Psychology of Sport and Exercise

The theme of the article rests on the back of three whales, namely female athletes, adversities that they fall foul of at a certain moment of life, and transformations that these adversities entail. It is not surprising that the article revolves around adversarial growth of female athletes. While the ways in which adversity may contribute to growth among elite male athletes have been explored more or less sufficiently, there is paucity of research into the ways the same adversities affect females. Bearing in mind the fact that female athletes differ from their male counterparts in terms of psychological organization and mental toughness, the importance of such a research grows by leaps and bounds. The authors of this article broached up the subject of female athletes’ responses to adversity prompted by desire to fill the gap.

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The authors bestowed term adversity on any physical or psychological stressors that had the necessary potential for hindering adequate functioning of the elite athletes and could precipitate the development of depression, anxiety or any other disorders. According to the data collected during interviews with the affected athletes, a whole array of stressors, which could be conducive to the appearance of symptoms, was discovered. They are as follows:

  • Female athletes could not live up to the expectations of coaches;
  • They were challenged by younger and more fit athletes;
  • They found it hard to recover from the experienced debacles;
  • Relationship problems loomed large in their performance;
  • Game errors, poor record, and climate of the sport in general.

These and other stressors were considered to be an adversity if they interfered with normal functioning of elite female athletes or compromised their success, athletic identity and sense of self-confidence.

Appearance of Adversity and its Effect on the Elite Athletes’ State of Mind

Taking into consideration the little research that has been carried out so far, a need arose to explore the factors behind the appearance of adversity and its effect on the elite athletes’ state of mind. The research conducted by Katherine A. Tamminen et al. does not leave much to be desired and its significance is unquestionable. It so fell out historically that gender inequality has been thriving for millennia. Women were granted suffrage in 1986 for the first time. However, not only women’s rights were curtailed as some researches show, but attention paid to the women’s rights issues in general. If the subject of research pertains to both men and women, researchers emphasize its effects on the sterner sex more readily. Being embarrassed by this outrage, authors of this article embarked on the quest of rectifying this disgraceful state of affairs. Exploring the ways in which adversity facilitates growth among female athletes and emboldens them to never back down, Katherine Tamminen and her colleagues bridged this deplorable divide, contributing thus to the common cause of their counterparts. In the tide of research it turned out that incidents of eating disorders, sexual harassment, bullying, injuries, conflicts with coach, and performance slumps are not few and far between among the elite female athletes. Whatever ridiculous it may sound they were happy to find out that there were other female athletes facing similar hardships. The scope of the adversities clearly demonstrates the necessity of research into this area.

In order to give readers an accurate idea of the issue, the authors have resorted to 42 external sources by and large. First of all these were peer-reviewed journals: Sports Medicine, Training and Rehabilitation, The Sport Psychologist, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, American Journal of Community Psychology, Clinical Psychology Review, Journal of Loss and Trauma, Current Psychology, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Journal of Traumatic Stress, Biological Psychiatry, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Psychological Bulletin, Research in Nursing and Health, and Journal of Personality. Some of them were written by the psychological medicine luminaries like J. A. Smith, S. Joseph, and M. H. McDonough. The overwhelming majority of articles were published during last seven years, though some of them date back to 1994. The fact that Katherine Tamminen et al. fell back on the fresh information adds plausibility to the results of their research. However, the authors did not confine their attention to journals only, for they have consulted with a number of books that were published primarily in the 21st century. In terms of the geographic location of the publishing houses, the ratio is equal – half of the books were published in London and the other half were published in the US.

The notion of adversity predominates in the article. Its meaning was construed according to the explanations that M. Wang and E. Gordon provide in their book “Educational Resilience in the Inner-City America: Challenges and prospects”. Another important concept used in the article is that of the growth following adversity. It was borrowed from the Joseph’s article “Positive adjustment to threatening events: an organismic valuing theory of growth through adversity”, which went into print in 2005. The authors did not set out to test any specific forms of growth, but theoretical frameworks were used to identify a target phenomenon (i.e. growth following adversity) that would inform the interview guide and provide a comparative context for data analysis. Although there is no definition of the term elite, the athletes were considered elite if they competed internationally.

 Among the hypotheses put forward by the authors were the following:

  • Women may experience greater growth following adversity because they are more likely to seek support following adversity as compared to men;
  • Elite female athletes can experience growth in terms of developing mental toughness from adversity;
  • Adversity leads to growth in those circumstances where elite female athletes realize they risk losing sport in their lives.

