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Impulsivity as a predictor of athletic success and negative consequences in NFL football players

Sara A Hickmann, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study assessed impulsivity in football players in the National Football League (NFL) to determine the extent to which impulsiveness predicts athletic success and negative consequences. Twenty-four professional football players from eight NFL teams participated in this study, twelve of whom had been drafted out of college. Players were interviewed and administered several tests of impulsivity including a neuropsychological instrument and two self-report questionnaires. In addition, a collateral (e.g., teammate or friend) provided corroborative information. Data were collected at the end of the season regarding the number of game penalties, games started, and games played. Feedback sessions were conducted via phone or in person with each player, and written feedback of the test results and relevant impressions was mailed to the player in the form of a one-page written summary. This sample of professional football players showed moderate levels of impulsivity. In a planning task, athletes who spent more time planning solved a greater number of problems correctly. However, when they acted impulsively, their behaviors generally served a functional purpose. Players who sustained a higher number of head injuries were more likely to show higher levels of dysfunctional impulsivity and use a more impulsive problem solving approach. Length of participation in football was not related to levels of impulsivity in this group of NFL football players. Players' scores of functional impulsivity related to their athletic success; players who reported that they like to make split-second decisions and take advantage of unexpected opportunities were also more likely to be rated positively by a professional scout, play and start in games, and survive in the NFL. In addition, a combination of measures including a self-report questionnaire, the investigator's clinical rating based on players' responses during the interviews, a behavioral measure, and corroborative information significantly predicted athletic success. Players who reported higher levels of functional impulsivity were significantly less likely to experience game penalties and legal infractions. The investigator's rating of the players was the most accurate predictor of negative outcomes; athletes who reported more frequent incidents of interpersonal dysfunction, aggression to friends and family, and a need for immediate gratification were more likely to commit legal infractions and game penalties. Factors that contributed to developing impulsive tendencies included being socialized within the violent and aggressive culture of football, functioning within an unpredictable environment, and receiving lesser consequences for deviant behaviors. This study provided initial support for the use of the Impulsivity Checklist as a measure of impulsivity in NFL football players and supported the current finding in the literature that a multidimensional approach should be utilized to measure impulsivity. Lastly, the research findings provided initial evidence that utilizing a more impulsive response style in the appropriate context can be a functional quality.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Hickmann, Sara A, "Impulsivity as a predictor of athletic success and negative consequences in NFL football players" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3136735.