Understanding Players: Four Narratives in their Sports Stories

Listening to Player Narratives Gives Us Insight Into Their Identities

How can we understand players, if we don’t know their stories? One of the key objects for those who would be athlete centered coaches, is to develop this understanding. We just finished up a section on real listening, and now we take it to a greater depth of understanding by listening to certain themes in the stories our players tell. When we listen to our player’s stories about their play, we do well to discover the player’s narrative. A recent case study of elite athletes* showed that the researchers found three main narratives by which athletes tell their stories, and as coaches we are more wise when we seek them out. Of course, this requires real listening. Also, there was a narrative that did not come to the fore in the interviews with 21 elite and professional athletes. I will cover that at the end.

Elite Stories versus Hobby/Recreational Stories

First, let’s differentiate between elite athletes, who are competing at a national or international level, from more recreational or hobby level players, who might be playing college, high school or club sports, but are more concerned with academics and career success, than they are the outcomes on the field.

Living the Part of Athlete
Among elite athletes the dominant theme in the narratives of athlete’s stories are that they are “Living the Part of Athlete”. When an athlete’s near complete identity is wrapped up in their performance of the sport, then they are really living it. When using the word ‘part’, the idea is that of playing a role in a theatre of the story. Of course, there are negative ramifications of this identity. As we saw with Michael Phelps, who must be one of the ultimate examples of the performance narrative, he had to deal with some very difficult issues when he came out of training bubble. Likewise some of the behaviors behaviors of the US Olympic swimmers in Brazil, clearly showed a lack of propriety, if not even criminal behavior.
Many times these extremely elite athletes with a performance narrative assume an entitlement that society is happy to foist upon them, until it becomes embarrassing, then society likes to put them back in their place, mainly through the media. Relationships, and some social environments are set aside for the sole purpose of allowing for best performances. Character issues may go ignored because the player is seen as very talented, and a contributor to the overall mission success, that upsetting them with working on character issues can be seen as a risk by organizations, coaches, and even parents. Almost every childhood sports movie seems to depict those players as the antagonists. Players may later reflect on the damage being done to relationships and choose a different narrative. Examples of players who continue to tour and/or train with their team even while family members suffer a tragedy, bring this narrative to light. In contrast the next two narratives may provide more balance, but the narrative I prefer is not mentioned in the study.

Resisting the Part of Athlete

“Resisting the Part of Athlete” has a classic example in Serena Williams for the positive or Johnny Manzeil to the negative. Each of these athletes has colored way outside the lines, but Serena doing so while still marshaling her resources. In Serena’s case, since the early days as a professional, she told a story of a multidimensional experience as a person, and has resisted the conventional labels thrust upon her. Resisting the performance narrative that society places on athletes casts them in more of a role of rebel. Perhaps Williams gains an advantage over Manzeil in that she plays and individual sport. Football has among the most rigid social norms of any professional sport. This can create a love/hate relationship with the athlete, but also make them more interesting to the general public, as they try to maintain a well rounded life. Athletes in this category almost seem to have PR directors whose job it is to keep them in the news. As both the Williams sisters have had a major impact on the WTA, more and more women tennis players, and female athletes in general have become entrepreneurial. By far the most entrepreneurial female athlete is Maria Sharpova, and she herself has become a lightning rod for controversy.
For most elite athletes who do not live life in the spotlight, resisting the part of athlete simply means playing by their own rules. They may have certain nonnegotiables in regard to where they live, when and how long they train, and how much they have access to the creature comforts peculiar to them. An example being a multiple gold medal winning para-olympic swimmer, who chooses to live in a part of the city that will creates a difficult commute to his place of training, while he resists training at the center that is so foreign and isolating for him in another town.

Playing the Part of Athlete

Our third studied narrative is about those who “Play the Part of Athlete”. As a 28 year high school coach, I have coached far more players who resist, or or play the part of athlete, rather than living the part of athlete. This even among some very gifted championship level players. Those who play the part of athlete, make sure they do the right things that will get them noticed, and recognized as being serious. They may do a certain workout, because they know that players who do that gain favor with the coach, even when they don’t find much value in the workout. The organization or coach sets up a ‘game’, and they play it to win.
Great coaches are cognizant of how the structures they create for players may lead to playing a game of how to gain favor. One such athlete was being passed over for playing time, and there was a passive aggressive communication style being perpetuated by the coaching and fitness staff. When the player found out that he was being perceived as not dedicated enough, he decided to attend the 8am workout, which he felt did not help him much at all. This act gained him favor with the coaching staff, then he was praised for his improved attitude, and the fitness trainer approved him to the coach saying, “he is much more fit”, even without a whit of data to support that. This behavior is highly instructive to coaches and organizations, to work not to create these false hoops for players to jump through. When every activity does, in fact, move the dial forward for the vast majority of players, then playing at being an athlete can be diminished.
The study above was conducted through candid interviews. This too tells us that we can discover a lot about our player’s stories by interviewing them, not formally, but probing, asking questions, and observing behavior. Actions many times speak louder than words, so really observing our players as objectively as possible to find out which is their chief narrative. Is it just me, or does it seem like an ideal narrative is missing? The study also shared that each of the 21 athletes in the study had found a great level of success, so the way they present the stories of their lives did not inhibit their outcomes.

Conclusion: Love the Part of Athlete!

I would suggest the following, ‘Loving the Part of Athlete’. When players bring love and appreciation to their sport, and also maintain balance in their personal lives, then optimal outcomes of satisfaction occurs.

  • Living, resisting and playing the part of athlete: Narrative tensions in elite sport. (Carless, Douglas, David, Kitrina) Psychochology of Sport and Exercise, Volume 14(5), Sept 2013

 

One thought on “Understanding Players: Four Narratives in their Sports Stories

  1. I need to remind you that college tennis is not recreational; Steve Johnson and others played college tennis.
    A few years back I heard the former head of USTA High Performance Woman, suggest that female should consider college before going Pro. Looking at today’s WTA players and the age of those success stories, I think she might have been right.

    Like

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