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Transfer of Mental Toughness from International Elite Triathlon to Business top Executive Coaching in Germany -an Exploratory Study

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Abstract

This thesis concerns the transfer of Mental Toughness from elite triathlon coaching to top executive coaching in Germany. It analyses how experienced coaches from both contexts understand the concept of Mental Toughness and their views about the ways and the extent to which Mental Toughness may be applicable in German executive coaching. This study is important because it investigates the relevance of Mental Toughness, which is an eminent concept in sports coaching, in an executive coaching context where it has never been subject to empirical research. The value to the research field of executive coaching is that Mental Toughness might offer new ways of understanding how coaching can help with translating goals into action. In addition, practitioners could profit from applying Mental Toughness in improving the client’s ability to withstand better hindrances and challenges, which is one central claim of mental toughness as it is interpreted in the sports literature. The research design for this study is qualitative. Data from 22 interviews with international elite triathlon coaches and German top executive coaches in a one-moment-in-time sampling approach are used to answer the research questions. The findings and analysis reveal that mental toughness can be relevant and valuable in the coaching of German top executives as an important supplement to existing coaching processes. Findings suggest that mental toughness, as a feature of coaching, can build awareness and sensitivity to issues of long-term persistence. The study advances executive coaching theory and practice and shows how Mental Toughness could be integrated into executive coaching theory in its focus on goal pursuit persistence energy.
Transfer of Mental Toughness from
International Elite Triathlon to
Business top Executive Coaching
in Germany an Exploratory Study
The thesis is submitted in partial fulfilment of
the requirements for the award of the degree
of Doctor of Business Administration
of the University of Portsmouth
January 2022
Michael Bannwolf
Student No: 755359
ii
Academic declaration and author note
While registered as a candidate for the above degree, the author has not been registered
for any other research award. The results and conclusions embodied in this thesis are
the work of the named candidate and have not been submitted for any other academic
award.
No funding sources were used for this research. The thesis is self-funded by the author.
Across the research project, no conflicts of interest emerged.
Word count of the thesis: 36.228
Michael Bannwolf, 28th January 2022
iii
Acknowledgement
I am so delighted and grateful to many individuals who made my DBA journey
possible and a success.
I want to thank those who supported me in the executive coaching and the triathlon
coaching community. Without people dedicated to helping each other and developing
knowledge and practice further, such a project would never have been possible. The
enthusiastic discussions that emerged before, during and after my study were
fascinating and inspired me to do the hard work behind those words written here.
Thank you very much for opening doors, letting me into your network, and helping
me with guidance and great advice from the frontier of practice.
From the academic side, I want to express my gratitude to my three supervisors Prof.
Valerie Anderson, Dr Timea Havar-Simonovich and Dr Yvonne Rueckert, who
provided excellent support and advice throughout my studies. I also want to thank Prof.
James McCalman for his outstanding support to clarify my visions at the beginning of
the journey. Moreover, I want to express my appreciation to Prof. Daniel Simonovich
for always lending an ear to questions and supporting me for many years.
I was delighted to be part of a broader community in the ESB Reutlingen Portsmouth
University DBA cohort, where exciting discussions and great support emerged from
my peers. It was great to share the journey with you.
Finally, I want to thank those very close to me who always believed in me.
iv
Abstract
This thesis concerns the transfer of Mental Toughness from elite triathlon coaching
to top executive coaching in Germany. It analyses how experienced coaches from
both contexts understand the concept of Mental Toughness and their views about the
ways and the extent to which Mental Toughness may be applicable in German
executive coaching. This study is important because it investigates the relevance of
Mental Toughness, which is an eminent concept in sports coaching, in an executive
coaching context where it has never been subject to empirical research. The value to
the research field of executive coaching is that Mental Toughness might offer new
ways of understanding how coaching can help with translating goals into action. In
addition, practitioners could profit from applying Mental Toughness in improving the
client’s ability to withstand better hindrances and challenges, which is one central
claim of mental toughness as it is interpreted in the sports literature.
The research design for this study is qualitative. Data from 22 interviews with
international elite triathlon coaches and German top executive coaches in a one-
moment-in-time sampling approach are used to answer the research questions. The
findings and analysis reveal that mental toughness can be relevant and valuable in the
coaching of German top executives as an important supplement to existing coaching
processes. Findings suggest that mental toughness, as a feature of coaching, can build
awareness and sensitivity to issues of long-term persistence. The study advances
executive coaching theory and practice and shows how Mental Toughness could be
integrated into executive coaching theory in its focus on goal pursuit persistence
energy.
