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Effect of Power Relations in Elite Sport

Info: 22201 words (89 pages) Dissertation
Published: 2nd Mar 2022

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Tagged: Sports

The Effect of Power Relations on Elite Endurance Athletes Adherence to Excessive Exercise Regimes


This study is based on Foucauldian discourse analysis. It looks at how power through surveillance from power figures within elite sport contributes to athletes engaging in a seemingly excessive exercise regime in their bid for success. I explored the experiences of five athletes in three endurance sports; swimming, running, and triathlon. This study looks at how power is inscribed on elite athletes through the use of ‘disciplinary practices’, ‘normalising judgments’, ‘hierarchical observations’ and through the athletes engaging in their own ‘technologies of the self’. Through the use of semi-structured interviews and vignettes, I was able to explore each athlete’s experiences and emotions that contributed to them accepting, and engaging in, excessive exercise regimes and bodily practices in order to succeed in elite sport, and to embody the ‘athletic ideal’. Through the identification of key discourses; performance, gender and embodiment I was able to identify how power was produced, and inscribed onto the athletes, so they adopt the sub-culture of their sport. My findings suggest that athletes docilely follow regimes in a bid for success in their sport. I also found a significant gender difference in how power is inscribed and embodied by male and female athletes. The study also suggested athletes fear the loss of athletic identity once they are out of the strict, structured, elite sports institution.

Chapter One: Introduction

In this research project, I am going to explore the effects of power within an elite endurance sports programme. I am going to examine through the theory of Foucault and his work on power and discipline, how athletes adhere to a seemingly excessive exercise regime. I will explore the experiences and emotions athletes go through in the quest to become successful in their sport, through the bodily practises they engage in and through the use of qualitative research methods using semi-structured interviews and vignettes.

I will be drawing on the work of Foucault and his ideas on power and discipline. Foucault defined power as something that is everywhere “not that it engulfs everything, but that it comes from everywhere” (Foucault 1979a, p121-22). He suggested that it “reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes, their discourses, learning processes and everyday lives” (Foucault 1980a, p.30). Foucault suggested that power is exercised through knowledge, that by providing people with knowledge of desire, such as athletic success then power can be exercised. Foucault suggested key ways power is exercised in an institution such as an elite sports programme through the use of ‘disciplinary power’, ‘hierarchal observation’ (omnipresent gaze), and ‘normalising judgments’ (Shogan 1999) enabling people to normalise themselves to the norms and values of their sporting culture to develop their own ‘technologies of the self’ through self-surveillance, and bodily practises. Foucault (1980b, p.74) suggests that “The individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, and forces.”

A problem with these power relations is they create dominant norms and sub-cultures in the sport such as in swimming the “slim to win” ideology (McMahon 2012). Or “win at all cost” ethics, which lead to stereotypical athletic bodies. Body practises become internalised by athletes and engaged in by teammates and often encouraged by people within the sporting power structures. These types of ideology’s can encourage behaviours such as training whilst injured, or with illness and be engaging in disordered eating to achieve the athletic ideal. Through the use of power, this adherence is praised, whereas deviant behaviour is punished and causes the “othering process”. This “othering” is the idea that the dominant conforming group is the right way to be, resulting in anyone who does not fall into that group being characterised as abnormal, resulting in hostility towards them creating an “us vs. them” mentality (Last 2012).

The current literature on the effects of power has looked at the bodily practises that athletes adopt in order to conform to the athletic ideals, and expectations of the power figures within their sport. Much of current literature is on male coaches’ gaze onto female athletes’ bodies (McMahon 2012, and Chapman 1997). I will discuss further the current embodiment, gender and identity discourses in my literature review. I am going to draw on this current literature and examine if disciplinary power is at work in three different endurance sports: triathlon, swimming and running. I am also interested in exploring further how male, and female athletes may interpret, and internalise these power struggles differently, and how this impacts on their technologies of the body.

I am using qualitative research methods of semi-structured interviews and vignettes to get an in-depth, detailed account of the experiences and feelings athletes go through in their daily lives. This enables me to build a deeper understanding, of not just what they tell me but how they react to the questions, and the visible emotions they display. 

Undertaking qualitatively sensitive research, helps to establish issues that affect people’s lives into today’s society (Dickson-Swift et al. 2006). The athletes I will interview will come from a small, localised sample group of athletes who already know me well, or I have come into contact with before. This enables them to comfortably talk about the thoughts and emotions they feel towards their sport, and towards the managers and power figures involved in their athletic identity. The qualitative research helps to understand the broad view, that to “understand human affairs it is insufficient to rely on quantitative surveys and statistics, and necessary instead to delve deep into the subjective qualities that govern behaviour” (Holliday 2002 p. 7). I will then go on to use a Foucauldian discourse analysis, where I have found dominant discourse from the interview transcripts. This will provide an insight into the possible effects power can have on athletes’ lives, and enables us to see the effects on both performance and potential health of the athletes, as well as asking questions on life without power after retirement. It is important to remember that discourse can have lots of meanings, and is open to interpretation. Potter and Wetherell (1990 p.6) suggested, that discourse analysis is a “field in which it is perfectly possible to have two books (on the matter) with no overlap in the content at all”. My research aims to give insight and meaning to the experiences of the small sample I interviewed.

This study to is important to establish the challenges athletes face while competing to be the best athletes in the world. It helps shed light on the power struggles, and the lengths that athletes will go to maximise performance. It may also suggest how we can support and help athletes with their health and well-being, by becoming more aware that these issues are present within Elite sport, and by gaining an insight into the “actions, belief, and values of others, from within the ‘frame of reference’ (Grbich 1999, p.16). This thesis suggests that dominant power figures within sport can contribute to an athlete’s practices, causing them to adhere to strict regimes imposed upon them. It shows a strong performance discourse that athletes are willing to risk health for the sake of performance. I also found interesting gender differences on the effects of power, which are inscribed differently between males, and females and how there is still a dominance of ideologies of a hegemonic society that have gender-specific ideals.

Chapter Two: Literature Review

2.1 Definitions of Exercise Dependency

Exercise dependency is a tricky concept to try to define or explain due to its complexity as a term, and the many different names applied to it; exercise addiction, compulsive exercise, and excessive exercise (Lichtenstein et al. 2014; Smith et al. 1993; Goodwin et al. 2011).

Exercise is often seen as a good thing, that everyone should be taking part in and is often described as “over commitment” (Little, 1969.pp187-197). Over recent years’ exercise dependency has gone from being a good, healthy past-time, to an unhealthy addiction, which has been linked to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa (Ackard et al. 2002). Much of the current research has tended towards a non-competitive exerciser being obsessive with exercise as the primary aim of losing weight. Veale (1987) suggests the concepts of primary dependency and secondary dependency. Primary dependence described how the main goal of exercising is to ‘exercise as an end in itself’, – losing weight is done solely to improve performance, not to improve appearance. Veale (1995) suggests that primary dependency can only be diagnosed if an eating disorder is not present. Secondary dependency on exercise is a means for losing weight driven by a fear of becoming fat.

Much current research has considered amateur performers with exercise dependency, but few have considered elite athletes. Endurance sports such as running, swimming, and triathlon have often been associated with exercise dependency due to the nature of the sports that encourage a rigorous training regime (Chapman & DeCastro, 1990).

Blaydon et al. (2002) studied the relationship between eating disorders and exercise dependence in triathletes; they found that many elite athletes fall within the primary dependence in comparison with the amateur group of triathletes; they also had a much lower incidence of eating disorders. However, Blaydon et al. (2002) suggest that exercise-dependent people may seem adequate in daily life by making living arrangements that suit their exercise habits. This makes it harder to identify the addiction.

Athletes are often hard to categorise, as addiction could be seen as a commitment to their sport. Corkerill and Riddington (1996) suggested that committed exercisers organise exercise around their lives. For athletes exercise and training is their job so exercise addiction can be perceived as necessary for them to succeed, and no one will question it. Douglas et al. (2012) conducted a study on ‘stories for success’ of elite athletes. One of the athletes he interviewed was a judo player who stated, “the more I do, the more I felt that I had one up on people(…)like I’d go training on Christmas day(…)I always wanted to make it feel that there were no minutes in the day that I hadn’t used that someone could have done more than what I’d done”(pp.387-389). Under the definition that Veale (1995) provided for secondary dependency, this judo player could fall under the excessive exercise definition, but athletes are often praised for doing more than what they are meant to, as it is an example of commitment to success.

Freimuth (2011) suggested that several attributes of exercise addiction such as tolerance to pain, obsessive thoughts overlap with the exercise of a dedicated athlete, whose regime involves intense exercise for a long duration. Hausenblas et al. (2002) suggested that Olympic athletes spend a significant amount of time on their activity, and go through withdrawal when behaviour is stopped or cut back. Despite elite athletes meeting a large amount of the criteria for addiction, they may not actually be addicted. I want to explore further in my own research what causes elite athletes to adhere to an apparently addictive regime, if they are not actually addicted. I want to explore the power relations to which athletes are exposed to power in a bid for success, contributing to the excessive regimes.

2.2 Perfectionism

Much of the current research in this area adopts a psychological perspective; highly developed perfectionism traits lead to athletes obsessive adherence to training regimes.

Perfectionism is defined by Flett & Hewitt (2002) as a “multi-dimensional personality disposition characterised by striving for flawlessness, and setting exceedingly high standards for performance accompanied by the tendencies for overly critical evaluations of one’s behaviour”(pp.5-31). Elite athletes are striving to be the best in their sport and have extremely high standards for themselves, which may lead them to train for perfection. Many studies have found that perfectionism trait can lead to compulsive exercise (Taranis and Meyer, 2011). A study by Coen and Ogles (1993) found that perfectionist runners may train for longer than non-perfectionist runners. However, this study does not look at elite athletes, and whether this perfectionism trait is seen within the elite athletes’ population.

