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MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES AND INFLUENCES ON TALENT DEVELOPMENT
TARYN KELLY LYNN
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF SCIENCE IN EXERCISE AND SPORT SCIENCES
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Taryn Kelly Lynn
I would like to thank many people who allowed this exploration of talent
development research to occur. First, I want to thank my advisor Dr. Peter Giacobbi, Jr.,
who afforded me countless hours of time, effort, and support, and motivated me to
continue working harder and to push myself further than I thought possible. Also, I
would like to thank Drs. Robert Singer and Chris Janelle for their commitment to my
project. They were open minded in supporting me in my qualitative endeavors and in
understanding the differences in research possibilities.
I would also like to thank two important people in this process who were members
of the qualitative research group that spent tireless hours reading and coding interviews.
Brad Langley and Amber Stegelin provided input and support throughout this entire
process. I would also like to thank my fiance, Matthew Morgan, for his support and
understanding when I was buried in the computer and also for his outsider opinions and
input into this project.
I want to thank everyone I have met and will continue to meet in my journey. All
hold a special place in my heart.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ......... ................................................................................... iii
L IST O F FIG U R E S .... .............................. ....................... .......... ............... vi
ABSTRACT .............. ............................................. vii
1 IN TR OD U CTION ............................................... .. ......................... ..
S tu dy R atio n ale ................................................... ................ .. 3
Statement of Purpose ............................................ .... ................. ........ 5
G lossary of T erm s........................................................................................... ... .5
Personal Interest.................................................................... ..... ........... 6
2 REV IEW O F LITER A TU RE .......................................................................... ....... 9
G genetic A account ............................................... .......................... 9
Practice A account .................. ........................ .... .. ...... ................... .. 11
A P psychological Skills A account ................................................................... ........ 16
International A account .................. ........................................ .. ............ 19
S u m m a ry ......................................................................................................2 9
3 M E T H O D S ........................................................................................................3 1
P a rtic ip a n ts ........................................................................................................... 3 1
P articip ant B iog rap h ies ......................................................................................... 32
P ro c ed u re ................................................................ 3 4
D ata A nalysis................................................... 36
Issu es of T ru stw orthin ess ..................................................................................... 3 8
4 R E S U L T S .............................................................................4 1
R aw D ata T h em e s ................................................................................................. 4 2
Overall Ratings by Participants ............................................................. ......... 100
Summary of the M major Findings .................................................... .................102
G rounded Theory A .................................. ........ ........ ...............104
Grounded Theory B .......................... ..... ......... ........ ....... .. 109
5 D ISC U S SIO N ...................................................... 114
A INFORMED CONSENT FORMS ........................................ ........................ 144
B IN TE R V IE W G U ID E S ................................................ ....................................... 151
L IST O F R E FE R E N C E S ......................................................................... ................... 160
BIOGRAPH ICAL SKETCH .............................................................. ............... 165
LIST OF FIGURES
1 Athlete Conceptual Fram ew ork ........................................ ......................... 126
2 Parent Conceptual Framework....... .. ........... ..... ...................... ........ 133
3 Coach Conceptual Framework................... ...... .............. ....... ........ 138
4 A Grounded Theory Depicting the Development of Highly Successful
C collegiate A athletes ...................... .................. ............................ 142
5 A Grounded Theory Depicting Important Social Support Influences in the
Development of Highly Successful Collegiate Athletes ............ ... ..................143
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Science in Exercise and Sport Sciences
MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES AND INFLUENCES ON TALENT DEVELOPMENT
Taryn Kelly Lynn
Chair: Peter Giacobbi, Jr.
Major Department: Exercise and Sport Sciences
Researchers have debated the influence of nature and nurture in the development of
talent in sport for many years. Recently, scholars have advocated an integrated or
dynamic view of the interaction among nature, nurture, and the environment in the
development of talent in sport. The purpose of the present study was to describe,
examine, and gain an understanding of the major influences and experiences in the
overall talent development of collegiate athletes from multiple perspectives (e.g., athlete,
coach, family). A secondary purpose was to create a theoretical framework concerned
with the important relationships, key influences, and critical incidents in the talent
development of highly successful collegiate athletes. In-depth semi-structured interviews
with 8 Division I collegiate athletes, 6 current college coaches, and 12 parents were
conducted to explore multiple perspectives on the athlete's talent development to the
collegiate level in sport. The interviews were analyzed using grounded theory analytic
methods. Results revealed several higher order themes for each subgroup in the talent
development process. The higher order themes that evolved from the athlete interviews
included genetics, practice, parental influence, sibling influence, coach influence,
teammate influence, personality/mental characteristics, coping with adversity,
opportunities, sport lessons, and other sport participation. The higher order themes that
developed from the parent interviews included genetics, practice, parental social support,
parental roles, parental sacrifices, coach influence, teammate influence, child's
personality/mental characteristics, and priority on education. The higher order themes
raised from the coach interviews included genetics, practice, parental influence, coach
influence, teammate influence, athlete's personality/mental characteristics, and athlete
qualities. The impact of all of the higher order themes led to the adoption of an
interactional framework, taking into account the many factors that were involved in
becoming a highly successful college athlete. In addition, a grounded theory depicting
the development of highly successful collegiate athletes was developed to visually depict
the results and emphasize the importance of environmental opportunities, critical social
influences, and critical incidents in the lives of the athletes. Also, a grounded theory
depicting the importance of a social support system in athletic talent development
emerged. This study supported aspects of previous research, yet expanded it because of
the materialization of the importance of overcoming adversity. Therefore, developing
innate talent through critical social influences was central to overcome critical incidents
in order to develop into a highly successful college athlete.
The allure of professional sports leads many children to dream about becoming
the next Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, or Serena Williams. Children
around the world idolize high profile athletes and attempt to emulate their skills from a
young age. The media's portrayal of professional athletes and the exposure to sport that
many children experience directs an extensive number of children to become involved in
a variety of youth sporting events. Some of these children will mature into high school
athletes, fewer will become collegiate athletes, and far fewer will make it to the Olympics
or become professional athletes. Even though the percentage of people who become
collegiate or professional athletes is low, it does not deter both athletes and parents from
dreaming of receiving a college scholarship or becoming a professional athlete with a
multi-million dollar contract.
A recent report by the NCAA found that there are nearly one million high school
football players and almost 550,000 high school basketball players in the United States
(NCAA, n.d.a). Of these high school athletes, only 250 football players make it to the
NFL and only 50 basketball players make it to the NBA. Therefore, the odds of
becoming a professional are 6,000 to 1 in football and 11,000 to 1 in basketball. In
contrast, a greater number of high school athletes are able to become collegiate athletes.
About 56,000 of the one million football high school football players will compete in
college and 15,700 of the 550,000 high school basketball players will compete in college
(NCAA, n.d.b). These figures lead researchers to question what separates the small
percentage of athletes who make it to college or the pros from the large percentage who
are unable to take the next step in athletics. Some of these key factors will be addressed
in the present study.
It is fascinating to explore how and why certain individuals progress farther in
sport while others drop out to pursue alternative endeavors. Are some children destined
to become great athletes, or can anyone be molded into a star through practice and the
environment? The question then becomes who will be the next talented athlete that
develops into a superstar? Are there genetic qualities that allow certain people to develop
to the highest levels in sport? Or is athletic talent the result of years of practice? Or are
situational factors such as family and coach support important? Could athletic talent be
the result of a combination of genetics, practice, and environmental factors? These are
questions that researchers have struggled to answer for decades and the present work will
attempt to address.
One advantage of collegiate athletics is the opportunity to receive a scholarship
that pays for the athlete to garner an education. In many ways, the athlete is set for life
after college because if they do not continue playing, they will still have a degree to fall
back upon. Also, they may have developed exceptional sport skills during college that
would allow them to progress to the next level of sport if they choose to pursue that
avenue. Some athletes are able to stand out in college and become all-conference and/or
all-Americans. What was able to progress them to the collegiate level and what pushed
them to become even better during their collegiate years? To answer the questions posed
above it seemed best to ask the athletes themselves. It also appeared beneficial to talk to
the parents and coaches of the athletes to ascertain if they had the same or a different
perspective on the athlete's talent development.
The goals of talent development research continue to be to comprehend the
development of talent, to shorten the journey on the path to expertise, and to elongate
one's ability to perform at a peak level on numerous occasions (Starkes, Helsen, & Jack,
2001). Thomas, Gallagher, and Thomas (2001) alleged that these goals could be met
with interactional research that involves longitudinal, cross-cultural, gender, and/or
family studies. Numerous studies serve as examples of such interactional approaches to
talent development research (Carlson, 1993; C6te, 1999; Thomas & Thomas, 1999;
Vernacchia et al., 2000; Williams & Franks, 1998), yet only one study (Gould,
Dieffenbach, & Moffett, 2002) has utilized the viewpoints of three subsets of
participants. Gould and colleagues interviewed athletes who were current or former
Olympic champions; therefore no study has interviewed three subsets of participants for
collegiate athletes. Determining how extensive and meaningful practice, family support,
competent coaches and teachers, adequate physical resources, and psychological
characteristics should be maximized in the development of talent is an important next
step for researchers (Durand-Bush & Salmela, 2001). The current study will take the
next step by investigating these talent development components from the perspectives of
multiple coaches, athletes, and families.
As will be discussed below, the examination of talent development is a fertile
area. There are competing accounts in the talent development literature, namely the
genetic, practice, psychological skills, and interactional accounts. Many debates have
ensued over which account could explain expertise, but none have become the clear-cut
choice. Therefore, exploratory qualitative studies are needed to more delve fully into the
multi-dimensionality of athletic talent development (Starkes et al., 2001). Interviewing
athletes to obtain information is a procedure of knowledge acquisition that is essential to
a better understanding of the various antecedents to expert performance (Regnier,
Salmela, & Russell, 1993). Because qualitative methods lead to description,
interpretation, verification, and evaluation (Strean, 1998), talent development research
should benefit from this approach. Researchers, in an attempt to generate a
comprehensive theory of talent development, are still trying to describe and interpret how
some individuals become elite athletes while others never make it to the upper echelon of
their respective sport. As Klinger (1973) suggested, beginning with qualitative methods
and progressing toward more precise, quantitative methods may yield a richer portrayal
of social scientific phenomenon. Similarly, Patton (1990) stated that qualitative methods
allow the interviewer to understand how another person views the world. In order to gain
the richest possible information about the idea in question, it is vital that the researcher
provides a framework in which participants can respond accurately and thoroughly about
their experiences (Patton, 1990). Therefore, the current study will utilize qualitative
interview techniques to provide personal in-depth descriptions of athletic talent
development of highly successful college athletes. Also, a theoretical framework will be
created from the emergent findings in order to provide a guide for future talent
Statement of Purpose
The purpose of the current study was to utilize multiple perspectives (e.g., athlete,
parent, coach) to describe, examine, and gain an understanding of the major influences
and important experiences in the development of highly talented collegiate athletes. A
second purpose was to use the participants' descriptions and experiences to create a
theoretical framework in an effort to represent the most important social relationships and
major influences during the talent development process of highly successful collegiate
Glossary of Terms
Coding is an analytic process through which data are fractured, conceptualized, and
integrated to form theory. Open coding refers to an analytic process through which
concepts are identified and their properties and dimensions are discovered in the data.
Axial coding refers to a process of relating categories to their subcategories. Selective
coding refers to the process of integrating and refining the theory.
Conceptual framework is a diagram that shows the relationship of the data from
raw data themes to higher order themes.
Conceptual ordering refers to organizing the data according to a selective and
specified set of properties and their dimensions.
Constant comparison refers to continually assessing similarities and differences in
Grounded theory is a set of well developed concepts grounded in the data and
related through statements of relationship, which constitute an integrated framework that
can be used to explain or predict phenomena.
Higher order themes are categories of raw data themes that fit together to form a
category or higher order theme used to categorize further raw data.
Highly successful college athlete refers to a college athlete who has excelled in
their sport during college and garnered at least all-conference but more likely all-
Member check refers to sending interview transcripts and summaries to the
participants for them to assure the accuracy and credibility of their responses.
Raw data themes are data specifically stated by participants in its basic form.
Reflexive journal is a journal to record memos, code notes, theoretical notes, and
researcher insights throughout the research process.
Sensitizing concepts offer ways of considering, arranging, and understanding
experiences, serve as "points of departure" from which to study data (Charmaz, 2000, p.
Theoretical sampling is sampling on the basis of emerging concepts, with the aim
being to explore the dimensional range or varied conditions along which the properties of
Theoretical saturation refers to a point in category development at which no new
properties, dimensions, or relationships emerge during analysis.
Triangulation is comparing data from multiple sources to assure accuracy.
Athletics have been a part of my life since the age of four. It all started when I
began taking tennis lessons from the local pro in exchange for mechanical work on his
car from my father. From that time, I participated in as many sports as possible such as
swimming, water skiing, surfing, volleyball, basketball, softball, golf, and of course
tennis. My parents were both very athletic and sports just seemed like a part of life.
While progressing through competition at the national level in junior tennis tournaments,
I had to make a decision about becoming a professional or choosing to go to college on a
scholarship. For some reason, I had always wanted to experience college life and college
tennis so I chose the latter, which allowed me to play two sports at the Division I
collegiate level. Because of my experience in athletics and my love of the psychology of
sport, I then chose to pursue a master's degree in sport psychology with the goal of
helping other athletes learn about the mental aspects of their chosen sport. I always felt
that the mental game was essential to my success and believe that I can help others
become mentally tough, thereby gaining an edge to reach their greatest potential.
The question I always pondered throughout my career was how and why some
athletes make it to college or the pros, while others do not, even though they may be very
talented or practice all the time. I also wondered why I had chosen collegiate tennis and
volleyball instead of pursuing professional tennis. These thoughts, as well as literature I
read once I became interested in the topic of talent development, led me to my current
research topic. I wanted to try to discover what characteristics lead to athletic success.
While exploring talent development, I wanted to be able to talk in-depth to athletes about
their experiences, which led me to choose qualitative interviewing methods.
Interviewing also suited my interests because of my humanistic beliefs, coaching
background, and people-orientated characteristics. In my opinion, a person's in-depth
individual recount of how he or she became who they are tells an intimate and elaborate
story. Also, from my coaching and personal experiences, I decided to use the grounded
theory analytic method in hopes of providing a theory or framework for researchers,
athletes, families, and coaches to benefit from during the talent development process of
other athletes. My dream is to become a scientist-practitioner working as both a
researcher and consultant, so hopefully this project is a first step in aiding researchers,
consultants, and the general public both scholastically and practically.
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
There is a wealth of research that has examined the development of talent in sport
(Bloom, 1985; Ericsson, 1993; C6te, 1999; Gould, Dieffenbach, & Moffett, 2002; Starkes
& Ericsson, 2003). As will be discussed, there are four main viewpoints that researchers
have studied: the genetic account, the practice account, the psychological skills account,
and the interactional account. Although the genetic, practice, and psychological skills
accounts have strong components, none have been able to fully explain talent
development. This is why contemporary researchers have advocated a shift toward a
more interactional account of talent development that acknowledges the relative
contributions of nature, nurture, and psychological skills (Durand-Bush & Salmela, 2001;
Singer & Janelle, 1999). An overview of the four main perspectives of talent
development will be examined subsequently, along with research performed within each
viewpoint, to provide a background as to why some researchers advocate the adoption of
an interactional perspective.
The genetic account of talent development placed emphasis on innate
characteristics being responsible for exceptional performance (Bouchard, Malina, &
Perusse, 1997). Genetics have been shown to contribute to factors such as height, body
composition, flexibility, morphology, aerobic capacity, adaptability to training, muscle
tissue composition, psychological skills, and personality traits (Wilmore & Costill, 1999;
Baltes, 1998; Lykken, 1982; Cowart, 1987). These physiological factors represented a
distinctive characteristic to sport development research. These aspects of a person are not
pertinent issues in the development of other skills such as academics, chess, and music,
which were where a great deal of the expertise research emanated (Janelle & Hillman,
2003). Therefore, athletic expertise development research embodied the undeterminable
factor of genetic influence. It was also possible that genetic physiology differed between
and within certain sports. For instance, the physiology for football and tennis were quite
different, as was the physiology for differing positions in football such as quarterback and
offensive lineman. Although not a salient influence in talent development for other tasks,
the influence of genetics presented a unique challenge for researchers of sport expertise.
Bouchard and colleagues (1997) alleged that researchers were considerably far
from understanding the contribution of genetics to sport performance. Genetic advocates
supported the notion that an elite athlete must first possess a favorable genetic make-up
and also be highly responsive to training and practice in order to become an elite athlete.
Genetic proponents believed that people who had a favorable genetic formula could
improve their performance through extensive practice, thereby recognizing that extensive
practice can potentially modify and/or enhance genetic characteristics that contributed to
talent. Aside from this, genetic advocates also alleged that there were limits to
adaptability and that these limits were primarily genetically determined (Klissouras,
1997). In spite of this, current research studies accounting for heritable genetic
influences on expertise were limited (Reilly, Bangsbo, & Franks, 2000). Nonetheless,
Bouchard, Malina, and Perusse attested that the true contribution of genetics was far from
understood and future research could possibly identify genes or combinations of genes
that predisposed individuals to achieve athletic excellence. Because the current study
was not seeking to determine genetic markers, only participant's perceptions of genetics,
additional attention will not be given to the physiology of talent development.