v
Table of Contents
Academic declaration and author note ......................................................................... ii
Acknowledgement....................................................................................................... iii
Abstract ....................................................................................................................... iv
Table of Contents ......................................................................................................... v
List of Abbreviations.................................................................................................... x
List of Figures ............................................................................................................. xi
List of Tables.............................................................................................................. xii
1. Introduction .............................................................................................................. 1
1.1. Introduction and Rationale for Research ........................................................... 1
1.2. Research Aims and Questions ........................................................................... 5
1.3. Structure of the Thesis ....................................................................................... 5
2. Literature Review ..................................................................................................... 8
2.1. MT Conceptual Clarification ............................................................................. 8
2.2. Interrelationships to Other Proximal Ideas in the Literature ........................... 14
2.2.1. MT and self-concordant goals .................................................................. 14
2.2.2. MT, emotion and attention regulation ...................................................... 15
2.2.3. MT and resilience with reference to energy ............................................. 17
2.2.4. MT in relationship to business leadership literature that applies to
executive coaching .............................................................................................. 19
2.3. MT Nature or Nurture? ................................................................................. 20
2.4. Executive Coaching and MT ........................................................................... 22
vi
2.4.1. Definition and conceptual clarification of executive coaching ................ 23
2.4.2. Distinguishing executive coaching from other proximal interventions .... 24
2.4.3. Most common ingredients of executive coaching as they relate to MT ... 27
2.4.4. Central working areas and effectiveness of executive coaching .............. 33
2.4.5. Overview of the current research that relates executive coaching to MT 38
2.4.6. Growing importance of executive coaching in work organisations ......... 42
2.5. Opportunities and Challenges of Applying Concepts from Elite Endurance
Sports Coaching ..................................................................................................... 44
2.5.1. Goal pursuit and achievement .................................................................. 47
2.5.2. Proximity between coach-coachee............................................................ 48
2.5.3. Emergence in the social framework ......................................................... 48
2.5.4. Results and consequences that determine achievement ............................ 49
2.6. Research Gap and Research Question ............................................................. 51
3. Research Methodology........................................................................................... 53
3.1. Introduction and Objective .............................................................................. 53
3.2. Research Philosophy ....................................................................................... 53
3.3. Qualitative Research in the Executive Coaching and Sports Science Fields .. 54
3.4. Data Collection Method .................................................................................. 57
3.5. Research Populations, Sampling Strategy and Access to Informants ............. 60
3.5.1. Research populations ................................................................................ 61
3.5.1.1. Elite triathlon coaching .......................................................................... 62
3.5.1.2. Executive coaching ................................................................................ 63
vii
3.5.2. Sampling strategy ..................................................................................... 64
3.5.3. Access to informants and obtained data ................................................... 65
3.5.3.1. Elite Triathlon coaching ......................................................................... 66
3.5.3.2. Executive coaching ................................................................................ 68
3.6. Research Planning and Implementation .......................................................... 72
3.6.1. Interview guide development ................................................................... 72
3.6.2. Research ethics ......................................................................................... 74
3.7. Data Analysis and Interpretation ..................................................................... 75
3.8. Research Quality ............................................................................................. 81
3.8.1. Reflexivity ................................................................................................. 81
3.8.2. Methodological coherence ........................................................................ 83
3.8.3. Sampling and data access ......................................................................... 84
3.9. Summary ......................................................................................................... 85
4. Findings .................................................................................................................. 86
4.1. Findings from the Elite Triathlon Coaching Data ........................................... 86
4.1.1. MT as a feature of the elite triathlon environment ................................... 86
4.1.2. Goal orientation ........................................................................................ 89
4.1.3. Factors that drive motivational perseverance ........................................... 91
4.1.4. Appropriate positivity ............................................................................... 93
4.1.5. The role of the coach in sustaining and enhancing MT ............................ 95
4.1.6. MT as a characteristic of TC’s personal qualities..................................... 98
4.1.7. The triathlon coaching perspective on MT in Executive Coaching ......... 98
viii
4.2. Findings from the executive coaching data ............................................... 100
4.2.1. Goal-oriented determination ................................................................... 100
4.2.2. Awareness and sensitivity ....................................................................... 103
4.2.3. Mastering relationships ........................................................................... 106
4.2.4. Mastering oneself .................................................................................... 108
4.2.5. MT as a feature of executive coaching processes ................................... 112
4.2.5.1. Recommendations of relevant coaching skills ..................................... 112
4.2.5.2. Specific interventions to improve MT ................................................. 114
4.2.6. Toughness in context .............................................................................. 117
4.3. Transferability of MT into Different Contexts .............................................. 118
5. Discussion ............................................................................................................ 122
5.1. How is the Concept of MT Described by German Executive Coaches? ....... 123
5.2. To what Extent and in what ways is MT Relevant for German Executive
Coaching Contexts? .............................................................................................. 126
5.2.1. MT and goal pursuit ................................................................................ 126
5.2.2. Motivational energy and coaching engagement ..................................... 127
5.2.3. MT and resilience ................................................................................... 128
5.2.4. MT and models of coaching practice ...................................................... 131
5.2.5. The potential contribution of MT coaching to superior executive
performance ...................................................................................................... 133
6. Conclusion ........................................................................................................... 135
6.1. Summary of the Thesis .................................................................................. 135
ix
6.2. Theoretical Contributions .............................................................................. 137
6.2.1. Contribution to MT theory ...................................................................... 137
6.2.2. Contributions to executive coaching theory ........................................... 138
6.3. Contributions to Professional Practice .......................................................... 140
6.3.1. Contribution to the international triathlon coaching community ........... 140
6.3.2. Contribution to the German executive coaching community ................. 141
6.4. Limitations and implications for further Research ........................................ 143
7. Professional Development ................................................................................... 145
References ................................................................................................................ 148
Appendix .................................................................................................................. 174
x
List of Abbreviations
MT Mental toughness
EC Executive coach
TC Triathlon coach
DBA Doctor of business administration
CBC Cognitive behavioural coaching
SME Small and medium sized companies
MNC Multinational companies (large size)
CEO Chief executive officer
ROI Return on investment
xi
List of Figures
Figure 2.1 Leverage points of coaching and the related skills developed in the
intervention proposed by De Haan and Nieß (2015, p. 43)..................... 36
Figure 2.2 Generic model of goal-directed self-regulation proposed by Grant (2020)
................................................................................................................... 41
Figure 3.1 Stages of designing and implementing a valid interview process based on
Saunders et al. (2012, p. 429) .................................................................... 73
Figure 3.2 Occurrence of codes for the triathlon coaching sample across the
respondents indicating the saturation of each code ................................... 76
Figure 3.3 The code saturation for the triathlon coaching sample happened after six
interviews and produced a total number of 32 codes ................................ 78
Figure 3.4 Occurrence of codes for the executive coaching sample across the
respondents indicating the saturation of each code ................................... 79
Figure 3.5 The code saturation for the executive coaching sample happened after
eight interviews and produced a total number of 51 codes ....................... 80
Figure 3.6 Most significant overlaps and differences between MT and resilience that
this study clarifies .................................................................................... 131
Figure 7.1 The author‘s long-term journey towards executive coaching expertise
............................................................................................................... 147
xii
List of Tables
Table 2.1 The development of MT ............................................................................ 11
Table 2.2 The features of MT defined by Gucciardi et al. (2015)............................. 13
Table 2.3 Most common interventions compared to executive coaching adapted
from Passmore and Lai (2019, p. 74f) ...................................................... 25f
Table 2.4 Summary of differences and similarities between common executive
coaching frameworks, adapted, based on Brunning (2006, p. 13ff) and Lai
and Palmer (2019). ................................................................................... 28f
Table 2.5 Outcome variables across literature developed from De Haan (2021,p.11)
................................................................................................................... 34
Table 2.6 The full engagement paradigm created by Loehr and Schwartz (2003)
compared to older paradigms of high-performance coaching (p. 6) ......... 37
Table 2.7 Comparing the most prominent aspects between top executives and elite
triathletes ................................................................................................... 46
Table 3.1 Methodological fit between maturity state of theory and research
methodology, modified based on Edmondson and McManus (2007, p. 1160) 55
Table 3.2 Details of the triathlon coaching sample .................................................. 68
Table 3.3 Details of the executive coaching sample ............................................... 70f
Table 4.1 The relevance of MT for Executive Coaching the Triathlon Coaches’
perspectives. .............................................................................................. 99
Table 4.2 Differences between executive coaching and triathlon coaching .......... 120
Table 5.1 Summary of MT features identified in the German executive coaching
context and the resulting three overall categories ................................... 124
Table 7.1 Sixteen general competencies of scholar-practitioners (Kromanik et
al.,2009; p. 496) ....................................................................................... 146
1
1. Introduction
1.1. Introduction and Rationale for Research
This thesis explores the potential of Mental Toughness (MT), a concept that is
prominent in elite sports as a feature of the pursuit of sporting goals, in top executive
coaching. Contemporary coaching literature provides an ongoing debate about the
significance and importance of improving the effectiveness of executives in pursuing
their goals (Athanasopoulou & Dopson, 2018; Correia, dos Santos, & Passmore, 2016;
de Haan, 2021; Gan, Chong, Yuen, Yen Teoh, & Rahman, 2020; Lai & Palmer, 2019).