Whether these hypotheses hold is an empirical question, unanswered so far by the research literature. The research was conducted using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), the main feature of which is that it is applied to small and relatively homogeneous samples, and include the participants for whom the research question is significant. Though a number of female athletes necessary to carry out a study was not very high, the investigators did not look for them directly. Instead of this, following Research Ethics Board approval, they contacted university coaches and asked them to disseminate information about the forthcoming research. According to Smith et al., “the sample size for IPA studies must be from three to six participants.” In order to comply with the methodological guidelines only five female athletes were chosen. Certain details about the athletes and their experiences were excluded wittingly to maintain their anonymity.

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis Methodology

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis methodology is concerned with individuals’ perceptions of events, and the process of understanding individuals’ perceptions involves a “double hermeneutic” whereby the participant is trying to make sense of their personal and social world and the researcher is trying to make sense of the participants making sense of their world. These measures were enthusiastically adopted by the investigators, as the main emphasis was placed on the interpretation of data collected during interviews. One of their most significant, though generally inconspicuous consequences is that they transformed the original truism into noncircular propositions. The investigators’ efforts to marshal evidence in favor of their hypotheses yielded generally testable results. Semi-structured flexible interviews were conducted in a private office of the university campus.

The main imperfection of these interviews was that the respondents were given wide latitude to decide the course of interview. On the one hand, such a “demarche” endowed them with a possibility to describe things and events that were meaningful to them. On the other hand, this freedom could make them deviate from the main topics. Interviews were conducted by the first author only and lasted approximately an hour each. Of course, it would not have been wise if the investigators had attempted to divert the interviewing process to their own benefit, but they could have channeled the incoming information into a more manageable stream. Another issue is that a small number of interviewees erodes the plausibility of results somewhat, but at least it takes researchers out of self-evident contentions into a more stable empirical ground. A third consequence is that these interviews left little space for the consideration of ethical issues, even despite the fact that anonymity was maintained. Luckily, the interviewing process was not recorded unbeknownst to the respondents, but with their authorization.

The collected data was dissected according to the IPA methodological guidelines. The process consisted of five basic steps:

  • Reading and re-reading (each respondent’s transcripts were read);
  • Initial noting (the first author’s thoughts and impressions were recorded);
  • Development of emergent themes and establishment of connections between them;
  • Repetition of the previous step for each case;
  • Examination of themes (search for similarities and differences in descriptions and interpretations of adversity);

The creation of individual profiles and attempts to construe the meaning of adversity within the broader context of each participant’s life helped to advance the analysis. After all these steps were taken, the second and third authors performed the analysis from the scratch. The elite female athletes were invited to share their perspectives and opinions about the findings in the follow-up interviews.

Based on the athletes’ descriptions of their experiences, Katherine Tamminen et al. interpreted transcripts through the lens of metaphorical expressions. They interpreted combinations of words like “living in a hell”, “separated from the rest of the world”, and “living in a bubble” to illustrate the theme of isolation. Words such as “totally destroyed”, “hit rock bottom”, and “shattered” were interpreted to reflect emotional disruption that the elite athletes faced. The authors arrived at a conclusion that female athletes perceived both physical and mental growth as a result of engaging with their adversity. According to Tamminen et al., “Phrases as “there will always be more races” and “looking at the whole life scale” suggest that athletes gained perspective of themselves, despite (or perhaps because of) experiencing emotional disruption and challenges to their identities. The authors interpreted that as a result of not receiving the support from their friends and relatives, female athletes developed higher standards for their subsequent friendships.

Experiences of adversity changed athletes’ perceptions of their social support networks. Although some members of athletes’ social networks were perceived positively following adversity, others were perceived more negatively. Athletes also perceived their social networks differently following adversity due to their perceived growth and awareness of their own strength. As they gained perspective about their own growth, they developed higher training expectations for themselves and for their teammates and friends. Thus, athletes’ experiences of adversity led to both positive and negative changes in perceptions of their social network and growth.

There were some limitations to this study, which should be taken into consideration. Though the sample of elite female athletes was chosen on purpose, it restricts the findings. The variability in the athletes’ experiences is a second possible limitation. The authors did not sample athletes based on the homogeneity of experiences, but rather they allowed athletes to discuss adversity, which represented significant challenges to their understanding of themselves. Another limitation of this research is that Katherine Tamminen et al. asked athletes to retrospectively reflect on their adversity. 

The findings put forward in the article have implications for practitioners working with elite athletes. For instance, social support was an important factor for athletes in this study; however, they also felt withdrawn from others. This point is particularly important in light of their perceived expectations in dealing with adversity. It is important for athletes’ psychological recovery that they deal with adversity at their own pace. Practitioners should embolden athletes to disclose their thoughts and feelings with others and mobilize their social support network following adversity. However, the findings bear out the claims that sharing feelings and mobilizing support is a very daunting task for the elite female athletes who experienced adversity. Practitioners should also strive not to invalidate athletes’ perception of adversity, as this may contribute to athletes’ perceptions of high expectations and desire to isolate themselves from others.


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