (a) examining select psychosocial outcomes, (b) addressing “development” through a cross-sectional comparison and (c) identifying psychosocial strengths and challenges that are significant for students depending on gender, athletic status, athletic identity and class year. Chickering and Reisser’s (1993) model of psychosocial development serves as the theoretical basis of this study as it proposes development as a flexible and fluid process and is based on research that has identified common, developmental vectors across gender and culture (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005).

Review of literature

As students advance through their undergraduate careers, they tend to make educational and psychosocial gains. However, the impact of intercollegiate sport participation on student-athletes’ psychosocial development is a topic of continued debate. Research suggests intercollegiate sport participation has the potential to help student-athletes develop psychosocial skills such as leadership, teamwork and time manag ement (Danish, 1983; Danish, Petitpas & Hale, 1990; Potuto, 2007; Wright & Côté, 2003), while also indicating that skills learned in the sport context contribute to students’ overall development only when students are specifically taught how to apply sport-related skills to other life domains (Danish et al., 1990; Gould, Collins, Lauer & Chung, 2006; Petitpas, Danish, McKelvain & Murphy, 1992).

In fact, a large body of research suggests that college student-athletes may be “atrisk” because, in addition to facing the same developmental stressors that non-athlete students do, they must uphold the demands of their athletic departments, coaches, teammates and the NCAA (Chartrand & Lent, 1987; Etzel, Watson, Visek & Maniar, 2006; Fletcher, Benshoff & Richburg, 2003; Watson & Kissinger, 2007). As a result of these additional stressors, college student-athletes may not make expected gains. For example, student-athletes report significantly lower educational and career development as well as less mature relationships than nonathlete students; and, among college student-athletes, those with stronger athletic identity perceive more barriers to their career development (Martens & Cox, 2000). Similarly, freshmen student athletes in their first semester reported a decline in their academic and personal-emotional adjustment, compared to increased adjustment reported among their non-athlete counterparts (Downey, 2005). These findings suggest that there may be other aspects of development with which student athletes struggle. Therefore, it is important to identify additional factors that may impact the complex developmental transitions faced by college students. One of these as yet unexplored factors is parental attachment style. Early attachment patterns are activated in times of stress and change, and thus, are likely to be salient during students’ college years (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987; Lopez & Gormley, 2002; Papini & Roggman, 1992).

Security or insecurity in an early parental attachment tends to be stable and has continuous effects on a student’s development over time (Lopez & Gormley, 2002; Sun, Bell, Feng & Avery, 2000). Also, early attachment patterns act as the working model from which students develop future relationships with peers, mentors, and intimate partners (Benson, McWey & Ross, 2006; Meeus, Oosterwegel & Vollebergh, 2002). Given the role of parental attachment in students' psychosocial development , attachment styles were examined in the current investigation. Additionally, gender and athletic identity were considered for their individual and combined effects on select psychosocial variables.


Participants completed five, validated, self report measures that paralleled select vectors to Chickering and Reisser ’s (1993) model of psychosocial development. These measures included: (a) the Life Skills Development Inventory — College Form, to assess life-skills master in communication, problem-solving, health maintenance, and identity development (Picklesimer & Miller, 1998); (b) the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale, to measure level of identification with the athlete role (Brewer & Cornelius, 2001); (c) the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment, to assess perceptions of three affective/ cognitive dimensions of one’s relationships with parents and peers (Armsden, 1986); (d) the Hypercompetitive Attitude Scale, to assess one’s need to compete and win in order to validate self-worth (Ryckman, Hammer & Gold, 1990); and (e) the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, to assess depressive symptoms (Radloff, 1991). The primary independent variables were athletic status, gender, class year and athletic identity. The six primary, psychosocial outcome variables are communication, problem-solving , health maintenance, identity development, hyper-competitiveness and depressive symptoms. Parental and peer attachment styles served as independent or outcome variables, depending on the analysis.