Madigan et al. (2016) conducted a study on the link between athletes’ perfectionism, and reasons for training. Perfectionism and reasons for training were measured respectively using different scales and questionnaires. The study found that perfectionism was found in both athletes and non-athletes, and was positively associated with compulsive exercise. The research suggested that athletes train to avoid the experience of negative affect, and there was also a relationship between the perfectionism trait and weight control, and eating disorder psychopathy. This study again just compares local amateur athletes to non-athletes; it does not examine the elite population of athletes who may appear to over-exercise to be successful in their sport. The study also fails to see if the weight control measures were done to improve the performance, or for appearance goals.

Some studies have looked at perfectionism in elite athletes and how they are over-critical of their performance and training. Grubb et al (1993) looked at the unhealthy perfectionist traits that elite athletes carry. The study suggested that these athletes are self-critical, dissatisfied with goal progress, concerns over mistakes, doubts about actions and suffer from external pressures, which have an adverse effect on the athletes. Although this study addresses elite athletes, it fails to address the athlete’s situation and other reasons why the athlete may react in this way. The studies on perfectionism fail to provide a comparison with the elite athlete population who do not have perfectionism traits, yet still, adhere to excessively rigorous training regimes. My own research will look through a sociological lens, to see how athletic identity and power relations in sport can cause athletes to conform to an athletic ideal.

2.3 Athletic Identity

Athletic identity is often seen within sports teams and has been explained through the research of Taijfel et al. (1979) on social identity theory. This theory suggests that people conform to an “in” group culture, which occurs through a three-step process: social categorization, social identification, and social comparison.

Social categorization involves categorising objects or people into an order that helps us understand the social environment. Social identification is when people adopt the identity of the group that they have categorised themselves to belonging to. The final stage is social comparison. Once we are in our identified group, we compare ourselves to other “out” groups to raise our self-esteem.

Lots of research has considered endurance athletes who adhere to a group culture of adopting deviant behaviour such as disordered eating (Gapin & Petruzzello 2011). Coen & Ogles (1993) suggested that strong athlete identity can lead to over-commitment to the athlete role, which can lead to dysfunctional behaviours such as excessive overtraining, anxiety when unable to train, and unhealthy eating behaviour.

Gapin et al. (2011) carried out a study on obligatory, and non-obligatory runners and athletic identity. They found that someone who over-identifies with the running role, places too much emphasis on running, prioritising training at the cost of other life roles. They also found that runners may feel that to maintain his, or her identity as a runner he, or she must maintain a runner’s ideal thin build.

A significant body of other research has looked into, how athletic identity has become a big part of an athlete’s life and defined them as a person. Mead (1934) suggested that when significant others such as family, coaches, and friends emphasise their role as an athlete, individuals internalise this and define themselves as others define them.

Athletic identity can be seen both in male, and female athletes who adhere to particular practices to fit within their sporting field. Papathomas et al. (2006) suggested that male athletes, often engage in health-detrimental activities such as excessive exercise, and it is often related to their athletic identity. Behaviours are often formed around hegemonic masculine discourses, that “positions such behaviours as a necessary aspect of the elite sporting experience, and a means to athletic success so as to preserve their sense of masculinity” (Busanich et al. 2012, pp.705-712 ).

Athletic identity is thought to be produced through power relations in sport, and bodily ideals that are seen as the cultural norm. Deviant individuals will be ‘othered’ if they don’t adhere to them. Miller, Roberts, and Ommundesen, (2005) suggested that to understand the impact of this moral atmosphere, we must recognise that the athlete is part of a group of other athletes, and coaches. In every group, there are norms, and ethics. They suggested that these norms become accepted by everyone within, and spectating the sport, and strict adherence to the norms becomes the basis of acceptance onto a team, and a measure of status among athletes themselves; who conforms the most is the most dedicated (Hughes & Coakley, 1991). The idea of athletic identity can explain how athletes compete to conform the most, which may lead to training longer and harder. I want to draw on this research to look at the relations within elite sport, which may lead to this type of conformity, and athletes feeling they should train more to please coaches and to ‘fit in’ to the group.

I want to draw on research from a more sociological perspective. Foucault’s work on power within a society does not specifically address the power relations within a sporting context, but can be considered through a sporting lens. The idea of power relations can act as a guide to understanding why athletes may accept, and engage in extreme exercise regimes to achieve high performance and success. Foucault (1991) suggests that power is everywhere, diffused and embodied in discourses, knowledge and regimes of truth. Foucault (1991) suggested that physical bodies are subjected to power, to behave a certain way through what he termed ‘biopower’. This creates a “discursive practise’ that is defined as normal, acceptable, or deviant” (Foucault 1991). Foucault (1988b) suggests that power works through the use of disciplinary power, surveillance and normalising judgements, which make people self-regulate and survey themselves through ‘technologies of the self’ and individualising through normalising practices.

2.4 Disciplinary Power

Foucault suggested the ideal of disciplinary power, which involves “control, judgment, and normalisation of subjects in such a way that they were destined to a certain mode of living, or dying” (Foucault 1995,pp.93). This form of discipline was through the form of surveillance, from power figures that ‘gaze’ on subjects, and through a normalising process they conform to the norms of society. This has been exercised within a sporting environment through the coach-athlete relationship.

Many studies have found that through the monitoring (normalising judgment) of coaches athletes conform to their regimes (Zehntner & McMahon 2014). Foucault suggested that coaches exercise power over the subjects (athletes) bodies, to get what they wish from them, and operate as they want, with “speed and the efficacy that one determines. Thus, discipline produces subjects and practised bodies, ‘docile bodies’” (Foucault 1979,pp.137-138).

Elite-level athletes should have the most independence and agency in their training. However, the expertise of the coach as the knowledge-giver that athletes adhere to, Roberts and Hemphill 1988 suggests that they are the most dependent, and docilely follow orders of the coach. This can be seen through the high-intensity and volume of sessions elite athletes do, without any protest, conforming to the rigours training regimes. Disciplinary power is efficient when norms become normalised. Normalisation is a process where individuals are shaped through regulation, and comply with certain measures, and ideals through which they are measured and judged (Foucault 1977).  Normalisation is a technique for “the disciplining of human difference: individualising humans through classifying them, calculating their capabilities and conducts, inscribing and recognising their attributes and deficiencies, managing and utilising their individuality and variability” (Rose, 1998, pp.105). 

Through the use of surveillance and the ‘critical gaze’, coaches and others can give normalised judgments. This is defined by Foucault (1991) as judgment typically accompanied by a “whole schema of punishments, from light physical punishments to minor deprivation, and petty humiliations…for the slightest departures from correct behaviour” (Foucault, 1991, pp.178). Elite athletes who are striving to be the best fully take on the embodiment of their sport, and often do whatever to achieve this goal. McMahon et al. (2012) study looked into embodiment and the use of discipline, power, and surveillance over athletes caused them to manipulate their bodies to achieve the ‘ideal athletic body’.

McMahon et al. (2012) auto-ethnography research on ‘the body work regulation of a swimmer’s body’ it looked into the relationship between the ‘regulatory practises of others onto her body, and her development of self-regulatory practices’. She developed these regulatory practices through four domains of power, ‘the coach, the mother, the peer, and the self’. Australian swimming ideology suggests that you need to be ‘thin to win’. She therefore subjected herself to constant surveillance from coaches, parents, and peers on eating habits and increasing training where she was encouraged to eat just salad after completing a 12k swimming session.

McMahon’s study fits Foucault idea’s of power working through institutions, and bodies through ‘normalising’, ‘regulating’, ‘classifying’, and ‘surveillance’. Her body was constantly measured through weight practice and compared to others, to get down to the weight that would ‘increase performance’. This as suggested by Foucault (1991) imposes homogeneity; but is individualised by “making it possible to measure gaps, to determine levels, to fix specialities and to render the differences useful by fitting them to one to another”(pp.184).

2.5 Surveillance: Omnipresent gaze

Foucault (1975) suggested the idea of Panopticon as a form of surveillance and disciplinary power. The idea is based on the architect’s Jeremy Bentham’s design of prisons that offered a design that allowed the guards to have a view of each cell from a vantage point. However, the prisoners would not see the guard, giving the idea of the ‘omnipresent gaze’. Markula and Pringle (2006) suggests that this gaze of authority subsequently disciplines the subjects to control their “own behaviours in a manner that renders them docile: they become their own supervisors”( pp.43).

Athletes no longer need the critical normalising gaze of the coaches to inscribe discourse onto their body, these practises have become individualised ,and internalised so they can regulate and punish themselves through ‘self-surveillance’. Many studies have found this in sporting practise, in particular body practises. Chapman (1997) study on female rowers and making weight shows how athletes self-survey themselves through dieting practises to achieve the race weight they desire. The involvement of coaches in this area was limited, so they had to monitor this themselves. Chapman (1997) suggests that “this apparent lack of responsibility, as well as the rhetoric of individualised, helped to obscure the disciplinary nature of the process”. Foucault suggests that a body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved (Foucault, 1991.pp.136).

2.6 Technologies of the self

Foucault suggests the idea of the ‘technologies of the self’ as practises that “permit individuals to effect by their own means, or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality” (Foucault. 1988b, p. 18). This theory can lead to individuals being free from power, and ‘lead to self-transformation’. This could be seen to be true for women in sport, through the empowerment by achieving a muscular-athletic body, which challenges the feminine bodily ideals of society. However, most studies in the ‘technologies of the self’ have found that individuals self-regulate and transform themselves in line with that of the societal norms.

Johns and Johns (2000) study on female gymnasts could negotiate the body image requirement and for these athletes their disciplinary practises, instead of acting as disciplinary practises, become practises of transformation; ‘A successful gymnast applies technology of the self through inscriptions of docility, compliance, and productivity reaffirming in the gaze of the judge.”

Chapman (1997) suggested that technologies of the self are practises of freedom, that allow people to “make conscious choices about how to understand, and relate to themselves”. Within a sporting context, this allows athletes to conform or deviate from the norms. However, Foucault (1997) suggests that technologies of the self are always based on historical and societal cultures, “whenever there is freedom, there are relations of power, and practise of freedom are always based on the models made available by one’s culture or society”. Although there is room for resistance and free will, athletes will often adopt norms.

