2009 Grant Recipient: Motivational Determinants of Health-Related Immunological and Hormonal Responses of Elite Dancers

Eleanor Quested & Joan Duda, University of Birmingham


A growing body of research, grounded primarily in Self Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000), has indicated satisfaction of the psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness to  be  central to the optimal functioning and psychological well being of athletes (Adie, Duda & Ntoumanis, 2008; Gagne & Blanchard, 2007; Reinboth & Duda, 2006) and more recently, dancers (Quested & Duda, 2009, 2010). However, very few studies have considered the motivation-related predictors of compromised physical health in any athletic population, and this void is especially pronounced in the case of performing artists. More specifically, predictors of objective indicators of individuals’ physical welfare (e.g., hormonal and immunological responses) have been particularly neglected. These limitations were addressed in this investigation.

An indication of the status of the immune system can be determined via the measurement of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) and salivary antibodies (e.g., Secretory Immunoglobin-A; SIgA). Cortisol is a stress hormone released into the tissues by the hypothalamic-pituitary-axis in response to psychological stress exposure (Kirschbaum & Hellhammer, 1994). When cortisol secretion is excessive and/or sustained, the tissues are exposed to elevated concentrations of the hormone and bodily systems may be adversely influenced (Miller, Chen, & Zhou, 2007). These effects may be particularly damaging to elite athletes and dancers, for whom optimal metabolic regulation is essential to performance.  SIgA is a mucosal immune product often considered to represent the body’s ‘first line of defence’ against infection (Brandtzaeg et al., 1999). Levels of salivary SIgA have been found to be a reliable indicator of susceptibility to infection in the upper respiratory tract region (Gleeson, 2000), known to be the illness symptom most often reported by athletes (Reid, Gleeson, Williams, & Clancy, 2004). Grounded in SDT (Deci & Ryan, 2000), the present study aimed to determine the social-environmental and motivational processes predictive of stress appraisals as well as the hormonal/immunological and anxiety-related responses of vocational dancers.

An initial sample of 92 dancers undertaking full-time training completed a questionnaire package tapping their perceptions of the motivational climate prevailing in their dance school, need satisfaction, motivation regulations for dance participation, and indicators of psychological well-and ill-being. Dancers provided saliva samples and responded to a short anxiety assessment on multiple occasions during a ‘normal’ school day and a day in which they performed a public solo. Saliva samples were assayed to determine cortisol concentration and SIgA secretion rate and concentration.  Data were analysed via multilevel modelling. 

Findings to date indicate basic need satisfaction to be a determinant of dancers’ threat and challenge appraisals prior to performance. Need satisfaction negatively predicted the dancers’ cortisol and anxiety intensity and positively predicted the dancers’ facilitative interpretations of anxiety during the performance period. Further analysis will elucidate the role of motivational processes in the manifestation of SIgA secretion rate and concentration before, during and after a potentially stressful performance.  This study highlights the importance of promoting dancers’ feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness, if dancers are to experience optimal emotional and hormonal homeostasis in association with evaluative performances.

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