It is worth pointing out that the talent account may have important social
implications for children in sport. The talent account implied that a genetic ability must
be present early in life for children to become successful in athletics. This could result in
a stigma being attached to children who are identified as talented at a young age. It could
also influence some children to avoid competitive sport if they or others did not deem
themselves to have genetic gifts (Howe, Davidson, Sloboda, 1998). Janelle and Hillman
(2003) described how the rigid naturist position has been almost discarded by most
expertise researchers in favor of nurturist and interactionist perspectives. These
viewpoints will be described below.
Researchers advocating the practice, or nurturist, account of talent development
promoted the belief that appropriate environmental conditions could lead to the
development of talent in sport for all people regardless of genetic potential. In this
account, the role of practice was stressed and the role of genetics was deemphasized.
Initial research on expert performance and expertise, introduced by DeGroot
(1978/1946), was centered on world-class chess players, not on athletics. Simon and
Chase (1973 a, 1973b) advanced DeGroot's research by developing a theory proposing
that expert chess players did not vary from non-experts in terms of their basic capabilities
and general potentials. Simon and Chase's theoretical perspective eventually became a
dominant theory and molded expertise research for years to come (Ericsson, 2003). They
predicted that the identical patterns of thought and knowledge mediated memory for
game situations, but research failed to find similarities in thought patterns. Therefore,
Ericsson and Smith (1991) concluded that conventional expertise theories could not fully
explain complex memory and perception during expert performance. From this, Ericsson
and Smith inferred that through extensive training, experts were able to extend the basic
limits of information processing and develop superior performance to those who did not
engage in extensive training.
Thereby extending early theories of expertise, the theory of deliberate practice was
proposed to explain talent development by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer (1993).
These researchers believed that expertise was achievable by essentially anyone and that
talent emerged through an expansive period of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice
was defined as any highly structured, goal-directed activity designed exclusively to
improve performance through well-defined tasks, informative feedback, and possibilities
for repetition and corrections of errors (Ericsson et al., 1993). Because these well-
defined tasks were effortful, they were not found to be inherently enjoyable nor
motivating. Ericsson (1996), from the benchmark work of Chase and Simon (1973a,
1973b) with chess experts, alleged that 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice
was necessary, yet not sufficient, for someone to become an expert performer. Achieving
exceptional skills reflected an on-going long-term adaptation to the demands and
constraints of deliberate practice within the chosen domain. Some constraints to
achieving expertise were lack of resources, motivation, and/or effort. Ericsson et al.
(1993) observed a positive linear relationship between the number of hours engaged in
deliberate practice and the level of expertise attained with expert musicians. They also
found that children who began training later could not catch up to those who began at an
earlier age. Therefore, Ericsson et al. (1993) concluded that regardless of genetic
potential, anyone could reach expertise given they participated in the necessary amount
of deliberate practice.
The physiological nature of sports was one aspect that differed from chess, music,
or academics. Ericsson and Lehman (1996) claimed that practically all aspects of the
human body could change and adapt to induced demands, especially when practice was
started during childhood and adolescence. Examples given by Ericsson and Lehman
included a ballet dancer's ability to turn out the feet and a baseball pitchers shoulder joint
range of motion. Also, the human body and its cells could be placed under extreme
strain, whereby the body responded with exceptional physiological processes. Examples
of this were when adults' bodies recover from broken bones and/or surgery and when an
adult donated a kidney, the other immediately grew in size by 70% only two weeks post-
surgery. Therefore, Ericsson (2003) believed that when exposed to demanding deliberate
practice or physiologically exerting activities, bodies could exceed the confinements of
ability and capacity in untrained life. The genetic traits that Ericsson felt were not
modifiable included only height and body size. Others such as heart size, V02 max,
strength, endurance, and metabolic rate were believed to be alterable through extended
physical activity and deliberate practice. Although the theory of deliberate practice was
attractive to those who believed that anyone could become a world-class athlete, it did
not explain why some people trained extensively for over 10 years, yet never reached
elite athletic potential.
In response to Ericsson, Singer and Janelle (1999) wondered about the "what and
how" of deliberate practice, rather than only about the amount of deliberate practice. For
Singer and Janelle (1999), the "what and how" included the training and expertise of
coaches in the athletic environment and the extent to which feedback and monitoring of
goals by coaches was emphasized. They asserted that coaches played a significant role in
deciding which techniques and strategies were taught as well as how and how long
athletes were trained. Expert coaches were also found to possess the goal of producing
an environment that was most conducive to improving performance in the athlete and
making practice enjoyable for them (Salmela, 1996). In contrast to Ericsson's claims,
deliberate practice in athletics has been found to be enjoyable because athletes were
practicing their chosen sport and enjoyed participating in relevant, effortful activities
(Young, 1998). Enjoyment of deliberate practice was a discrepancy found between the
musicians studied by Ericsson and the athletes studied by other researchers (Durand-Bush
& Salmela, 2001; Young, 1998; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993).
Another set of supporters for the nurturist account, Howe, Davidson, and Sloboda
(1998), provided a comprehensive examination of the nature-nurture talent development
literature. An important factor in the review was that they outlined and defined five
properties of talent. These were: (1) Talent originates in genetic structures and is at least
partly innate, (2) it may not be fully evident at an early stage but there may be some early
indications, (3) early indications provide a basis for predicting who will excel, (4) only a
minority are talented, and (5) talents are relatively domain-specific. Along with Ericsson,
Howe and colleagues favored the nurture explanation of talent development, but also
provided evidence in support of the talent (genetic) account, evidence contradicting the
talent account, and alternative influences on talent development in their review. These
researchers concluded that innate talents were fiction and not fact because they felt that
people became successful as a result of environmental factors such as intense training
rather than innate abilities.
Howe and colleagues received numerous peer commentaries, with researchers
supporting both sides of the nature-nurture debate. A number of researchers also favored
the interactional approach, as shown in the following examples and elaborated upon in
the section labeled interactional approach. Csikszentmihalyi (1998) responded to the
Howe article saying that researchers were "flogging the dead horse" (p. 411) trying to
account for expertise in only one way, because it seemed clear that talent involves innate
characteristics, practice, and social opportunities. Detterman, Gabriel, and Ruthsatz
(1998) felt that the Howe et al. (1998) article should have been called "absurd
environmentalism" (p. 411). They claimed that deliberate practice was important to
expertise, but would not equalize outcomes despite the best of intentions. They argued
that everyone would convert to the nurture viewpoint if Howe et al. could randomly
select 100 mentally retarded people and 100 people with a high IQ, and after 10 years of
deliberate practice make them all equally outstanding musicians. From this debate, it
appeared that some researchers saw the need for a dynamic, interactional approach to the
study of expertise.
Discussion over the influence of nature and nurture on talent development seemed
to be never-ending. With this in mind, it appeared as if an interactional approach might
be the most productive for researchers. For instance, Singer and Janelle (1999)
recommended the need for an explanation of the development of talent from birth to
maturity that encompassed all relevant factors. From their perspective, talent
development should be viewed as a lifelong process. Genetics formed the basis and
predisposition for success in a specific sport by allowing an ideal body structure, a lack of
critical disorders or diseases, and a particular temperament for learning in that sport. If a
person possessed a favorable genetic predisposition, it was probable that deliberate
practice would produce the intended outcome. Also included were opportunities,
feedback, guidance, support, and reinforcement from parents, coaches, and other family
members that molded one's genetic potential. The individual should also be actively
involved in self-instruction and show effort, persistence, enjoyment, and satisfaction
within their chosen activity in order to remain committed to developing to their full
potential. Singer and Janelle (1999) claimed that long periods of dedicated practice and
training to attain excellence, establish self-competence, and realize self-worth and self-
confidence finalized the talent profile. The interaction of genetics, practice, and
situational factors must be investigated further to understand to what degree they are
intertwined. Along with practice, some researchers also believed that certain
psychological characteristics allowed an athlete to succeed, although it is not certain
whether psychological skills were innate or learned. Therefore, before elaborating on the
interactional account, a synopsis of research on psychological skills in the development
of talent will be presented.
A Psychological Skills Account
Another approach to research on talent development was the psychological skills
account. Studies pertaining to psychological skills were sparse in the literature on expert
performance (Janelle & Hillman, 2003). In previous research, elite athletes had been
found to possess significantly higher levels of psychological skills than less elite athletes
(Durand-Bush & Salmela, 2001). In these studies, it was consistently determined that
commitment and self-confidence were related to high-level performance (Orlick &
Partington, 1988; Mahoney, Gabriel, & Perkins, 1987). In addition, some studies have
shown that expert athletes scored higher in commitment, goal setting, competition
planning, self-confidence, stress reactivity, focusing, and refocusing (Janelle & Hillman,
2003). Wilson (1999) concluded that elite athletes utilized mental skills more than their
non-elite counterparts in both training and competition. Overall, it was concluded that
elite athletes were extremely confident and dedicated individuals who were willing to do
anything to be the best, even if they sacrificed other important activities (Orlick, 1996;
Mahoney, Gabriel, & Perkins, 1987). Some of the studies pertaining to psychological
skills will be discussed subsequently.
Mahoney, Gabriel, and Perkins (1987) administered the Psychological Skills
Inventory for Sport (PSIS) to 713 male and female athletes from 23 different sports.
They found that psychological skills such as concentration, anxiety management, self-
confidence, mental preparation, and motivation were greater among elite and collegiate
level athletes than people who were non-elite. The PSIS was found to have problems
with reliability and validity so the results from this study must be interpreted carefully.
Another study on psychological skills conducted by Morgan, O'Conner, Ellickson,
and Bradley (1988) found that elite runners were more likely than non-elite runners to
possess the "Iceberg Profile" of mood states. Low scores on tension, depression, anger,
fatigue, and confusion, and high scores on vigor characterized the "Iceberg Profile".
Participants in exercise and sport have confirmed this profile (Morgan, 1985; Morgan,
O'Connor, & Pate, 1987), but it was also questioned as to how robust its findings were
for sport (Van den Auweele, Nys, Rzewnicki, & Van Mele, 2001).
Orlick and Partington (1988) studied mental links to athletic excellence of Olympic
athletes using both interviews and questionnaires. They found that mental readiness,
namely attentional focus and quality and control of performance imagery, were important
in influencing an athlete's performance. They also found common elements related to
success. These included: (1) total commitment to pursuing excellence, (2) quality
training that included daily goals, competition simulation, and imagery training, and (3)
quality mental preparation for competition. Roadblocks to excellence included: (1)
changing patterns that work (e.g. deciding to run before an event instead of doing your
normal stretching routine), (2) late selection (e.g. being passed up when you are young),
and (3) inability to refocus after distractions (e.g. not being able to get over a bad call by
the referee). In general, psychological skills account research has failed to identify the
mechanisms by which mental skills are acquired and implemented, which led to the need
for more in-depth research on how psychological skills are developed and utilized.
The previous three accounts of talent development (genetic, practice, and
psychological skills) have provided rich data over the years. Although these findings
were beneficial, no single account was able to explain talent development completely.
This discrepancy led toward a swing for a more conciliatory position known as the
interactional account. The interactional account encompassed genetics, practice,
psychological skills, and situational factors such as the influence of family, coaches, and
teammates. This viewpoint will be described below, along with research conducted in
The interactional account emphasized many characteristics that were ingredients in
athletic talent development. These aspects included genetics, practice, psychological
skills, and situational factors (i.e. family, coaches, teammates, socioeconomic status,
significant others). The interactional viewpoint observed that there was more than one
reason a person becomes an elite athlete because all factors (genetics, practice,
psychological, and situational) must interact in the best way possible for success to occur.
For instance, Singer and Janelle (1999) noted the need for a more integrative, less
confrontational approach to future studies on expertise. They stated, "We must return to
the idea that nature and nurture do interact to determine performance. It is important to
delve further into understanding to what degree they are interwoven" (p. 146). Therefore,
it was essential to move beyond examining the extreme positions of nature and nurture,
and shift toward a more unified understanding of the development of athletic talent. The
focus should be on the interaction of all factors and how they could be utilized to their
maximum potential for children hoping to become talented athletes. Other researchers
also noted the need for multidimensional studies that embraced the mutual importance of
all perspectives (Csikszentmihalyi, 1998; Detterman, Gabriel, & Ruthsatz, 1998;
Freeman, 1998). Therefore, an overview of interactional research conducted with
athletes, athletes and families, athletes and coaches, and athletes, families, and coaches
will be discussed below.
Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen (1993) engaged in a four year study on
the experiences, thoughts, and behaviors of 208 high school athletes, considered "talented
teenagers," by Bloom's (1985) criteria. Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues (1993) assumed
that there was a particular mind-set called a complex attentional structure or a complex
consciousness, which allowed certain athletes to reach a flow state where deliberate
practice was enjoyable. When athletes possessed this mind-set or flow state, they
enjoyed the hardships and challenges of their sport, and viewed these situations as
positive and stimulating. This perception allowed talent to continue to develop to its
utmost level. Therefore, in contrast to Ericsson, they felt that deliberate practice could be
an enjoyable experience for athletes and that the athletes were more likely to continue in
their talent development because they enjoyed what they were doing. In addition,
Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues (1993) stated that talent had three elements: individual
traits (both inherited and learned), cultural domains, and social fields. It was the
interaction of all of the factors within these elements that led to a favorable talent
temperament. Some athletes may have been born with greater gifts, but it was not the
size of the initial gift, it was what the individual made of it through a long, arduous
training process that led to expertise. Talent development, from this viewpoint, was
considered to be a long-term dynamic process involving individual traits, cultural
domains, and social fields (Csikszentmihalyi et al., 1993).
Williams and Franks (1998) examined talent identification in soccer, detecting
potential anthropometrical, physiological, psychological, and sociological predictors of
talent in soccer. These findings led to the implication that many attributes lent a hand in
the development of talent, with the possibility that each category might vary from sport to
sport. Therefore, finding specific indicators of talent in each sport, and also by gender,
could be an important advancement in future research on talent development. The more
specific the measurements, the more likely that one might be able to predict success in a
certain sport (Howe, Davidson, & Sloboda, 1998).
Carlson (1993; 1988) also found that talent development was the result of an
interactive process with the environment in which the learning of social roles was
important. Youngsters who were talented at early ages had the opportunity to develop
through good coaching, sport clubs, parental support, and socialization, whereas
youngsters who were not seen as talented did not receive the same opportunities. The
development of talent was regarded as a dynamic, ongoing interactive process between
the individual and the immediate environment. Carlson's (1993) interpretation of the
tendency to underestimate social and psychological influences in the development of
talent led again to an interactive approach for studying talent development in sport.
More recently, Vemacchia, McGuire, Reardon, and Templin (2000) conducted an
interview study with 15 (nine male, six female) Olympic track and field athletes to
explore the psychosocial factors in their development. Four themes emerged and were
labeled mental skills and attitudes, developmental concerns, socioeconomic factors, and
spiritual/religious factors. For mental skills and attitude, athletes stressed the ability to
have fun as an essential element to success. Athletes also adopted a process-orientated
approach to their sport that stressed socialization factors, travel opportunities, and health
benefits. Many athletes emphasized the role of mental imagery and visualization in
allowing them to focus and concentrate. Patience, perseverance, persistence, overcoming
self-doubt, confidence, and having dreams were seen as virtues to succeed in track and
field. For developmental concerns, the athletes thought that participation in a variety of
sports during childhood was important, with a gradual training progression as they aged.
The role of the coach and the coach-athlete relationship were important to the athletes'
development, with the coach's role changing from a task master role to an advisory role
as the athlete matured. For socioeconomic factors, a strong social support system and
nurturing environment were essential. Many athletes also tried to gain scholarships to
college at this time because of economic concerns and/or to continue training. For
spiritual/religious factors, athletes believed that spirituality, religion, and/or prayer helped
them remain faithful to goals, provided deeper meaning to their athletic career, and
allowed them to cope with injuries. Overall, this study showed that athletes considered
psychosocial factors to play a large role in their athletic talent development.
Similarly, Durand-Bush and Salmela (2002) conducted interviews with 10 (four
men, six women) World and Olympic Champions who had won at least two gold medals
at separate games to explore factors that played a role in the development and
maintenance of their expert athletic performance. They found that the athletes progressed
through four stages in their career including the sampling, specializing, investment, and
recreational years. Transitions from stage to stage were marked by a significant event
such as obtaining a new coach, moving, entering high school, or winning a gold medal.
Key characteristics of the investment and maintenance years will be discussed below.
During the investment years, athletes focused in on their sport and became a World
or Olympic champion making many sacrifices to concentrate on training. Family
members played a supportive and nurturing role. Coaches were both motivating and
demanding. Having adequate equipment, facilities, and funds were found to be important
during the investment years. Key personal characteristics pertained to self-confidence,
motivation, and competitiveness. These included being highly independent, motivated to
train, and enjoying the sport. Practices were intense and regimented. They included
more physical (weights, push-ups, stretching), tactical (developing strategies), technical
(refinement), and mental training (imagery, focusing). Competitions were very important
at this time to apply training and appraise advancements and achievements. Athletes
adopted an optimal mindset prior to competition by using imagery, relaxation, and self-
talk techniques to deal with pressure and expectations. They also utilized post-
competition evaluations. During the maintenance years, athletes continued to rely on
their families and coaches, as well as sport psychologists, other athletes, and strength
trainers for guidance. Families and coaches provided support, knowledge, and feedback
to athletes. The personal characteristics that helped athletes during the maintenance years
included self-confidence, motivation, and competitiveness as in the investment years, but
also included always striving to learn and improve. The viewpoint of athletes on talent
development was an important avenue to pursue, but some researchers felt that more in-
depth studies using families and coaches were warranted to encompass the full spectrum
of athletic talent development (C6te, 1999; Thomas and Thomas, 1999; Gould,
Dieffenbach, and Moffett, 2002). Research pertaining to athletes and families, which
included Bloom and C8te's influential stage theories, will be described next.
