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

Review by: William A. Harper
By 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.