2.7 Gender

Connell (2002) described the “hegemonic form of masculinity as the most honoured or desired in a particular context”(pp.28), and more specifically as the structure of gender practices, which embodies the currently approved answer to the issue of legitimacy of patriarchy, maintaining the dominant position of men and the submission of woman. Few studies have looked into male elite athletes’ embodiment and pressures to fit the body ideals, and the power projected onto the male body from power relations.

Brown’s (2015) study on ‘tidy, toned and fit’ looked into the power relations of elite athletes on the elite athlete programmes at school. Through the use of discourses of power his study incorporated athletes of different gender, age and nationality. His study found how through the use of body pedagogies fit muscular bodies symbolised high-achieving, and morally responsible students. The power relations were structured around how “toned, muscular bodies represented the qualities of strong work ethic, motivation, and determination in comparison to ‘fat’ bodies being lazy”(p.6). Brown’s study suggests that these bodies are praised within the school environment. He also suggests that they experience physical pain, through surveillance of coaches the athletes complied with the training protocols, which caused them to push themselves to the limits. The elite body was “assumed to be individualised body that was to be worked on as a project, to be productive, and to overcome and preserve through the pain”. Brown found that through disciplinary practices and the athletes taking individualised responsibility and self-surveillance, “students who are fit, and toned were embraced and benefited socially from having an elite status, and a body that symbolised virtuous behaviour, self-discipline, and willpower”(pp.11), whereas the ‘biggest, fat’ were excluded and ‘othered’. Brown’s studies draw on the ideas of the male form, and through complying to the societal masculine ideals, you will have more power within society. However, I want to draw further on the gender difference of embodiment in elite sport and examine whether they differ in the elite sporting environment.

The idea of masculinity in sport and showing manliness can have downfalls too as there is a dominant ideology of ‘no pain, no gain’ (Mckay 1993). This causes athletes to play while injured, or not disclose an injury as they are scared of being perceived weak. A study carried out by Nixons (1993) of 156 athletes, he found that 93.% have played in pain. These athletes suggested they felt pressured by coaches to play in pain, 41% felt pressure from teammates, and 17.3% by their trainers or physical therapists. These athletes are confirming the norms of the sport, and gender-typical behaviours that are encouraged from power relations through ‘disciplinary power . Hughes and Coakley (1991) suggested that athletes over-conform to the sporting ethic or subculture, which defines what it means to be an athlete . A study entitled ‘The Body In Pain’ by Scarry (1985), considered the problem of expressing physical pain, suggesting that pain has no voice and in difficulty in describing pain, so the pain may seem invisible. The difficulty in verbalising pain creates the situation where having pain is a certainty, but hearing pain is a doubt (Scarry 1985). Male athletes don’t show-case pain in a worry of being “othered” for being weak.

Foucault’s ‘Discipline and punish’ (1977) has been criticised by feminist theorists for not addressing the ways male and females bodies are disciplined differently. Bartky (1990) suggests “…Foucault treats the body throughout as if it were one as if the bodily experiences of men and women did not differ, and as if men and women bore the same relationship to the characteristic institutions of modern life. Where is the account of the disciplinary practices that engender the ‘docile bodies’ of women, bodies more docile than the bodies of men?”(pp. 62-82). Many studies have suggested this that females are punished my society and ‘othered’ for taking part in sports, which give them muscular physiques or that are deemed masculine sports.

From a feminist perspective through the idea of Foucault(1988) “technologies of the self”, physical activity allows for the resistance of dominant discourses and the empowerment of women. However other theorists such as Jones and Jones (2000) suggest that ‘technologies of the self’ can become coping mechanisms such as dieting, which is the agency of the subject to successfully transform the body, meeting the requirements of dominant discourses. Many studies such has Chapman (1997) concluded that “at the same time that sport offers women discursive tools to oppose oppressive power relations, it also further enmeshes them into normalising discourses that limit their vision of who and what they can be”(Chapman 1997,pp221)

A study by De Bruin et al. (2011) suggests that athletes have multiple body ideals. They constantly measure themselves against their teammates and the ideal within their sport ,“the athletic body image and the societal ideal”(pp.201-215). They found that 52 high-performance aesthetic and endurance female athletes experienced different levels of body dissatisfaction in sport, and daily life, and that they appeared to have more negative athletic body image than social body image.

Looking at how power relations may affect athletes’ embodiment, and cause them to over train or increase training to fit the body ideals that their sport wants. McMahon (et al. 2012) study considered that the body practices; and the exposure and effect of sporting culture from the perspective of three female swimmers. Using the work of Foucault and bodily practices she explored the embodied experience of these three swimmers and the struggle to conform to the ‘swimmers bodily ideals’. She looked at how the power relations of the coaches and management control and punish the swimmer’s body, through inscribing their bodies with discourses that they docilely follow. One of the female swimmers was punished for eating ice cream on the way to the pool, by running it off in the middle of the night.

Some studies have suggested that sport can empower women to challenge the boundaries of societal norms. However, Maguire et al. (1998) suggest that women may think they are improving their bodies for themselves, however they modify their bodies according to legitimate forms. Wiese-Bjornstal, et al. (1998) note: “athletes learn to define sacrifice, risk, pain, and injury as the price one must pay to be a true athlete in competitive sports” (p. 63).

Looking at ‘slim to win’ caused the swimmers to take responsibility for their own self-surveillance to fulfil the ideals through excessive exercise and disordered eating. Pollicot (1994) identifies three main factors in female athletes’ susceptibility to anorexia: “(i) coach pressures to lose weight to improve performance, (ii) personal perceptions of the athletes that weight-loss creates an improvement in performance, leading to a desire for further weight loss, which becomes obsessive to the extent that when performance inevitably deteriorates as result of weakness, losing more weight is a perceived solution: (iii) body image, and the aspirations to have the physique of top-class athletes whilst maintaining the expected feminine physique of slenderness.”

2.8 Coach, parental and peer relationships embodiment

Athletes are striving to be the best in their sport and look for guidance from coaches to help them pursue their needs of winning. Lots of researchers have looked into the effects that coaches have on athletes embodied experience, and how they push them to train to excessive levels. Many sports, particularly endurance-based sports, have a culture of slenderness, leading to pressures from coaches, teammates, and peers to conform to this. Jones et al. (2000) looked into the coach-athlete relationship, slim bodies, and eating disorders. The study suggests the idea of the ‘expertise discourse’ that athletes see the coaches as the knowledge-giver and them the receiver. The study is of Anne, a young female swimmer, who uses the ‘technologies of the self’ to transform into what she thought the coach would want; “he was her role model, an expert, someone she wanted to listen to and learn from, someone she believed in and wanted to please”(Jones et al. 2000). When coaches propel ‘normalizing judgement’ through the idea that weight loss will increase performance, this acts as a form of punishment through humiliation.

Pressures from so-called “experts” and the embodied experience of athletes and body practices they engage in, follows within the healthism and medialized discourses. Crawford (1980) defines healthism as the emphasis on the individual’s responsibility for optimal health. Brown et al. (2015) found that even elite athletes who are at the optimal of fitness and health adopt this dominant health discourse that falls in line with political ideology around the obesity discourse. He suggested that ‘healthism underpinned the elite athlete’s understanding of the EAP’s physical training programmes and diet restrictions’. Healthism legitimises the surveillance and adherence to the training regimes.

Within a sporting context, the idea of healthism and biomedicalization are common discourses as they legitimise sporting ideologies such as ‘swim to win’ (McMahon 2012). Athletes’ bodies are often under surveillance for performance potential based on size and weight, with the common belief that leaner and lighter athletes are faster, and perform better and can lead to self-objectification and pathogenic weight control practises to lose weight (Tylka and Hill 2004, Martinsen et al. 2010).

Rosa Braidotta (1994) suggested that the gaze is not restricted to the medical fraternity, and an increased emphasis on the visual has meant that “ways of seeing have become technologies, and integrated into the everyday practices of cultures.” (pp.89) Within a sporting context, coaches can become the experts to legitimise weight, and body size practices and monitoring by looking with a ‘clinical gaze’ on the athlete’s body, suggesting that weight loss will benefit performance. Even the Olympic motto suggests that there is always room for improvement; the body is a site for constant improvement. Translated into English it says ‘swifter, higher, stronger’ the “er” suggesting that there is something more to aim for. The idea that low body fat and weight is beneficial can be problematic in a clinical sense, as Thompson, and Sherman (1993) suggested that this message implies that sports performance is more important than the athlete’s health.

In my research, I want to draw further on the effects of power on elite athletes adherence to train to the point of pain and even ill health. How power operates on their bodies, to encapsulate what it takes to be a successful athlete and the bodily practises they engage in to follow these practises.

Chapter Three: Methodology

3.1 Qualitative research justification

I am using Qualitative research methods in my study. The justification for doing so is that through the use of interviews and vignettes the researcher is able to explore the unheard voices, establishing meaning to what is not said as well as what is being said. Markula and Silk (2011) said they focus on identifying how experiences become meaningful within certain social contexts. My topic – considering embodied experience of elite athletes in their quest to be the best while battling problems with their bodies, and pressures from outside forces – is a sensitive one. Qualitative research enables social problems in the environment to be understood more deeply. In the context of my study, it helps with coach education and ways to support staff, peers, and parents tackle certain situations in a manner that takes into account the athlete’s wellbeing.

The use of qualitative research enables the voices that are not usually heard to be heard. Sofaer (1999) suggested that it enhances “the capacity not only to describe events, but to understand how and why the “same” events are often interpreted in a different, sometimes even conflicting manner, by different stakeholders.” This is the case in my study where athletes are given a voice to interpret and put meanings on their sporting experiences, which may differ from the coaches and support staff within that same sporting context. Using quantitative research does not capture the feelings and emotions of the individuals, and quantifying data dehumanises the experiences. Patton (1979) suggested that a “defect of quantification is that it does not always support, as well as qualitative work, the understanding of complex dynamic and multi-dimensional “wholes”.

