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A conversation with Tristan Coulter

An interview

We recently spoke with Tristan Coulter, whose article, "A Three-Domain Personality Analysis of a Mentally Tough Athlete" has recently been accepted for publication in a forthcoming issue of the European Journal of Personality. Tristan is a registered sport psychologist and works as a lecturer at The Queensland University of Technology. 

Read on to learn more about Tristan and his experience with doing a case study.

Tristan J Coulter photo.jpg

Q: Hi Tristan, can you tell us something about yourself?

Sure! I am originally from the UK, but now living with my family in Brisbane, Queensland, which has been our permanent home since 2011. My personal background is that I used to be a professional dancer in the commercial pop industry, doing music videos, MTV shows and stage shows – stuff like that. I’m an avid football and soccer fan (a massive Liverpool supporter!) and a keen golfer. I am also a registered sport psychologist with a fair amount of experience working in high-performance sport, both in Australia and the UK. I’m now in academia, working at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), where I’ve been a lecturer for the past two-and-a-half years. I’m based in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at QUT, teaching and researching on the topic of sport and exercise psychology.

Without a doubt, my research interests are highly connected to my personal experiences. Every individual is different in many ways, but I think it’s fascinating to look at what drives someone to get through difficult circumstances or times in their life – be that in sport or otherwise – and what gives them the resolve to achieve their goals, despite the many hurdles or setbacks that life delivers. Some people have this tremendous ability to be resourceful and there’s lots of things that impact that, but one of those things is your personality. I’m really interested in the personality of high-performing, driven people and understanding them through the lens of Dan McAdams’ three-layer conceptualization of personality, which expresses the self through people’s dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations, and narrative identity.  

Q: What is your study about?

It’s a case study on the personality of a professional Australian footballer, who’s described by various players and coaches at his club as being a very mentally tough individual. The broad definition of mental toughness that pops up most in the literature, and resonates with my own conceptualization of it, is people’s ability to cope with stress – in whatever form that comes. What is stressful for you might be different from what’s stressful for me, etc. But being able to deal with stress and being able to achieve your goals, while taking on quite significant stressors, is a sign of someone who’s pretty mentally tough. The term “mental toughness” also has different connotations attached to it depending on what is valued in the context that uses it. In the highly elite, competitive context in which this footballer was drawn, being mentally tough is a sign of somebody who demonstrates unrelenting standards and sacrificial displays, such as putting one’s body on the line for the team or being an obsessive and perfectionistic trainer. Our article is an in-depth assessment of this player’s personality across the three layers of Dan McAdams’ model. We operationalized the model by collecting data on his Big 5 profile, his personal strivings and coping strategies, and then his life story. The study attempts to do three main things.

The first is to examine the use of McAdams’ framework in a sporting context. You read a lot of McAdams’ work in personality psychology, but much of it is concentrated in political or clinical psychology, and there is very little in sport psychology. So, sport is another context in which to explore the framework’s utility.

The second thing is to reinforce the idea that examining personality in sport across three layers is a worthwhile thing to do. Traditionally, personality in sport psychology circles has been synonymous with a trait-only approach; if you ask most people in sport about someone’s personality, more often than not, they would mainly interpret that as being related to trait psychology, which doesn’t necessarily match with modern perspectives in the personality field.

By bringing light to that issue, the third aspect of the study was to reinforce the position that to understand people who are particularly persistent and resistant, one way is to understand their personal resources across their traits, goals, and internalized story. And this is an extension of current mental toughness research, where mental toughness is frequently only conceptualized in one of these domains – as a personality trait. What my colleagues and I are suggesting in this article is that traits are important, for sure, to understanding mental toughness, but there is also more to people’s mental toughness than just their traits that make them especially resourceful and highly-determined.

With that in mind, one finding of the paper was an intriguing insight into the personality of this highly-elite and dedicated person. And beyond the actual details of his personality profile, the study showed the benefits of understanding people across the different layers. For example, we found a high level of coherence across each layer, which perhaps suggests that the mentally toughest performers have a personality that complements itself. For instance, the findings indicated that he had highly conscientious traits, his goals were a lot about achievement striving and his life story, too, was like those in many ways. So, there were certain core themes that kept coming up across the different layers of his personality, which spoke of his desire for success, ability to cope, and necessity to give himself up for others. 

