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The importance of listening: engaging and incorporating the athlete's voice in theory and practice
  1. J R Weissensteiner
  1. Correspondence to Dr J R Weissensteiner, Athlete Pathways and Development, Australian Institute of Sport, Leverrier St, Bruce, ACT 2616, Australia; juanita.weissensteiner{at}

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The ‘voice’ or perspective of the athlete is commonly unheard in research and practice relating to athlete development. This is seemingly ironic, given that ‘the athlete’ is purportedly the central focus and they have lived the experience, making them a truly qualified ‘knowledge expert’.

Gary Hall Jr, a five-time Olympic gold medallist and advocate, started proceedings at the recent IOC Consensus meeting on youth athlete development in sport by reflecting on his experiences as an athlete. What he shared was insightful and compelling. As the meeting progressed, invited experts voiced their shared concern regarding issues relating to athletes’ welfare, well-being and development, including depressive illness, burnout, role strain, eating disorders, injury, bullying and harassment. It was recognised that a concerted research and coordinated support effort must be taken to further understand and address these issues. Central to achieving this, effective engagement of the perspective of the athlete is critical.

It is well accepted within the contemporary literature that an athlete's performance, at each stage of development, is contingent on a favourable interplay of athletic attributes and skills, environmental and system level factors, and chance events.1 However, a common criticism of prior research is that it is not grounded on the reality of the athlete's experience and is limited to experimental approaches examining isolated and assumed influential attributes and factors, commonly not psychosocial in nature.

Recent research that has effectively tapped into the athlete's perspective has contributed to a greater holistic understanding of development and performance. Richer insight has been achieved regarding the importance of psychological attributes and skills, including self-regulation to developmental progression, transition and performance.2 Additionally, greater understanding has been afforded regarding the relative influence of contextual factors (ie, family support, coaches, club environment, system level impact and support, chance events) on development and performance3–5; the differentiation between the male and female developmental experience5; associated social dynamics, including impactful positive and negative peers within and outside of sport; influential mentors and role models; common stressors faced by high-performance athletes,6 including role strain and difficulty with sport–life balance; and major issues pertaining to athlete welfare and well-being. Such evidence is informing the current review and refinement of athlete and coach support, and aligned strategy and policy within the Australian sporting system.

Exploratory, inductive analyses incorporating athletes’ perspectives allow conceptual models of development and expertise to be formulated that promote holistic coverage, ecological validity and relevance.7 It is these factors that can then be justifiably subjected to more detailed, traditional types of experimental analysis that can, in turn, inform best practice through sport-specific modelling and effective interdisciplinary case management and support.

The athlete's perspective is assisting in the pragmatic review and refinement of current foundational pre-elite and elite strategies, policies, resource provision and coach development. Elite sporting agencies in Australia are guided by the operational framework of FTEM (Foundation, Talent, Elite and Mastery) combined with 3D-AD (three-dimensional athlete development), a holistic and dynamic conceptualisation of athlete development.1 By utilising the learning of elite and mastery level athletes, and their related athletic and performance profiling and benchmarks, greater understanding is being achieved regarding the critical foundational antecedents for their later expertise as well as for best practice talent identification, confirmation and development strategies (cognisant of maturation); critical developmental transitions and associated facilitators and barriers; and effective strategies for performance. Such an approach, working in effect from the top-down (ie, elite and mastery levels informing the lower developmental levels) has fostered exciting improvements in coaching education, and aligned practice and support.

It is well accepted across numerous domains (eg, medicine, academia) that effective practitioners are characterised by favourable psychological attributes and skills that underpin their ability to listen, communicate, empathise, encourage, inspire, and individually tailor their approach and interventions responsively. Despite this fact, a prevailing criticism of coaching education is that it focuses predominately on the nuances of sport-specific skill and physical development through prescriptive, generic instructions, commonly at the detriment of developing these important ‘softer’ skills.

Coaches have a primary duty of care in ensuring the welfare and well-being of their athletes as well as in fostering their self-regulatory skills—an accepted hallmark of successful transition and progression to elite and mastery performance. Consequently, it is critical that the development and refinement of a coach's interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, and ability to effectively interpret, understand and respond to the athlete's perspective is prioritised in the professional development of all coaches at all levels of the athlete pathway.8

Upholding the long-term duty of care, welfare, well-being and development of athletes should be paramount for all sporting stakeholders and agencies. By effectively engaging the athlete's perspective in research and practice, and embracing athletes as influential ‘mouthpieces’, role models and mentors by giving them a chance to give back to sport, greater gains can be made in our collective understanding and support of athletes across the developmental spectrum.


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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.