Nevertheless, research provides little insight into interventions that integrate goals
pursuit mechanisms with executive coaching (Grant, 2020). Moreover, little is known
about how executives can be coached on translating goals into action (Greif &
Benning-Rohnke, 2015) despite challenges, hindrances and a demanding day-to-day
business. There is, however, very little research evidence that examines the role of
coaching on pursuing goals and withstanding demands at the elite manager level.
Within the sports coaching literature, MT is recognised as one of the essential drivers
of goal pursuit persistence energy despite hindrances (Gucciardi, Hanton, Gordon,
Mallett, & Temby, 2015; Gucciardi, 2020; Ruparel, 2020). Therefore, the thesis offers
an analysis based on empirical work that examines if and in which ways MT is a
valuable concept of executive coaching.
More than 25 years have passed since the first significant executive coaching
publications (Diedrich, 1996; Kilburg, 1996). In current studies, working with the
client on achieving goals is central (De Haan, 2021; Lai & Palmer, 2019; Pandolfi,
2020). Goals might even be the decisive element of coaching (De Haan, 2019b)
because achieving goals is mandatory to achieving outcomes (Athanasopoulou &
2
Dopson, 2018; Van Oosten, McBride-Walker, & Taylor, 2019). In other words, most
coaching interventions can be pinned down to setting goals with the client that need to
be achieved after the coaching (De Haan, 2021; Mueller & Kotte, 2020; Passmore,
Underhill, & Goldsmith, 2018). For those reasons, it is striking that Grant (2020), who
has been one of the most influential authors in the last century, draws a pessimistic
conclusion about goals in executive coaching. He argues that "to date, there have been
surprisingly few articles detailing theoretical frameworks that explicitly link goal
theory to executive or organizational coaching" (Grant, 2020, p. 116). Given the
significance of goal-related research in psychology (Mueller & Kotte, 2020;
Vandewalle, Nerstad, & Dysvik, 2019), it is alarming that such concepts have not been
linked to executive coaching in more depth and using convincing empirical work.
In the practitioner literature, it is acknowledged that mental energy and persistence are
essential. That applies explicitly to translating goals into action in current coaching
models. For instance, the ‘Grow’, Reality’, ‘Options’, ‘Will’ (GROW) model advises
coaches to build willpower with the client (Whitmore, 2002, 2010). In the coaching
process, the options are explored to move from the status quo toward the intended goal.
Thereby commitment is fostered, reminding the client of the necessary willpower to
act. However, it is left open how such building of willpower should work and how
challenges in sustaining commitment are managed. Similarly, the acronym SMART-
Goals (Specific, Measurable, Attractive, Realistic, and Time[frame bound]) is often
used in the coaching literature but without an explanation of the underlying goal
pursuit process (Mueller & Kotte, 2020).
Current executive coaching frameworks and concepts cannot adequately explain or
specify how clients may persist and endure in goal pursuit. The role of energy needed
for persistence in doing the work necessary to achieve a goal is mainly ignored.
3
Moreover, it is unknown how the ability to keep doing what needs to be done despite
hindrances and challenges can be enhanced. Hence, until now, executive coaching
theory has not been able to explain the details of goal-directed energy and persistence
and how to coach these. This thesis examines the potential contribution of MT to this
feature of coaching processes.
The idea of applying MT is promising for executive coaching research and practice.
Practitioners' previous publications on MT in business suggest that an application in
executive coaching makes sense and has several exciting and relevant benefits and
implications (Clough, 2021). However, research evidence on how MT works precisely
and the outcomes of MT is still rare, and the voice of practitioners dominates the field.
Therefore, investigating MT is a plausible way to understand goal pursuit persistence
in executive coaching better. Furthermore, linking MT to executive coaching raises
awareness of coaching research and practice about the mental energy resources needed
to translate goals into action. Moreover, examining the executive coaching context is
also promising for MT research because it analyses MT in a context that has never
been researched before.
While there has been no academic research about MT in executive coaching,
practitioners and consultants have already started to use the idea of MT. For instance,
Selk (2012) argues that applying MT in executive coaching can significantly improve
the client's ability to pursue goals and achieve more and better results and performance.
For instance, he advocates MT as being useful for executives and advises coaches to
exploit its potential in their work with clients. However, such literature is still without
empirical evidence and is based on practitioner experience in the context of the USA.
Thus, it is unclear if MT is as useful and appropriate in the executive coaching context
as Selk argues. As English-speaking countries, such as the USA and the UK, dominate
4
executive coaching literature, it would be beneficial to explore MT in a country that
has seen very little influence from such literature. In the case of Germany, the location
for this study, there have been no empirical studies into the contribution of MT to
executive coaching practices.