The final sample (N = 448) included male (n = 195) and female (n = 253) varsity studentathletes (n = 235), recreational student-athletes (n = 59), and nonathlete students (n =154) enrolled at four Division I universities. Relationships among variables: Pearson product moment correlations confirmed: (a) significant, positive relationships among life-skills including communication, problem-solving, health maintenance and identity development (r’s = .49-.76); (b) that parental and peer attachment were significantly positively related to life-skills (r’s = .24-.63); (c) that depressive symptoms were significantly negatively related to life-skills (r’s = .27-.57); and (d) that among student-athletes, hyper-competition shared significant negative correlations specifically with communication (r = -.27), problem-solving (r = -.13), health maintenance (r = -.14), and identity development (r = -.20). Group comparisons: (a) 4 (class year) x 3 (athletic status) two-way MANOVA confirmed main effects for athletic status on health maintenance (p < .001), hyper-competition (p < .001), and depressive symptoms (p = . 003), with athletes reporting greater health and hyper-competitiveness, and fewer depressive symptoms; (b) ANOVA examined differences in athletic identity among varsity student-athletes in each of the four class years, and indicated that juniors had significantly stronger athletic identity than freshmen (p = .019); no significant differences between other classes were found; (c) point biserial correlations indicated that athletic identity has a significant negative correlation with general identity development (r = -. 21), as well as a significant, positive correlation with hyper - competitiveness ( r = .59); MANOVA confirmed that high identified athletes reported significantly poorer general identity development (p = .045) and significantly greater hyper-competitiveness (p < .001) than low-identified athletes; high- and low-identified athletes did not differ significantly on communication, problem-solving, health, or depressive symptoms; and (d) MANOVAs confirmed significantly greater communication, problem-solving, health maintenance and identity development, as well as significantly less depressive symptoms among those with secure versus non secure parental and peer attachment styles (all p < .001). Predicting psychosocial outcomes: a standard stepwise multiple regression analysis indicated a best fit regression model including depressive symptoms, peer attachment, parent attachment, and athletic status, and accounted for 42.8 percent of the variance in students’ psychosocial development; gender, race and class year were excluded from the model. Post-hoc analyses: (a) 2 (athletic status) x 3 (parental attachment) Pearson chi-square analysis confirmed that, compared to nonathlete students, student- athletes were significantly more likely to report secure attachment to parents and peers; (b)MANCOVA, with athletic status as the independent variable and parental attachment as the covariate, was performed; results indicate that significant differences in psychosocial outcomes between athlete and nonathlete students were largely due to variation in parental attachment style, not athletic status. In fact, health maintenance and hyper-competitiveness were the only outcomes that varied significantly by athletic status.


Several elements related to Chickering and Reisser’s (1993) seven vectors — including competence, identity, relationships and interdependence — were salient in the outcomes of this study. Interestingly, student-athletes were more likely than nonathletes to report secure attachment to parents and peers. Student-athletes may be more likely to report secure parental attachments because even though they are away from their parents, they experience the presence of an alternative adult attachment figure, namely, their coach; and/or, it may be that participating in athletic activity during childhood facilitates the development of secure parental attachment because youth sport participation is a family-involved activity. Still, regardless of athletic status, college students with secure parental and peer attachments reported significantly greater communication skills, problemsolving, health maintenance, and identity development, as well as fewer depressive symptoms compared to students with non-secure parental and peer attachments. While athletic status may be a primary factor influencing outcomes such as students’ health-related lifestyle practices and competitive attitude, parental and peer attachment appear to be important factors in students’ overall psychosocial development.

Contribution to science & practice

This study is significant because it has expanded our understanding of the extant literature in this area by examining psychosocial factors which may be underlying life skill outcomes relative to college student development that have not yet been explored. In particular, this study provides a more nuanced account of psychosocial development within the varsity student-athlete group. Specifically, participation in intercollegiate athletics is not necessarily related to psychosocial deficits. However, being highly identified and hyper-competitive as a student-athlete is associated with specific challenges relative to identity development and life skill mastery; further, these challenges are likely to impact the student throughout adulthood. This is notable in light of the fact that the college experience should facilitate the development of students’ overall wellbeing. This knowledge can be used to encourage a greater empathic stance when working with student-athletes and to assist universities and athletic departments in the creation of programs designed to enhance holistic development for student athletes. Finally, increased understanding of the relationships between parental and peer attachment and the psychosocial development of student-athletes and nonstudent athletes establishes a new line of scientific inquiry. It also provides preliminary evidence for the importance of psycho education regarding college student development and process-oriented mentoring aimed at helping college students establish and maintain trust and communication in relationships with both peers (i.e., classmates) and adults (i.e., faculty, coaches).