Researching Athletes and Families
Bloom (1985) conducted an innovative study that attempted to deduce factors that
contributed to talent development. He provided extensive in-depth research on the
development of talent using a four-year longitudinal study of over 120 talented athletes,
artists, musicians, and scientists. The sample included 21 Olympic swimmers (10 male,
11 female) (Kalinowski, 1985) and 18 top 10 world-ranked tennis players (10 male, 8
female) (Monsaas, 1985). The athletes were retrospectively interviewed along with one
or both of their parents. From the results, Bloom outlined three "Critical Stages of Talent
Development." The early years, or "Stage of Initiation," were characterized by fun,
playful activities with guidance, stimulation of interest, and support from parents.
Activities were very process-orientated during this stage. Many parents and/or teachers
noticed special talents or gifts in children during this time. The middle years, or "Stage
of Development," were when children became more serious about their activity and
showed more dedication to succeed. During this stage, more practice time was initiated,
athletes were competing extensively, and the focus was more achievement-orientated.
Parents and athletes made sacrifices through both time and money, and parents primarily
provided moral and financial support. Coaches became more technically advanced and
developed a strong relationship with the athlete. The late years, or "Stage of Perfection,"
were when individuals become experts. The chosen activity dominated all aspects of the
person's life and they became more autonomous and knowledgeable about their training
and competition. Coaches became very strict and demanded enormous amounts of
dedication. The parent's role was lessened and limited to motivation and monetary
involvement as athletes became immersed in their chosen sport.
The "Critical Stages of Talent Development" developed by Bloom (1985) provided
an outline that encompassed the stages of talent development required for obtaining a
high level of expertise. Bloom's own perspective on the nature-nurture debate was that
regardless of the "initial characteristics (or gifts) of the individuals, unless there is a long
and intensive process of encouragement, nurturance, education, and training, the
individual will not attain extreme levels of capability in these particular fields" (p. 3). It
took many years of commitment to go through the talent development process, thus the
amount and quality of support and instruction an athlete received was important. Overall,
Bloom's investigation was instrumental in the advancement of talent development
Similarly, C6te (1999) interviewed athletes and their families about athletic career
development and the role that several factors played in their improvement. He
interviewed four elite athletes (two female rowers, one male rower, and one male tennis
player), four mothers, three fathers, and four siblings. The interview data fit into three
distinct chronological categories he called the "Stages of Sport Participation," much like
Bloom's (1985) "Critical Stages of Talent Development." The first stage was labeled the
"Sampling Years." This stage occurred from the ages of 6-13 and consisted of more play
than deliberate practice or training, with enjoyment, as well as experimentation in
different sports emphasized. During this stage, parents started their children in sport and
felt that they had a special gift, which increased supportive behaviors such as motivation,
encouragement, and positive reinforcement. The athlete and their siblings participated in
a variety of activities at this age. The second stage was labeled the "Specializing Years."
This stage occurred from ages 13-15 when athletes chose one or two sports to focus on,
rather than continuing to experiment with numerous sports. Families and coaches
influenced this decision, and athletes focused their skills with more structured practices.
There was a balance between play and deliberate practice in this stage. Parent's showed
more interest in their child's sport and engaged in support through time and monetary
means. Parents placed emphasis on both school and sport during this stage, and did not
want their child to have a part-time job. Older siblings served as positive role models for
having a strong work ethic during this stage. The third stage identified was the
"Investment Years." This stage was illustrated by the quest for an elite level of
performance and occurred around the age of 15. More time, effort, and intense deliberate
practice were found in this stage, with much less play. Parents showed extreme interest
in the child's sport and provided support through motivation, helping the child fight
setbacks, and financial means. This often caused an uneven distribution of resources
among other siblings, producing jealousy and bitterness.
C8te's (1999) "Stages of Sport Participation" and Bloom's (1985) "Critical Stages
of Talent Development" seemed fairly similar, provided frameworks for further
investigations, and stressed the need for an interactional approach to expertise research.
C8te's stages differed from Bloom's because they identified age ranges for each stage,
were sport specific, and focused on the concepts of deliberate practice and deliberate
play. Both studies found parental influences and guidance to be very important, with the
parent's roles changing as children developed. The role of parents evolved from a
leadership role to a supportive/motivating role as children became more involved in sport
(C6te, 1999). Thus, C6te and Bloom's works suggested the need to further study the role
of families in the development of talent. Finally, coaches should also be focused on in
talent development research because of the impact they have on the athlete during these
stages of development. Studies that examined both athletes and coaches will be
Researching Athletes and Coaches
Thomas and Thomas (1999) interviewed two expert elementary school physical
education teachers who coached a future NBA player and a future Division I soccer
player. Their objective was to determine whether the elementary school teachers could
have predicted future success. The main factors the teachers identified in these athletes
as children were working hard, knowing what to do, demonstrating positive attitudes, and
having coordinated skills and body awareness. Both experts were identified as having
early promise, but the teachers felt that other students showed the same level of ability as
the two who made it to the elite level. Although the teachers mentioned genetics during
the interviews, they generally downplayed the role of hereditary characteristics.
Therefore, elementary school teachers were able to identify students who became
successful athletes later in life, but also recognized others who were at the same level at
that time and did not make it. This led researchers to ponder what occurred throughout
the successful and non-successful talent development periods of these students' lives.
Giacobbi, Roper, Whitney, and Butryn (2002) conducted an exploratory
investigation with collegiate coaches to examine their viewpoints on athletes who
developed significantly while on their team. Ten Division I coaches (five women's and
five men's coaches) were interviewed and seven higher order themes emerged. These
themes were developmental considerations, motivation/competitiveness, coachability,
coaches' influence, teams' influence, and miscellaneous contextual influences.
Developmental considerations included physical, mental, and psychosocial development.
Coaches observed that players matured in many aspects of life and sport during their
collegiate athletic career. In addition, athletes were motivated, competitive, determined,
and committed to doing their best. Coachability was attributed to athletes who responded
well to instruction, were willing to make changes, and were organized, attentive,
inquisitive, and trusting of their coaches. The coaches' influence was seen as important
because they treated each athlete as an individual, gave feedback, and filled many roles
for an athlete (coach, parent, friend, sport psychologist). Positive team influence and
team support were found to have a positive impact on social support and motivation for
athletes. According to the collegiate coaches in the Giacobbi et al. (2002) study, a
combination of individual experiences (e.g., maturity, motivation/competitiveness,
coachability), and contextual influences (e.g., coach-athlete dynamics and team
considerations) made valuable contributions toward athletic development in college.
Lastly, one study examined the viewpoints of athletes, parents, and coaches, and this
research will be illustrated below.
Researching Athletes, Families, and Coaches
A recent study conducted by Gould, Dieffenbach, and Moffett (2002) examined the
development of psychological talent from the perspectives of athletes, families, and
coaches. Ten current or former United States Olympic champions, one of their coaches,
and a parent, guardian, or significant other were interviewed as part of the study. All of
the athletes had been successful at the Olympics, with a total of 32 medals among them.
This study focused on discovering the psychological talents athletes possessed, as well as
determining what individuals, institutions, and/or strategies influenced the development
of these talents. Quantitative psychological inventories were used to supplement
qualitative interview methods. The results of this mixed-method study revealed that
successful Olympians were characterized by the ability to cope with and control anxiety,
sport intelligence, confidence, mental toughness/resiliency, the ability to focus and block
out distractions, coachability, high levels of dispositional hope, optimism, the ability to
set and achieve goals, competitiveness, a hard-work ethic, and adaptive perfectionism
(Gould et al., 2002). Many of these findings verified current research, yet adaptive
perfectionism, dispositional hope, and high levels of optimism emerged as new variables.
The major influences on the psychological talent development of the athletes were the
community, family, non-sport personnel (teachers, friends), the individual themselves,
sport environment personnel (coaches, agents), and the sport process itself. These
influences were either direct (teaching psychological lessons) or indirect (unknowing
and/or modeling). Parents were found to be very influential and played a critical role in
development through financial, logistical, and social-emotional support. Coaches also
played a key role by tailoring coaching strategies to athletes, providing encouragement,
emphasizing hard work and fun, facilitating trust, and directly teaching mental skills.
It should be noted that all of the athletes in the Gould et al. (2002) study fit into
Bloom's (1985) "Critical Stages of Talent Development." In conclusion, it was
suggested that the interaction of many factors over a long period of time allowed these
athletes to become Olympic champions. Interesting recommendations for athletes,
coaches, and parents alike were found in the Gould et al. (2002) study. Specifically, the
authors suggested that a profile of psychological skills of champions might be used as a
collegiate recruiting tool. The authors also suggested that providing such a framework
could offer a base of knowledge that would assist athletes in the development of mental
skills, thereby making desirable outcomes more likely.
The exploration of talent development was and continues to be a prolific area for
investigation because as shown previously, no research has been able to provide a
conciliatory explanation of the attributes necessary to become a successful athlete. There
may not be one specific formula that led to successful athletic development, but more
studies should be done to bring the scientific world closer to a solution. Hopefully by
partaking in more studies and utilizing a variety of methods to examine talent
development, researchers will advance closer to figuring out what combination would be
most advantageous to becoming a successful athlete. In the majority of previous studies,
participant groups have focused on elite athletes, namely Olympians or professional
athletes. In the current study, highly successful collegiate athletes were concentrated
upon because as described in the introduction, more people are able to become college
athletes and the highly successful college athlete subgroup could lead to expanded
evidence on the specifics of athletic talent development.
The road to expertise provides many curves and bumps to athletes who embarked
on journey toward athletic success. Some factors along the way were controllable and
others were uncontrollable. In general, people were born with certain characteristics that
were not malleable such as height and size. These predetermined characteristics were
indisputable, yet there were many other factors that could not be controlled. Focusing on
the manageable factors such as practice, psychological skills, and social support should
be more feasible because making these factors more beneficial could allow the road to
success to be much smoother. Therefore, the current study focused on the relative
perception of genetics, practice, psychological skills, and social support from multiple
perspectives to provide a framework for future research and applied applications.
Eight NCAA Division I collegiate athletes (four male and four female) from a large
southeastern university were selected for the current study. The athletes represented a
variety of individual and team sports. Specifically, there were five individual sport
athletes (two male and three female) and three team sport athletes (two male and one
female. No more than two athletes (one male and one female) from any sport were
chosen. The sports included were men and women's swimming, men and women's track
and field, men's basketball, men's football, women's soccer, and women's tennis.
The mean age of the athlete participants was 22.75 years. The average height of
the athletes was 1.86 meters. For female athletes the average height was 1.77 meters.
For male athletes the average height was 1.99 meters. The average weight for the
athletes was 89.92 kg. The average weight for the female athletes was 75.41 kg. The
average weight for the male athletes was 104.33 kg. The athlete participants had been
starters on their team for an average of 3.31 years.
Twelve parents participated in the current study. A total of six fathers and six
mothers were interviewed. The mean age of the parent participants was 51.25 years. At
the time of the interview, three sets of parents and two individual parents resided in
Florida, one set of parents resided in the Northeast, and one set of parents resided in the
Caribbean. Overall, there were five sets of parents interviewed, one individual mother,
one individual father, and one athlete's parents were deceased.
Six current collegiate coaches participated in the current study. The coaches had
been coaching in their sport for an average of 17.33 years and had been coaching the
athletes in the current study for an average of 3.83 years. Five male coaches and one
female coach were interviewed. Each coach must have coached the athlete for at least
one full year prior to the interview. All coaches had played the sport they coached at the
collegiate level, and three had played at the professional level. The mean age of the
coaches was 39.17 years. Three coaches were from Florida, two were from the
Northeast, and one was from Europe.
A purposeful sampling procedure (Patton, 1990) was adopted to ensure that each
athlete participant was a nationally recognized collegiate athlete. Each athlete was the
top or among the top contributors on his or her team, with the potential of becoming (or
already having been) a professional or Olympian. The following recruitment criteria was
utilized to determine "highly successful" collegiate athletes: 1) Each participant must
have participated in his or her sport for at least five years, 2) all athletes must have been
starters in college for at least two years, 3) all athletes were required to have had the same
coach for at least one year, and 4) all were required to have received national recognition
in their sport. National recognition was defined as being at least an All-Conference or
All-American selection, and having the potential to become (or already have been) a
professional or Olympian in their sport.
The following biographies include fictitious names to protect the identities of the
participants. Each biography describes background information on the participant,
honors they have received, and future plans.
Amy was a 23-year-old South American female tennis player. She was a native of
South America but had lived in Florida much of her life. She had started for four years
on the women's tennis team and enjoyed a successful career. She was a seven-time All-
American and Conference Player of the Year, as well as being a National Senior of the
Year. Her future plans are to become a professional tennis player.
David was a 23-year-old white male basketball player. He was a native of New
Hampshire. He was a two and a half-year starter on the men's basketball team and had
enjoyed a successful career. He was an honorable mention All-American, two-time
Academic All-American, and three-time All-Conference athlete. His future plans are to
pursue a professional basketball career and graduate school.
Dennis was a 24-year-old white male track and field athlete. He was from Arizona.
He was a four-year starter on the men's track and field team. He had enjoyed a
successful career. He was a two-time All-American. His future plans are to start his
Jason was a 22-year-old white male swimmer. He was a native of Florida. He was
a four-year starter on the men's swim team and had a successful career. He was a four-
time All-American and was on the All-Conference Honor Roll. His future plans are to
attend medical school.
Jennifer was a 23-year-old female soccer player. She was a Nebraska native who
moved around a lot but ended up living in Florida. She was of African-American and
Caribbean-American decent. She had started for four years on the women's soccer team
and enjoyed a successful career. She was a two-time All-American and three-time All-
Conference player. She was also an Academic All-American and was named to the
conference Academic Honor Roll four-times. Her future plans are to attend graduate
Michelle was a 24-year-old Caribbean-American female swimmer. She was a
native of Barbados. She had started for four years on the women's swim team and
enjoyed a successful career. She had participated in many international and national
competitions, including the Olympics twice. She was an eight-time All-American and
was also Academic All-Conference. Her future plans are to attend graduate school.
Tara was a 23-year-old Caribbean-American female track and field athlete. She
was a native of Trinidad and Tobago. She was a three-year starter on the women's track
and field team at the time of the interview and had a very successful career. She was a
two-time national champion, four-time All-American, and five-time All-Conference
athlete. Her future plans are to finish school and compete internationally and nationally,
which she has already began to pursue.
Tommy was a 20-year-old white male football player. He was a native Floridian.
He was a two-year starter on the men's football team. His career thus far had been
successful. He was an All-American and All-Conference selection and a member of the
All-Conference Honor Roll. His future plans are to finish his collegiate career and
pursue professional football.
Approval to recruit participants was obtained from the University of Florida
Institutional Review Board (IRB Protocol #2002-390 and IRB Protocol #2002-U-390).
Each athlete, parent, and coach was contacted via letter, telephone, or electronic mail to
determine if they would be able to participate. Informed consent was obtained from all
participants at the onset of the interviews (athletes, coaches, and parents). See Appendix
A for informed consent forms.
In-depth semi-structured face-to-face interviews conducted by the author were used
for the athlete's and the coaches. Telephone interviews were conducted with the parents
because they are unavailable for face-to-face interviews. Each interview was audio-tape
recorded and lasted approximately 30-90 min. Confidentiality and anonymity of
responses was assured to all participants at the beginning of the interviews. Each athlete
was interviewed first, followed by the parents) and then the coach. Specific probing
questions were used during interviews with the parents and coaches based on previous
athlete responses (Gould, Dieffenbach, & Moffett, 2002). American Psychological
Association (2002) procedures regarding the treatment of human subjects were adhered
to throughout this study.
The interview guide (see Appendix B) was set up to (1) explore each athlete's (or
coach or parent's) perspectives on their own (or their athlete or child's) talent
development in sport and (2) to investigate thoughts about genetics, practice, and
situational factors that led to athletic talent development. Probes were employed to
follow up on the participants' responses in order to obtain more information concerning
the relevant issues that arose throughout the interview process. Finally, a research group,
consisting of individuals trained and experienced in the use of qualitative research
methods reviewed the interview guide and determined that it was sufficient to obtain
deep and rich data from the participants. The qualitative research group was made up of
the author, the author's advisor, and two other qualitative master's level students. All
four of the group members had extensive knowledge and practice conducting qualitative
A grounded theory analytic procedure (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) was adopted in the
current study. Grounded theory allows researchers to build and create a new theory
grounded in the raw data that was collected. The researcher did not begin with
preconceived notions; rather the theory was allowed to emerge during the research
process. This inductive approach to theory development allowed the researcher to
develop a representation of human experience that was grounded in the individuals being
studied. The goal of grounded theory analysis was to interpret raw data to detect
concepts and relationships and to classify it into a theoretically descriptive diagram
(Strauss & Corbin, 1998). A post-positivistic grounded theory data analysis technique
was utilized in the current study (See e.g., Charmaz, 2000; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The
post-positivistic viewpoint allowed the researcher to utilize previous research findings as
sensitizing concepts or "points of departure" to compare and contrast to the participants'
experiences (Charmaz, 2000, p. 515). In other words, previous research findings helped
to interpret the raw data derived from the interviews.
