Understanding Your Athletes, Part 2: Breaking Down the First 5 Articles

201512041868_Brian Gearity.jpg

Welcome to Part 2 of this 3-part series on the sociology of coaching and athletic performance! In my first post I discussed why I was writing this blog, how I selected the articles, and then I provide a hyperlinked list of 10 articles. In Part 2, I’m going to give a bit more detail on the first 5 articles. If you need a refresher, click here to take a peek back at the top 10 list. Rather than repeating what’s already in the abstract of those articles, I’ve written up some commentary to stimulate further thought and dialogue.

1. "Living, Resisting, and Playing the Part of the Athlete."

I think readers of the Volt blog will be interested to learn more about terms such as “narrative” or “discursive theory” and their uses in psychology and sociology. These approaches to understanding human behavior within our social world tend to be omitted or touched on briefly in most college curriculums. Approaches such as these look at human experiences and the stories we tell to understand the individual within culture—basically integrating psychology and sociology, rather than focusing on one or the other. 

In this study, Carless and Douglas identify how elite athletes accept and resist dominant cultural norms in sport. There’s some fascinating findings on how athletes perform a given role to please their coach. After, or while, reading this article, reconsider what’s problematic about this often-used phrase in sport coaching: “Our goal is to get athletes to buy into our (the coach’s) culture.”  


2. "The Mundanity of Excellence."

This article came recommended from a senior colleague in the field and I read it for the first time while preparing this blog. I like this article for a few reasons, one of which includes asking a big question—perhaps THE question—we all want to answer: Why are some athletes excellent? 

Chambliss’ argument runs counter to much of what is believed today about athletic excellence. His argument is centered on three major findings: 1) excellence is a qualitative phenomenon, 2) talent is a useless concept, and 3) excellence is mundane. So much for other explanations of excellence, such as biological theories centered on genes and body structures and psychological theories like deliberate practice. I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek with this last sentence, but I’m dead serious with this one: if you’re going to tackle big questions like this, which I think we should, then be sure to collect good data to help you build your argument. Nowadays people want to offer their theory of athletic excellence in a 140 characters—nonsense, I say, you intellectual schmamateurs!

Another reason why I like this article? There were two follow-up replies, which provide a bit more depth and dialogue on the soundness of Chambliss’ argument. See those replies below, and like before, you can click the article’s title to get redirected to the journal: 


3. “That Takes Balls: Toward a Feminist Coaching Methodology.”

“Feminist” and “feminism” are interesting terms. As a young boy, I wouldn’t have identified with feminism. In fact, my reaction to the term would’ve likely included a feeling of disgust and negative stereotypes. But at some point in graduate school and beyond, I realized feminism (at a very simple level) means supporting, empowering, and valuing women and their roles, values, decisions, and work. So, yes, I consider myself a feminist. In recent years I’ve been able to do more than support women in “theory,” so to speak, by becoming a stronger advocate and using my voice to challenge those who try to use their power to degrade and disregard feminism. 

Chawansky’s article resonates with me because many of us who do sociology of coaching have often wondered how to see sport coaching through our sociological lens. In particular, how to see how multiple social identities (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) are important in sport contexts. In reality, we always see sport coaching through our sociological lenses. The problem is that we need different pairs of lenses to see and practice differently. 

If I don’t see sport coaching through a feminist lens, then I see it through a masculine or patriarchal lens. This has profound implications from how we offer care and interact interpersonally with athletes to laws mandating equal rights for boys and girls in sports. And no, being a feminist doesn’t mean you hate men or masculinity. It means you recognize how certain institutions and practices favored men—along with some positive effects, there were many negative effects. This has set up a norm that devalued and hurt women. And it also hurt men, to the extent that they failed to recognize women and feminine practices, which also limited coaches from using more diverse tools in their toolbox to improve their coaching and athletic performance. 


4. “Positive Coaching: Ethical Practices for Athlete Development."

Sport coaches routinely talk shop, engaging in problem identification and problem solving. But what if we’re misidentifying problems? Maybe we’re making a mountain out of a molehill. What if the very knowledge we’ve learned, our so-called expertise, is causing the problems we’re trying to solve? I use this article in our Masters of Arts in Sport Coaching Practicum 2 course, but as I write this blog, I’m reminded that I use this article and others like it to help our student-coaches learn to think differently—to challenge their thought processes and provide more tools for practice. Isn’t that one of the purposes of education? 

In another insightful and fascinating argument, Denison and co-authors argue the coach’s need to be aware of power and discipline in order to make substantial changes to their coaching. For more on this, checkout the following article and consider it in light of “positive coaching.”  


5. “Holding Back’: Negotiating a Glass Ceiling on Women's Muscular Strength.”

There’s a lovely sentence at the end of the first paragraph that brings up the problem with causality. What’s the cause and what’s the effect? How do you know which is which? Maybe what we think is the effect is in reality the cause because we’re the ones causing it—kind of like a self-fulling prophecy. If female athletes and weightlifters limit their bodies by withholding effort, food, and certain training practices, then how will we ever know what their bodies could do? It seems we might create erroneous, or at least submaximal, expectations that reinforce current norms. In other words, the effect (women are weaker than men and self-limiting their muscle mass and strength) becomes the cause rather than the cause being properly identified as dominant, limiting social norms. 

Be sure to check out Part 1 of my 3-part series to find the full list of articles and links to where you can read them—and read Part 3, where we’ll go over the remaining 5 articles on my top 10 list and discuss their importance to coaches across all sports.


Join over 100,000 coaches and athletes using Volt's intelligent training app. For more information, click here.

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.