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Tending the flame: Personality, self-actualisation and the Olympic journey

Reid, Corinne (2005) Tending the flame: Personality, self-actualisation and the Olympic journey. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Abstract

Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), father of the modem Olympics believed that sport was about 'making men1', a test of 'arete' or virtue, the ability to make the most of your physical gifts through will, wisdom, courage, self-control, and through moral maturity as evidenced in the notion of fair play. He believed that Olympism was primarily a forum to demonstrate characterological excellence rather than physical and that it offered the opportunity for others to observe the qualities that accompanied greatness in men. The aim of this. thesis is to take up this opportunity, to explore the personal characteristics, more specifically, the personalities, that enable those who achieve this highest mantle of sporting excellence and which differentiate them from the many others identified as having the potential to do so. What has emerged through triangulation of data from several studies of Olympians and potential Olympians, using both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, speaks to both personality structure and processes. Firstly, many elite sportsmen and women seem to have a personality structure operating in the sporting domain that is quite different from that operating in their non-sporting life - that is, they have a sporting personality and a non-sporting, or life personality - different 'contextual selves'. Secondly, that success at the highest level seems crucially dependent upon the dispositional propensity to survive chronic stress and its acute corollaries. Thirdly, that there is more than one dispositional pathway with the power to ameliorate the potentially debilitating affects of these stressors - indeed there are even characteristics that seem to enable stress to become a formative experience. Two quite different stress- adaptive forces identified in this series of studies are hardiness (or openness) in one's approach to the sporting endeavour and mental toughness in the face of pressure or adversity. Both hardiness and mental toughness seem to be related to resilience but each relates differentially to traits such as optimism, commitment and need for control, among others. Mental toughness itself seems to take two forms: for some individuals such stress endurance is driven by a high need for achievement (Type I); for others it is more the result of energy associated with the directed, adaptive, expression of psychological vulnerabilities such as high anxiety (Type II). In some cases such expression may involve conscious or unconscious defense mechanisms to protect the individual from a full awareness of the pressures they are confronting. However, such defenses also seem to constitute an Achilles' heel once at the elite sporting level. In the absence of hard-won resilience, such psychological vulnerabilities seem to increasingly compromise further achievement. Finally, personality in this population seems to be an emergenic, dynamic force. A significant challenge in adapting to stress seems to be sustaining a balance adaptive forces identified in this series of studies are hardiness (or openness) in one's approach to the sporting endeavour and mental toughness in the face of pressure or adversity. Both hardiness and mental toughness seem to be related to resilience but each relates differentially to traits such as optimism, commitment and need for control, among others. Mental toughness itself seems to take two forms: for some individuals such stress endurance is driven by a high need for achievement (Type I); for others it is more the result of energy associated with the directed, adaptive, expression of psychological vulnerabilities such as high anxiety (Type II). In some cases such expression may involve conscious or unconscious defense mechanisms to protect the individual from a full awareness of the pressures they are confronting. However, such defenses also seem to constitute an Achilles' heel once at the elite sporting level. In the absence of hard-won resilience, such psychological vulnerabilities seem to increasingly compromise further achievement. Finally, personality in this population seems to be an emergenic, dynamic force. A significant challenge in adapting to stress seems to be sustaining a balance between the tendency toward growth (or self-actualisation) and the need for recovery (or systemic homeostasis through tension reduction). In seeking to understand the role of the Olympian personality as a complex, dynamic entity, a new framework is presented - one which merges two divergent psychological traditions, trait personology and personcentred personality theories - uniquely drawing together the key structural and process elements of elite sporting personality. Evaluation of this framework is begun. Implications for the practice of psychology in sport are discussed as are the implications for the wider study of human exceptionality. between the tendency toward growth (or self-actualisation) and the need for recovery (or systemic homeostasis through tension reduction). In seeking to understand the role of the Olympian personality as a complex, dynamic entity, a new framework is presented - one which merges two divergent psychological traditions, trait personology and personcentred personality theories - uniquely drawing together the key structural and process elements of elite sporting personality. Evaluation of this framework is begun. Implications for the practice of psychology in sport are discussed as are the implications for the wider study of human exceptionality.

1 Coubertin was referring to 'men' in the literal sense however throughout this dissertation, gender terms will be used interchangeably except where clearly stated. It is the observation of the author after more than a decade working with Olympians, that gender is not a particularly salient psychological characteristic in this sphere. This is also an impression offered by elite sporting coaches such as Richard Charlesworth, an Olympian himself and coach of female Olympian hockey players for nearly a decade (Charlesworth, 2001).

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Psychology
Supervisor: Andrich, David and Styles, Irene
URI: http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/29351
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