Origin Of Success: Using Storytelling To Explore Childhood Adversity In Top Athletes

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My proposed research will involve two key areas, storytelling and psychology. By looking into childhood adversity in top athletes, I would like to find out what effect the adversity had on their sporting career. The storytelling side will be in two parts, first the athletes will share their stories with me and I will use their stories to create a written creative piece. Robert McKee once said, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put idea into the world today.” Storytelling is a natural process for humans. We tell stories every day in one way or another. This introduction is a story of what the research will be and why. Stories make us human and that is why I believe it is important to use storytelling to explore childhood adversity in top athletes and these stories can be used to teach others how to deal with certain situations, how coaches can use specific motivational techniques for individual athletes and how the younger generation can learn that even the strongest individuals have struggled.

As a child my sporting hero was Ricky Henderson. I wanted to play baseball when I grew up. I batted like him. I played the same position as him. I wanted to be just like him. He was my hero. Even now I still use the same number he used when playing baseball. It was not until I was older and read part of his biography did I realise I was more like him than I knew. His father left the family when he was young and his mother moved them across the country to start a new life, much like mine. He started playing baseball and went on to break several records in the major league. I never quite made it that far, but I believe we both used sport to escape from the reality of life. Newman, Howells and Fletcher, in their research of autobiographies of top athletes found that most of them used sport as an escape.[footnoteRef:1] The exception, from the chosen autobiographies was Andre Agassi, who hated playing tennis but continued to play anyway. [1: Newman, Howells and Fletcher p. 6]

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This project will show the effects of adversity in top athletes by using interviews and practical based workshops to discuss and explore the past of current and retired top athletes today. Everyone fails, it is a part of life. But what separates us is how we recover from the fall. These are the stories I hope to discover and tell.

Research Question

This project will explore adversity top athletes may have faced through storytelling and allowing the athletes themselves tell their story orally, by creating their own digital story or creatively in a medium they may choose as part of the data collection. By using storytelling and allowing the athlete to tell their story (compared to autobiographies which can be co-written) I can learn how the individual viewed their life by the way they chose to tell their story. It is also important for coaches to understand what the trigger is for each athlete as this will have a major impact on the methods used for coaching to get the best performance from the athlete.

I aim to identify and composite evidence on childhood adversity in top athletes and the impact it had on their sporting career using storytelling in sports science. The questions are as follows: 1) What is known about childhood adversity in top athletes and the extent adversity had on their sporting career? 2) What impact does storytelling have on the research process and the development of athletes and coaches? 3) How can extracted narrative data impact future coaching methods?


As this project is part practical and part theoretical, a large portion of the research will involve interviews, surveys and questionnaires; then using the data to create the production of the creative piece along with digital stories that can be shown as evidence. The digital stories will be made up from the interviews and some may be created by the athletes themselves. The practical section of my research will be supported by a creative piece that will be a collection of the stories from the athletes. The theoretical section of my research will be supported by a written analysis of the data I found and reflections of the data and how the data can be used to inform coaching practices.

Background and Significance

John Locke argues in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, that the mind is like a “white paper, void of all characters.” This means that at birth the human mind is a blank slate and the data is formed by one’s experiences. It is these experiences and how these experiences are processed that make each individual.

According to the World Health Organizations’ website, more than 300 million people are affected with depression worldwide. [footnoteRef:2] A study from the CDC in the late 1990’s by Vincent J. Felitti and Robert F. Anda surveyed over 13,000 adults with over 70 percent responding and found that more than half reported at least one of the seven categories of adverse childhood experiences. One fourth reported exposure to more than two of the categories.[footnoteRef:3] [2: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression] [3: The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study]

And according to Meg Jay, more people are likely to have experienced childhood adversity than not. But how does this transfer to athletes and what effect did adversity have on them? What separated them from the everyday person and pushed them to sporting success?

