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The Anatomy of a Successful Olympic Coach: Actor, Agent, Author

Clifford J. Mallett and Tristan J. Coulter

The Big Idea 

As a graduate student eons ago, we remember a talk given in a class by a highly-regarded exercise scientist.  As he moseyed through a lecture on scientific truths, he warned the neophyte researchers sitting before him that when it comes to such truth claims, an N of 1 is an N of 0 (N refers to the number of subjects in a study).  In other words, truth-seeking requires objectivity; truth-seeking requires quite more than a single subject; and truth-seeking requires verification by using the largest reasonable number of subjects.  Without these stipulations, you can ignore the claim.

Of course, what happened next was predictable.  A smart-ass student asked the professor this simple question: “As this claim about scientific truth is essentially coming from you, and only you as an N of 1, are we to ignore your claim?”  We forget exactly what happened next, except to say the recollection was that in the commotion that followed, class was shortened considerably that evening.

This paper by Mallett and Coulter on the anatomy of a successful Olympic coach is a kind of testimony on the potential power of an N of 1 subjectivity to find truths that may well apply to persons in general and coaches in particular. Their research questions are common; but their approach to finding answers to the questions is uncommon.   They help us understand a way to tap into the nature of human personality by integrating three levels of knowing: dispositional traits (actor), personal strivings (agent), and narrative identity (author).  They give us an important and coherent way of seeing.


  • The primary questions in this study circle around what it is to be a person, to be a coach, and to be successful at both.
  • Now available in the study of personality psychology are creative ways to understand the whole person by way of seeing integrated layers: dispositional traits, personal strivings, and narrative identity.
  • In this case study, one participant coach was selected to be the only subject. He is an internationally successful coach and former international athlete whose athletes have won multiple Olympic and World Championship medals.
  • By way of a self-report, a striving assessment, and semi-structured interview, these researchers created a profile of this coach as a social actor, as a motivated agent, and as an autobiographical life author.
  • Compared to the norm, Tom (as this coach was called) was found to be emotionally stable, agreeable, conscientious, and open to new experiences.
  • Tom’s achievements and power strivings steer his motivation to be a successful coach
  • His narrative as the author of his own story suggests redemptive sequences: that he seeks to redeem his perceived failure to become an Olympic athlete; that he desires to make something special of himself; and that with his entire being, he needs to develop other athletes to help them achieve success.
  • In the end, by using this integrated approach to studying a person, there is promise in deepening our understanding of coaches as persons beyond studying mere personality traits.
  • The implications of this case study of a single successful international coach suggests better ways to develop and recruit high performance coaches.


In the worlds of sport, common questions about coaching include:  What makes successful coaches tick?  Why are some coaches more successful than others? What drives them toward success? Why do they want what they want? How do they get where they want to be?  What lingers then, is wanting to understand the person behind the coaching.  One largely ignored way of finding out more about successful coaches is to know a coach across the spectrum of personality.

Coaches are the central players in what is commonly called the coach-athlete performance relationship.  This is so because coaches—especially in elite competition—are responsible for leading and managing the entire effort to produce winning players and teams.  But it is usually the case that we forget that coaches are individual persons.  Fortunately, in the last few decades the study of persons in psychology has finally found its footing in the academic and applied research fields.  This is significant because such a perspective is an integration of the whole person, including genetic, contextual and experimental aspects.

In this paper, the researchers adopt McAdams’ framework of the study of persons.  This model of the psychological self considers persons as social actors, motivated agents, and autobiographical authors.  If we can get a better purchase on these layers of self, the model might predict and explain why persons do what they do.

As social actors, from the get-go humans are evaluated and evaluate themselves as they progressively develop traits, or signatures.  In the coaching field, we refer to these traits –some inherited, some not—when we characterise a coach as “tough,” or “caring” or “creative.”

In addition to person-as-actor, by the time a child is closing in on age 10 we become motivated agents.  Such agency is dynamic.  We try on personal goals, ideologies, adaptations as choices are constantly being made where and how to devote their time and energy.

The third layer of becoming a person is story.  In other words, as we grow into adulthood we are past (was), present (is), and future (will be).  Living a life as the telling of a story is the driving principle for giving that life purpose and meaning.

The method

This study applies McAdams’ integrated personality framework to a single person.  To do this, the researchers used a case study approach.  Through it they aim to better understand coach development, including personal values, philosophies, and goals—including inter- and intra-personal skills.

The participant coach was a former international athlete in the same sport he later coached.  He is a successful multiple gold medal winning Olympic coach.  His athletes won both Olympic and World Championship medals.  He is Caucasian, married with two children, and coached an individual sport for 30 years.

Numerous methods of study were used in each of the three categories of social actor, motivated agency, and life story/defining moments.  These included self-report (NEO-FFI-3); a striving assessment matrix; and semi-structured interviews.  The unidentified coach was given the name Tom.

Understanding the coach as person

As a social actor and compared to average persons, Tom was found to be highly agreeable, highly conscientious, open, and low in neuroticism (emotionally stable, less likely to become frustrated or angry).