Because of the in-depth nature of the study, we also gained an insight into how the participant’s socio-cultural context may have influenced and shaped him. That’s something which you can’t get access to when you just look at his trait profile. A portion of the paper is, therefore, dedicated to how this athlete makes sense of his experiences, and how his memories influence his resolve in professional sport. That ties into how he makes sense of his context, his family, his sporting surroundings, which traits don’t capture at all – and which, of course, isn’t their purpose.

We also used the case study to propose a model that attempts to reveal some of the complexity to understanding mental toughness – in particular, a model that houses some of the existing work in this area, but also captures the interaction between social and personality variables that determine mentally tough behaviors. This model reflects the person-in-context and the overarching approach we took with the study’s design to identify the participant as a mentally tough athlete, in the first place, and secondly, to explore his personality across the three layers. The model also represents our suggestion for a program of research that scholars might use to base future studies in this space, whether that be from a social or personality perspective, in isolation, or the interaction of these two levels of science for understanding mental toughness behavior.

On a personal note, the case study’s overarching findings were interesting, but what really captured my attention about it was that the athlete was a very religious individual. That was a tremendous coping strategy for him, which weaved into how he made sense of himself and came out strongly in the life story, in particular, that gave him a sense of purpose and resolve. I think it was interesting that without knowing his life story, we would not have known the role that religion played in his life and how much it impacted his ability to be resilient. In short, not knowing his narrative identity is to miss a key mechanism that makes him mentally tough.  

Q: What made you decide to study mental toughness?

About ten years ago, my supervisor of my master’s work (Professor Cliff Mallett) introduced me to this area. Back then, mental toughness was a relatively new concept in sport psychology, and since then, interest in it has grown tremendously. It was an area that was intuitively attractive for me; people want mentally tough people. Coaches want them, CEOs want them, etc. Moreover, I think I was not a particularly mentally tough athlete myself, growing up, especially in playing sport. So, part of the intrigue was always there to find out more about the topic – and probably about my own deficits, really.

But, interestingly, I feel that, while I might not have been particularly tough in a sporting context, as an athlete, I’ve had to be pretty tough in other areas of my life – be that moving countries and starting a new life somewhere else in the world where you don’t know anybody and you lack your usual comforts, getting through my PhD program, while working full-time to support a young family, or succeeding in the dance industry. For a good part of my life, I have wondered why at certain times, in certain contexts or ventures, some people have this ability to withstand a lot of stress, while striving for things and seemingly not be put off by the setbacks.

Coming back to the model by Dan McAdams, I think people have the basic traits to help get them through many difficult times, but they also have certain goals that they want to achieve, too, and are able to derive a deep sense of purpose that they create for themselves that gives them a lot of resolve. So, people can be particularly mentally tough, but, equally, that same individual, down the track, might not be able to sustain that same resolve, because the purpose isn’t there, or they achieved their goals already. For instance, if you win a gold medal, do you want to do that again in another four years? How much of your life story is about setting that legacy? You have these highly mentally tough individuals that can deal with a lot of stress in their lives – performance stress and challenges in their personal life – but they might not be able to sustain that forever. This brings me to the point about developing mental toughness and to what extent you can build it up in a person. This remains an ongoing exploratory area in the mental toughness literature, with some scholars suggesting that early life experiences and exposure to particular setbacks during one’s youth is a key period of development. This might be so, and the emphasis on early life experiences and mental toughness is probably linked to the tendency for it to be associated with trait psychology. Intuitively, though, helping people connect with or clarify their goals, or supporting them to create temporal unity in their identities, is likely to play an important part, too, and these aspects of personality are susceptible to change well into adulthood. Hence, in this article, we have tried to suggest that, while conceptualizing mental toughness as a trait is useful, it is limiting to understanding the whole person and why people are particularly resilient and resourceful at certain times in their lives.

Q: What was it like to do a case study of an athlete?

Well, I really enjoyed doing this particular case study! I think the process of doing it strongly links to my experiences of being a practicing psychologist, because a psychologist is very interested in getting to understand the individual person that is sitting in front of them. You get to know the person when you are in contact with them. And you are looking at them in a bit more depth beyond just seeing where they lie on the continuum of a survey. Part of doing the case study, for me, was just my interest in understanding people beyond generalities, so it was a rewarding experience on that front. You get to see what a high-performing, resilient person is really like. You get to see what’s under the hood when they get a chance to open up and represent themselves beyond their scores on a questionnaire.