In accordance with recommendations from Strauss and Corbin (1998) and Charmaz
(2000) the following steps occurred during grounded theory analysis:
1. Each interview was audio-tape recorded. Each interview was transcribed verbatim
and combined with extensive notes taken by the lead investigator. The primary
investigator summarized the transcribed interviews and each athlete, coach, and
parent received a copy of the transcribed interview and a brief summary to
determine if the researcher was interpreting their responses correctly. This
procedure was commonly known as a member check (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The
participants were also given a chance to add any additional comments or provide
editorial feedback at this time. This process served as a member check to ensure
the validity and reliability of the data analysis (Sparkes, 1998).
2. Sparkes (1998) noted the importance of keeping a reflective journal throughout the
research process in order to allow the primary researcher to record memos and
other relevant issues that arose during the interviews. Also, it allowed further
discussion after the completion of the interviews and in research focus group
meetings when the data was being analyzed. The primary researcher kept a
reflective journal to record experiences and additional thoughts during the entire
3. The interview text underwent line-by-line open coding by the author and members
of the qualitative research team in order to pull out raw data themes in the form of
quotations from the participants (Charmaz, 2000). Strauss and Corbin (1998)
perceived coding to be the analytic procedures by which data are fractured,
conceptualized, and integrated to develop theory. The labeled raw data themes
were grouped into categories by comparing labels with similar themes and
assigning a classification that the researcher felt best captured the substance of the
topic. The emergent categories were then discussed during research meetings until
theoretical saturation was reached.
4. Following the line-by-line coding of the interviews, the researcher built a set of
categories, each of which were mentioned on one or more occasions in the data.
Grounded theory allows researchers to generate theory through close inspection and
analysis of qualitative data (Henwood & Pidgeon, 1992). The researcher was
allowed maximum flexibility in spawning new categories for the data that
developed, allowing a creative process that exercised the interpretative strengths of
the researcher. These categories must "fit" the data well and a balance must be
preserved concerning the researcher's intellect and the requirement of fit.
5. Axial coding was then performed to relate categories to subcategories along the
lines of their properties and components (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Each raw data
theme was placed into a category in which it was deemed to fit. Once all raw data
themes were placed in a category, the categories were then compared and
contrasted to each other to determine how they interacted. Selective coding also
occurred at this stage to integrate and refine the categories, which allowed for the
formation of a larger theoretical structure (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).
6. Constant comparative analysis was implemented so the research group could
maintain awareness of the similarities and differences existing between concepts,
thus ensuring that the widespread diversity, richness, and complexity of the data
were explored (Henwood & Pidgeon, 1992). Constantly making comparisons
involved evaluating (a) different athletes, parents, and coaches with each other, (b)
different sets of participants who talked about the same person, (c) the same person
at different times throughout their interview, (d) data within a general dimension or
category, and (e) data between dimensions and categories. This allowed the
researcher to recognize comparisons and discrepancies between the same individual
or different participants.
7. Throughout the analysis, the research team used "sensitizing concepts" from which
to interpret the data. Sensitizing concepts served as "points of departure" from
which to organize, interpret, and extend previous research findings (Charmaz,
2000, p. 515). As noted by Charmaz (2000) "Sensitizing concepts offer ways of
seeing, organizing, and understanding experience; they are embedded in our
disciplinary emphases and perspectival proclivities" (p. 515). Put another way,
sensitizing concepts allowed for the interpretation of the present data in a manner
consistent with the extant talent and expertise literature. However, because
qualitative methods are discovery oriented, flexibility was maintained throughout
the analysis so that unique findings and/or points of departure from previous theory
and research could be observed.
8. Coding continued until theoretical saturation was reached. Theoretical saturation
occurred when no further properties, components, or relationships emerged during
analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Therefore, there were no new raw data themes
materializing because all of the data fit under a category. At this point, a grounded
theory was developed.
9. Development of a grounded theory entailed both inductive and deductive processes
(Charmaz, 2000). Prior knowledge about talent development as well as knowledge
from the current study was utilized to develop a framework and theory that aptly
portrayed the development of talent to a highly successful collegiate level. Prior
knowledge was useful in helping to determine labels for categories. A conceptual
framework was constructed beginning with the raw data themes from the
interviews and progressing to first order and higher order themes. From the
conceptual framework, a grounded theory diagram was established to show
relationships, influences, and progressions from youth sport to a highly successful
collegiate athletic career.
Issues of Trustworthiness
Several procedures were followed to establish trustworthiness, reliability, and
validity in the current study. Rapport was established through an informal opening
session and body signs such as nodding, and/or with words of thanks, support, and praise
in accordance with C8te's (1999) recommendations. An introduction of the study and
why it was being conducted also served as opening banter. Each interview began with
demographic questions as well as questions about the athletes beginning in sport. This
served to familiarize the participants with the format of the interview and allowed them to
feel comfortable conversing with the researcher. Participants were assured of their
anonymity and confidentiality at the beginning and during the interview. They were also
advised that they did not have to answer any questions that they did not choose to or felt
uncomfortable answering. Participants were encouraged to share their life experiences
and any perceptions they had, whether positive or negative. The researcher continued to
facilitate discussion throughout the interview by using words of acknowledgement,
nodding, and smiling.
Furthermore, numerous methods were employed to establish reliability and
validity, thereby verifying the accuracy of the research results (Sparkes, 1998). First, the
interview transcripts and summaries were sent to all participants in an effort to seek
confirmation of the interview results and interpretations of the author on their responses.
Second, the author conducted research group meetings with others on a regular basis to
discuss the interview results (Maxwell, 1996). This allowed for triangulation of the data
by multiple coders with the ability to analyze discrepant findings. Third, the primary
investigator kept a reflexive journal and recorded the major discussion points from each
meeting and other important observations and opinions from the interview sessions
(Sparkes, 1998). This was utilized to highlight and reveal the reflexivity and
interdependence of the researcher and researched in qualitative studies (Henwood &
Pidgeon, 1992). Extended documentation throughout the research process was used to
record concerns, decisions, hunches, and observations to lay a "paper-trail" for colleagues
(Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Finally, a review and summary of the major impressions that
emerged from the interviews was presented to all research group participants at the end of
the data analysis stage. Extensive quotations from the participants that seemed to
highlight the overall conclusions of the study were presented to shed light on the themes
that emerged, and to allow readers to judge for themselves the accuracy of the
researcher's conclusions (Sparkes, 1998).
Throughout the study, qualitative research group meetings (Dale, 1996) were
conducted to analyze and interpret interviews. Several interviews were read verbatim,
which allowed the researcher to remain flexible and unbiased during the process of
coding and developing theory (Pollio, Henley, & Thompson, 1997). Dale (1996) and
Sparkes (1998) noted that a research group closely parallels an external audit, which was
a means to ascertain credibility and dependability of qualitative data. Triangulation also
occurred because athletes, parents, and coaches were interviewed. This provided
multiple views and perceptions on the same topic that could be compared and contrasted.
The purpose of the current study was to describe, examine, and gain an
understanding of the major influences and important experiences in the development of
highly talented collegiate athletes from multiple perspectives. Another purpose was to
utilize the participants' descriptions and experiences to create a theoretical framework in
an effort to represent the most important social relationships and major influences during
the talent development process of successful collegiate athletes. The results of open and
line-by-line coding resulted in the emergence of 10 higher order themes for the athletes,
nine higher order themes for the parents, and seven higher order themes for the coaches.
What follows is a description of the major themes that emerged from the data analysis.
The first section of the results is divided into three segments to depict the raw data results
from the athletes, the parents, and the coaches. The emergent conceptual frameworks
shown in Figures 1, 2, and 3 delineate the interrelations between the raw data, first-order,
and higher-order themes for the athletes, the parents, and the coaches respectively. The
second section of the results provides an overview of the interactions, similarities, and
differences between all three sets of participants. This includes similarities and
differences between all athletes, parents, and coaches, as well as the interactions between
differing sets of participants. Lastly, a grounded theory is presented to depict the major
influences and optimal conditions during the talent development process of highly
successful collegiate athletes. Another grounded theory is presented to depict the
importance of the development of social support influences.
Overall, it was ascertained that there were multiple influences on the developmental
process of high-level collegiate athletes. Although the participants in the current study
progressed through a variety of upbringings, types of support, and hardships, there were
many similarities in their overall experiences. The first section of this chapter discusses
the raw data themes that resulted from the athletes, parents, and coaches.
Raw Data Themes
After each interview was transcribed verbatim, 91 pages of text surfaced from the
athletes. As shown in Figure 1, the overall themes included genetics, practice, parental
influence, sibling influence, coach influence, teammate influence, coping with adversity,
opportunities, personality/mental characteristics, sport lessons, and other sport
participation. Each of these themes is elaborated on below.
Genetics. The higher order theme of "genetics" was defined by the first order
themes of "family/gene influence" and "physical traits." The athletes in the current study
perceived genetics to be the building blocks or starting points for their career, but not the
most important factor in their success. The participants felt that they had been given
certain physical characteristics or innate talents, but also felt that they had to practice and
work hard to be successful at the collegiate level and beyond. This point is also
elaborated upon later under the higher order theme of "practice."
The first order theme of "family/gene influence" emerged because athletes
mentioned members of their family who had been athletes when they were younger, and
also referred to being "born athletic." Jennifer's father was an athlete when she was
younger; her father "played both football and basketball." She added later that she
thought she was "athletic probably from my parents, probably more so my dad than my
mom." Jason's father was "really athletic" although like Jennifer, his mother was not as
involved in sports. Tara mentioned that her mother played cricket and her father was a
bodybuilder. She said, "I think that might have kind of had a little influence." Michelle
felt that genetics "must have played some sort of part in it." She explained that her
grandfather had been a professional cricketer and her father played cricket as well. Her
mother was not athletic, but her brother and sister were both fairly athletic. Michelle
thought she might have an "athletic gene" in her and felt that she was "blessed with
something that helped her swim." In contrast, Amy did not have athletic parents but felt
that she was just kind of "born athletic" because she was able to do things at a young age
such as riding a bike and bouncing a ball. Her grandfather was a tennis player, but she
was not sure where her athletic talent came from saying, "It was weird you know." More
so than family/gene influence, athletes mentioned specific physical characteristics they
felt aided them in becoming successful collegiate athletes.
The first order theme of "physical traits" resulted because some athletes believed
their physical characteristics assisted their success in sports. Some of the physical
characteristics discussed as genetic traits that helped them were "being tall," "being
lanky," "size," "having built in speed," and "being coordinated." The majority of the
athletes mentioned height and/or size as helpful traits. For instance, David elaborated, "I
think it [height] helped just being taller than everyone else. When you're young and
you're bigger than all the other kids it's a huge advantage and I think that helped inspire
my interest in the sport." Dennis also viewed his height as an advantage. "I'm so tall I
have an advantage and the fact that I'm so lanky. Basically I believe that plays a very
important role, and the fact that I have speed to go along with it." Tommy felt that his
height and size were important as well. "Genetics impacted my development a lot, just
my natural size. I wouldn't be here unless I had that." Tara also mentioned her height
and size advantage stating, "It helps being tall ... as far as being tall and with the size I
have for the event that I'm doing it's actually not bad, not bad at all." As a swimmer,
Jason felt that his height gave him an advantage as well because he had a "greater wing
span and longer reach." Even though the athletes described their innate characteristics as
beneficial, they also believed that physical traits were not the only thing that allowed
them to succeed in sports.
After discussing their perceptions of genetics, some athletes added that other
factors had impacted them. For instance, Jason stated, "It [being tall] doesn't help out
that much but I would say it definitely has some type of advantage." David also noted, "I
think practice is the key, it's more important than genetics." The participants realized
that when they were younger sports seemed to come easier to them than when they
became older. Amy talked about being able to get away without practicing a great deal
when she was younger but that it caught up with her when she came to college.
To be honest when I was younger I was real lazy and hated practicing. I would still
win without practicing, which is terrible now because it really was a bad thing for
me because I won, it sounds cocky, but I won really easily without having to
practice and it caught up with me. It came the time where I'm like oh my God I'm
actually going to have to go to the gym and do things.
Jennifer described how her parents and her brother warned and encouraged her to
practice her skills when she was young because her natural talent would not last forever.
She took their advice and felt that doing this allowed her to be successful later in her
sporting career. She brought this together saying
I think that [genetics] played a role only so far. I think that more so it had to be
with just my experiences. They [my parents] always made an emphasis like make
sure you're practicing those skills they teach you that's important. When I was
younger I was faster and taller than everybody and I could've just got away with
using my natural athleticism and not learn the fundamentals of the game. But
between my parents and my brother they constantly made an emphasis of work on
these skills, work on the fundamentals, do this, and that's what made me a better
player. I remember as we were growing up as we developed through adolescence
and into high school the people who were really fast and really athletic or whatever,
they started dropping off because at this point now they didn't have the skills and
fundamentals. Just to be a quality player, it [genetics] could only carry them so far
and I think that's what made a big difference is that that was always instilled in me
as, you can't rely on what you already have given to you.
In summary, the athletes viewed the influence of genetics and/or physical traits as
important to athletic development. This theme emerged because the athletes perceived
their parents to be athletic, and felt like they were born with an innate athletic ability as
well as advantageous physical traits. However, the participants believed that practice and
social influences were more important to their development than genetics.
Practice. The higher order theme of "practice" was defined by the first order
themes of "general practice importance" and "commitment to practicing." With regard to
the first order theme of "general practice importance," the participants discussed the
importance of practice and the role it played in developing the necessary skills they
needed to become successful. The majority of the athletes felt that practice played a large
role or was key in their talent development in sport. For instance, Jason said, "Obviously
practice leads to success...without practice you're not going to do well." Tara concurred
saying, "As they say practice makes perfect, the more practice the better you get."
Practice was the factor that accentuated natural talent for the athletes in the current study.
Many felt that they had a certain innate talent but that practice and effort allowed them to
excel at the collegiate level. This was illustrated by the following quote from Dennis:
It [practice] was a big role. That was the main key because practice makes perfect
and if I didn't do practice there was no way I would be doing what I did ... doing
all the extra work on top of your natural talent, it's awesome.
Likewise, David described, "I think that [practice] is the key, that's more important than
genetics," while Tommy said, "It's [practice] the most important thing." The athletes
also realized that their genetic talent was not the only thing they could count on to make
them successful. Elaborating upon this, Jennifer observed:
I remember growing up, as we developed through adolescence and into high
school, the people who were really fast and really athletic or whatever, they started
dropping off because at this point now they didn't have the skills and fundamentals.
Just to be a quality player, it [talent] could only carry them so far and I think that's
what made a big difference is that that was always instilled in me as like you can't
rely on what you already have given.
As for the first order theme of "commitment to practicing," some participants noted
the importance of commitment to quality practice rather than just going through the
motions during a practice session. They felt that giving 100%, putting in extra work, and
practicing how you want to play was very important. For instance, Amy elaborated,
"Like they say, practice makes perfect, not just practicing but practicing how you're
going to play a match." Jason talked about the importance of investing time and effort
Investing the time was never really a problem; it's investing the time with the right
attitude and the right demeanor. You can always go and swim and go through the
motions but it's actually physically if you're going to invest that much time you
better, you know there's no point in wasting two hours so if you're going to go
those two hours you might as well give it your all. That's just something that I
realized, there's no point. I think my old roommate told me that if you're going to
do this don't half ass it.
Dennis agreed saying, "If you do the right things like you're told it [practice] will play an
important role." Tara felt that it was important to put in extra practice saying, "It
[success] all depends on how much extra you practice." Amy also felt lazy when she was
younger but she appeared to experience a mixture of shame and pride when discussing
these feelings by saying
To be honest when I was younger I was real lazy and I hated practicing which is
terrible now because it really was a bad thing for me because I won really easily
without having to practice and it caught up with me.
Once Amy's laziness during practice caught up with her, she began to lose a few matches
because she could not rely on talent alone. She then changed her attitude by rededicating
herself to practicing.
I think practice was what made me get to where I was. I think you practice how
you want to play and I really got the concept of what you're going to do in a match,
do it in practice. I think practice is very important in developing as a player, not
just practicing but practicing how you're going to play a match.
Family support. Support from parents and siblings played a large role in the lives
of the athletes. As shown in Figure 1, parental and sibling influences were coded as
separate higher-order themes. "Parental influence" was defined by the first order themes
of "early parent influence," "parental social support," "parental roles," "parental
sacrifice," "parent/child relationship building," and "parental adversity." "Sibling
influence" was defined by the first order theme of "early sibling influence."
The first order theme of "early parent influence" emerged because some athletes
revealed that they were encouraged by their parents to become involved with their
primary sport at a young age. For instance, Michelle stated, "My father first started to
teach me to swim when I was four." David was also influenced by his father. "My dad
has always been a big basketball fan and he played basketball. I don't know I just started
playing." Jason's mother "always made sure we [my sister and I] could swim" because
the family had a pool in the backyard.