3.2 Paradigm

My research falls within the post-structuralism paradigm, which involves interpretation of meanings from both the individuals interviewed, and the researcher carrying out the interviews; this means there is a need for subjective epistemology. Markula and Silk (2011) suggested that individuals deduce multiple meanings and the researcher’s meanings are an integral part of the research process. Post-structuralism is a sociological theory generated by both theoretical and applied research, which has effectively addressed a range of problems proving inflexible to alternative approaches (Vick, 2004). Post-structuralism uses discourses to create a language, and adds meaning to what the athletes are saying. Walkerdine (1984) suggested that use of metaphors in language can provide insight into discourses and meaningful voices. Post-structuralism treats the subject as an ongoing product of discourse through the formation of different identities individuals may take on, and the ways individuals are manipulated into taking up particular identities (Davies, 1994). It also considers the roles that athletes should take on and how the bodies and identities they adhere to fit into the ‘ideal’.

I am considering the discourses that cause athletes to abuse their body for the sake of performance. Markula and Silk (2011) suggested that discourses are not indorsed to a single person or a group of people who actively use them to oppress others but, rather, their precise source is unclear, and they function through everyday practise. I am considering the social forces that cause athletes to adopt these discourses. Foucault (1978) suggested that power is relational, and by engaging in relationships with others, individuals are always necessarily part of power relations. I am looking at how athletes adopt certain body practises in order to fulfil the elite athlete ideal that their sport and people within, and around their sport uphold. Makula and Silk (2011) suggested that in a post-structuralist sense, “there is no core, or unchanging ‘true self’ to be found, but an individual becomes a subject within power relations and continually creates an understanding of the self or assumes an identity suitable to a specific social context”. I examine how athletes deal with the stressors of power relations in their sport and if there are gender differences to how athletes inscribe meaning to what the people in power want. Mukula and Silk (2011) suggested that post-structuralist researchers find knowledge production as a subjective process (epistemology), but assert that there are multiple realities, male and female’s swimmers may interpret situations very differently.

My participant pool was quite specific and complex due to ethical considerations. The participant’s criteria was an endurance athlete in either swimming, triathlon or running. All participants must have competed at an elite level, attaining a minimum of national standards and preferably international level. Due to the sensitivity of the study, all participants had to be above 18 years old to avoid having to go through gatekeepers. I recruited athletes by asking them face to face to be interviewed or through email ,or Facebook. The approach was quite informal to make them feel relaxed. Once they agreed I sent them through an email with an information sheet so they had an opportunity to opt out once they had read about the research objectives. Once they agreed, and I had received formal informed consent forms, I organised an interview time, and place where they felt comfortable and could speak confidently. Many people chose the athletes’ lounge or a quiet café, or an empty lecture room. All athletes are University students or train at the University. I recruited them from University clubs or Team Bath. Most of them I knew already, so recruitment was quite easy. A couple I train with at the University Triathlon Club. For my study, I chose to recruit five participants as I wanted quality in-depth interviews rather than quantity. This meant that I could spend more time with each participant, it gave me time to build up a rapport with them, so they were more open with me. Most participants I knew on a personal level already, and are friends with. I tried to recruit participants from a mix of the three sports and from different genders, I recruited two swimmers one male, one female; one runner who is female; and two triathletes one male, one female.

3.3 Research Methods

I used two research methods semi-structured interviews, and vignettes as my method. I used interviews as it allows the researcher to build a relationship with the interviewees and as the researcher, you can live their experience through emotions. Kvale (1996) suggested that a qualitative research interview seeks to operate on both factual and meaningful level, although it is usually more difficult to interview on the meaning level. Semi-structured interviews allow the researcher to have a set of questions but to have the flexibility to take the interview where they want.  In this way, the researcher can get a deeper understanding and meaning.  It also allows the interviewee to share things that they may not have done otherwise. Gill et al. (2008) suggested that the flexibility of semi-structured interviews allows the elaboration of information that is important to participants, which but had not previously been thought significant by the researcher. This could be reflected in how athletes felt about things that had been said or feelings they felt at certain times in training or during competitions. Interviews enable the researcher to explore the subjects lived experiences. Gill et al. (2008) suggested that interviews are suitable for investigating sensitive topics where participants may feel uncomfortable talking about issues in a group environment. Using this technique allows the researcher to actively engage and “probe for further information or discuss issues that arise during the interview situation”( Markula and Silk, 2011). These techniques also allow the researcher to share their own experiences, which may help the interviewee speak more freely. I used this technique to get an insight into the experiences of elite endurance athletes.

Vignettes was the second technique that I utilised. Vignettes are hypothetical short stories, which participants can relate to.  Vignettes are useful when talking about sensitive subjects as the subjects can detach themselves from the situation and describe their own emotions and experiences through the characters in the scenarios. Barter and Reynold (2004) suggested that the vignettes methodology allows researchers to thoroughly, look into issues that are likely to be sensitive to research participants, as it allows participants to control whether they disclose personal information or not. It allows them to discuss issues from a “non-personal and therefore less threating perspective” (Hughes, 1998,pp.381-400). This will be useful in my study while exploring issues on body practises and body dissatisfaction, and also when talking about personal relations with power figures in their sport.  

3.4 Ethical Considerations

My research study is considered to be a ‘sensitive topic’ due to the researcher exploring the experiences of athletes that involve body issues, and potentially turbulent relationships with people within their sport. Sieber and Stanley (1988) define a sensitive topic as one having the potential to cause physical, emotional or psychological distress to participants or the researcher. My research has the potential to bring up mental health issues such as eating disorders and abnormal eating habits. Due to the potential risks for the participant, I emailed them the interview questions with the information sheet, so they had time to digest the questions and ensured they knew what to expect on the day. This also meant they could decide not to take part in the study if they felt uncomfortable. In the information sheet and again before the interview took place participants were told that everything said is confidential and their identities remain anonymous. Due to the sensitivity of the study, informed consent was paramount. I asked all the participants to give written consent and during the study consent conditions were discussed and reiterated. McDonnell et al (2000) suggested that due to the unpredictability of the direction an interview will take, one-off consent may not be suitable. Due to this, I ensured that I was fully open with the participants and all got a copy of their transcripts to make sure they were happy with them and were also given the option to withdraw their data at this point.

As the researcher, I had to assess the potential risk of the research to the athletes and the researcher. Due to the possible sensitivity of the research and the potential for the participants to get upset at the start of each interview I gave the participants with their informed consent form a list of support and help lines in case they felt they needed more support after the interview. Cowles (1998) suggested that interviewees can respond both positively and negatively to the request to discuss life events and experiences. As the researcher, I needed to be aware not to blur the boundaries between researcher and therapist. Many studies have shown that divulging their experiences and emotions can often help the interviewee.  Wilson et al. (1994) identified the benefits of qualitative interviews as “catharsis, self-acknowledgement, sense of purpose, self-awareness, empowerment, healing, and providing a voice for the disenfranchised”(pp.161-164). As the researcher, I needed to provide empathy and listen, but not try to help with the issues. Some of the participants that I used in my study were friends that I train with; they disclosed issues with me that may cause ethical issues. Many of them disclosed personal issues; I need to ensure I do not approach this in our everyday lives in front of others. Gilbert (2001) suggested that there needs to be a balance between the dangers and benefits of being too far in or too far out of the lives of the researched. As the researcher and being friend meant I already had rapport, which may have led to the interviewee opening up more and therefore getting better data. Lee (1993) noted that “researchers often become involved in a growing closeness, which creates a blurred line between the role of a friend and that of the research participant.” This can lead to emotional stress for the researcher; McCosker et al. (2001) reported that the sense of emotional exhaustion and being overwhelmed by the nature of the interviewee’s experience could be intense. To overcome the issues of interviewing friends, I conducted the interview in a formal manner which showed me as the researcher, not just a friend. Through the use of formal decisions rather than everyday conversion.  

The topics covered in the interviews ranged from coach-athlete relationships to body issue problems. Due to the topics being discussed and all athletes being of an elite standard, confidentiality and anonymity was important. All participants were given a pseudonym to ensure anonymity. Anonymity is important as many athletes talk about the pressures of coaches and the pressures from other stakeholders such as sponsors. As a researcher, I had to ensure that their Identity was not compromised as it could lead to sponsors dropping them and troubled relationships with coaches. Bourdieu (1999) suggested he protects their participants “by changing the names of places and individuals to prevent identification …(and) to protect them, from dangers of misinterpretation”(pp.1-2).  In this study, many of the athletes had competed on the world stage, so were easily identifiable, things like dates, and places all had to be quite vague. This brought about difficulties as some participants were easily identifiable such as one who medalled at the Olympic Games. Crow and Allan (1994) suggests that it is hard to have complete anonymization as key individuals are identifiable anyway. Kaiser (2009) suggested that qualitative researchers face a conflict between conveying detailed, accurate accounts of the social world and protecting the identities of the individuals who participated in their research. The research will be more constructive and make people listen if even Olympic athletes are affected by these problems. However, it has the potential to cause problems with sponsors, coaches and support staff if we disclose too much detail about the participants.

3.4 Analysis

I used Foucauldian discourse analysis, as I was interested in the impact of power relations on the athletes that may contribute to them become excessive trainers, and also the power and regulation to which they submit to fit the ‘ideal athlete’. Markula and Pringle (2006) suggest that it is an “examination of the relations between history, discourse, bodies and power in an attempt to help to understand social practises or objects of knowledge that continue to have value in today’s world”(pp.2). Through the use of interview and vignettes, I can identify discourses present in what the athletes say about their experiences. Foucault (1982) identifies that power “exists only as exercised within the relationships with people”(pp.777-795).  Foucauldian discourse analysis allows me to draw a critical approach to the social world of elite sport, allowing me to consider broader contexts than what the athletes are telling me through the use of discourses.  Winter (1999) suggests that “providing insight into people’s lives can facilitate their social control”. Through revealing discourses, Foucault suggested that “certain discourses help sustain certain meaning which regulates and control people in ways that appear natural”(Seal 1998, p.246). Discourse analysis is thought to bring ‘truths” but helps to understand how different versions of reality can come about (Potter, 1996). Discourse analysis involves the researcher suggesting their stand point and interest within the data as a major critique of FDA is to what extent subjectivity can be conceived upon the basis of discourses alone Burr (2003). To help with the analysis of FDA, I am going to follow Willig’s (2008) six stages of analysis: (i) Discursive constructions: the means by which discursive objects are constructed. (ii) Discourses: the differences between constructions and their relevance within wider discourses. (iii) Action orientation: the functions and gains generated through constructing the object in a specified way. (iv) Positionings: subject’s positions. (v) Practice: the ways in which constructions and subject positions can open up or close down action opportunities. (vi) Subjectivity: the consequences of adopting subject positions and the way that this influences subjective experience. This will enable me as the researcher to establish my standpoint and minimises my own bias and also allow others to make their own standpoints and assumptions.

