Understanding Your Athletes: 10 Must-Read Sociology Articles for Coaches

The sociology of coaching and athletic performance. What is it? Why is it important in helping us understand our athletes and become more effective coaches? And, more importantly, why have I written a 3-part blog series devoted to this topic?

In part, this blog series came about because I’ve observed that many coaches and researchers are less familiar with the sociology of sport coaching than, say, physiology or nutrition. Now, I like those areas too, but my own scholarship takes up a more sociological perspective and I find it thought-provoking and practical to coaching. It’s my pleasure to share a bit of this treasure trove of knowledge with you. So, here we go! 

Now, I want to make clear I don’t consider myself to be the gatekeeper of top ten lists. I welcome replies, responses, and additions. Healthy dialogue is helpful. I’m just one limited professor-coach sharing a list of good articles on the sociology of sport coaching and athletic performance. That said, how did I go about picking these articles?

As I searched the literature thinking about what articles to include, I settled in on a few criteria. 

1. Breadth of thought. 

I want people to see a bit of range in the field. Although there are journals devoted to the sociology of sport, there are general sociology journals that also publish work about sport. I think it’s important to see a bit of the breadth of thought and encourage readers to seek out different and numerous sources. 

If you only read the same journals, or a limited selections of books in a similar area, then your knowledge will be tightly focused.

I think this is can lead to negative effects such as a limited capacity to see things differently and thus understand our social world more thoroughly, or at least differently. Ever notice yourself saying and doing the same things over and over and never having a creative thought? Try mixing it up.  


2. Focus on coaches’ and athletes’ lives. 

Rather than articles that focus on sport in general, I pulled articles that focus on the everyday lives of coaches and athletes. I want coaches to see the impact they make on athletes and consider important sociological questions such as, “Who does sport work for?”, “What values and beliefs are being transmitted intentionally and unintentionally (often called the hidden curriculum in sociology)?”, “How do we know what we know (often called the social construction of knowledge)?” 

If you read these articles and your takeaway is that you can’t make any connections to your everyday life—keep trying and ask somebody different than you for their perspective. Post a question or reaction to social media and invite others to dialogue with you. 

I understand there’s a (negative) stereotype out there that believes professors live in an ivory tower, disconnected from everyday life. Well, I’ve yet to have an office next to Rapunzel’s. I, along with every other professor, live in the same world as you. In graduate school I learned a useful framework when reading research in the social sciences—remember the acronym DIE (Describe, Interpret, Evaluate) and I promise you won’t die trying it (terrible pun, but effective for retention). Before jumping to evaluating (or dismissing altogether) an argument, try first to describe and interpret it.

3. Integration of theory and practice.

Yes, we need theory and practice together! If you’re a coach and you simply engage in practice, without theory, then you’re basically saying, “These are the drills I do.” That’s it. You’ve got no way to understand why you do what you do, and you cannot explain the positive and negative effects of these drills. You’ve got to have theory to explain why! 

In comparison, if you only have theory, then how do you connect with the everyday lives of coaches and athletes? How do you determine if your theory offers a better way of enhancing outcomes such as performance, retention, and ethical decision making? A professor could give a great theoretical explanation or proposal, but if it was too abstract, far-fetched, disconnected from reality, then the theory may look great in an academic journal, but fail to make a practical difference. 

4. Sociological sensibilities. 

I limited my search for articles encompassing sociological sensibilities including coaching and performance, but also complex theory and inclusion of social identities such as race, class, gender, abilism, socioeconomic class, sexuality, etc. I apologize for not having more space to give voice to more marginalized groups. 

You won’t see much on physical science or mainstream sport psychology. There are sociologists who study the intersection of our social world with biology and the differentiation between sociology and psychology can be hard to see. So, I looked for articles that focused more on sociological theory, which tends to stir things up—critical interpretations, not parsimonious or the most accurate interpretations—which you would definitely find in physiology and much of psychology. 

If you’re looking for clear cut problems and solutions, then you won’t find it here. I’m asking you to do something much more dangerous—think! 

And, to be able to hold in your mind multiple interpretations and evaluate them.  

Alright, without further delay. Here’s a, not the, top 10 list (presented alphabetically):

  1. Carless, D., & Douglas, K. (2013). Living, resisting, and playing the part of the athlete: Narrative tensions in elite sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14, 701-708. 

  2. Chambliss, D. F. (1989). The mundanity of excellence: An ethnographic report on stratification and Olympic swimmers. Sociological Theory, 7(1), 70-86. 

  3. Chawansky, M. (2005). That takes balls: Toward a feminist coaching methodology. Women's Studies Quarterly, 33(1-2), 105-119. 

  4. Denison, J., & Avner, Z. (2011). Positive coaching: Ethical practices for athlete developmentQuest, 63, 209-227. 

  5. Dworkin, S. L. (2001). "Holding back": Negotiating a glass ceiling on women's muscular strength. Sociological Perspectives, 44(3), 333-350. 

  6. Gearity, B. T. & Mills, J. (2012). Discipline and punish in the weight room. Sport Coaching Review, 1(2), 124-134. 

  7. Jones, R. L., Glintmeyer, B., & McKenzie, A. (2005). Slim bodies, eating disorders and the coach-athlete relationship. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 40(3), 377-391. 

  8. Lyndon, A. E., Duffy, D. M., Smith, P. H., & White, J. W. (2011). The role of high school coaches in helping prevent adolescent sexual aggression: Part of the solution or part of the problem? Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 35(4), 377-399. 

  9. Macdonald, D., Kirk, D., Metzler, M., Nilges, L. M., Schempp, P., & Wright, J. (2002). It's all very well, in theory: Theoretical perspectives and their applications in contemporary pedagogical research. Quest, 54(2), 133-156. 

  10. Taylor, W. G., Potrac, P., Nelson, L. J., Jones, L., & Groom, R. (2015). An elite hockey player's experiences of video-based coaching: A poststructuralist reading. International Review for the Sociology of Sport

I’ve hyperlinked all the articles to the journals that published them. Click on the article’s title to be taken to corresponding website. Keep in mind access to the articles is usually behind a paywall. Check with your library or search online for a free copy. In part 2 of this series I’ll provide a bit more detail on the first 5 articles.

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Dr. Brian Gearity, PhD, ATC, CSCS*D, RSCC, USAW, USATF level 3 sprints, is a guest contributor to the Volt blog. He is the founding Director, and Clinical Assistant Professor, of the Master of Arts in Sport Coaching program at the University of Denver. Brian is the Editor-in-Chief for NSCA Coach, and is Associate-Editor-in-Chief for the Strength & Conditioning Journal. Dr. Gearity’s research uses sociological and psychological theory to enhance effective and ethical coaching practice. Follow Coach Gearity on Twitter @DrGearity.