On a personal level, part of the methodology was a collaborative process between myself and this person, where you collected the data, go away, analyze it all, head back to him and say: “What do you think? Does it resonate with you?”. And one of the aspects that was very pleasing was how much he thought it was an accurate portrayal of what he is like. Perhaps more importantly than that, the way we presented the data to him – through an account of the three layers – gave him clarity about his personality. So that was a great endorsement of the framework from both a conceptual and applied perspective, and how we operationalized it in the first place.

At the same time, the biggest difficulty was dealing with the complexity; the deeper you go, the more complex it gets sometimes. Being able to comprehensively capture someone on paper is a tricky business, I think. So, I was particularly pleased when the athlete saw the report and found that it resonated with him. It takes time to go through somebody in such depth and having my colleagues, who didn’t have any physical contact with this person during the research, was really important to making sure that the report that we produced was based on the data – as opposed to any kind of relations or biased impressions coming out that I might have picked up from being in this player’s presence.

So, yeah, the challenge was really to capture this person as accurately as we could in a coherent way, but to also deal with some of the parts that might be a bit conflicting. You have these visions of collecting information about someone and just piecing it together into a nice jigsaw and it being a beautiful portrait of that individual. The reality is, you have all these different measures and types of information, and you try to mold it together into a whole – and hope that it is a fair portrayal of that individual. I found that particularly challenging, which is probably why people don’t do it all that often.

You also don’t see too many case studies reported in academic journals, really, so we are particularly happy that the European Journal of Personality is taking this on. And I think this case study is testament of the potential of case studies to advance scientific knowledge through the investigation of one individual. Of course, you gain a lot of knowledge from examining generalities, but, at the same time, an important goal for personality psychologists is to be able to understand and coherently describe a single life.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the (near) future?

Continuing living and working in sunny Australia! It’s spring time, here, now. It’s 35 °C outside and the beach and pool are calling me… it’s lovely! So, I can’t complain. But, in terms of my research, building strong connections in Australia in the area of personality and sport, and international connections as well. I definitely aim to continue to work in this space, for sure, and looking at understanding high-performers at different layers of personality – particularly the life stories of highly resilient people.

I am also especially interested in using the three layers as a conceptual basis for improving sport practice to help people better understand each other. For example, I’m about to start a pilot project with the Queensland Academy of Sport, the elite state sporting body in Queensland, where the focus is on trying to help build strong coach-athlete relationships through this profiling procedure that promotes the whole person. So, I am interested in both the conceptual and applied aspects of how one might use the three layers, and connecting with domestically- and internationally-based people who are potentially interested in that space, too.

Q: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself as a graduate student?

The first thing would be: don’t take on a full-time job if you want to remain sane and get your PhD, haha! Which I did for a part of it and it was brutal – not just for myself, but for everyone connected to me! So, try to avoid that if you can.

And on a sentimental level, really to tell my family how much I love them more often in the process. It’s amazing how all-consuming academic studies can be and it’s not until you step back and you are writing your thesis acknowledgements that you reflect on how good your support was and how it helped get you there. Being able to take stock of that and express it while I was still doing it would have been a great thing.

Q: In general, do you have any tips or advice for young researchers?

Sign yourself up to a workshop, or some sort of course, that helps improve your academic writing. I learned the hard way with academic writing with a series of rejections of work, because I just couldn’t articulate clearly and simply enough what I was trying to say. I learned that, overall, the simpler the better!

Also, go to conferences, be inspired by other people and what they say. Take the opportunities to present your own ideas. It will help build your confidence in presenting, but also to get your ideas out there to people, whom you may have never spoken to, or supervisors in the room, who can help you! In general, try to surround yourself with good people and supervisors who have your best interests, can stretch your abilities, challenge what you are saying, and help you articulate your ideas clearly – which, again, helps with your writing. And, don’t be disheartened when your work is rejected. Once you’ve dealt with the initial rejection, take it as a learning opportunity to make your work better or articulate your points in a clearer, simpler way. It’s all a big journey!  

Q: Thank you so much for the chat, Tristan!

19th edition of the European Conference on Personality