3.5 Judgment Criteria

Validation of FDA is particularly complex, as it involves looking at meanings behind the unwritten text, which brings bias. Lather (1993) suggested a judgement criteria to help “access the validation of research within the post-structuralist paradigm that are ‘open-ended and context-sensitive” (p.674). Lather (1993) provides four validity categories. (i) Ironic validity, which suggests that truths can be made with finite representations that go beyond text or language. Hayles (1990) suggests that the text is re-situated as a representation of its “failure to represent what it points toward but can never reach” (p261) suggesting that through the use of hidden meanings behind the text the truth can be found. (ii) Paralogical validity: this suggests the idea that reinforces differences and that everything is not able to be judged under the same standards, as Fritzman (1990) suggests there is “constant search for new ideas and concepts that introduces dissent into consensus” (pp 371-372).  People accept that peoples’ interpretations are different and everyone’s opinions can contribute favourably to social problems that may come out of research. New knowledge on a subject can help to “shake, disrupt, and shift” so people take an interest (Woodbrooks, 1991 p103). (iii) Rhizomatic validity: findings are not fact, they just add meaning to localised norms that can be “mapped not blueprinted”. It suggests the idea that it is not just what is seen above ground that matters but the complex underground circuit “rhizomatous is journey among intersections, nodes and rationalisations through multi-centered complexity.” (iv) Voluptuous validity: suggests the “Authority comes from engagement and self-reflexivity, not distanced ‘objectivity”, and the bugaboo of relativism is displaced, positioned as a foundationalism concern (Lather 1991). Voluptuous validity allows for questioning the texts and science; Sollers (1983) suggests that “thus we discover a science whose object is not ‘truth’ but the constitution and annulment of its own text and the subject inscribed there”.  Lather provided this framework to suggest that the researcher must remain self-reflective throughout the project through stating their own standpoint and by offering meanings and asking questions rather when stating the fact.  

Chapter Four: Findings and Discussion

4.2 Performance Discourse

The analysis showed that all athletes had a strong performance discourse. The athletes suggested they wanted to train to be the best and training more increases performance. Most athletes suggested that coaches and family members pushed them so that they can perform to the best of their ability. The use of power exerted over the athletes through their sports institution as a whole led them to normalize training practices, and become what Foucault describes as “docile bodies”, which he termed as being when ‘A body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved’ In discipline and punish (1977). This was seen with Ben regarding carrying on training even with an injury:

” I went to BUCS, and I was feeling amazing at this point like I had some of the best weeks training that I have ever had in my life, (…) I did the 1500m on the first day, and my shoulder started to go and yeah it just didn’t feel right I felt all the way through the competition, but it wasn’t affecting my swimming. The next day at training after I came back Mark my coach was pushing me really hard, and we were probably going 65k the week after a competition and my shoulder just went on Thursday(…) I told Mark I had a little niggle, but because I was having some of the best weeks I didn’t want to slow down, and he didn’t either”.

Ben is exhibiting the supremacy of Foucault’s “disciplinary power”, where power (the coach) can control, judge and normalise. The coach is the expert that sets norms for the swimmers to follow, which involves an excessive amount of training and if this is not obeyed, “normalising judgments” are made by the coach to make them conform.

Foucault suggested the idea of normalising judgment where coaches assess which athletes are better and more skilled and reward them.  Heikkala (1993) suggested that “conformity is rewarded with applause and fame; neglect is punished…with the shame of defeat, and extra training sessions” (pg. 400). Due to the success in training and competition, Ben wanted to carry on to please the ‘expert’ and improve performance to get praised even if it may be harmful to his body.

Foucault suggested that ‘power produces knowledge’ so “power and knowledge directly imply one another” (Foucault, 1972, pg. 17).  The coach (power figure) has the knowledge to help the athletes to be successful, leading athletes to adopt and internalise knowledge, and to blindly follow the norms of their sport. This supports Roberts and Hemphill on elite athletes being the most dependent. 

Chapman (1997) suggested that practices become normalised for athletes and acceptable as “‘regimes of truth created and fuelled by the discursive actions of coaches” (pp.206).  Ben also voiced that he didn’t think he was good enough, and wanted to impress his coach even more:  “I will feel I have done a good job, especially for how I am feeling in the day, and then my coach may make a snide comment like, ‘well next time we will try to get 56’s’, it’s as if what I had just done wasn’t enough”.

This can be seen as normalising judgment as the comment was said in front of the squad so could act as a “petty humiliation” (Foucault, 1991). This will be internalised by Ben, so he works harder next time, even though he thought he had delivered a good session.  The definition of good athletes implied by most coaches involves obsessively exercising to increase performance, ignoring pain so training can be continued, conforming with coaches’ requests, and pursuing and accepting nothing less than perfection (Milligan & Pritchard, 2006).

The idea that more training equates to better performance was a common discourse, with all athletes feeling guilty or frustrated for missing a session. The coach often embodies the “medical expert”. Coaches suggest that the athlete needs to make certain adaptations to their bodies, and has to train a certain amount of sessions to be cardiovascular fit enough.  The scientific medicalized discourse is dominated by philosophies of scientific belief, where the body is viewed as a “‘machine’ to be developed and improved through appropriate training regimes”(Prain and Hickey, 1995). Also, this falls in line with the dominant view of ‘coaching science’, confirming the expert status of coaches in providing ‘factual’ direction and sequence to athletes (Prain and Hickey, 1995; Johns and Johns, 2000; Jones, 2000). Athletes will often change plans to get their session done with the idea that if they missed one session, then their performance would suffer.

Due to acts of “disciplinary power” that all the athletes are subjected to, it has caused them to internalise the norms, and regimes of their sport, and take their own responsibility for their training. 

This was seen when Lily was asked if she ever felt pressured to train:

“I mean I put pressure on myself like if I missed a session, I would feel guilty. Obviously, I want to please my coach, and family because I know if I don’t train I won’t compete well, and then I will feel like I let them down. They all invest a lot into my training too. Although it’s an individual thing, they are like my team”.

Lily has internalised what it takes to be an athlete, and how missing training can cause punishment or have consequences for her performance. She talks about guilt and letting the coaches and family down. Hughes and Coackly (1991) suggested that such strict conformity to these norms becomes the basis for acceptance onto a team, and measure of status among the athletes themselves, i.e. who conforms the most, is the most dedicated. Foucault suggested the idea of the ‘gaze’ – that power works through surveillance. He based this idea on Bentham’s design for a panopticon. Where the architecture of the prison allows the guard to view inmates without them seeing the guard, this means that prisoners self-regulate themselves as they always feel they are being watched. This is the case for Lily who has internalised ‘the gaze’ and felt guilt, which almost acts as internal punishment to herself.

This idea of ‘the gaze’ and panopticon was also found in Isla when she missed training after missing her alarm:

“Oh God, I hate it! I’m a girl of routine (laughs) I get myself really worked up. I remember when I was in sixth form, and my alarm didn’t go off, and I slept through training I was so angry and felt so guilty. I was really embarrassed in the evening to go to training, and I was worried people thought I might have made an excuse up.”

This idea of the panopticon and the ‘critical-eye’ is really evident here. Isla did not adhere to her normal regime, so she feared the consequences that awaited her when she trained later that day.  Not only was she worried about what the coaches would say, but her teammates and everyone at the pool. This supports McMahon’s 2012 findings on surveillance from coaches, family and teammates. Jones and Jones (2000) suggested that the panoptic gaze allows for the critical eye of many, “the critical eye of the coach and the other athletes to judge to which degree she had adhered to her regime” (pg. 227). Although this was an honest mistake, there is a fear of being ‘othered’ and to have deviated from the norms of an elite swimmer, which may have consequences on her performance.

Elli’s experiences of missing training show a clear example of ‘normalizing judgment’ and the idea that if you deviate from the ‘norms of the regime’, you will be punished and will be made an example of with the possibility of being “othered”. This was shown with through her response when asked about missing training:

“I would be very stressed (raises voice) about missing it. The reaction of the coach would depend violently on what day it was. Some days he wouldn’t give a crap that you missed it, and another day you would get ignored, and on another day you would not be talked too; or we used to get these lunch tickets, and you would get them taken from you, or have some other kind of punishment so you never knew what would happen for missing a training session.”

Elli’s experiences show how power is produced by the coach through punishment and the act of “othering”, through ignoring the deviant individual, or making an example of the deviant “other” to the rest of the group through punishment of taking away a lunch ticket. Foucault suggested that institutional disciplining, surveillance, and punishment creates bodies that become used to external regulation, working to “discipline the body, optimise its capabilities, exert its forces, increase its usefulness and docility, integrate it into systems of efficient and economic controls”(Foucault 1980, pp.139). By the coach making an example of Elli, it shows other athletes on the programme the negative effects of not conforming and enables Elli to internalise the punishment, so she does not do it again as she wants to be successful. According to Lopiano and Zotos (1992), coaches are perceived as having “the key that will unlock the secret to successful athletic performance”(Lopiano and Zotos, 1992 pp.278).

Matt’s experience of performance discourse is much more internalised, his pressure and experiences with coaches is a positive one.  So self-regulation and internalised self-discipline comes from, internalizing, and taking responsibility for the norms of his sport to be successful. A common discourse within the performance discourse is training through everything, including illness and injury:

“Now I am better then I used to be, so if I was feeling really unwell now, I wouldn’t go training. In the past, I used to train until I was like on death’s door, but then you realise you are being an idiot and you will be off for longer in the long run. So, in 2015 I got glandular fever, and like before then I used to train all the time when I was ill and getting that ill was kinda an eye opener.”