MT had not been recognised widely in the German executive coaching context before
this study. Therefore, this study examines whether and how MT can be transferred
from coaching in elite sports (specifically elite triathlon) to German executive
coaching. This study offers a contribution to theory and practice in the following ways.
First, it provides the basis for examining the conceptual features of MT and their value
for executive coaching. Specifically to analyse how the concept is understood and how
it is distinct from its understanding in elite sports, where the idea originated. Second,
it contributes to theories and frameworks of coaching processes and outcomes, such as
the ways in which features of MT may help explain the willpower part of the GROW
model or SMART goals. Third, it offers a specific contribution to the literature
concerning top executive coaching as it is undertaken in the German context.
In summary, the lack of goal pursuit-related executive coaching theory and knowledge
provides a fertile ground for the potential application of MT as it relates to exactly
such goal pursuit related energy and abilities. Moreover, MT research and practice can
profit from the insights into the concept from the executive coaching perspective that
has not been subject to research before this thesis. Therefore, the study's overall
purpose is to identify the extent and the ways in which MT is relevant to executive
coaching as well as MT theory and research.
5
1.2. Research Aims and Questions
Based on the above rationale, the main research aim of this thesis is
to examine the concept of MT as applied in international elite triathlon
coaching and consider its potential role within top executive coaching in
Germany
This research question is broken down into two sub-questions which are:
SRQ1: How is the concept of MT described by international elite triathlon
coaches and German executive coaches?
SRQ2: To what extent and in what ways is MT relevant for German
executive coaching contexts?
1.3. Structure of the Thesis
The thesis is divided into seven chapters.
After this introduction, chapter two examines the literature concerning executive
coaching and MT. It achieves a conceptual clarification of MT in relation to executive
coaching concepts, interventions, common elements and frameworks. The chapter also
clarifies how executive coaching practice can be described from a literature
perspective, including its working areas and effectiveness, critical coaching skills
related to outcomes, essential processes of coaching and the importance of coaching
in work organisations. Moreover, the chapter gives an overview of current research
relevant to executive coaching. Finally, the chapter briefly compares the different
contexts in which elite triathletes and top executives operate.
6
The third chapter covers the research design of the empirical study. It starts by
depicting the choice of the philosophical position of the researcher. On this basis, the
research strategy is explained, including chosen methodology and data collection
method. Following, the chapter details the research populations, the sampling strategy
and access to informants. Then, the research planning and implementation are
discussed, including research ethics, before the applied data analysis and interpretation
methods are detailed. Before a summary of this chapter, the final section discusses
how research quality was maximised.
Chapter four turns to the findings of the empirical part of the thesis. It is divided into
two parts. The first part depicts the research data gathered from the interviews with
triathlon coaches and discusses how MT is described in this context. The second part
discusses the research data collected from the interviews with executive coaches and
their descriptions of MT in their context. Thus, the first research question of this thesis
is answered as the findings reveal the descriptions of MT in the two envisaged
contexts.
Based on the discussion of the data in the findings, the following fifth chapter discusses
the identified literature in relation to the empirical findings of the thesis. In this
manner, the second research question of this thesis is answered as the discussion
clarifies the extent and the ways in which MT is relevant in the German executive
coaching context.
The sixth chapter summarises the research results and outlines the contributions to
theory and professional practice. Moreover, it outlines the study's limitations and the
implications for future research.
7
The final chapter, seven, summarises the author's personal and professional
development during this study.
8
2. Literature Review
This chapter reviews the literature relevant to transferring MT from elite triathlon to
business top executive coaching. It is divided into six sections.
The first section introduces the concept of MT and analyses its foundations in the
research literature. The second section depicts the interrelationships of MT with other
proximal ideas in the literature. The following section then turns to the detailed
analysis of executive coaching. It examines the common coaching interventions and
main frameworks currently used for executive coaching processes in relation to MT.
The most significant section about MT and executive coaching in this thesis then gives
a short overview of the growing importance of executive coaching and how current
research relates to MT before the lack of goal-related concepts in executive coaching
is revealed and put into perspective. After that, the thesis introduces the basic ideas
and definitions that lead to considering the transfer of MT from elite triathlon coaching
to executive coaching. On this basis, the final section summarises the overall rationale
for the aims of this thesis and specifies the final research questions derived from the
literature review.
2.1. MT Conceptual Clarification
This section will clarify the MT concept and provide a definition. It will also consider
the interrelationships to other proximal ideas and concepts.
The sports coaching literature suggests that MT is a resource that enables individuals
to pursue goals and maintain this pursuit despite difficulties and hindrances (Gucciardi
et al., 2015). As recent research shows, MT can also be enhanced and developed
(Anthony, Gordon, Dawson, & Gucciardi, 2017, 2018; Anthony, Gucciardi, &
9
Gordon, 2016; Gordon, 2012; Gordon & Gucciardi, 2011; Weinberg, Butt, & Culp,
2011). Hence, coaches can work with their clients on improving MT (Anthony et al.,
2017). Liew, Kuan, Chin, and Hashim (2019) summarise the multidimensionality of
MT, for instance, revealed through its features of unshakable self-belief, the ability to
rebound after failures, persistence or refusal to quit, coping effectively with adversity
and pressure and retaining concentration in the face of distractions. The literature has
established that MT plays a critical role in sporting successes (Connaughton, Wadey,
Hanton, & Jones, 2008; Farnsworth, Marshal, & Myers, 2021; Jones, 2002b).
Although scholars and practitioners make many claims about the importance of MT,
there is limited consensus about its definition. Moreover, despite many claims that MT
is useful, it is unclear if it is advantageous across contexts and time. Thus, it is
necessary to look at the concept’s origin to understand its details.
There is substantial debate and contestation about the concept of MT. A significant
number of current researchers commonly describe MT as an established research
concept (Anthony et al., 2016; Crust, 2008; Gucciardi & Gordon, 2011; Gucciardi,
Hanton, Gordon, Mallett, & Temby, 2015). However, MT is a relatively new concept
(Jones, 2002b) that has emerged only over the last 30 years in a fragmented and
disparate way (Chang, Chi, & Huang, 2012; Crust, 2007; Gibson, 1998; Loehr, 1986,
1995). Some authors even claim that it is not a real construct (Andersen, 2011). Others
believe that research has achieved clarification of what MT means (Cowden, 2017;
Gucciardi et al., 2015; Guillén & Laborde, 2014; Weinberg et al., 2011) based on
reducing it to the most prominent features by using factor analysis (Gucciardi et al.,
2015). At the same time, MT does not satisfy the criteria for a psychological construct
because it is impossible to find an ultimately distinct definition of the finite elements
it contains (Andersen, 2011; Lane, 2016).
