Living, resisting, and playing the part of athlete: narrative tensions in elite sport

David Carless*, Kitrina Douglas

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

86 Citations (Scopus)


Objectives: To explore: (i) How elite and professional sport culture might steer individuals towards particular stories, identities, and actions; (ii) How athletes navigate or respond to these cultural pressures.

Design: Cross-sectional qualitative methodology.

Method: Narrative interviews and focus groups with 21 elite and professional athletes followed by a narrative analysis of structure and form.

Results: Athletes demonstrated one of three processes. Individuals who live the part of athlete story their life and act in ways that conform to a culturally dominant performance narrative. Here, identity is foreclosed, relationships sacrificed in the pursuit of success, and long-term wellbeing threatened. Over time, alternative narrative types may provoke moral reflection on their story and actions. Individuals who resist the part of athlete sustain a life story and identity that deviates from the performance narrative, drawing on alternative narrative types. Their resistance is typically overt as they publicly demonstrate actions that align with their multidimensional story. Individuals who play the part of athlete modify their story and actions depending on sociocultural context. These individuals covertly maintain a multidimensional life story, but silence this story when powerful others require performance stories.

Conclusions: Although some elite/professional athletes' life stories revolve around performance outcomes, this is not a prerequisite for excellence. Other athletes achieve excellence while sustaining a multidimensional life story and identity. To do so, they navigate a culture that expects a performance focus, through overt resistance or covertly manipulating their public stories and actions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)701-708
Number of pages8
JournalPsychology of Sport and Exercise
Issue number5
Early online date18 May 2013
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sep 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • culture
  • identity
  • mental health
  • professional sport
  • story
  • wellbeing


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