The first order theme of "parental social support" was characterized by the athlete's
perceptions that parents offered unconditional support and acceptance in their athletic
pursuits. Parental support was a very important factor in the upbringing of the
participants. All of the athletes found support from at least one parent, and in the
majority of cases, both parents were supportive. Parental support served as an important
foundation for the athletes during their childhood and continued to be important during
high school and college athletics. Jennifer stated, "My parents are by far my biggest fans,
I mean unbelievably supportive, and I think they have influenced me in the fact that
whatever I wanted to do I could do." Tara concurred saying, "They [my parents] were
behind me all the way." Also, David added, "They [my parents] were totally supportive
of me playing." Similarly, Tommy said, "They [my parents] were always supportive,
always there for all my games. They never missed a football game ever since seventh
grade." While the participants felt that their parents offered support and encouragement
to participate in sports, there was no indication that any perceived pressure to participate.
Amy who described the following revealed this:
They [my parents] just let us [my brothers and I] do what we were interested in. If
I didn't feel like going to practice one day they'd just say that's fine, do something
else today. They just encouraged us to be the best that we can at everything we did
... I think just the encouragement that they gave us, just always there to talk to us,
to encourage us, if we lost it wasn't a big deal. I think that plays a big part in a
person being a good athlete, just being out there and learning by yourself and not
having your parents pushing you around and maybe being mean to you if you do
bad or anything.
The first order theme of "parental roles" emerged when athletes discussed their
parents engaging in differing gender related roles during their athletic careers. Parental
roles became evident in families where the father took on the working, coaching, or
stricter role, and the mother took on traditional maternal roles of driving the athlete to and
from practice and being the cheerleader, sympathizer, or motivator. Jennifer encountered
this situation because her father was also her coach. "My mom was kind of like the
mother, bring me to practice and all that good stuff. My dad was the person I could talk
to as far as if I wanted to talk tactically." Michelle's mother also had a similar role as
described by Jennifer. "My mother took charge of waking me up for practice in the
morning and getting up to fix breakfast and that sort of stuff." In Amy's case, role
related behavior revolved around her father's work schedule. She stated, "My mom kind
of had a bigger part just because my dad had to work so much but he would've loved to
have that part too." In some cases, the parents of the participants offered different forms
of emotional support. Tommy discussed this by saying, "My mom was more of the
sympathy and my dad was more, he's more like the stricter kind of one." Even though
parents may have engaged in different roles in their child's development, there were
sacrifices that both parents had to make in order for their child to succeed, which is
The first order theme of "parental sacrifice" emerged because participants felt that
their parents made many sacrifices to allow them to compete at the junior and high school
level. Some of these sacrifices included: "taking the athletes long distances to practice
and competition," "paying for coaching and competition," "coming to watch them play
rather than taking vacations," and "allowing them to do whatever they wanted to do in
their sport." For instance, Tommy discussed how, "At one point we were driving about
an hour and a half for practices." David's parents also "had to give me rides to practice
every day." Budgeting was important for parents to be able to support their children by
providing coaching and travel to competitions. Jennifer felt that her family was middle
class, but because her mother was "an amazing budgeting person" she never felt like she
missed out on anything because of money. Michelle offered the following statement
about the importance of parental sacrifice:
They [my parents] had to pay for everything so that was a big role because if they
couldn't afford it then I wouldn't have been able to get the experience to swim as
well as I did because a lot of racing is needed in order to build that experience in
competing. So I think that ... being at least middle class is very important just so
that you're able to afford to get that experience and it's important from my
perspective just because my parents were able to pay for it even if they had to
borrow and pay back later. So that played a very big role.
Even though the parents had to sacrifice a great deal of time and money to
accompany their children to competitions and practices, the athletes felt that family
relationships flourished as a result. The participants felt that they developed very good
relationships with their families and enjoyed sharing their athletic experiences with their
family. This led to the emergence of the first order theme of "parent/child relationship
building." Amy offered the following quote that supported these observations:
It [sports] didn't hurt our [my brothers and my] relationship at all with my parents.
It just made it grow even more. It was just something else to do that they enjoyed
doing, watching me play and watching my brothers play, it was just something
extra for them.
Overall, the athletes felt that unconditional support from their parents was
important in their development. None of the parents in the current study were perceived
to be overbearing by the athletes. The athletes seemed to appreciate this because it
allowed them to make their own decisions about their athletic career. Michelle felt that
her mother influenced her the most because "she was just always always always always
always there from the time I was eight and coming in last to the point in the Olympics,
she was always always there." The following statement by Jennifer seemed to capture
the essence of this theme:
I think that it was not just me. I know that I put a lot of hard work in but it was not
just me. I think I was really in a good environment. My family, I can't think of a
better environment to be in to excel.
Finally, there was one instance where an athlete encountered some parental
adversity. The first order theme of "parental adversity" emerged because Dennis' parents
were divorced. He said, "I didn't really get support from my real mom." As will be
discussed later, Dennis also talked about how this adversity encouraged him to become
involved in sports. Even though Dennis encountered a lack of support from his mother,
he did receive support from his father.
I got all the support from my dad. He would call me and say how'd you do, I wish
you luck. I always wanted to do good for him but then when I came here to college
he was there for every single race.
As shown in Figure 1, "sibling influence" was a higher order theme defined by the
first order theme of "early sibling influence." Older siblings were mentioned as playing
an important role, especially during the youth years. Siblings influenced the early
development of the athletes by getting them started or providing someone to play with
and compete against when they were young. Five of the eight participants noted that
their older brother or sister got them started in sport. The other three participants were
either oldest children or only children, which showed that if a participant had an older
sibling, they were the one to get the participant started in sport. The following quotes
elaborate on the early sibling influence for the athletes. Jason said, "I started swimming
when I was seven, just because my sister was doing it." Jennifer stated, "I started playing
[soccer] with my brother who's four years older." Amy explained, "I was a little sister
with 3 older brothers and I think that was the first influence that I had really because my
parents didn't play sports and I think it was just coming from my 3 older brothers."
Michelle elaborated, "My sister was the one to take me to the beach all the time and I
pretty quickly got very comfortable in the water." Finally, Tommy described, "It [how I
got started] was definitely my older brother ... I'm still trying to outdo my older brother."
Sibling support continued throughout the participant's collegiate years because the
athlete's siblings continued to come to their competitions or call to see how they had
done in their sport. Older sibling influence gave the athletes someone to look up to and
to compete with when they were younger and then someone for support when they
Coaches. The higher order theme of "coach influence" was defined by the first
order themes of "early coach influence," "coach social support/belief," "coach/athlete
relationship," "coach traits," and "coach adversity." Throughout the careers of the
athletes, all participants noted the importance of coaching in their talent development in
sport. Many also gave credit to their coaches for their personal development as well.
The first order theme of "early coach influence" emerged when athletes suggested
that a coach got them started in sport or recognized the athlete had talent in the sport they
played. For example Dennis stated, "It was my PE coach who happened to be my high
school coach I was in eighth grade and he kind of noticed me ... I wouldn't be anywhere
if it wasn't for him because he started me out." Amy also felt that a particular coach
noticed her early in her career. "One of the coaches at the club where we belonged saw
right from the start, something in me, you know in my tennis ability." Michelle was also
identified as talented at a young age, saying "A coach from [city] noticed that I was
pretty talented and told my coach that he could get me to swim at the Olympics." Tara's
high school coach convinced her to switch from track events to field events, which turned
out to be a positive change because she was able to later receive a college scholarship
because of her success in the field events. Dennis' high school coach observed his
athletic talent, which Dennis elaborated on saying, "It was my PE coach who happened to
be my high school coach. He had kind of noticed me. I wouldn't be anywhere if it
wasn't for him."
Another first-order theme, "coach social support/belief," was important to the
athletes in the current study. This theme emerged because the athletes had both high
school and college coaches that supported and believed in them. Many athletes
mentioned that they had at least one supportive coach during the youth or high school
phase of their career that encouraged them and gave them the basic skills of the game as
well as the encouragement to believe they could receive a college scholarship. The
athletes also had a college coach that influenced them by taking them to the next level of
their sport and believing that the athlete could succeed. Tommy was very close to his
high school coach. "My high school coach ... I don't think I could've done it without
him, and that's kind of the reason why I want to be a coach." Tara's high school coach
helped her receive a college scholarship because her coach knew a college coach, which
allowed her to be noticed out of high school even though she was not from the United
States. At times a coach also influenced an athlete to continue their sport in college.
Jason had a high school coach he viewed as prominent in his decision to continue
swimming in college. He said, "I didn't really want to swim in college but my old high
school coach thought there was somebody who could take me farther." Jason took his
coach's advice and became very successful after being a walk-on for a collegiate swim
team. He discussed how "coach gives a walk-on award now and I was the first one to
receive it." Amy's junior coach also believed in her a great deal. She elaborated on her
thoughts about her coaches with the following: "Sometimes you can pay a coach and
they can do a good job but just everything that [name] helped me out with showed me to
believe, showed me he believed in me. I think that's a sign."
The participants' current coaches also supported the athletes and helped them
throughout their careers. Dennis offered the following about the support he received
from his college coach, "He believed in me and it made me believe in myself and from
there I just believed everything that he had to say and listened to him." Tara's college
coach also believed in her and her potential to be successful. "The coach here said that I
have the potential to reach far ... so as long as he just keeps telling me that you know I
can do this, I can keep going." Jason's collegiate coach "kept me going and made sure I
could go to bed at night and know I gave it my all that day."
Stemming from the social support/belief theme, the higher order theme of
"coach/athlete relationship" emerged. The athletes developed close relationships with
most of their coaches, kept in touch with high school and/or college coaches, and at times
felt as if their coach served as a surrogate parent when they were away from home. Jason
stayed in contact with his high school coach, who influenced him to swim in college.
"He had a really big influence, we talked all the time my freshman and sophomore year."
Tommy also visited his high school coaches whenever he went home. "Every time I go
back home I always go see them [my coaches] and it just makes me happy to see how
proud they are." David explained his relationship with his college coach, "We're [coach
and I] are very close. I talk to him a lot." Michelle had experienced an unhappy time
with her coach before she came to college and really felt that her college coaches allowed
her to find her love for her sport again. She stated, "All four coaches here at college, I
had a fantastic relationship with them. They helped me to enjoy the sport again, you
know laughing, joking, they kept me in high spirits." Dennis felt that his relationship
with his college coach was similar to a father/son relationship.
My relationship with him is kind of like a best friend slash father figure, like he
wasn't just my coach ... He kind of took me under his wing like a father figure and
he told me the things I needed to do, told me things in regard to life.
Interestingly, Jennifer's father coached her up until she entered college. Jennifer felt that
she and her father had a successful relationship both on and off the field. She elaborated
on this by saying, "We set some ground rules and one thing we agreed on was whatever
happens at the field stays at the field. We just talked about it, the open lines of
communication was a great deal of help." She felt that in a way she had the "best of both
The first order theme of "coach traits" emerged because the athletes tended to
discuss certain characteristics they felt were essential for someone to be a successful
coach. With regard to coaches' traits, the participant's discussed information about the
personalities of these influential individuals. These included "being positive,"
"sincerity," "making the sport fun," "caring about them as a person on and off the field,"
and "being able to instill a sense of hard work for success." Michelle emphasized, "It's
very important for the coach to be positive. A negative coach doesn't help situations and
I've had the experience of having both. Being positive is a better atmosphere, it's
generally better to be in a positive environment." Sincerity was another important trait
mentioned by Jennifer. She said, "Coach is extremely sincere. She makes it apparent she
cares about you as a person rather than just a player." Finally, David mentioned the
importance of being cared about in the following passage:
The other thing with coaches is that there's a lot of things to be successful on the
court, but in order to be successful on the court you've got to do the right things.
And that kind of thing and my [youth] coaches did a good job of teaching us that
and Coach [name] is the same way. He teaches you about basketball but he teaches
you a lot about life too and I think he's a great coach and obviously knows his
basketball but knows more than that.
From the above analysis, it is apparent that many of the athletes in this study had
good relationships with coaches and respected them a great deal. This allowed the
participants to enjoy their sport because they respected the coach they were working and
training with day in and day out. However, not all of the participants were this fortunate.
As part of the constant comparative method (Charmaz, 2000), discrepancies were
actively explored between the participants' responses. With regard to coach traits, some
of the athletes shared information that revealed the challenges they experienced with
certain coaches. Thus, negative experiences with coaches characterized the first order
theme of "coach adversity." For instance, Michelle had a coach who "put a lot of
pressure on me and that in turn caused me not to want to swim anymore." Once at
college, Michelle began to enjoy swimming more and she felt her coaches had a lot to do
with this situation. In contrast, Jason experienced some coach adversity, but he also
respected his coach at the same time. Jason stated, "Coach and I to be honest don't get
along, he's a great coach but we just had the same personalities so we butt heads all the
time." Despite these two adverse coaching situations, the majority of coach interactions
were positive for the athletes, which showed that coaches play an important role not only
physically, but also personally in an athlete's development.
Teammates. The higher-order theme of "teammate influence" was defined by the
first order themes of "teammate social support" and "team relationships." This higher
order theme emerged because the athletes' teammates from high school and college had a
great deal of influence on the participants' development. The athletes felt that their
teammates were able to "challenge them," "bring out the best in them," "support them,"
and "inspire them to work harder." For instance, Michelle felt that teammates had a large
influence on her career because she had experienced both perspectives.
Teammates are a big factor ... I've experience both international and college
swimming and college swimming is by far more fun because you have your
teammates behind you, your teammates are working toward the same goal. You
don't feel pressured because they're there for you just as much as you're there for
The first-order theme of "teammate social support" was characterized by important
relationships with teammates that offered the athletes' emotional support, confidence, and
inspiration. Support from teammates sometimes helped the athletes compete better
because they knew their team was behind them all the way. Dennis told a story about a
time when the entire team cheered for him during a race when he was the only one
racing. He was "so hyped and it really brought tears to my eyes because the whole team
was out there." Amy enjoyed being part of a team even though she played an individual
sport. She elaborated by saying, "I loved being part of the team. I loved just pumping
my teammates up next to me." Amy indicated that she gained confidence from her
teammates. "I think that's the best about being in college, you take little things from
every one of your teammates and try to build on that. We all gave each other
confidence." The participants felt their teammates were able to "boost their spirits" and
"keep them going through difficult training and competition." For instance, Jason stated
"Teammates play a tremendous role in your success and trying to get you over that
hump." Jennifer declared, "They've [my team] been through the hardest times with you,
they've seen you at your worst." Amy declared, "We all gave each other confidence."
Having teammates provided a family type atmosphere for the athletes when they
went away to college. The first order theme of "team relationships" emerged because
participants viewed their teams as a family. This was important because so many of the
participants had positive family support before coming to college. Thus, having a family
type atmosphere at college may have allowed the participants to adjust to their new
surroundings easier. Jennifer summarized this in the following passage:
We all could find common ground, like we were all working towards a common
goal. We had this bond between us and we saw past the differences. They've
[teammates] been through the hardest times with you, they've seen you at your
worst so I think that here particularly, especially because of the coaching staff, I
really felt like I had a family type atmosphere with my team and that's what I
needed, that's one of the reasons I chose to come here. That was important to me.
Similarly, David thought it was beneficial to have teammates and friends that enjoyed the
sport he loved. "I've been lucky because I was always around people that loved the game
and we [my friends and I] could always go to the park or the YMCA and play and have a
great time with it." Tara felt having supportive teammates allowed her to be successful
because they would challenge her in practice and also support her in competitions. She
explained, "It's like every time I go to practice it's almost like a mini-competition and
that kind of helps as far as getting ready for competition because you know that they're
there and they're supporting you all the way also." Overall, teammates were influential
because they challenged the athletes, yet also supported them like a surrogate family.
Personality/mental characteristics. This higher order theme was defined by the first
order themes of "positive mental characteristics" and "negative mental characteristics."
The first order theme of "positive mental characteristics" emerged because participants
discussed a variety of mental skills or traits that allowed them to succeed in their sport.
For instance, it seemed that a strong sense of "competitiveness" and "determination" was
universal to the current sample. Jennifer talked about how her family stopped playing
board games with her because she was so competitive. She encapsulated this by stating,
"I think mostly I'm determined and very competitive, extremely competitive, to the fact
that my family doesn't play board games with me anymore." Tommy also described
himself as competitive. "It's just the competitiveness in me. I feel like I have, our coach
always used to call it KI's, killer instinct." When Tara was asked if there was anything
else that influenced her she replied, "competition." She went on to add, "I'm majorly
competitive. I might be like a quiet person, easygoing as I said but I'm very competitive,
very much so. It's a different story when I'm on the track." Additional positive mental
characteristics mentioned were "working hard," "not complaining," "being positive,"
"breaking down the sport like a test," "focusing," "relaxation," "having goals," "using
visualization," "believing in yourself," "having heart," "being easy going," and "being
anal and a perfectionist." Amy said, "I think always having a purpose out there, always
having a goal I think has helped me a lot." Dennis also set goals and explained this by
stating, "I would always go in her [my mom's] room and take out lipstick and I'd write a
daily goal or vice versa, a weekly goal on my mirror. I'd always have a daily goal and
then a weekly goal." Michelle felt that being positive helped her succeed in swimming.