10
Analysis of MT literature suggests three main phases in the development of what is
now referred to as the MT concept. These phases highlight the development from a
notion-based word of mouth idea to a theoretical conceptualisation. Table 1 details
some of the most influential authors and the exemplar MT definition summarises the
reasoning of the respective era.
11
Table 2.1
The development of MT
Developmental-
stage
Main authors
Exemplar definition
Research evidence,
data, and
generalisation
1.
Notions based on
word of mouth
and practice
Bull, Albinson,
Shambrook (1996)
Loehr, (1986)
Loehr (1995)
The "ability to
consistently perform
toward the upper range
of your talent and skill
regardless of
competitive
circumstances."
(Loehr, 1995, p. 5)
No research
evidence.
Practitioner insights
into sports.
Generalisation is
much beyond the
scope of
investigations.
2.
Exploring
attributes and
conceptualisation
Bull, Shambrook,
James, and Brooks
(2005)
Gucciardi, Gordon,
and Dimmock
(2008)
Hanton and Jones
(2010)
Jones (2002b)
Middleton (2007)
Connaughton,
MT is having the
natural or developed
psychological edge that
enables you to:
Generally, cope better
than your opponents
with the many demands
(competition, training,
lifestyle) that sport
places on a performer.
Specifically, be more
consistent and better
than your opponents in
remaining determined,
focused, confident, and
in control under
pressure.”
(Jones, 2002b, p. 213)
Qualitative, mostly
semi-structured
interviews. Sports
specific.
Generalisation low.
3.
Achieving clarity
about the concept
and detailing its
application
Coulter, Mallett,
and Gucciardi
(2010)
Dimmock (2009)
Farnsworth et al.
(2021)
Gordon and
Gucciardi (2011)
Gucciardi et al.
(2015)
Liew et al. (2019)
“A personal capacity to
produce consistently
high levels of subjective
(e.g. personal goals or
strivings) or objective
performance (e.g. sales,
race time, GPA) despite
everyday challenges and
stressors as well as
significant adversities."
(Gucciardi et al. 2015, p.
28)
Qualitative and
quantitative,
including studies
with statistically
significant data. The
generalisation is
made to domains
such as students,
athletes, employees,
army candidates,
arts, music
12
Research in sports coaching has achieved different conceptualisations and sharpening
of claims about MT boundaries, characteristics, and features in each developmental
stage. In line with the development, the principal methodologies have changed from
exploratory qualitative methods, primarily interviews (e.g. Jones, 2002b), to
quantitative research designs (Gucciardi et al., 2015). Many studies have included
attempts at MT measurement (Golby & Sheard, 2004; Gucciardi, 2008; Loehr, 1986;
Middleton, 2007; Perry, Clough, Crust, Earle, & Nicholls, 2013; Sheard, Golby, &
Van Wersch, 2009) and evaluation of different measures (Andersen, 2011; Crust &
Swann, 2011; Gucciardi, Hanton, & Mallett, 2012; Vaughan, Hanna, & Breslin, 2018)
as detailed in Appendix C.
Table 2.1 shows that MT was adapted by theory after it already had a long tradition
among practitioners in sports (Bull et al., 2005; Bull, 2006; Clough, Earle, & Sewell,
2002; Crust, 2007; Dienstbier, 1989; Gibson, 1998; Jones, 2002b; Jones &
Moorehouse, 2007; Loehr, 1986, 1995; Thelwell, Weston, & Greenlees, 2005). Recent
empirical studies and conceptualisations have attempted to specify components of MT
through factor analysis (Gucciardi et al., 2015; Vaughan et al., 2018).
For this thesis, the work of Gucciardi et al. (2015) is seminal. Based on a large sample
(n=2740 across different contexts), they formulated the core idea of MT based on the
seven features, which are the labels of the factors they found. These are depicted in
table 2.2 and labelled from here on as Gucciardi features.
13
Table 2.2
The features of MT defined by Gucciardi et al. (2015)
Element
Definition
Self-efficacy
A belief in your abilities to achieve success in your
achievement context.
Buoyancy
The ability to effectively execute the required skills and
processes in response to everyday life's challenges and
pressures.
Success mindset
The desire to achieve success and the ability to act upon this
motive.
Optimistic style
The tendency to expect positive events in the future and
attribute positive causes and outcomes to different events in
one’s life.
Context
knowledge
An awareness and understanding of the performance context
and how to apply this knowledge in achieving success or
reaching one’s goals.
Emotion
regulation
An awareness of and ability to use emotionally relevant
processes to facilitate optimal performance and goal
attainment.
Attention
regulation
The ability to focus on what is relevant while minimizing the
intrusion of irrelevant information
The study is important in recent MT research because it is the first large-scale meta-
analysis comparing students, athletes, employees, army candidates, arts, and music.
Whereas Appendix D gives an overview of alternative other features researchers
attribute to MT, the Gucciardi features and the definitions depicted in table 2.2 provide
the conceptual starting point for this thesis. Building on the work of Gucciardi and
others, the following definition of MT is utilised in this thesis:
MT is an individual’s mental energy resource to persevere through
adversity and fulfil the demands to achieve a given goal (Bull et al., 2005;
Farnsworth et al., 2021; Gucciardi, 2020; Gucciardi et al., 2015; Liew et
al., 2019; Loehr, 1986).
14
2.2. Interrelationships to Other Proximal Ideas in the Literature
The concept of MT is one that overlaps with other ideas and theories related to goal
pursuit, motivation and performance. Therefore, the following section details the most
relevant literature on concepts proximal to MT. Four such ideas can be identified that
are relevant to this thesis. The first is self-concordant goals, the second is emotion and
attention regulation, the third is resilience, and the fourth is the overall skills and
competence discussion in business literature.