At the level of personal strivings, Tom is a motivated agent who pursues his valued goals.  He aspires to inspire, challenge, educate, and improve his athletes.  He aims to create a winning culture, and lets no one distract him from achieving that goal.  His two motivational themes were: 1) achievement—aiming to help his athletes succeed and is successful in doing so; and 2) power—he uses his coaching influence to positively impact his athletes’ development.  He aims to demonstrate mastery and achievement, and is committed to doing so daily despite the challenging nature of his coaching life.  He has learned he must work effectively with his athletes (interpersonally), and can be described as a player-centred coach.

From his life story, we learn how Tom sees himself as an author with telling chapters.  In trying to “live out” his life, what emerged was a redemptive story.  This means his life course includes recovering from struggle, from a hugely negative circumstance to an essentially positive one.  In Tom’s case, there was an explicit causal link between the negative prior events (suffering) and his eventual personal growth (turned into a good).  In brief, here is his story:

  • Tom was born to mixed European immigrant parents with strong religious views and structured lives.
  • His parents nurtured strong familial relationships, and remains close to his family still.
  • Tom fathered two daughters. This reinforces the importance of family to him.

Sport is important for me, but I see it as a job, it’s a passion, and everything else.

But the family to me is always the most important.

  • Tom was born with a medical condition that prevented him from joining a sport he preferred, a sport his father played and played well. At the age of six he joined a sport that was safe given his medical condition, a non-collision, individual sport.  He said he was “commandeered” into this sport.
  • Nonetheless, he excelled in his new sport and was selected to compete for Australia while in high school.
  • Tom’s dream was to compete in the Olympics. He twice qualified, but was denied the opportunity to compete.
  • On the first attempt to go to the Olympics, although he qualified, for political reasons he was not selected.
  • On the second attempt, he simply under-performed at the trials when it counted most.

I should have made it, but I performed poorly . . . you know, when you put in the hours of preparation, the early morning get ups, the hard work you did, and then you line up and you don’t execute a good race . . . it can be very frustrating that I hadn’t made the team.

  • Tom described how his failure to become an Olympian as an athlete was one of the greatest disappointments of his life.
  • It turned out that his perceived failure twice-over became the catalyst for his determination to make it to the Olympics “in some way, shape, or form.”
  • The manifestation of this passion was to make certain that his athletes were better prepared to compete than he was—even though he was initially a reluctant coach who had no idea what he was doing. This is how Tom relates to his desire to feel special.
  • But what he did know was this: “You learn from people who you respect and appreciate what they’ve done.”
  • What he learned was the value of communication, providing specific feedback to his athletes. As one of his mentors used to say, “You need to see the train wreck coming before it happens.”
  • In time, Tom could see into what needed to be done no matter the challenge. When he achieved his goal getting to the Olympics, it was the greatest moment of his professional career.

It is something that you cherish and nobody can ever take it away from the athlete or from me.  It’s just a little bit below having kids.  The kids are the definite highlight, but that (the Olympics) is not far behind.

  • The core feature of Tom’s personality as a coach is to promote his own (Olympic dream) self-interests by supporting the (Olympic dream) interests of others.
  • And yet, it is also clear from Tom’s story that even with his Olympic coaching successes, he is still haunted by his own athletic perceived failure. “It’s the pinnacle and I didn’t achieve it.”


So, what are we to make of this case study insofar as it reflects on the development of coaches in general.?  No, this doesn’t mean that to be a successful coach one must have a redemptive life story and atone for one’s early failures as an athlete.  But there are benefits from looking at an N of 1 study for universal lessons for the rest of us.

First, this case study was an attempt at capturing an integrated perspective of the whole person, who happened to be a coach.  By way of it, we learn how it is that a person is always becoming through the mixture of their dispositions, personal strivings, and narrative identity.

Second, Tom takes his coaching seriously even if he doesn’t always take himself seriously.  There is room in his coaching style to truly help prepare his athletes to be even better than they themselves think they can be.  “Improvement is the word. . . it’s getting the best out of the kids.”  We all need to be put in position to perform well, Tom says.

Third, enthusiasm is the emotional driver of the persistent coach.  There is satisfaction in potentially becoming a part of an athlete’s own life narrative as the athletes themselves are becoming a person.  One’s own story is somehow grafted onto another’s.  It is through our similarity to others in some respects (dispositions) and yet wholly unique (in terms of motive and life narrative).

Fourth, any psychological profiling of a coach or an athlete will depend on learning the kind of person a coach is, what the coach wants, and who the coach is.  Knowing more about who we are helps us achieve coherence about ourselves as coaches, and how we help our athletes grow and develop.

Fifth, it might be possible to use McAdams’ integrated framework and in-depth information for recruiting and developing future high-performance coaches.  Doing so might help predict if a possible coach hire is a good one for a specific sporting setting.

Finally, these researchers offer two tentative suggestions for coaches and coach developers: 1) we need to move beyond depending simply on personality traits if we are to ever understand how a coach will behave in a specific circumstance, such as how the coach will deal with a stressed athlete; and 2) the importance of a good fit between a coach and the organisational climate as an essential factor in the on-going development of all persons in the sporting culture.