She elaborated by saying, "I tend to be positive most of the time. I try not to stress
myself out too much." David felt that working hard allowed him to progress and "Just
being a tough hard worker let's you fight through things." Dennis summarized being
mentally tough by saying, "Mentally I was just a tough bastard and that's what my coach
always said. I'm the only one who never complained about anything." Jason developed
an interesting interplay between his success in the classroom and his success in the pool.
He elaborated on this:
Mental is a big part of swimming. I guess during the year it's 90% physical and
10% mental but then when you're at the meet its 20% physical and 80% mental.
As for mental characteristics that help me succeed, I just kind of break down
swimming like a test and if you're prepared being nervous is normal but you just
have to stay focused, relaxed, and just not let it get to you. You have to think of
The athletes also mentioned mental characteristics they felt hindered their
development in sport. This led to the development of the first order theme labeled
"negative mental characteristics." It was important to note that the amount of positive
mental characteristics mentioned outweighed the amount of negative mental
characteristics. Some negative characteristics included "being non-confrontational,"
"lacking confidence," "being hard on themselves," "being tentative or scared or nervous,"
"thinking they knew everything," and "negative self-talk." Amy expressed, "I lost my
goal in mind and just became tentative and kind of scared." Tara agreed that at times "I
might get a little edgy as far as nervousness but eventually I get it under control."
Jennifer talked about her struggle with confidence on the field, noting, "I don't have the
highest confidence in the world for some things. It's not for everything but that was a
thing I felt like I had to work on, is being confident when I played." David thought that
"just being sometimes too hard on myself" hindered him. Similarly, Dennis talked about
his struggle with negative self-talk, stating
Negative self-talk. I hate that and I did it a lot. Basically when I knew there was
somebody better than me out on the track I'd always think before I got on the line,
oh I don't know why I'm here I don't know what I'm doing I've got to beat him.
Then when I get on the line it's just like I'm not going to win I'm not going to win
at all you know. I'm not going to get my time or whatever but I'd overcome it once
I'd start running but just that negative talk probably took one or two seconds away.
Coping with adversity. The higher-order theme labeled "coping with adversity"
was defined by the first order themes of "personal adversity" and "overcoming
adversity." Each athlete in the current study had to overcome some type of adversity to
become successful in college, which led to the first order theme labeled "personal
adversity." For instance, Michelle and Dennis dealt with adversity prior to entering
college. Michelle had to deal with an adverse coach, who as mentioned previously
almost caused her to quit her sport. Dennis had a mother who did not support him at all
and thereby caused him to engage in sports. "I was doing it [running] because I didn't
want to be at home." Jason and David encountered adversity when they first began
playing in college. Jason was a walk-on and had to struggle with a lack of confidence on
his part because he did not feel like he fit in or was as prepared as the other athletes.
David met adversity when he was "thrown into the fire" of the starting line up during his
sophomore year because he was not sure if he was ready for that challenge.
Sadly, two athletes struggled with the passing of parents. Amy's father passed
away during her freshman year in college directly before she began her first national
championship tournament. Tara's parents both passed away within a year before she
came to college. She felt that her parents passing helped motivate her to continue and her
ideas were poignantly captured by the following passage:
As far as them being gone right now was like more motivation for me to continue
because I know that they wouldn't want me to stop ... I was doing good when they
were alive and now they're not here it's like, just continue doing it, just for the sake
Tara also dealt with two injuries that required surgery during her collegiate years. During
her freshman year she underwent ACL reconstructive surgery and during her junior year
she underwent back surgery because of herniated discs. Tara was not the only athlete
who had to deal with injuries and surgery. Tommy had to undergo foot surgery and red
shirted his freshman year. Like Tara, Jennifer also had to undergo ACL surgery after her
freshman year. Her surgery ended up causing greater adversity than normal due to the
fact that there were complications after the surgery because she had a blood clot the
length of her leg. She elaborated on this by saying
At that point I had come off a pretty successful freshman year and so I was living,
eating, and breathing soccer. Everything I had was planned around soccer. And
then that [the ACL injury] happened and I was getting ready to have surgery still
gung ho, still had the whole mind set of how quickly can I get back. Then I ended
up having complications after my surgery that sent me to the hospital for 11 days. I
was in ICU for three days. I had a blood clot the length of my leg and they're
telling me how I may not live or I may lose my leg and last of all I might not play
Although these difficulties were wide in scope, each athlete felt that they learned
something or that overcoming their hardship allowed them to become successful in their
sport as well as in life, and they were able to deal with adversities encountered. This was
where the first order theme of "overcoming adversity" emerged. Jennifer exemplified
this and continued her previous quote by stating:
Everything was put in perspective, everything was completely put into perspective
at that point and it was like yeah I still love soccer and yeah I still had three years
left of playing but it was like I needed to focus on my life as a whole. It became I
don't want to say less of a priority because it was still definitely a priority, but it
became, it wasn't everything I was and that made a big difference I think. And I
was thankful for that. I think I grew so much spiritually. I grew so much with my
family. It really made me grow as a person.
Michelle shared the idea expressed by Jennifer that something positive was gained from
her personal adversity. As previously discussed, Michelle had a very difficult
relationship with a previous coach. When reflecting on this adversity she said, "I'm kind
of a firm believer of everything happens for a reason and everything that has happened to
me has made me stronger as a person." Dennis shared this viewpoint stating, "I think
everything happens for a reason." Amy felt like she changed after dealing with her
father's passing and noted the following:
I think my dad passing away just changed me overall, just really changed my
perspective on everything. I'm more responsible now. Everything that used to be
big to me, like bad moments or whatever, are just not big to me anymore. You just
kind of realize what's important in life.
Dennis experienced negative emotions because of adversities he had encountered over
the years related to his parent's divorce and the lack of support he received from his
mother. He felt that sports provided him with a distraction or release from his
difficulties, as well as allowing him to be away from the house. In fact, when he first
began running he "felt like he could fly." Dennis talked about how this adversity helped
him during his competitions and how he used running to let his negative emotions
because of adversity out saying:
Whatever is bothering me that day or was compiled up I'd let out in my races. Like
I had a lot of problems with my real mother and every time I'd run it would just get
me fired up and sometimes I'd finish crying and people thought I was just hurting
because I ran so hard. But it really wasn't that, it was because all my frustrations
and emotions and everything goes into it and I think that's what helps me run
better, personally, everybody has their little niche and I think that's what really
Even though many of the athletes had to overcome adversity to become successful in
sports, they also felt that it was worth it and did not regret any aspect of their career. The
participants felt that the hardships they faced had allowed them to be better athletes
because they were stronger and had a more realistic perspective on life and sports. This
perspective carried over and allowed them to feel as if they could deal with anything that
occurred in the future.
Finally, religion and/or spirituality played a role in some of the participants' lives.
Jennifer talked about how her spirituality became more important to her after knee
surgery. She illustrated this with the following:
I used to fit it into a box as far as my spirituality fit into a box of how it could help
me rather than how I could help it kind of thing. I really think that my time in 1998
when I got hurt really flipped that around for me. I think it really helped me
improve as a person, let alone a soccer player. I wanted it to be like she's a
Christian and a soccer player, not only a soccer player.
David agreed, "It helps to have spirituality when you're facing adversity." It seemed that
the lessons the athletes learned, the friends they made, and the extensive travel
opportunities they had were able to make up for any challenges or adversities they may
have faced during their careers. Therefore, the athletes were afforded many opportunities
because of their sport success, which will be discussed in the next section.
Opportunities. The higher order theme labeled "opportunities" was defined by the
first order themes of "travel," "friendships," "monetary assistance," and "other
opportunities." The first order theme of "travel" emerged because travel opportunities
were viewed as an enjoyable aspect of being an elite athlete. Jennifer talked about how
she was able to travel to Europe twice before the age of 16. She stated, "I got to see a lot
of different places and a lot of different experiences just because of excelling at a sport."
Michelle said, "I've traveled to so many places you know a lot more places than someone
with the best social life in the world, and I have friends all over the world."
As Michelle mentioned, another opportunity talked about was meeting a variety of
different people from a variety of backgrounds and learning to adapt and accept
teammate's differences. This led to the development of the first order theme labeled
"friendships." The athletes felt that being on a team allowed them to learn to work with
others in a cooperative context. Jason described, "I feel comfortable a lot more than
other people working in groups just because I've worked in one a lot." David agreed,
"It's your development as a person and having to socially adapt to people you don't know
just helps develop you as a person." Tommy felt that, "The best thing I've gained from
football is the friends. People that you bleed with, blood, sweat, and tears as they always
say. It's almost like a brotherhood."
The first order theme of "monetary assistance" developed when some athletes
garnered college scholarships or monetary help with other expenses associated with the
sport they played. Amy discussed her feelings about how playing tennis helped her and
her family monetarily.
I got to go to train and my parents didn't have to take all that cash out. They [the
place I trained] paid for my food, they paid for everything so my parents saved a lot
of money there. It gets expensive paying for stringing, paying for traveling, for
tournaments, for training, for everything, but when I started getting good results I
kind of got paid by getting those opportunities. And coming to college where
everything was paid for, you know the stringing, everything, so that was a stress off
of my parents because everything was taken care of ... Now I'm making a living
playing tennis. A lot of my friends who didn't play a sport or who were just having
fun in high school have a sorry ass job now. Now they're like okay wow you were
doing all that for something.
The first order theme labeled "other opportunities" emerged from opportunities the
athletes received such as participating in the Olympics and helping with academics.
Michelle realized her opportunities to compete internationally were special. She said, "I
don't regret anything. I can go away being like I did two Olympics, two Pan-Am Games,
three World Championships, and NCAA's." Some of the participants talked about the
importance of academics in their lives, as they realized that sports might not last forever.
Jennifer described how, "Academics and sports were both so important to me. It was like
both of them worked together to make me the person I was." Jason was proud because,
"We had the best G.P.A. in all the teams and I took pride in that because I was always a
good student so I tried to get everyone else to be." Dennis elaborated by saying, "I took a
hard major. I wanted to take a major that I could succeed in life because running is not
going to always be there." Jason felt that his sport career helped him with admission to
medical school. He said, "I know it [swimming] helped me get into med school just
because it showed me I could do two things at one time."
Overall, none of the athletes regretted their experiences with sports. In contrast,
they seemed to relish in the opportunities they garnered because of sport. Amy noted,
"Honestly I don't regret a thing. I've traveled everywhere in the world, I've made great
friends and now I'm making a living playing tennis." Tara discussed, "I don't have any
regrets whatsoever. I mean I'm this far so far." Jason stated, "I don't regret it because I
had so much fun and I wouldn't trade all of the traveling, the experiences, the team
atmosphere, the challenges, the awards, I wouldn't trade any of that for anything in the
world." David reiterated the athlete's sentiments by saying, "Obviously there are
sacrifices you make by playing college sports but I think the rewards are greater."
Sport lessons. The higher order theme of "sport lessons" was defined by the first
order themes of "learning from sport" and "helping in the future." The participants
realized that they were able to learn many lessons from participating in sports and felt
that the lessons they learned through sport carried over into other aspects of their lives,
including academics and their career. The first order theme labeled "learning from sport"
emerged because athletes mentioned acquiring skills from sport such as "time
management," "responsibility," "team/group work," "multi-tasking," "a better
perspective on life," "focusing on tasks," "being positive," "taking things in stride,"
"communication," "discipline," "commitment," "determination," "confidence," and "a
good work ethic." Some of these will be elaborated upon below. For instance, Dennis
It [track] showed me to be responsible, getting up, you have to be at practice at
5:00 in the morning. I mean that right there alone, that's showing that you're
responsible. It showed me a good work ethic. I mean basically I'm willing to do
whatever it takes to go far in life. Not only that but you deal with a lot of
diversities with a team and no matter what type of problem came towards me or
whatever I worked around it and tried to make everybody happy so I learned a very
Jason learned similar lessons and gained the "ability to have a perspective in life. I know
how to handle those adverse situations and I don't worry about things as much. I can
multi-task, I know how to budget my time." Tommy learned to be disciplined because of
sports. "I think it's made me a decent football player but I think it's made me a better
person. Football as a sport requires so much discipline." Tara felt that the most
important thing that her sport allowed her to gain was "strength of character." Some
participants felt that sports kept them out of trouble when they were young and this was
illustrated by Jennifer who said, "In high school and growing up I always was very active
and never had time to get into trouble so I never got in trouble. I think sports played a
part in that." David thought that playing a sport allowed him to learn how to "socially
adapt to people you don't know" and added that having to do that helped him to "develop
as a person." Overall, David felt that the "best thing he gained from basketball was
personal development. It's made me a complete person and it's made me ready to take
on any situation I'll face in the future." Similarly, Jennifer talked about how she moved
around quite a bit when she was young and how playing a sport allowed her to feel
comfortable in many social circles.
It [my career] just gave me so many opportunities. It allowed me to meet so many
different people that I wouldn't have met and go and do so many different things
that I wouldn't have done. I think that it was a good thing for me just because it
allowed me to feel at some points that I fit in because I never really felt that
growing up. It was a good opportunity to break the ice with people.
As shown by the previous sections, participation in sport may have contributed to
the overall identity development of the athletes in this study. In other words, the athletes
felt that their participation in sport allowed them to develop other skills (e.g.,
psychological) and opportunities that may not have been afforded otherwise. For the
athletes in the current study, participation in sport was seen as a vehicle of social
empowerment that enabled them to gain other skills and opportunities that would
contribute to their overall development as people. Therefore, the first order theme
labeled "helping in the future" emerged because the athletes felt that sports would help
them in their future endeavors. Jason felt that what he had learned from sport would help
him in his future career. He emphasized this by saying
The best thing I gained I'd say is the ability to have a perspective in life. I've been
through a lot, I know how to handle those adverse situations and I just don't worry
about things as much. I know if I put this much time in I'm going to be able to do
this. I can multi-task, I know how to budget my time. So I think swimming has
only enhanced what I'll be doing when I'm a doctor.
David also felt sports would enhance his future. "The best thing [I gained] is just
personal development. It's made me a complete person and it's made me ready to take
on any situation I'll face in the future." Tommy changed as a person because of sport. "I
think its [football] has helped me out as a person. I'm willing to give my neck out there
for somebody else to get all the fame."
Other sports. This higher order theme was defined by the first order theme of
"other sport participation." Every athlete interviewed participated in a variety of sports
and activities when they were young. The range of these sports included soccer,
basketball, baseball, swimming, softball, tennis, gymnastics, football, track, netball,
karate, and golf. Some of the athletes also participated in activities such as dance, piano,
and ballet. Some athletes also played two to four sports in high school. Participating in
other sports allowed the participants to stay busy and not get bored with one sport. The
following quote from Jennifer highlighted how playing multiple sports served to prevent
boredom and/or burnout:
My parents kept me involved in other things so I was doing soccer as well as
basketball and karate and baseball and stuff like that just so we [my brother and I]
wouldn't get burned out on one or that we could see which one we liked better. Up
until I came to college I played 4 sports in high school so I was still doing all the
various sports but I took a liking to soccer from the get go and so then I was much
more serious about it, a lot more time commitment. I played that year round, where
the other ones I would play intermittently at the same time as soccer ... In high
school I played soccer and basketball and they were the same season so we [my
parents and I] would go to one game, I would change in the car, leave at half-time,
and go and play the other game.
Jason enjoyed participating in many sports and said, "I was just the guy who liked to play
all sports so I played baseball, basketball, and football. I try to be at least semi-decent in
everything." Some athletes decided to focus on a certain sport during their careers
instead of engaging in multiple sports once they became older. The athletes discussed
how this was their decision and not made because of pressure from outside sources.
Michelle had to choose between ballet and swimming and elaborated with, "It was a
difficult decision for me to make so I chose swimming." David elaborated on his
decision and stated the following:
I basically quit everything and decided to focus on basketball. That was my
decision. Ijust decided I loved the game and that was the sport that I had the most
fun doing and I was good at it so it was something that I just wanted to focus on
Tommy felt that playing another sport, namely basketball, helped him become successful
in football. "I kind of owe a lot to what I do now, I don't want to say good but how well
I'm doing now, has a lot to do with basketball, with the movements and stuff."
As shown previously, the athletes mentioned a vast array of topics they felt
influenced their athletic success. These included genetics, practice, parent and sibling
influence, coach and teammate influence, psychological/mental characteristics, coping
with adversity, opportunities and sport lessons, and other sport participation. The next
section of the results will discuss the raw data themes that emerged from the interviews
with the parents of these highly successful collegiate athletes.
The results of the inductive analysis of the parent interviews resulted in 70 pages of
text. As shown in Figure 2, the overall themes that resulted from focused coding
included: genetics, practice, parental social support, parental roles, parental sacrifices,
coach influence, teammate influence, children's personality/mental characteristics, and
priority on education.
Genetics. This higher order theme was defined by the first order themes of
"family/gene influence" and "physical traits." The parents agreed with the athlete's
viewpoint that genetics was the basis, but not the majority of the reason their children
succeeded in sports. The first order theme of "family/gene influence" emerged because a
majority of the father's, and sometimes both parents, participated in sports when they
were younger. The parents also mentioned they noticed a natural athletic ability in their
children at a young age. Michelle's father felt that she had a family background in sports
and elaborated that, "She has sports in her genes, her grandfather played sports, I've
[father] played a lot of sports, her aunt was involved in sport ... She's just very athletic."