Here Matt has adopted what Foucault terms ‘technology of the self’ which “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being to transform themselves” (Foucault 1988, p18). Even though Matt knew he was not well, and that even the coaches would want him to take a break, he carried on in the pursuit of performance. Inscribing pain onto his body to the point of harm until he had to stop is an example of over-conforming. This over-commitment to the sport is extreme, and Hughes and Coakley(1991) have described it as “positive deviance, or zealousness to overcome”. This supports  Thompson and Sherman (1993) findings that performance is more important than the athlete’s health. Whereas if they often missed training, they would be ‘othered’ as deviant, there is potential for this to happen with over conforming.  Similarly, to the health discourses where both the obese individual who are not conforming to the ‘health norms’ and the anorexic individuals who over-conform are both deemed deviant. Pylypa (1998) suggested that “not only does anorexia create the illusion of empowerment, it may also create the illusions of resistance” (pp.29). Anorexia does against the feminine norms so could be deemed deviant.

The medicalized discourse which refers to the unintentional, or intentional expansion of the domain of medical jurisdiction. The idea of over conforming is also echoed by Elli:

“No.  I would always carry on; the coaches would understand if I was ill and want me to take a day but I wouldn’t, that’s just my personality I guess.”

Even though Elli’s coaches would not understand over an unexpected event. They would understand if she was ill, yet she still would train. This shows how strong her performance discourse is, and how she equates not missing training to success in her sport.  

Another interesting concept that falls within both performance and embodiment discourse, which I will discuss further, is the idea of certain “bodily ideals” bringing success. Lots of athletes voiced this concept. 

Matt suggested that:

“the Brownlees are the definition of what a triathlete should look like, and they are the best in the world”.

And Lily suggests that:

“Running is hard because everyone is lean, and so many people at the top of the sport have issues, so it’s like a vicious cycle”.  

Elli also voiced the view that:

“Gwen (Jorgensen) she’s tall, but she’s tiny, I mean she has broad shoulders, but she has not an ounce of fat on her. And she dominates triathlon since I can remember.”

All of these athletes support the research on the ideology of “Slim to Win” (McMahon 2012).  Also, they reinforce the idea of disciplinary power and coaches inscribing norms and values on the athlete’s bodies. It draws on the medicalized discourse that argues you have to be a certain size and weight to be productive and healthy in the successful athlete persona. That the coach is like the medical doctor laying down what is the best size to succeed. Through the normalising from the media and successful role models at the top end of the sport, athletes engage in bodily practices, and technologies of the self to transform themselves to be the ideal athlete. I am going to discuss this issue further within the embodiment and gender discourse.

4.2 Embodiment and Gender Discourse

Embodiment was a prominent discourse throughout the interviews with the athletes.  This falls in line with the performance discourse, and the importance of idealised body shape for performance, and the sub-cultures of the sport, which cause bodily practices, and the idea of panopticon and surveillance of the athlete’s bodies. Similar to other research comparing athletes and non-athletes, I found how societal ideals are still embedded in the socialisations and values of athletes (Chapman 1997; Jones and Jones 2000). I am drawing on the gender and embodiment discourse together as they are too embedded in one another to separate. 

The female athletes that I interviewed all re-enforced the athlete’s bodily ideals, and the idea of the panopticon and the ‘omnipresent gaze’ on their bodies, in which they internalise and regulate through their own bodily practices. These gazes were particularly poignant as they reflect the patriarchal hierarchy in the society, that sees women as the weaker sex, this is seen through the dominant ‘gaze’ of the Male coaches.

Isla observed:

“We have pre-pool before every session, which is like stretching and foam-rolling on the side of the pool and the coaches will often ask how much we weigh and what our race weight is, he say this in front of everyone.”

Elli remarked:

“I wanted my skin-folds to come down, so the people in the programme noticed I lost weight and they would be happy.”

Both Isla’s and Elli’s statements present the idea of the ‘gaze’ from disciplinary power. The coaches can measure, and quantify their bodies to fit within the ‘ideal athletic body’. The athletes are experiencing the normalising gaze from the ‘experts’, which is a “surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify, and to punish” (Foucault, 1977, pp. 184).

Through measuring weight, and skin-folds the athletes can assess if the fall within the ‘normal’ range, or if they deviate from the norm. Isla’s experience demonstrates how punishment can work through the use of humiliation, if she does not meet the norm for her weight, all the squad will know, and she will be labelled as the ‘deviant other’. This supports the findings of McMahon 2012 research on weight mangment of swimmer on pool side.

This type of practice is similar to the biomedicalisation that the expert (coach) has the knowledge of the best weight for success, and that the athletes need to conform to how the body is viewed as a “machine to be developed and improved through appropriate training regimes” (Prain and Hickey, 1995,pp.76-90). These findings support the research on the embodiment of athletes to the subculture of the sport, which leads to bodily practices such as eating behaviours (Brown et al. 2015; Jones et al. 2000; McMahon et al. 2012).

Elli’s experience shows how the humiliation of having high skin-folds was internalized, and through bodily practice she transformed her body to fit the ‘norm’. Elli gives an example of Foucault’s ‘Tecnologies of the self”. Elli took control of her body through restrictions on her diet until she was able to “transform herself in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom and perfection or immortality” (Foucault, 1988,pp.18). She felt her transformation would please others. 

Foucault suggested that this ‘normalizing gaze’ is internalised by the athletes through self-surveillance, and through regulation of bodily practices to fit within the norm for an athlete. These athletes are “exercising surveillance over themselves”(Foucault 1980,pp.57).

This was seen through many of the practices that the athletes engaged in now or in the past.  Lily admitted:

“I mean I had time off it due to having an eating disorder. I became so obsessed with everything running that I thought that being the skinniest you can be means you will perform better, which at first was true. Running is hard because everyone is lean, and so many people at the top of the sport have issues, so it’s like a vicious cycle.”

Elli said:

“I was finding it very very stressful on the programme my eating went off the boil …I think It’s because I felt like a had to be a certain way and look a certain way, and I was just finding it all too much. It was kinda like that having the perfect body was the only thing that mattered, and it would make everything ok”.

These statements are an example of individualised responsibility and Foucault’s idea of the “technologies of the self”.  Undergoing extreme regulation and depriving their bodies of fuel in the pursuit of the ‘ideal body’ that is thought to bring success exemplifies, “operation on their own body so as to transform themselves in order to attain the state of perfection” (Foucault 1997, p.225).

The idea of the panopticon in which power is omnipresent allowed the athletes to surveil and regulate their practices without the watchful eye of the coaches, teammates or family. Panopticon was allowing “the existence of a whole set of techniques and institutions for measuring, supervising and correcting the abnormal” (Foucault 1977, p.199). This can also be seen through a feminist lens and feminist social constructs. Bartky (1990) suggested that disciplinary practices, which produce feminine subjects that must be viewed as curiously modern in character, with symptoms of the “modernization of patriarchal power” The athletes subjected themselves to self-surveillance and the, Foucault (1975) suggest the body was perceived as an entity of manipulation, one that must be transformed into physical faultlessness through rigorous training.  

Elli’s comment that if she achieves the perfect body, everything would be okay really enforces the power of surveillance and the technologies of the self.  Foucault suggested the operations we subject ourselves are in order to transform ourselves to attain a certain state of “happiness, purity, wisdom perfection or immortality” (Foucault, 1998, pp.18). This omnipresent gaze means the athletes can never escape the grips of power, no matter what they do, power is inscribed onto their bodies, in the form of a modern oppression. 

The ideas presented by both athletes suggest they are the embodiment of practices inscribed onto their bodies. The societal ideals are aligned with embodying the athletic, cultural ideals.

Female athletes also have to deal with the conflicts of the ideal ‘athletic body’ and the ideal ‘feminine body’. The female athletic body goes towards a more masculine – muscly – physique, in contrast with the slim feminine build of the societal ideal.

Sypeck et al. (1999) suggested that female athletes experience a paradox with wanting to achieve societal ideas and athletic ideals that benefit performance.  This conflict is termed “female/athlete paradox” (Krane et al. 2004). This can be particularly observed with Isla the swimmer.

Isla observes what a female swimmer should look like:

“Well, the stereotype is a wedge, isn’t it. Big shoulders and six pack with a tiny waist. Then big thighs and small calves. Not very girly is it?  Gotta love the massive manly shoulders. They look great in dresses (laughs)”.

Foucault’s work did not really address the gender roles on how contemporary society – through the use of disciplinary practices – recognises the female body through media and other institutions as the feminist Bartky suggests.

Foucault’s work made suggestions about a patriarchal society and of the potential oppression of women with his description of “hysterization of women’s bodies” Foucault (1998, p104.) Women are identified by their sexuality, which is critical for producing children and a family. The athletic body has the power to empower women in this power struggle but also can have the ability to ‘other’ them for not following the societal norms of the ideal body.

Isla is suggesting that her body is not very ‘girly’.  She then goes on to add that:

“When you’re in the swimming bubble it’s fine because everyone looks like that, but lots of my friends who don’t swim always talk about how muscly I am”.

Lloyd (1996) reiterates this suggesting: “a strong muscular body might challenge the discourse of femininity to a certain extent, but within a sporting context it does not necessarily offer a chance of being “othered””. Due to the athlete’s strong performance discourse, you could argue that ‘societal ideals’ would not affect them. 

Male athletes experiences with embodiment are very different, yet still, follow the stereotypical gender norms within society and the idea of ‘hyper-masculinity’. Both Matt and Ben suggested that certain body ideals will equate to better performance:

Matt comments on how male triathletes should look:

“(laughs) Well lean, killing machines. Toned and muscly I guess. I mean you need to be proficient in all three disciplines, so you need the biggest strong shoulders for swimming, muscular thighs for cycling but you can’t carry so much muscle mass as you need to be light on the run”.

Ben said:

“Um I guess muscly you want a lot of power in the water. I mean most swimmers at our level have a lot of muscles. Like it would be hard to find someone who doesn’t have hench shoulders and a six pack (laughs). I mean the coaches weigh us, and for us, it’s always about the gains”.

Both athletes embody the ideal of a masculine physique and power and strength. Using words like ‘lean killing machine’ and ‘it’s all about the gains’ – these statements support research on identity (Papathomas et al.2006; Coen & Ogles 1993 ). 

