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Learning to be Helpless

Learning to be Dependent or Helpless
       The definition of being dependent on someone can be phrased as the state of being helpless is usually acquired in childhood as a result of being unable to transition from requiring all needs to be taken care of by a parent or caregiver. 

       Some parents and older siblings become enablers who give in rather than continue to experience a behavior such as crying, screaming, or antisocial actions like hitting or biting. As the child grows older, their behavior can escalate to verbal and/or physical intimidation or abuse.

      The longer this negative conditioning continuous, they more the individual feels it is their right to be waited on hand and foot. Parents, siblings, and others outside the family unit are not servants!

      Martin E. P. Seligman's theory of Learned Helplessness (LHT) states "when a person, or animal believes that outcomes do not take into account their feelings of being powerless, they are experiencing Learned Helplessness.

      Seligman argued that LHT is an important feature of human experience. This is especially true for those who are socially, economically and politically disadvantaged.  People who lose their individuality and the capacity for self direction have very limited ability to control their own lives. Whatever they do, their life is controlled by the routines and demands of adults and institutions. Eventually because of the loss of control, they learn it is easily to be helpless than attempt to control a situation. This scenario also occurs where an individual feels socially, economically or politically disadvantaged. Thus LHT is very subjective in nature and regardless of any disadvantage, an individual may become helpless based only on their internal perception.

       Some consider LHT as a depressed state characterized by a lack of affect and feeling. Some become depressed because they have learned to be helpless, and feel that no matter what they might do would not change matters.

       Years after Seligman's theory was presented, researchers started to find examples of people who did not get depressed, even after many bad life experiences. A depressed person who consistently thought about bad events became more pessimistic than a non depressed person. Seligman called this an 'explanatory style' of thinking.

       Using a 100 meter sprint as an example, the loser would explain the loss offering that they were just "too slow" of that they didn't have time to prepare for the race. Such an individual associates their failure with themselves at the center. The individual who is more optimistic would describe their failure on an external cause such as an explanation of "another runner false started".

       This negative thinking also applies to considering the outcome of a good event. The depressed individual would discounting their ability by saying "It was just luck!",  An optimist would say something positive such as "I was the best in the field!"

       The explanatory style is often acquired from observing the behavior of parents. siblings, and other with whom they are very close. If an individual can learn to be helpless, they can learn to be optimistic.

       Cognitive therapy can challenge the beliefs and explanations of life's events. Potential negative thoughts can be refuted and challenged so that a more optimistic and positive way of thinking can be learned.

Junior high P.E. classes are very likely to have individuals are experiencing the state
of "learned helplessness", because the students are forced to be there. The outcome is
different in sports if the players have a choice not to participate; however, there are
cases of learned helplessness that are rooted in other sources.

       Learned helplessness can originate in an individual's low self-esteem. It also can be caused by not wanting to participate in team activities as a result of students who have experienced taunting and harassed their entire time in physical education classes.  It is no wonder that these individuals don't want to have anything to do with team sports.

       A working definition of learned helplessness is: "A person perceives that his or her participation will not have any effect on the desired outcome of a task or skill."  When assistance is constantly provided, the result is a learned dependency on others to perform the task so they can be said to have developed learned helplessness.  An example would be when a child, who is old enough to lace up their skates, is neither responsible for putting on their skates or taking them off. A parent also performs the task of drying off the blades and putting them in the carrying bag.

Recommended Reading:

Learned Helplessness in Sport One purpose of the present investigation was to examine whether tennis athletes have adaptive achievement patterns associated with learned helplessness,

Learned helplessness is a control - University of Idaho   Learned helplessness – is the belief that “we can't change the course of negative events—that .... What are the limitations of attribution retraining” in sport?

Sports Psychology and Mental toughness Using sports psychology to improve your mental toughness and boost your ... while self control is acquired as a means to combat learned helplessness.

Problems and Solutions


Bibliography for Learned Helplessness in Leisure and Sport

PPT Sport Psychology: History Learned helplessness – is the belief that “we can't change the course of negative ... Learned helplessness is about responses to failure NOT success

Learned Helplessness in Sport The information leader in physical activity and health.

Cognitive affective sources of sport enjoyment in adolescent ...  Learned helpless affect in sport. The self worth and affect subscales of the Dimensions of Depression Profile for Children and Adolescents

Learned helplessness: a survey of cognitive, motivational and ...   Learned helplessness: a survey of cognitive, motivational and ... Laboratoire de Psychologie Appliquée au Sport.

Unlearning Helplessness - Sheridan Fencing  Feb. 3, 2009 ... Here are some things a coach can do to help a student turn learned helplessness according to sports psychologist Robert Rotella.

Psychological Problems and Solutions  


The following internet links have been gleaned from personal communications
combined with information from public institutions and athletic organizations/
associations that have a web presence with information concerning team and
individual sports programs:

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