2.2.1. MT and self-concordant goals
Self-concordance describes the degree of fit and alignment between an individual’s
pursued personal goals with feelings of intrinsic interest and identity congruence
(Sheldon & Elliot, 1999). Self-concordant goals are aligned with who we are, our
authentic selves, and what we really want to do in our lives (Smyth, Werner,
Milyavskaya, Holding, & Koestner, 2020). Literature has put forward that the degree
to which a person can thrive is significantly related to the self-concordance of the goal.
Sheldon (2014) summarises that goal-setting consequences are substantial, and people
are typically unaware of their implicit motivations and potentials. In other words,
people are seldom aware of the degree of self-concordance of their goals. However,
according to the above, the concordance of the goal with the self matters significantly.
This is essential for considering MT because people might choose goals that do not
serve them well. Consequently, the outcome will suffer from the disparity between the
goal and the intrinsic interest. Self-concordance is reached when there is a goal-motive
fit which predicts more persistent goal effort and thus better goal attainment over time
(Sheldon, 2014).
15
2.2.2. MT, emotion and attention regulation
Emotion regulation is a term generally used to describe a person's ability to effectively
manage and respond to an emotional experience (Gross & Thompson, 2007). Emotion
regulation focuses on strategies that enable people to cope with difficult situations
(Gross, 2013). It differs significantly from attention regulation. Regulating emotions
is a central feature of MT (Gucciardi et al., 2015). Surprisingly, there has hardly been
any research into connecting this to the field of underlying emotions (Ekman &
Friesen, 1971). However, such theories could help better understand how emotions
modify perceptions and responses to situations, as well as the degree of arousal and
the corresponding mood (Posner, Russell, & Peterson, 2005; Russell, Weiss, &
Mendelsohn, 1989). MT refers to emotions as keeping a very positive emotional state,
as highlighted in MT features such as success mindset or optimistic style in the
Gucciardi et al. (2015) features. Here, a person who regulates emotions most
effectively is called mentally tough.
Beyond the importance of emotions concerning MT, literature also suggests that
executives need to have enough emotion recognition competencies, empathy and other
emotion regulation related capabilities, such as a congruence of mood for the retrieval
of information and social judgements based on a consistent affective state (Gooty,
Connelly, Griffith, & Gupta, 2010).
Attention regulation refers to maintaining attention, ignoring distracting or irrelevant
stimuli, staying alert to task goals, and coordinating one's attention throughout a
particular event or task (Styles, 2006). Kahneman (1973) argues that human attention
has limited resources that can change its allocation policy from moment to moment.
Eriksen and James (1986) claim that it helps to think about attention as a zoom lens by
16
which the area focused on can be increased or decreased. This compares to MT
literature, which also highlights the importance of focusing attention but without
explaining the processes (Coulter et al., 2010; Crust, 2008; Golby & Sheard, 2004;
Gordon, 2012; Vaughan, Carter, Cockroft, & Maggiorini, 2018). One reason why MT
research commonly overlooked the foundations of attention research might be that
there are very contradicting views on how attention distribution functions (Broadbent,
1958; Deutsch & Deutsch, 1963; Treisman, 1964). There has been, until now, no clear
understanding of the processes occurring with regard to focusing and distracting
attention in MT. At the same time, the literature clearly indicates that focus of attention
is an essential feature for MT.
Moreover, according to Moors and De Houwer (2006), there is no clear-cut distinction
between controlled and automatic processes. Logan (1988) demonstrates that the
automaticity in processes increases with practice. He argues that task exposure leads
to an increasing amount of useful, relevant information retrieved and enhanced speed
in acquiring domain-specific knowledge. This idea might influence MT on an entirely
different pathway than the mental energy idea of MT puts forward. Beyond the demand
of MT to focus conscious processes on the desired goal pursuit, there might be
automatic, unconscious processes occurring simultaneously. Hence, attention is a
critical element of MT. However, its details are poorly understood in the literature, and
there is a further lack of understanding of the automatic pathways of attention. At the
same time, it is helpful for the aims of MT to perceive focused attention as put forward
by MT in a way that the maximum available mental energy is deliberately focused on
the goal at hand, like the zoom lens at its highest resolution (Eriksen & James, 1986).
17
2.2.3. MT and resilience with reference to energy
Zautra, Hall, and Murray (2008) point out that resilience is an outcome of successful
adaption to stress and adversity, a process by which individuals recover from major
setbacks. It constitutes a dynamic process whereby one regains or sustains relatively
stable and healthy psychological and physical functioning levels while confronted with
major adversities (Masten, 2011; Windle, 2012). Liu, Reed, and Girard (2017)
distinguish between three layers of resilience features, which affect the ways and the
extent to which a person can be resilient, adapting to positive and adverse events. First,
core resilience is based on intra-individual factors, such as gender, health behaviours,
biology and psychology. The second layer is internal resilience, constituting
interpersonal factors such as education, interpersonal relationships and social groups,
competence and knowledge, skills and experiences, as well as family. The third layer
is based on external resilience, the socio-ecological factors, such as socioeconomic
status, geography and access to formal and informal institutions. From a more detailed
perspective, Liu et al. (2017) show that resilience is conceptualised “as a trajectory of
recovery following trauma” (p. 111). They highlight that resilience across literature
can be associated with three overall distinct viewpoints. First, it is seen as a
developmental trajectory that follows the adaption to stress. Second, literature
associates resilience with being a coping outcome, bringing an individual back to
standard physiological and psychological states. This is the most common idea in
resilience research. Third, it is also associated with being a personality correlate or
trait.
While MT relates to performance excellence, efficiency and the achievement of an
optimum or superior (compared to others) outcome (Gucciardi, 2020; Jones, 2002b),
resilience is about doing well or better than expected after difficult circumstances
18
(Windle, 2012). As a result, MT is often connected to top performances in the
respective domains and contexts (Bull, Shambrook, et al., 2005; Connaughton,
Hanton, Jones, 2010; Gucciardi, Hanton, Fleming, 2016;), whereas resilience is
usually related to recovering and keeping a normal, average psychological health level
and wellbeing after an unexpected impact on life, stressful event or significant
adversity (Liu et al., 2017; Zautra et al., 2008). Until now, MT literature has not yet
achieved a useful and distinct differentiation between MT and resilience. The overlaps
and proximities are often highlighted instead of clarifying distinct boundaries between
the two concepts (Cowden et al., 2016; Gucciardi et al., 2015). The tendency to
confuse MT and resilience might also have been a reason why MT has only attracted
minimal research attention in business (Williams, 2014) as a result of others focusing
more on the aspects that are covered by resilience which is very well understood in
business (Hillmann & Guenther, 2021; Wiig & Fahlbruch, 2019). Resilience is
common in executive coaching (Grant, Curtayne, & Burton, 2009) as well as in
leadership coaching literature which applies to executive coaching (Ladegard &
Gjerde, 2014; Passmore, 2015).