Foucault suggested that techniques of power infiltrate the body through institutions and are facilitated by social hierarchies and allow for “relations of domination and effects of hegemony” (Foucault, 1978). The male athletes are still subjected to power and ‘gaze’ but in a contradictory way to women. They embody the notion that their bodies need to more like ‘machines’ and work hard in sessions to fulfil the masculine ideologies within society. Markula and Pringle (2007) suggest that athletes, therefore, need to increase gratification in training, sweating and muscular pain to produce their athletic, masculine identity. Whereas for woman power inscribed on their bodies is quite oppressive, for men it is the opposite. Through the disciplinary power of gaining more muscle, men are empowered throughout the societal body; institutions facilitate hierarchies developing and enabling “relations of domination and effects of hegemony to come about” (Foucault, 1978, pp.148). These findings are supported by Brown’s (2015) study that the muscular, powerful body is seen with higher social status.

Another common embodiment is that of showing no pain. Both Matt and Ben voiced this idea of not showing pain; this could be seen as showing weakness, adding to the vulnerability of masculinity (McKay 1993). 

Ben competed and trained through injury:

“In the 1500m I could feel my shoulder starting to go, but managed to finish and raced really well(…)I was having the best weeks so didn’t want to slow down in training because of the injury, then my shoulder just went”.

This shows the embodiment of masculinity, after racing well with pain, he had shown off his athletic prowess and manliness in a gruelling event, Shane (2012 )suggests that showcasing the physical and psychological traits associated with success in the athletic competition have become an important requirement for status in most adolescence male peer groups. The idea of competing and then training through injury suggests what Foucault (1977) posits as the production of the docile but “proficent machine”.  Milligan and Pritchard, (2006) suggested that the definition of a good athlete articulated by most coaches involved obsessively exercising to increase performance, ignoring the pain in training, and accepting it can be continued at the coach’s request, and pursuing and settling for nothing less the perfection. Ben was conforming to the knowledge-giver and ‘expert”, who suggested that training will be fine, so be docile and follow the advice. 

Both male and female athletes showed a very strong athlete identity, which seemed to be prominent in the discourse of embodiment, and embodying the athlete persona, and subculture of the sport, supporting many studies (McMahan et al. 2011; Chapman 1997; Jones et al. 2000). All athletes spoke about being lost if they did not do their sport and feelings of failing.

Elli – who took a break from her sport – voiced a concern:

“I felt like I had failed, I felt like triathlon was who I am, and if I do not have this then who am I?”.

Due to the disciplinary practices that Elli was subjected to from a young age she has become trained to be a ‘docile body’ where she is ‘manipulated, shaped, trained…obeys, responds, becomes skilful and increases forces” (Foucault, 1977pp.136). This is done through Foucault’s ‘normalising judgments’ where through constant surveillance she is punished for deviance or rewarded for conformity. Elli has become accustomed to being critical at every training session, without this she can develop a feeling of loss of self, and she no longer has the gratification of coaches telling her she is successful or she needs to do better.

Foucault (1991) suggested that “the examination that places the individual in a field of surveillance also situates them in a network of writing; it engages them in a whole mass of documents that capture and fix them” (pp.189).  Due to the docility of bodies within power in the elite sport, it guides athletes to their success, and without this they feel lost and a failure.

This was a similar finding for male athletes too.  Swimmer Ben suggested that he could never be able to give up tomorrow:

 “Yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily just stop because it’s just such a huge part of my life. But I would look for something else to do after it like triathlon, and phase it out slowly”. Ben’s comments suggest that the discipline of doing a sport is something that defines him, and he would struggle not to have it. He suggests that he would start triathlon and phase-out swimming, suggesting that normalising practice of regimes and the power it inscribes is something that he could not live without.

Through the disciplinary power and ‘normalising judgement” and the knowledge they receive from coaches, they can access their success as an athlete that makes them go through the strict regimes.  This leads to the discovery that not having a strict structure is daunting. This is also demonstrated through some of the athletes not taking rest days, or if they do take a rest day, still thinking about their sport.

Matt suggests that:

“Yeah, I don’t really take rest days. I properly take like a day off maybe once a month or something. I mean I have easy days, but it is structured training like a 20k easy jog”.

Everything in an athlete’s life is structured and timetabled so that the loss of structure can leave them feeling lost.

Lily had to take time off for illness:

“I mean when I was ill it was hard I mean really hard because I felt like I was nothing, I wasn’t allowed to run. In some ways, I think it affected my mood. I had no structure in my life.”

Lily is showing signs of depressive moods, which demonstrates that loss of embodied identity through the disciplinary power and ‘panoptic gaze’ from coaches, managers and even teammates and peers subjecting athletes to constant feedback can lead to a loss of self. This idea of crisis is supported by Brewer et al. (1993), who suggested that from sporting participation can easily give way, under certain conditions, to “premature identity foreclosure” and resultant identity crisis when athletic involvement becomes problematic or terminates.

As demonstrated by the athletes their perception of self-worth and who they are is dependent on success and feedback from coaches – the ‘technologies of power’. This suggests that removal of power can be catastrophic too, which is supported by McMahon (2012) and her findings of the three Australian swimmers in later life.

Chapter Five: Conclusion

My findings suggest that athletes may seem to “excessively exercise” due to their docility to conform to the powers promoting performance for the sake of success. The purpose of this research project was to examine the effects of power on elite athletes’ adherence to excessive exercise regimes in endurance sports.

This research project cannot characterise the experiences of all athletes within elite sport or within the three sports examined, as it is a small-scale project based on my interpretation of what the athletes expressed in discourses. However, it can shed additional light onto similar research undertaken on the power relations within the elite sporting sphere.  This may expose athletes to become subject to the power relations and become “docile bodies”, which can explain their apparent adherence to seemingly excessive exercise regimes.

Through three key discourses I identified in my research – the performance, embodiment and gender discourses – I have discovered that athletes can blindly follow coaching expertise in pursuit of success. Athletes are subjected to forms of disciplinary power, normalising judgments and surveillance, and engage in technologies of the self to achieve the ‘athletic ideals’ that are thought to bring success. My results indicated that athletes would subject themselves to extreme bodily practices, and training regimes such disordered eating, training through injury and illness in the quest for success, and under the monitoring and surveillance of the powers within the sport. These findings add to the research done on swimmers and rowers already (Chapman, 1997 and McMahon,2012).

This research project was good at generating in-depth discussion about what it takes to be an elite athlete and allowed athletes to open up about their feelings and emotions within an institution that normally subordinates these voices to the expertise of the coaching staff. However, due to the limited time available, each interview was a one-off which could have led to misinterpretation of what the athletes were trying to put across. The scale of the study is quite small with only five participants, which means it can only act as a snapshot of experience for those athletes I interviewed.  The experience could be seen differently by others in the same training group.   However, this can also add to the idea that there are individual differences and that athletes need to be treated as individuals rather than machines to be worked on as Foucault suggests the outcome of power relations produces.

Throughout my research project, it was important for me to be critically self-reflective. Being in the post-structuralist paradigm, my findings cannot be falsified, so they are open to subjectivity. I had to remind myself of my bias, and prejudices may impact upon the underpinnings of the research, and that any findings should be looked at as my interpretation of the research and there is room for other meanings and interpretations of the same reality. This makes it hard to generalise or offer recommendations.  This research offers a representation of the sample group that I interviewed.

A particularly poignant finding is gender differences in relation to how coaches treat athletes based on their genders. The female athletes were subjected to scrutiny on their body size and drawing on McMahon’s work on the ‘slim to win’ ideology. This provides an interesting look at how male coaches inscribe disciplinary practices onto the female body, which draws on the domination of men in a patriarchal society, suppressing women (Bartky, 1990).

The male athletes were subjected to the identity of the hyper-masculinity, being muscly and toned, and training through pain and injury. This was interesting as even with sports like triathlon, which do not have the hyper-masculinity physique, through the prowess of the sport they perceived themselves to represent a masculine identity. Both male and females suggested that although the societal ideals affect them, particularly the females, performance goals and success are more important. This would be an interesting finding to develop further, so see whether this is seen throughout all sports, even team sports, which often have differing body types.

Another interesting finding, which adds to the literature, is that all athletes fear ‘loss of identity’.  All athletes suggested a fear of what life after their sport would be like. This asks questions about whether athletes can work without their highly regulated and surveyed lives engendered by power. This would be an interesting area for further study.  I found that the power that athletes are under produces “docile bodies”. Often these athletes have been subjected to these forms of power from a young age, so when power is stopped when the athlete retires, they may struggle to cope. This was seen in my findings when athletes who took breaks or had to cease training for injury.  The athletes struggle to live without the strict regimes of power that bring structure and gratification through success in their sport leading to a ‘lost identity”.

As a result of these findings, one could suggest that coaching practices, particularly of male coaches, may need to be improved through coach education. Current research has looked at how coach education courses  could add  a more athlete-centred approach.  Miller and Kerr (2002) claimed that the primary goal of athlete-centered coaching is to enhance “the holistic health and well-being of the athlete, through the pursuit of excellence in sport” (p. 147). This will enable coaches to see athletes as people not just as machines to work. Lombardo (1999) argued that athlete-centered coaching “addresses the whole person who is the athlete and encourages athletes to reflect upon the subjective experience of sport” (p. 4).

If the existing studies on power were developed further, this could help coaches become aware of their power affects, and that athletes may go to extreme levels to conform to the power. Coaches should be made aware of their job to bring success in the athletic field as well as having a “responsibility to appreciate the individual biologies and biographies of athletes, and the nature of coaching as a complex, multivariate, and interpersonal activity which is contested at many levels of meaning” (Cushion et al., 2003).

Future research should enquire whether the effects of power on athletes are as strong with female coaches. All the participants I sampled had male coaches, and the majority of the support team were also male. It would be interesting to look at an elite sporting set-up, which was made up of a majority of female staff.  This could explore if less disciplinary practices are put onto athletes and if female coaches are more empathic to the feelings and emotions of the athletes, and the detrimental effects the words they use can have on them. It would be interesting to see where the exercise of power is less dominant, whether this will affect the success of athletes, or whether the sport is an area that thrives on power; the adverse effects of power are something you have to deal with in the pursuit of being an elite athlete.  It would also be interesting to conduct a longitudinal study that re-interviews athletes after retirement, to access how they cope with the lack of power and surveillance after retirement and how they deal with the loss of identity. Most of the athletes I interviewed expressed concern about how they would cope once their active participation in competitive sport was over.

