Performance Narratives – There ARE Alternatives

Mark Upton
Feb 15, 2018

“As a team we are committed to taking our game to the next level through hard work and continuous improvement, (we) will continue to drive our elite standards and core values to ensure we are ruthless and competitive in every aspect of our preparation and performance.”

The above narrative (recently emanating from a professional team sport) perhaps reflects the dominant ‘performance narrative’ in elite sport, as highlighted through the work of David Carless & Kitrina Douglas…

We have suggested, however, that one particular narrative type is dominant within elite sport culture: a performance narrative (Douglas & Carless, 2006a). The plot of performance stories revolves around achieving performance outcomes (e.g., winning and/or being the best), underlying many stories recited by the media, coaches, sport policy makers and governing bodies, and athletes (Carless & Douglas, 2012). It is a story of single-minded dedication to performance to the extent that phrases like “winning is everything” are routine. In this narrative, performance-related concerns come to infuse all areas of life while other areas are diminished or relegated.

Yet there are alternative stories to be told, as Carless & Douglas demonstrate in the case of Alex…

Alex’s story may be regarded as a positive one from the perspective of long-term development and psychosocial wellbeing. A particular feature of his story is a refusal to adopt an exclusive athletic identity in favor of sustaining a broad-based, multidimensional identity. While at times this places Alex’s story in tension with elite sport culture, he reasons that this friction is worthwhile for the benefits it brings. In previous work (Douglas & Carless, 2006a), we have shown that the dominant performance script insists that, to be successful at the elite or professional level, athletes must be single-minded, resist other facets of life, and relegate relationships. For tellers of performance tales, “So total is the focus on sport performance, that the person and the job become inseparable” (p. 20). This is clearly not the case for athletes like Alex who achieve excellence while overtly resisting the monological performance narrative, storying their lives instead around the contours of a dialogical relational and/or discovery narrative.

They go on to explain dialogical narratives…

The scripts of these dialogical narratives call for connection, interdependence, exploration, diversity, and multiplicity over and above individuation, personal gain, singularity, and linearity. While relational and discovery stories are at odds with the dominant performance narrative, our study underscores recent elite sport research to suggest
they do not compromise performance excellence but hold positive
consequences for identity and wellbeing.

There are two points to discuss at this juncture. One is a remark on “individuation, personal gain, singularity” as echoing the extremes of Capitalism. And it is within that ideology we find TINA – There Is No Alternative…

What is there no alternative to? Capitalism. Claims that “things must be the way they are” and that “there are no better options than the present system” not only bespeak the pervasiveness of the system, but can also have the effects of leading people (including economists and psychologists) not to ask probing questions about the system.

(Kasser et al 2007)

Yet there are alternatives to the dominant performance narrative, and those alternatives promise both performance excellence and positive impact on identity and wellbeing. However, they also demand a greater level of skill and quality from those who craft performance environments and the wider sports ecosystems they reside within.

Below are videos of 3 coaches who are operating with such skill and quality, helping their teams aspire to performance excellence whilst providing alternative narratives in regards to coaching, leadership, culture, relationships and the balance of masculine/feminine traits.

I am co-creating a session next week with a group of people who are aspiring to join Steve, Graham and John in creating high quality environments & experiences for sport participants. I hope these alternative narratives will be timely for them and may also help others to embark on a similar journey.


Living, resisting, and playing the part of athlete: Narrative tensions in
elite sport (David Carless & Kitrina Douglas)

Some Costs of American Corporate Capitalism: A Psychological Exploration of Value and Goal Conflicts (Tim Kasser, Steve Cohn, Allen D. Kanner & Richard M. Ryan)