Power, conformity and the role of the coach: a tale of identity creation and disruption

Por: Alex Mckenzie, Nikki Glintmeyer e Robyn Jones.

Athens 2004: Pre-olympic Congress

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The purpose of this paper is to share the experiences of a former elite swimmer, Anne (a pseudonym), whose career was interrupted and finally terminated by a disordered eating pattern. The significance of the work is grounded in the need to tell Anne’s story in relation to compliance within a culture of discipline and norms and the role of the coach within it.


The broad research method utilised was that of interpretive biography, with Anne being interviewed by one of us on three occasions over a four-week period. The method itself is situated in the belief that life is shaped by key turning point moments or epiphanies (Denzin, 1989). Such a method can serve as a window to a culture (Cortazzi, 1993), as the epiphanies of life can be connected back to the social relationships that shape individuals (Denzin, 1989).


For Anne, a ‘key’ moment occurred in a meeting with her coach, in which a comment was made about her weight. As a consequence of Anne’s self-disciplined response to her perception of a constant ‘gaze of authority’ (Tsang, 2000) in relation to her weight, she developed an obsessive self-consciousness and chronic eating disorder. What then can be learned from Anne’s story? Firstly, it illustrates how the creation of a strong athletic identity can lead to a vulnerable sense of self, which, when disrupted, can result in emotional and physical turmoil. Secondly, taking into account the epiphany that she experienced from her coach’s comment, Anne’s story confirms the importance of recognizing the power that coaches have over their athletes, and the latter’s response to this power. Thirdly, it highlights the failure of an inflexible coaching approach to take account of the unique and ‘hybrid’ nature of athletes (Shogan, 1999), whose distinctive preferences and identities are "constructed across different, often intersecting discourses, practices and positions" (Hall, 1996, p.4). This is a potentially problematic situation for socially diverse individuals.


In conclusion, suggestions are made in relation to drawing lessons from Anne’s story with regard to re-interpreting the traditional coach-athlete relationship.



[1]. Cortazzi, M. (1993) Narrative analysis. London: Falmer.

[2]. Denzin, N. (1989) Interpretive biography. London: Sage

[3]. Hall, S. (1996) ‘Introduction: Who needs identity?’, in S. Hall and P. du Gay (eds.), Questions of cultural identity, (pp.1-17). London: Sage.

[4]. Tsang, T. (2000) ‘Let me tell you a story: A narrative exploration of identity in high-performance sport’, Sociology of Sport Journal 17: 44-59

[5]. Shogan, D. (1999) The making of high performance athletes: Discipline, diversity and ethics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.





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