One seminal publication shows the proximity between MT and resilience in the
concepts’ integration of energy. Smith (2017) conducted interviews with senior leaders
who had been coached on resilience in leadership and found that energy was a
significant determinant of applying skills appropriately. They found that the desire and
mental energy to apply skill-related features in a particular context were essential
prerequisites for being resilient and thus achieving goals. “While capabilities, once
learnt, endure, the capacity gradually “runs out” so needs constant maintenance”
(Smith, 2017, p. 18). Capacity, here, could be described as the energy to be resilient
(Smith, 2017). In this way, MT and its features might explain better than resilience the
19
part of goal pursuit persistence in which energy and the mental effort are delibertely
put into achieving something. At the same time, although the above publication uses
the term mental energy equivalent to MT, it is not clear across the literature if MT and
mental energy can be understood as synonyms.
The study by Smith (2017) also refers to balance and recovery as vital aspects to
sustain energy. This will be discussed later using the work of Loehr and Schwartz
(2003). What Smith (2017) particularly emphasises is that typically resilient
individuals can suffer issues that harm their ability to exploit their potential. Thus, if
insufficient care is taken about the entire configuration of the system of a senior leader,
comparable to executives, significant excessive demands can emerge, which might be
poorly addressed or not be regulated. As a result of such individual or systemic
overload, resilience can fail (Smith, 2017), for instance, due to ego-depletion (Inzlicht
& Schmeichel, 2012) or self-regulating fatigue (Evans, Boggero, & Segerstrom, 2016),
or more generally because it was simply too much to be handled.
2.2.4. MT in relationship to business leadership literature that applies to
executive coaching
In business literature, ideas that compare to MT can be detected, which is very relevant
regarding the concept’s focus and level of generalisation for executive coaching.
Researchers have attempted to identify which skills and competencies are necessary
for executive leadership. For example, Zaccaro, Green, Dubrow, and Kolze (2018)
provide an overview of attributes essential for executive leadership. Their study
identifies cognitive capacities, social competencies, personality, motives, core beliefs,
knowledge and skills, and others. These have relevance to an analysis of MT insofar
as they contain similar labels and point to comparable notions such as those put
20
forward by MT. The identified attributes are, for instance, self-regulation, emotion
regulation, optimism, stress tolerance and resilience, self-confidence and self-efficacy,
as well as situational and business knowledge.
Leadership literature provides many essential insights that matter in executive
coaching, especially concerning authentic leadership and mental wellbeing (Weiss,
Razinskas, Backmann, & Hoegl, 2018); critical skills (Mumford, Todd, Higgs, &
McIntosh, 2017) and leader development (Murphy & Johnson, 2011).
Another study by Sosik, Gentry and Chun (2012) highlights "focal character strengths"
(p. 370) of executive performance. Those are integrity, bravery, perspective and social
intelligence. Such strengths appear to have a mental component that is framed
differently than MT. However, especially the term bravery indicates a connection to
mental aspects. For instance, Peterson and Seligman (2004) also support the view that
executives need substantial character strengths. Like the virtues detailed by Sosik et
al. (2012), those can be understood as having a mental component.
2.3. MT Nature or Nurture?
Although some authors claim that MT has a heritable component (Horsburgh,
Schermer, Veselka, & Vernon, 2009), the literature suggests that MT can be
developed. For example, Weinberg, Freysinger and Mellano (2018) argue that a coach
can enhance MT. The behaviours they highlight that can foster MT include
challenging, encouraging and increasing autonomy in the coachee.
Anthony et al. (2017) found four critical areas for MT development. These are first
interpersonal characteristics, second interactions with the environment, third
progressive development, and fourth breadth of experience. Interpersonal
21
characteristics are the personal skills and resources that an individual might develop
over time across various contexts, often resulting from learning from experiences.
According to Anthony et al. (2017), they interact with the person’s tough character,
though attitudes and though thinking, which can be developed using heightened
awareness, cognitive strategies, and reflective practice and coaching.
For improving MT, Anthony et al. (2017) found that the contribution and role-
modelling of significant others are important for MT development. The progressive
development of MT depends on increasing the complexity of the interactions between
those involved and the context. A positive coach or responsible person challenges the
individual with demanding, high expectations. The authors' overall central element is
that the breadth of long-term experience is decisive for the development of MT.
The origin of MT and most research in MT have been based on sports (Dienstbier,
1989; Loehr, 1986). The majority of the studies focused on one specific discipline, for
example, football (Gucciardi et al., 2008), tennis (Cowden, 2016; Cowden, Anshel, &
Fuller, 2014; Cowden, Meyer-Weitz, & Oppong Asante, 2016), soccer (Thelwell et
al., 2005), golf (Schaefer, Vella, Allen, & Magee, 2016), rugby (Golby & Sheard,
2004), or cricket (Bell, Hardy, & Beattie, 2013; Bull et al., 2005). Those specific
investigations indicate that the performance context is closely related to the particular
form of MT applied. Despite different approaches to examining tangible differences
between disciplines and, for example, differing contexts of athletes, a comprehensive,
detailed perspective on how such preconditions affect MT is not available in the
literature (Nicholls, Polman, Levy, & Backhouse, 2009).
Although the concept of MT originated in sports coaching practice, studies such as
Gucciardi et al. (2015) claim that MT is applicable in different and broader contexts.