David's father said, "I played and I think my wife played at the time," and his wife
responded, "I think he [David] was in the womb." Jennifer's mother mentioned that her
husband was "very athletic and Jennifer gets that [athleticism] from him." Jennifer's
father added, "She gets her jock instinct naturally." Tommy's parents joked about the
fact that they were both much shorter than their son. His father speculated, "I guess we
put a pretty good combination together. We're actually the tallest in our families both her
and I." His mother went on to add, "He did not get any athletic ability from me but I
think all his athletic ability gives him the edge." Dennis' father felt that his son "just had
a lot of natural talent." Amy's mother related a story about her daughter having an
abundance of energy and athleticism at a young age.
She was born an athlete somehow. I was pretty athletic but nothing like my
children. And my husband was too; he was a gymnast and played soccer. But with
her maybe more than her brothers she was born with that ability because she could
start hitting or bouncing a ball at just two years old and things like that. And then
of course her incredible energy, I don't know where she got it from, not from me
and I don't think from my husband either.
Physical traits and characteristics were also mentioned as aiding in athletic talent
development. As the athletes revealed previously, the parents also mentioned height and
size as distinct advantages. David's mother discussed that her son "had good eye-hand
coordination and he had the size." Dennis' father said, "I definitely think his height
really did a lot for him because he's got these long legs." He went on to add that he
thought Dennis was "built to be a runner." Jason's parents felt their son had beneficial
physical characteristics. His mother said, "I would just say being very tall, that's very
helpful, and lengthy and long. It's a very good thing for a swimmer." Tommy's parents
agreed and felt that "height was an advantage for Tommy, even though we aren't very tall
ourselves. His height and his size have a lot to do with his success." Tommy's father
added, "I think he's got the physical ability, he's got the size, and he's always had good
Practice. This higher order theme was defined by the first order theme of "practice
importance." Parents felt that practicing was important to the success of their children.
Jason's parents thought practice impacted him "a lot" and elaborated, "He never missed
practice." His mother continued:
Jason really took advantage of the amount of time that he was in the water. He
realized that he didn't have the natural talent that he could take off and not practice
hard and succeed. He really needed to work at it and he was prepared to do that.
Michelle's parents said she was "always keen to go swimming ... She's never been
the type of person to make a fuss, she would always go swimming whenever you'd say
lets go." Amy's mother thought that practice helped her "develop a lot of course."
Jennifer convinced her mother to be in on the action when she was practicing as a
youngster. Her mother explained, "I had many jammed fingers because of Jennifer. I
spent many Saturday's out on the field where she [Jennifer] would just practice and
practice." Dennis' father noticed how much his son practiced. He offered the following:
He [Dennis] would practice all the time. He would run all the time. I mean he
always ran, the last few years when he would just run every day first thing in the
morning when he was visiting and then at night, 10-15 miles a day.
David's mother felt that practice "obviously was huge." Tommy's father agreed by
saying, "That's [practice] what it's all about isn't it. Just like with your school the more
you study the better you do, the better you get." Tommy's mother discussed the
importance of having good high school coaches who implemented regimented practices
into Tommy's life.
He had a regimen of practice going on before he got to college and the high school
coach he had was a stickler for running. I mean he'd make these kids run and run
and everybody would say oh my goodness why but by the time they would be
playing a game they wouldn't be exhausted in the middle of a game. They would
be able to pull it out in the 4th quarter or at least hold it steady in the 3rd and 4th
quarter because they weren't exhausted by the end of the game. So when
everybody would complain about the run, run, run, he'd say well wait and see we'll
show you what we can do. So Tommy was used to it, a pretty regimented practice
program before he got to college.
Parental social support. This higher order theme was defined by the first order
themes of "encouraging but not pressuring" and "always being there." In support of the
athletes' testimonials, the parents interviewed for the current study were very supportive
of their children and their athletic endeavors. The importance of this theme will be
discussed more in the grounded theory section (discussed below). The first order theme
of "encouraging but not pressuring" evolved because parents felt that it was very
important for their children to choose their own activities and decide if they enjoyed a
certain activity or a variety of activities. In support of the athletes' perceptions of their
parents, some parents claimed they influenced their children to become involved in
varied sports, but allowed their children to decide whether to continue or not. Jennifer's
mother, who shared the following experience, explained this:
We made sure that we always supported them [Jennifer and her brother] 100% as
long as they gave 100%. Jennifer just showed a great love for soccer. I tried her in
all the girlie things like tap and ballet and gymnastics but the minute they had to do
any type of performance she'd want to quit and her excuse, even at the age of seven
or eight was always it's going to take away from my soccer.
Michelle's parents were also very supportive of her trying many different activities. Her
mother said, "We always tried to encourage her in everything that she wanted to do."
Michelle chose swimming over ballet when she was young, and this decision to pursue
swimming in high school was discussed by Michelle's mother below.
One of the stories I always remember is that as I said she did ballet and she got up
to her senior grade and she was still swimming, she would leave ballet and go
swimming. Then one day she said to me, they had started to do toe work and her
toes were stuffed in the shoes, and after about a month she said to me, 'Mommy, I
either do swimming or I do dancing. I can't have my toes up one hour and then
having to stretch them out when I'm swimming in the next hour.' Her ballet
teacher told her she was a very good dancer but that she had to make up her mind.
Michelle sort of thought about it and the next day she said 'you know I really think
I'm going to stick to swimming. I like swimming.' She did very well in both
Amy also participated in a variety of sports that included gymnastics, dance, and
soccer, but her mother let her decide which one was for her. "She always said no, she
wanted to play tennis ... I think the child should decide." Jason's parents allowed him to
make the decision to stop swimming in order to pursue other interests when he was
young. But later Jason decided to return to swimming because as his mother noted, "He
knew that he had the talent and he started to really kind of drive himself a little bit
further. Swimming kind of stood out from the other sports." Tommy had a successful
youth career in basketball but decided that he would concentrate on football in high
school. His parents were surprised by this decision because they thought he enjoyed
basketball more than football. His mother talked of this:
I think it surprised us when he finally got to high school and he was going to go try
out for basketball but I think he was just so exhausted from playing football and
being there that when they had started basketball and he was going for 30 hours
more on top of his schoolwork he came to us and said you know 'I'm really just
going to concentrate on football. I'm going to go to the weight room and get bigger
and stronger and I'm going to do this and I'm going to give up basketball.' I think
it surprised us that he wanted to walk away from basketball but he was so
determined that he convinced us that he was going to do the weight lifting and get
better for football and that's exactly what he did. He ended up quitting the
basketball and directed himself straight into football and that was the time I think
we really realized that this was very, very important to him because up until them
we thought he was following his brother's footsteps more than it being that
important to himself. That's about it, when he finally got to that point, he finally
made up his mind that this was where he wanted to go.
In short, the parents in this study appeared to offer support, rather than pressure, to
their children to help them become successful athletes. The parents empowered their
children to make their own decisions about which sport to pursue. Amy's mother had
witnessed other parents who pushed their children too much:
See if the kids like it because many parents are completely controlling and I saw so
many parents push and push and push. I think the child should decide and you
have to accept that ... it helps that we are always supporting her and we are always
interested in hearing where she plays and when she calls did she win or lose.
The first order theme labeled "always being there" emerged because the parents in
the current study offered continuous emotional support and were present to watch their
children compete. Similar to the descriptions offered by the athletes, this form of social
support was emphasized by the parents as well. Thus, the support, encouragement, and
comfort given by parents were an important part of the developmental process for the
athletes in this study. Parents sacrificed a great deal of time and money in order to attend
their child's competitions. David's father said that competing in tournaments was "very
expensive ... 3,000 dollars a year." Both parents worked, but his mother alleged, "We
don't have an endless supply of income so that [tournaments] was kind of rough."
Jason's parents went to his swim meets and it had even become a family activity because
Jason's brother and sister would attend the meets also. Jason's mother said, "We were
both very supportive of anyplace he wanted to go. We all went to his swim meets and his
brother and sister went along also. We always were there together for each other.
Jason's parents enjoyed the time their family spent together around their child's sport.
I think just because he knew his family supported him the whole time. I think that
we were always behind him. We didn't care if he came in last; our rule was as long
as you tried your best that's all that mattered. It was just a fun family experience
Dennis' father had to travel halfway across the country to be present at his son's
bigger high school track and cross-country meets. He traveled that far because he felt
that he had "always done better when my mom and dad came to sporting events."
Therefore, he "tried to come to state championship races that he [Dennis] had to show
support because that's important to me and for him to do well." Even when Dennis'
father was not able to attend his races, he still made sure to call his son and keep up with
his results via telephone and the newspaper. Tommy's parents were adamant about being
at his games saying, "We support him 150%; we don't ever miss anything he does. We
go to all his games together." During the interview with Tommy's parents they claimed
they did not remember missing a game since he began playing football. Tommy's
parents discussed the importance of being positive and optimistic with their son:
If they have a bad game we just talk positive and if they have a really good game
and they do good that's when we lay the bad stuff on him just to try to keep it even.
But we're always there for him and we let him be his own person as much as we
Jennifer's parents summarized their experiences and observations of being a part of the
youth sport sub-culture. Other parents sometimes thought that Jennifer's parents were
pushing her too far, but her father described how they were just trying to keep up.
One of the biggest laughs we [her mother and I] would always have was parents
who didn't really know things would say don't you all think you're pushing
Jennifer a little bit too much? And we'd say, we just grab on and go for the ride no
one's pushing her, if we're doing anything we're running hard to keep up.
Parental roles. The first order themes labeled "maternal roles" and "paternal roles"
defined this higher order theme. Similar to the athlete's views, these themes were
characterized by the specific role related behaviors offered by the athletes' parents. The
majority of the families in the current study felt that the mother and the father had
somewhat different roles during the development of their child. Both parents supported
the child, but the mothers usually took the athlete to and from practices, woke them up in
the morning, and provided sympathy and maternal support. The fathers tended to be
stricter, more involved in the business or logistics side, and not quite as involved in their
children's sport. Amy's mother talked about how she was "driving Amy around and
picking her up" and also added that she "traveled with her to the bigger tournaments"
because Amy's father worked quite a bit. Michelle's mother took her to and from
practices. She mentioned that her husband worked early in the morning so it was "more
convenient for me to take Michelle to swimming." Jason's mother was also the parent
that took him to practices. "I was the one that mainly took him to the practices and
everything and I'm also the one he had to fight with when he didn't want to go to
practice." David's mother revealed that David likes to "talk to his father about basketball
and to me about other topics like academics and movies and things." The following
quote illustrates the varying roles that Jennifer's parents shared:
We kind of had our respective roles. I was always in charge of logistics, tell me
where you've got to be at and tell me when you've got to be there and I'll tell you
what time we've got to leave to get there. Then her mother would work with her to
help her get her stuff together and whether it's a two-hour drive or a three-hour
drive it didn't matter. Where are we going, when do we have to be there, and based
on that, this is when we've got to leave and this is when we're going to get there?
Parental sacrifices. The higher order theme labeled "parental sacrifices" was
defined by the first order themes of "time" and "financial." Parental sacrifices mainly
focused on time, money, and lack of vacation time. The parents gave up a great deal of
time and money to support their children's sport endeavors. Even though the parents
sacrificed a great deal, they felt the rewards and experiences with their children were well
worth any sacrifice they may have incurred. For example, Jason's mother discussed how:
We kind of lived and breathed swimming with him [Jason] and at the time we also
had a younger son who was swimming as well. And his older sister was involved
in the watching of it so we pretty much 12 months of the year was involved with
swimming ... We all just kind of enjoyed the experience of what he was doing
together. It was just a fun family experience for us. It's always been a fun family-
Amy's mother noted that providing support to an elite athlete is "expensive with all
the training and travel." She felt that "it was fun, it was something to do and you meet
nice people." Michelle's parents agreed saying, "It was a giant effort by both of us.
From the beginning it was a very expensive affair and the more progress she did
competitively the higher the expenses." Also, because one of Michelle's parents would
travel with her to all of her meets, national and international, her father knew it "got very
expensive...yet also said, "We're very proud of her." Dennis' father had a predicament
because he knew it would be difficult, financially, to send Dennis to college. Dennis was
offered and accepted a scholarship, but after one year of success, decided to transfer.
Dennis' father tried to discourage him from transferring because "it was too expensive
and I couldn't afford it unless he had a full ride," but his uncle contributed financially to
the family's efforts. Tommy's parents also felt a financial strain and described, "we're
poor but we're managing." They described Tommy's career as "fortunate, amazing, and
exciting" despite any sacrifices they may have made.
As for giving up vacations, Jennifer's parents related how they experienced this for
many years. Her mother said, "They always had competitions down south at
Thanksgiving and all the college coaches would come look at them, so for many years we
spent our Thanksgiving vacation in a hotel." Jason's mother discussed how their family
vacations consisted of attending swim meets and how others could not understand their
We probably gave up a lot of vacations and a lot of other things like that but we
looked at those things as being kind of our fun family vacations. People thought
we were kind of crazy but we kind of looked forward to them so it was just a fun
thing for us.
The previous section exemplified the types of sacrifices the parents made as well as
the support they gave while making these sacrifices. As discussed, the parents were
happy to spend a great deal of time, money, and energy to support their children to help
enhance their athletic careers.
Coach influence. The higher order theme labeled "coach influence" was defined by
the first order themes of "coach social support," "coach adversity," and "parent as
coach." The parents in the current study thought that their children received exceptional
coaching the majority of the time. The first order theme "coach social support" emerged
because the participants' parents related many instances where their children were very
close to their coaches and gave the coaches credit for developing their child's talent.
Jason's father said he had a coach in high school that was "like a buddy, he had a great
relationship with his high school coach." He added that the coach told Jason, "The more
you practice the farther you are going to go." As mentioned previously, Jason would not
have become a collegiate swimmer without the influence of his high school coach. David
also had a good relationship with his high school coach. His mother elaborated, "He had
a family guy for a high school coach. He was an unbelievably excellent role model."
Dennis' father felt that his son's "high school coach was his biggest influence because his
high school coach basically influenced him to say hey this is your ticket through to get a
college degree." Tommy's parents felt that his high school coach was very influential in
Tommy's life. His mother said, "He had a high school coach that was a center and that's
what position he played so he was just a real good offensive line coach." His father
elaborated on this with the following:
They [Tommy and his high school teammates] say wow, the coaching we had in
high school were so good. Sometimes they got mad at their coaches for what they
made them do but in the end it was there and I think last year it really helped
Tommy in comparing to some of his teammates that came in at the same time as he
did. I think the background he had in coaching and practicing paid off and gave
him that edge to be able to accomplish what he did this past year.
As discussed by the athletes, the parents perceived their children to have good
relationships with their collegiate coaches. In general, the athletes' coaches were viewed
as supportive and influential, and at times like a parental figure away from home for the
athletes. Michelle's mother said, "I've never heard her complain about any of her
coaches. I think she liked them very much." Amy's mother described how, "her college
coaches influenced her, and they both have helped her a lot." David's mother felt that his
college coaches were very influential, adding "All of the coaches that coach there are
such great examples of family comes first. You know just how to be a person in your
spiritual life." As for being like a parental figure, Dennis' father explained, "He liked
Coach [name] and they became really close." Jennifer's parents felt their daughter's
coach was special and described, "We kind of knew they [her coach and her] had a
special camaraderie or Jennifer had a special feeling for her [coach]." At times the
parents also thought that coaches were able to recognize talent in their children, even
when the parents did not. For example, Michelle's mother said, "I can't say I recognized
any talent. I think her coaches did you know. Coaches really did recognize that she was
going to go places." In addition, Amy's mother discussed how "one of the coaches at her
old academy moved to another academy and actually asked Amy if she wanted to train
with him and she would get a scholarship."
Some athletes did not always agree with their coaches but learned to deal with
most of these adversities. Therefore the first order theme labeled "coach adversity"
emerged from observations that the athletes had to handle a variety of challenges while
working with their coaches. Again, the reader should note that with regard to this theme,
the parents were corroborating the athletes' experiences. For instance, Jason's father
related his viewpoint on the coach/athlete relationship. "At first he was really I guess
afraid of Coach [name] but I think he really grew to like him and respect him and
understand him and realize what a good coach he was." Michelle's mother discussed
their daughter's relationship with a tough coach.
Up to going to the Olympics she was very happy there but she found that after the
Olympics she got a little disappointed with the coach and his attitude and got very
frustrated and asked to be relieved of him.
Amy's father was the only parent in the current study that coached their child in a
sport. He coached Amy throughout her youth soccer career. Therefore, the first order
theme labeled "parent as coach" emerged. Amy's mother remembered when her husband
first started coaching Amy. "She [Amy] couldn't separate the father/coach relationship."
She told a story of Amy's early experiences with her father as her coach by relating the
There were many times when he'd say to the team okay no one's doing whatever
and she'd come off the field crying and saying he's yelling at me mom. And I'd
say he's not yelling at you, he's yelling at the whole team. And she'd say yeah but
I did it right so I'd say well what do you want him to say, everybody except Amy,
she did it right. She'd say well yeah. It took almost a whole season of me talking
to her and just kind of saying you have to know that you did the right thing but he
has to generalize, he can't just pick on one person. But it got to the point where
their relationship got so good after awhile that I used to literally get jealous.