This research highlights the potential stress that athletes are under with implications for health and well-being – often neglecting their health for the sake of performance. I shed light on the risk of mental health issues, particularly with the female athletes. And the physical effects of training through illness and injury that can have an affect not only on athletes’ career in sport but also lifetime damage to their bodies. However, this only adds an insight, as it was only a small-scale project that can only be applied to the athletes I interviewed, whilst pointing towards potential areas for future research.


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Appendix one: Participant Information Sheet

Project Title: The Effect of Power Relations on Elite Endurance Athletes Adherence To Excessive Exercise Regimes. 

Professor of sport and cultural studies. Undergraduate in Sport and Social

PhD, BA (Leis St) (Hons) Sciences   


The Purpose of the Study:

This study looks to explore why endurance sports such as endurance running, triathlon and swimming seem to have high percentage of ‘excessive exercises’. I seek to examine the potential causes, and whether it’s the culture of the sports which may cause them to adopt the excessive exercise culture. Elite athletes often train to the extremes that they put themselves through emotional and physical damage, many athletes will carry on with their training programmes even when injured or unwell. As a result of conducting this researcher it will help access the causes and then potentially allow coaches and family close to the athletes to spot the early signs of an excessive exerciser before it becomes serious mental health issue such as eating disorders.

Why are you being Invited to take part in the study?

Participants invited into the study will be able to offer insight into their experience as an endurance athlete. They can give a ‘real life’ experience of the pressures they encounter and the feelings and emotions they felt while being an endurance athlete. The athletes that will be asked will be from endurance running, triathlon and swimming. All athletes will be or previously been competing at a relatively high level.

Methods used

I will have conducted one to one interviews which will last up to a one hour, in a private place were the athlete feels comfortable talking openly. This method will allow the researcher to explore the experiences of the athletes and give them a sense of the feelings and emotions of the athletes. The interviews will be semi structured to allow the athlete to speak freely without restriction. The emphasis of the interviews will be on the emotions and feelings of athletes at specific points in their athletic career. I am also going to incorporate Vignettes which are scenarios so the participants can put themselves into situations and get a better idea of their emotions and feelings in that situation.

Important information

All participants have the free will to take part in the study or not.  At any point during the research they can chose to stop the study, and withdraw from the study. The participants have the right to see the research and how the researcher has interrupted what they said in the interview. The researcher will be the only one to have access to the research and all participant’s data will be kept on a locked computer. All participants will be protected with pseudonym names for privacy and confidently. Throughout the research the welfare of the participants will always be taken into account, and extra support will be offered to any participant who find the interviews upsetting.

Interview Questions

  1. How did you get into your sport? What age did you start, what was the progression through the sport?
  2. How do you feel when you miss a training session for an unexpected event, that you haven’t planned for?
  3. Do you ever feel pressured to train, and that you do your sport to please others rather than yourself? Do you ever feel pressures from national governing bodies and coaches ect.
  4. Do you enjoy your rest days, and let yourself relax? (do they count cross training as a rest day, rather than doing no physical activity)
  5. Is your sport a big part of your identity? If you didn’t do your sport, would there be a big void in your life, do you think it defines you as a person?
  6. If you had a niggle, would you still train on it or would you take few days off to rest it? (You don’t won’t to make the injury worse after all.)
  7. Do you feel you have a lot of say in your training and competing, do you ever feel outside forces such as sponsors, national governing bodies ect govern a lot of what you do? If you have sponsors do they have a lot of influence on what you do?
  8. Do you ever worry about not meeting certain criteria for the elite pathway, and get anxious about achieving qualifying times?
  9. You ever worry about the consequences of under preforming?
  10. Do you feel that coaches, NGBs, sponsorship stop you from doing anything in every day life? Or even make judgements on things that aren’t anything to do with your sport directly?
  11. Do you ever feel pressure to look a certain way to be a swimmer/triathlete/ runner?
  12. What do you think a swimmer/runner/triathlete should look like?

Appendix Two: Informed Consent Form


Project Title: The Effect of Power Relations on Elite Endurance Athletes Adherence To Excessive Exercise Regimes. 


The purpose of this study has been clearly explained to me. All my questions about the study have been satisfactorily answered. In addition, I agree that:

  • Information I give will only be used for a completion of a dissertation at the Department for Health, University of Bath and publications resulting from the dissertation.
  • I have the right to remain anonymous in this research.
  • I have the right to withdraw any of my statements. I am also free to withdraw from the study.
  • Study materials containing data (e.g., interview files and transcripts) will be stored in a lockable cabinet and/or on a password protected computer. Only the dissertation supervisor and the researcher will have access to these materials.
  • After the dissertation is completed study materials containing data will be destroyed.
  • I have a right to request to see the interview transcripts to make changes.  I also have the right to request to see the dissertation.





Appendix Three: Helplines


  • If you found any of today’s interview distressing, or would like to talk further about what we went into today please contact one of the below helplines.
  • These helplines are aimed at young people suffering from emotional destress. Most run 24 hour and 7 days a week so you can talk to people who want to listen to what you are worried about and help you cope. 

Mind UK

Offering support to anyone who wants to talk about mental health.

Phone: 0300 123 3393 (Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm)

Website: www.mind.org.uk


Offering practical and emotional support.

Phone:0300 5000 927 (9:30-4pm Mon-fri)


‘Talk to us any time you like, in your own way, and off the record – about whatever’s getting to you’.

Phone: 116 123 (24 hours, 365 days a year)

Email: jo@samaritans.org

Support line

‘We offer confidential emotional support to children, young adults and adults by telephone, email and post.’

Phone: 01708 765200 (24 hours, 365 days a year)

Email: info@supportline.org.uk


‘Crisis helpline and referral service for people experiencing distress or despair. Counsellors available 24 hours a day seven days a week.’

Phone: 0808 808 8000


‘Charity supporting anyone who is affected by eating disorders or difficulties with food, weight and shape.’

Phone: 03456341414

Nightline Bath University

‘Confidential listening, support and practical information service for students, where you can talk about anything.’

Phone: 01225 38 3030

Email: listening@bath.nightline.ac.uk

Appendix four: Sample Interview Questions

Sample Interview Questions

  1. How did you get into your sport? What age did you start, what was the progression through the sport?
  2. How do you feel when you miss a training session for an unexpected event, that you haven’t planned for?
  3. Do you ever feel pressured to train, and that you do your sport to please others rather than yourself? Do you ever feel pressures from national governing bodies and coaches ect.
  4. Do you enjoy your rest days, and let yourself relax? (do they count cross training as a rest day, rather than doing no physical activity)
  5. Is your sport a big part of your identity? If you didn’t do your sport, would there be a big void in your life, do you think it defines you as a person?
  6. If you had a niggle, would you still train on it or would you take few days off to rest it? (You don’t won’t to make the injury worse after all.)
  7. Do you feel you have a lot of say in your training and competing, do you ever feel outside forces such as sponsors, national governing bodies ect govern a lot of what you do? If you have sponsors do they have a lot of influence on what you do?
  8. Do you ever worry about not meeting certain criteria for the elite pathway, and get anxious about achieving qualifying times?
  9. You ever worry about the consequences of under preforming?
  10. Do you feel that coaches, NGBs, sponsorship stop you from doing anything in every day life? Or even make judgements on things that aren’t anything to do with your sport directly?
  11. Do you ever feel pressure to look a certain way to be a swimmer/triathlete/ runner?
  12. What do you think a swimmer/runner/triathlete should look like?

Appendix Five: Sample Vignettes


  1. Your family have booked a holiday abroad, so you will miss training for two weeks, how does this make you feel? Will you do any training while you are away or will you just relax and enjoy the holiday?
  2. You have just finished lectures/work at 18:00 and a group of friends asked if you wanted to go out to dinner tonight. You would have to miss training. Do you go out to dinner one training session want make a difference or you can’t miss training?
  3. You aren’t feeling very well; you have a really bad cold so you haven’t had much sleep. You are feeling really lethargic and a you have a really blocked nose which is making it difficult to breathe. You should probably take a few days off training, if you go you won’t be able train properly anyways. What would do? Would you still go training because you don’t like missing training?

Appendix Six: Example of Foucauldian Discourse Analysis of interview transcripts

Example of my analysis from some of my interview transcripts

Appendix Seven: About the Athletes


Ben is an Elite distance swimmer, who competes in the 1500m, and 400m freestyle in the pool. He trains 20 hours in the pool and has three gym sessions a week. He is currently competing at international standard, but also competes for his university. He is currently at university and trains at his university. He took a year of studies in 2016 so he could focus on his swimming and is now in his final year of university. He started swimming at 12 years old and his progression through the sport has been quite considerable.


Isla Is also an Elite Female distance swimmer, who competes in 800m. She also trains 20 hours in the pool and three hours in the gym. She has competed at an international level, however in the last year has only competed on a national level. She started swimming at a competitive club at the age of eight, and remained at that club until she started university.


Matt is an elite triathlete. He is a sponsored Team Bath athlete and competes for his own sponsored team. He competes in age group world cup series. He used to represent Great Britain but has recently transferred to compete of Ireland after having trouble with GBR national governing body. He started triathlon when he was seven-teen so didn’t properly do it until he was at university.


Elli is also an Elite triathlete. She started triathlon at a young age after her two older sisters did it, and has competed on the international stage many times, for Great Britain as a junior and age grouper. After starting until she struggled with injury so, and found the programme very different to what she was used too, resulting in her taking a year’s break from the sport in 2016. In 2017 she started again after transferring governing body to Ireland.


Lily is an elite under 23 runners. She has competed at an international level many times with many podium finishes both on the track, and on road and cross country races. She is also very competitive at the half marathons with a top podium positions and many top 10 finishes. Lily has struggled with both illness and injury over her running career which made her doubt herself, after rethinking her training and other aspects she is back training at an international level.

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