Very little has been researched in the area of childhood adversity in top athletes. One major study from Bangor University research professor Lew Hardy lead a team of researchers and they interviewed 32 former GB athletes from Olympic sports. 16 were considered Super-Elite and won multiple medals, and 16 were Elite athletes and had not won medals at major championships. What the results showed was all the Super-Elite athletes experienced negative events, and the events occurred closely with positive sporting event. While only four from the Elite group had the same experience. The report also showed that 12 of the Super-Elite athletes reported significant negative events during childhood[footnoteRef:4]. This is significant as the correlation of when the negative experience and the positive experience took place and how sport was used to cope with the negative experience. [4: Hardy et al.’s (2017) ]

Why use storytelling to explore adversity? Storytelling explains change and human beings are storytellers by nature. Storytelling is a way of sharing experiences and allowing others to learn from these experiences. Stories are filled with with protagonists that face adversity, Joseph Campbell calls it the Hero’s Journey. Stories imitate life and vice versa. Origin stories are very popular in the current culture and even more so with superhero stories. Robin Rosenberg discusses that there are three types of life altering experiences, trauma, destiny and chance[footnoteRef:5]. Origin stories inspire and provide examples that even mere mortals can overcome the any type of adversity. I have always been fascinated with the backstory of characters, what made them who they are in the story. I always wanted to what happened to make Darth Vader become evil? Why did his son Luke react differently under similar circumstances. My Favourite Harry Potter book is Harry Potter and the Half Blood-Prince because it is full of back story on the main antagonist in the series. I want to use storytelling to act as a bridge between the scientific research of childhood adversity and use it as a tool in order to show others how childhood adversity affected elite athletes and how as coaches they can use that to maximize performance of their athletes. [5: Robin Rosenberg, Smithsonian Magazine February 2013]

Coaches could learn to man-mange the athletes better and as Howells and Fletcher point out, the mismanagement of athletes was evident in many of the autobiographies and is considered normalised behaviour.[footnoteRef:6] I believe this research could further lead to a better understanding of early life adversity and how it affects the athletes in their training and during competition. [6: Howells and Fletcher p. 42]

Difficulties of the research could be athletes that are unaware of the stressor that triggered the drive to compete and be the best in their sport. It could also be difficult for some athletes to discuss past events as it may be something unconscious or they do not wish to put their name to certain events. In order to overcome these challenges I will expand on previous research of the athletes first and then expand to athletes that have previously discussed childhood adversity in interviews or biographies.

We know childhood adversity has an effect on athletes, what we don't know is their emotional effect, then and now, and how sport affected the childhood adversity. Using storytelling can help athletes and coaches further understand how negative childhood experiences coinciding with a positive sporting event enhanced their hunger for sporting success.

Scope of and limits to the research

Previously, research had been focused on GB athletes from Olympics sports (Hardy) and autobiographies from retired British, Australian and American athletes from a variety of sports (Newman). My research will be limited geographically to Great Britain as this will allow the research to be manageable for research and interview purposes, but will include a variety of sports. This can range from archery to snooker or triathlon to wrestling. Previous research shows adversity is important in Olympic athletes, but what about other sports? I think it is important to research and collect data from a wide range of sports as it could show if adversity is limited to certain types of sports or if it carries over to wider range of sports.

Looking forward, these results will come from interviews with athletes and coaches and once this research is complete, I would like to continue with trials in which a group of coaches uses the data found from this research to improve on their existing coaching philosophy.


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  3. Felitti, V., Anda, R., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D., Spitz, A., Edwards, V., Koss, M. and Marks, J. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), pp.245-258.
  4. Gogarty, Paul, and Ian Williamson. Winning at All Costs: Sporting Gods and Their Demons. JR, 2009.
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  6. Howells, Karen, and David Fletcher. “Sink or Swim: Adversity- and Growth-Related Experiences in Olympic Swimming Champions.” Psychology of Sport and Exercise, vol. 16, 2015, pp. 37–48., doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2014.08.004.
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  13. Sarkar, Mustafa, and David Fletcher. “Adversity-Related Experiences Are Essential for Olympic Success: Additional Evidence and Considerations.” Progress in Brain Research
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  15. Sport and the Brain: The Science of Preparing, Enduring and Winning, Part A, 2017, pp. 159–165., doi:10.1016/bs.pbr.2016.11.009.
  16. Tamminen, Katherine A., et al. “Exploring Adversity and the Potential for Growth among Elite Female Athletes.” Psychology of Sport and Exercise, vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, pp. 28–36., doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2012.07.002.
  17. “Depression.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression.
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