According to Amy's parents, Amy referred to her coaches as "coach" rather than by their
first names. Her mother said, "She [Amy] said 'I can't be friends with my coaches, they
are my coaches. I have to expect them to discipline me if I do something.'" Her mother
went on to add, "I think that stems from the early days when her dad coached her and in
the early days she had a hard time with the dual role but it worked for her." Overall,
Amy and her father had a successful relationship with him as both her father and her
coach. Jason's mother felt it was beneficial for her to stay out of the coaching side of her
son's swimming career.
I tried to stay out of that [coaching] because there are many you know if you want
to call them soccer moms out there in all the different sports. So I try to stay away
from that [coaching] because I know that one time he wanted to quit, and let me tell
you it was a fight between him and me, that I finally had to back down and let him
have his free reign right then. Because you can't force the kid to do something that
they don't want to do and they have to be happy doing it.
Teammates. This higher order theme labeled "teammate influence" was defined by
the first order theme of "teammate social support." The parents of the athletes, like the
athletes' themselves, felt that their children had an influence on teammates and that
teammates had an influence on their children as well. Overall, from the parent's
perspective, the athlete's teammates were friends to the athletes and served as a social
support mechanism. Therefore the first order theme labeled "teammate social support"
emerged. Michelle's mother was happy to hear that their daughter was well liked by her
teammates and related, "She likes them all [her teammates] and her father was
"pleasantly surprised and happy to hear how well liked she was and what an example she
used to give." Jennifer's parents remembered that their daughter was well liked and
usually in a leadership position on her team. Her mother thought that, "Jennifer is very
easy going, very easy person to get along with and she's always gotten along really well
with her teammates, to the point where I think every team she was ever on she was a
captain." When Jennifer was young her parents told stories of how they taught her to
always be positive with her teammates on the field. One of their ground rules was that
her she could only vent when they got into the family van and no one else could hear her.
She [Jennifer] really did just that [vent in the van], I mean we would sit after the
game in the van, even if we had won, where she would just literally vent. But on
the field she knew she had to be positive with her teammates and we wouldn't
allow it any other way.
Jason's parents discussed how an older teammate was "someone Jason looked up to
and probably helped him a lot." His roommate was also a swimmer and Jason's parents
thought it "helped having a good friend and roommate that was also a top-level
swimmer." Jason also influenced his teammates and helped younger swimmers when he
became an upperclassman. His mother elaborated, "I think a lot of the swimmers actually
had a lot of respect for Jason because they know how hard he had worked to get where he
was." Tommy's parents also felt that teammates respected and influenced their son. His
father offered the following:
I think they've [teammates] kept him humble and I think they look up to him and
respect him and I think they've had as much to do with his development into who
and what he is as much as anybody else.
Overall, the parents did not seem to mention the influence of teammates as much as the
athletes. However, like the other themes that have been discussed, the parents noticed the
support and encouragement the athletes' received from their teammates.
Children's personality/mental characteristics. This higher order theme was defined
by the first order themes of "positive mental characteristics" and "negative mental
characteristics." This higher order theme evolved because many parents mentioned
mental characteristics that they felt helped their children, and other characteristics that
hindered their child's development. Overall, the parents felt that their children were very
driven and determined to succeed from a very young age.
The first order theme labeled "positive mental characteristics" developed because
the following traits were mentioned by parents as being beneficial: "working hard,"
"being intelligent," "wanting to succeed at everything," "being tough," "focused,"
"always prepared," "confidence," "competitiveness," "fear of failure," "patience," "self-
driven," "self-motivated," "goal-orientated," "willing to sacrifice," "being a fighter,"
"being positive," "disciplined," "being jovial," "modesty," "determination," "not being
over emotional," "being a winner," and "knowing what it takes to win." For example,
Michelle's father described, "I think it [what helped her most] was her discipline and her
determination. Michelle's one of those people to my mind that she can do anything and
achieve anything she sets her mind to do." Amy's mother felt that her daughter was very
driven. "Amy never complained and she really liked it and we never had to push her
because she was so driven." Jennifer's father discussed the level of his daughter's
competitiveness in the following quotation:
I spent 24 years in the military and played sports everywhere up and down and
coached sports up and down. If you gave me a piece of paper and told me to list
the 12 most competitive people I've ever come into contact with in any type of
situation, Jennifer's name would be somewhere on that list. When she was a young
kid we had to quit playing board games in this house because you couldn't stop
playing with her until she had won. And you couldn't let her win because if you let
her win she was smart enough to figure it out that you let her win and then she
would just have a temper tantrum.
Jennifer's father continued, "Jennifer was very focused, self-driven, self-motivated, very
goal orientated, but very competitive, very high standards ... She had to learn to have
patience with others." David's father also described the importance of competitiveness,
"He's always been very competitive ... His pure toughness, his discipline, his focus."
Tommy's parents saw the drive in their son and his mother noted, "He's always had a
determination." His father added:
Tommy's a winner; I don't know how else to say it. He knows how to win and he
knows what it takes to win. A lot of athletes are good athletes, a lot of athletes are
great athletes and only about 20% of all the great athletes are winners, that's what I
think of my son.
Some parents mentioned negative mental characteristics they thought their children
possessed. The parent's discussions about negative characteristics were fewer than the
positive characteristics. Some of the negative traits mentioned by the parents included:
"hard headedness," "being stubborn," "being too nice," "being unselfish," "not focusing
when having a girlfriend," "nervousness," and "being shy." Dennis' father talked about
one example of the negative impact that his son's lack of focus had. "To me sometimes
you could tell that he didn't have it in him psychologically to run well that day, and other
days he did." He went on to add, "Dennis would always run better when he didn't have a
girlfriend, because when he did he didn't have his mind on running, it wasn't important
to him." Jason's parents thought that his "hard headedness" and "being stubborn"
sometimes hindered him, especially in relations with his collegiate coach. Jennifer's
father, who was also her coach, discussed his thoughts on her being too nice.
It's so funny because part of it is the coach in me, but I think she would've been a
much more, in some instances she's too unselfish, too nice. But it was that kind of
thing that kind of created her being an outstanding team player because she is so
unselfish and I think it's a two edged sword. In some instances she may have gone
further or done better if she'd been a little bit more selfish.
Collectively, the parents' felt that the mental aspect of their children's sport was
important to success and they believed their sons or daughters possessed more positive
than negative mental traits. In addition, the parents confirmed many of the perceived
traits or mental characteristics discussed by the athletes.
Priority on education. The higher order theme designated as "priority on
education" emerged because the parents felt that academics were as important, if not
more important, than athletics. The parents placed emphasis on education during the
interviews and discussed how academics and athletics were important developmental
experiences for their children. Therefore, the higher order theme of "priority on
education" was defined by the first order themes of "emphasizing education" and
"academic/athletic interdependence." The parents felt that athletics may only last so long
and encouraged their children to concentrate on academics as well. Interestingly, the first
author did not mention academics during the interviews. Rather, all the parents brought
up this topic on their own accord.
The first order theme labeled "emphasizing education" developed because parents
placed emphasis on education for their children. For instance, Amy's mother noted, "I
also think school is just as important [as tennis], you know graduating from college is the
most important." Jennifer's mother agreed saying, "Education was always a high
priority. It wasn't where does this fit in, it was always on the top of the list, everything
else has to be built off of that, the education always comes first." David's father realized
his son "appreciated the free education" and that David "worked hard to get the best
education that he could get." Jason's mother mentioned, "School was always number
one with him." He mother was also proud that "He worked very hard to get into medical
school." Tommy's parents felt that education played a role in his decision of where to go
to school. His mother elaborated,
I think the education side played a lot into it as well. He knows the value of the
education. He's up there right now taking two classes where some kids are only
taking one. And he's taking two harder classes because he can put the time in it
because he realizes you're only one play away from a football career being over. I
think he realizes that because he's seen between his brother finishing playing and
his friends not getting opportunities to play in the future and other people, he
realizes how short it is so he's making every effort to keep ahead in credits so when
his five years are done he's going to have everything set in line for his education.
So if he doesn't want to play football anymore he can come back and get a job
teaching and coaching and move on from there.
The parents felt that doing well academically helped their children to succeed
athletically and vice versa. Therefore the first order theme named "academic/athletic
interdependence" emerged. For example, Michelle's mother said, "It [sport] helps them
[Michelle and her siblings] in their schoolwork." She felt that swimming helped keep
Michelle on a schedule. "It [swimming] never seemed to have affected her work. She
would come home in the evening, eat, do her homework and study, go to bed and then
wake up at again at 4:30 and do it all over again." Jennifer's father saw that her
competitive side on the field "rubbed over into her academics as well." He added, "For
her the classroom was just another place to compete." Jennifer's parents were
particularly proud because her college scholarship was academic, not athletic. Her father
explained, "I bragged on that more than Jennifer did," and he told her, "Long after you've
kicked the last ball, the skills that you used to get that academic scholarship are still
going to be paying dividends for you." Jason's parents felt that swimming helped his
academics as well. His mother elaborated
I actually always said that swimming is a very good sport to get into. You learn
how to balance your time and be disciplined because you know you have to
practice all these hours and you have all these meets on the weekends and you have
school that you have to keep up with. And Jason knew how to balance his school
ethic of homework and everything and his practice ethic and he just learned how to
In summary, the interplay of academics and athletics was viewed as important in
preparing the athletes for the future. The parents perceived athletic and academic
challenges as influencing one another and offering the potential for life long gains. In
addition, the parents shared a number of social-contextual influences on the
developmental process of their children. Overall influences the parents perceived on the
athletes included genetics, practice, the parents own influence and support, coach and
teammate influence, mental/psychological characteristics of their child, and education.
What follows are the results from the interviews with the coaches.
The results of the inductive analysis of the coach interviews resulted in 44 pages of
text. As shown in Figure 3, the overall themes that resulted from focused coding
included: genetics, practice, parental influence, coach influence, teammate influence,
athlete's personality/mental characteristics, and overall athlete qualities.
Genetics. The higher order theme of "genetics" emerged because the coaches
discussed the importance of genetics in the development and the success of the athlete's
they coached. Consistent with the athlete and parent interviews, two first order themes
emerged, which were labeled "family/gene influence" and "physical traits." The coaches
talked more about sport specific genetic characteristics than the athletes or the parents,
but perceived genetics to have less of a relative contribution to the athletes' development
than other factors such as practice and situational influences.
The first order theme labeled "family/gene influence" surfaced because coaches
talked about the influence of the family genetics and the feeling that the athlete had
innate athletic abilities. Amy's coach perceived her genetics, "those things that are not
learned, I mean she's born with that, an unusual amount of talent," to be very important
in her development. He felt as if her biggest influences were that "she's a very
instinctive and intuitive player, very talented." He added that he noticed she had a "very
very natural feel for a ball and she reads the play very well." Jennifer's coach also saw a
genetic influence, saying that Jennifer was "very talented ... and certainly had some
innate abilities." Jason's coach perceived genetics to be "his biggest asset and very
important in his success." Likewise, Tommy's coach talked about how Tommy was able
to do many things well because of his athletic ability. "Athletic ability, balance, speed,
change of direction, just things of that nature is something that he possesses that is a God
given talent that has been worked on throughout the years." As in the previous athlete
and coach sections, the above quote illustrated the interaction of early genetic influences
The coaches mentioned physical traits that allowed the athletes to achieve success
in college athletics. This led to the adoption of the first order theme labeled "physical
traits." Tommy's coach said, "He's [Tommy] has a good size ... obviously you have to
have the size, that's an uncontrollable factor." Michelle's coach noticed physical traits
that allowed her to excel in the sport of swimming. He mentioned the fact that Michelle
was "very muscular, a very strong woman, tall, lanky, big hands, big feet, and had a real
good natural quickness." Similarly, Jason's swimming coach felt that genetics was a
large asset to him because he was "a tremendously big guy, real long limbs, big hands,
big feet ... that and he was smart." David's coach mentioned physical traits that helped
him succeed, yet also felt he was not the most naturally athletic person.
I think he had good genetics in certain areas and maybe he was lacking in some
genetics. Obviously the genetics that were positive is he was six foot ten, he was
big, and he was strong. But wasn't the most overly athletic guy. He took his
frame, his height, and he created a niche for himself.
Practice. The higher order theme labeled "practice" was defined by the first order
theme "practice importance." As noted earlier, genetics were seen as important, but
practice was perceived as more important in the overall development of the athletes. The
coaches pushed their athletes to work very hard in practices and expected them to push
themselves to become better athletes. Amy's coach felt that practice "helped her without
a doubt." In general, he felt that practice had "given her the necessary tools to become
successful and that practice gave her technique, which is very good." Tommy's coach
thought that he "does a nice job in practice but could work a little harder." In contrast,
David's coach thought that David's work ethic was one of his greatest assets. As noted
previously, David's coach did not perceive him to be the most natural athlete from a
physical standpoint but felt he was able to "overcome a lot of limitations by just sheer
work, desire, and drive and just unbelievable effort." Jennifer's coach felt that she had
"the work ethic to go along with her abilities." Jason's coach described how Jason "had
to work his butt off in practice so he learned the value of hard work." Michelle's coach
talked about the fact that she was "constantly striving for ways to get better and was very
coachable." Overall, the coaches in the current study perceived practice and working
hard in practice to be important in the talent development of the athletes.
Parental influence. The coaches in the current study mentioned parents to be
considerable influences on the athletes. Because the coaches observed the important role
that parents provided for their children, the first order theme classified as "parental social
support" emerged. Although the coaches did not know the parents of the athletes
extremely well, they noticed the impact that parents had in the lives of the athletes. In
general, the parents provided a great deal of social support to their children both before
and during their collegiate years. The coaches felt that the parents helped the athletes
stay grounded and do well in college.
The first order theme called "parental social support" evolved as coaches discussed
parents being supportive and influential in the athletes' lives. For instance, Jennifer's
coach had known Jennifer's family prior to college because of the Olympic Development
Program. She discussed how, "Her family is pretty well known and her parents are just
really concerned with doing what's best for Jennifer. I think they are really family-
centered and Jennifer carries that same thing." The coach elaborated on Jennifer's family
in more detail later in the interview.
That [her family] was a big influence, their support, being there all the time and just
they were the type of parents who were never really critical of Jennifer whether she
played great or whether she played poorly. They just were there to support her and
I think it was a really healthy environment for her to develop as a person and as a
player. As a person in athletics you see kind of both extremes with parents and
sometimes the parent inhibits player's development. I think Jennifer's parents
really helped her develop a lot more than most parents, just by being there and
Michelle's coach noticed that "she came from a real good background, good family
background, had great parental support and a lot of belief in her." He explained this by
saying, "My perspective is they [her parents] were highly supportive, provided the
financial means for her to do whatever she wanted to do, and the mother especially was
positive no matter what the situation was." Jason's coach perceived Jason's parents to be
"pretty supportive and certainly allowed him to do everything he wanted to do." The
support theme continued with Tommy's coach, who described how, "His mom and dad
are very supportive of him. They're very interested in him and I think that obviously
pays off because of the support factor." David's coach discussed how he felt that the
influence of David's parents during his youth years helped him succeed later because
they had instilled a hard work ethic in David.
I think that to me I have to look back at his parents and their upbringing and what
they were able to do there as far as instilling and establishing a work ethic for
David. I think that as I look back on David's four years here and then when he was
in high school, knowing him his junior and senior year, I think a lot can be
attributed to his family, his mom and dad, I mean they have three kids and they're
all going to college on scholarships ... They were very proud of David and I think
you could see the genuine support for David. I think they were very very
Finally, Amy's coach viewed her mother's support as important. He noted the impact
that losing her father had on her during her freshman year saying, "Losing her father I
know was obviously a tough go and I don't know how she responded the way she did ...
Her mom was very supportive. Her mom is a great mom." Overall, the coaches in this
study realized that the impact parents had in the lives of the athletes and the strong social
support they provided was fundamental to the athlete's success. At times, coaches felt
they took on the role of a parent to the athlete, which will be elaborated upon in the next
Coach influence. During the athlete's collegiate career, the coach played a
meaningful role in the development of the athlete as both a player and a person. As
discussed previously, the athlete's felt that their coaches provided support as well as a
parental influence away from home. Therefore, the higher order theme labeled "coach
influence" was defined by the first order theme of "coach social support".
The first order theme of "coach social support" emerged because coaches talked
about believing in the athletes and their potential to be exceptional athletes in college.
Tommy's coach felt that respect was a two way street between Tommy and himself. He
elaborated on this by saying, "I think there's an amount of respect that he has for the
coaching staff and what they're trying to get done and obviously there's a great deal of
respect for what he's getting done." He went on to add that he really enjoyed that
Tommy was a "blue collar laborer where he just gets it done." Jason's assistant coach
mentioned that "I was his motivator" and was able to keep Jason's spirits up whenever he
became disillusioned. David's coach related his feelings that he wanted his athletes to
feel comfortable and welcome coming to his office and know that he supported all of
them on and off the court. Therefore, he was intense on the court, but realized "they also
have school and different things they're dealing with so I think that I've tried to make a
conscientious effort not to be intense like that away from the court." Amy's coach
noticed that she needed to be on a looser reign so he tried to "let her loose" during her
senior year and that he and the assistant coach "emphasized the good things and didn't
really worry so much about mistakes." He felt as if she "really got a kick out of that."
Amy's coach took on a parental support role since she had lost her father previously. He
and the assistant coach did not try to be her father but he said they "knew that we needed
to show her that we're here for her if she needs something."