22
Beyond the sports coaching context, first empirical research, for instance, exists
regarding the MT of students, employees, army candidates (Gucciardi et al. 2015),
managers (Marchant et al., 2009), academic performance (Lin, Clough, Welch, &
Papageorgiou, 2017), “non-athletes” (Guillén & Laborde, 2014, p. 30), and business
in more general (Williams, 2014). However, it is still quite unclear to what extent and
how MT can be transferred across different contexts and what such a transfer means
to the core concept and its features. It is plausible and reasonable that different non-
sports contexts might imply different feature configurations. This is because research
in sports shows that MT features can significantly differ between different sports
disciplines, whereas the MT core concept is considered relatively stable (Cowden,
2017; Liew et al., 2019; Nicholls et al., 2009). Moreover, it is still unclear whether MT
is applicable and appropriate across contexts.
2.4. Executive Coaching and MT
The following part of the literature review considers how executive coaching may
relate to MT. It is divided into six parts. The first provides a definition and conceptual
clarification of executive coaching. The second part describes the most common
features of executive coaching related to MT. The third part identifies the relevance of
goal pursuit outcomes for executive coaching and the potential contribution of MT in
relation to goal pursuit in executive coaching contexts. Then the fourth part illustrates
central working areas of executive coaching effectiveness before part five depicts an
overview of current research trends. The sixth and final part considers the growing
importance of executive coaching in work organisations.
23
2.4.1. Definition and conceptual clarification of executive coaching
Executive coaching is (…) a coachee-centred learning and development intervention
that aims to maximise the coachee’s potential, motivation and improvement." (Lai &
Palmer, 2019, p. 144f). The purpose is to stimulate the client’s self-awareness and
personal responsibility for their progress toward setting and achieving goals (Grant &
Zackson, 2004; Kilburg, 1996; Passmore & Fillery-Travis, 2011). Similarly, executive
coaching is traditionally defined as a one-to-one relationship between a client and an
external coach (Baron & Morin, 2009; Grant & Cavanagh, 2004; Jowett, O'Broin, &
Palmer, 2010; Witherspoon & White, 1996). Such a coach works with the client on
issues that help the client become a more effective leader (Correia et al., 2016; Ely et
al., 2010; Ladegard & Gjerde, 2014).
In this thesis, executive coaching is defined
as the relationship between a coach and an executive that intends to
facilitate behavioural, attitudinal, or motivational change in a future-
focused dialogue based on inquiring about aspects that could develop and
improve the ability and achievement of the executive (Lai & Palmer, 2019).
This thesis focuses on executive coaching for top executives such as top management
team members or chief executive officers (CEO). Such executive coaching is usually
delivered by external coaches (Bournois, Duval-Hamel, Roussillon, & Scaringella,
2010; Hambrick, 2010).
Executive coaching is different from elite sports coaching as stakeholders comprising
a relational ‘triangle‘ are involved, whereas the relationship is dyadic in elite sports
contexts (between the coach and the athlete). According to Correia et al. (2016),
24
executive coaching must adequately address each perspective of these stakeholders.
Therefore, a clear contract and transparent processes are needed (Lai & McDowall,
2014). Such a contract can, for instance, be based on a detailed agreement about
information treatment and addressing the specific goals and responsibilities of each
stakeholder (De Haan & Nieß, 2015; Passmore & Lai, 2019). It is essential that the
executive coach (EC) understands the needs and demands of all sides, and is aware of
the potential conflicts that can arise (Bachkirova, Arthur, & Reading, 2015; De Haan,
2019a) and is prepared to handle them (Peltier, 2010). Hence, the triangle between the
coach, coachee and sponsoring organisation demands very distinct sensitivity and
needs the deliberate application of in-depth knowledge about how to talk with
individuals, which questions to ask, and, more generally, how to do coaching as such
(Brotman, Liberi, & Wasylyshyn, 1998; Dimec & Kajtna, 2009). Top management is
the level in the organisation which has the most power and degree of freedom for their
own choices and is the least regulated entity (Hiller & Beauchesne, 2014). It is
important to consider this specific for the analysis conducted on coaching.
2.4.2. Distinguishing executive coaching from other proximal
interventions
Executive coaching can be distinguished from other related development interventions
in the literature, as shown in table 2.3, which indicates the close relationship between
executive coaching and other interventions such as mentoring and counselling.
25
Table 2.3
Most common interventions compared to executive coaching adapted from Passmore
and Lai (2019, p. 74f)
<----------- Increasing psychological orientation --------->
Counselling
and therapy
Executive
Coaching
Mentoring
Change Agent
Development
of wellbeing
Development of wellbeing
(if sponsored also benefit
the sponsoring organisation)
Development
and
organisational
change
Eliminating
psychological
problems and
dysfunctions
Enhancing life, improving
performance
Enhancing life,
improving
performance at
the workplace
Open to any
and potentially
to all areas of
the client’s life
Specified by the contract according to the
client’s goals, the coach’s area of expertise and
the assignment of a sponsor if involved
From high
dissatisfaction
to the
reasonable
satisfaction
From relative satisfaction to much higher
satisfaction
Increased
wellbeing,
unexpected
positive
changes in
various areas
of life
Attainment of goals, increased well-being and
productivity
Psychology
and philosophy
May include psychology,
education, sociology,
philosophy, management,
health and social care etc.
May include
psychology,
education,
sociology,
philosophy,
management and
organisational
change theories
26
Table 2.3 continued
Most common interventions compared to executive coaching adapted from Passmore
and Lai (2019, p. 74f)
<----------- Increasing psychological orientation --------->
Counselling
and therapy
Executive
Coaching
Mentoring
Change Agent
Main
professional
skills
Listening, questioning, feedback, use of tools and methods
specific to particular approaches
Importance of
relationship
and client’s
commitment
High
Role of
practitioner’s
self in the
process
Very important
Important
Less
important
Degree of
formality
High
Less formal
High
Frequency
Variable, but usually, several sessions needed
based on the client’s situations
Variable,
usually based
on the original
contract with
the
organisation
Ownership of
data and
feedback
It is
confidential
data. Only
shared
between
therapist and
client
Coach and
individual,
some data
shared with
sponsoring
organisation.
It depends on
the agreed
contract
Mentor and
the mentee.
Some data
and
information
are shared
with the
organisation
based on the
initial
agreement
Most of the
data and
information
are shared
with the
organisation
27
The summary above shows the significant breadth of potential methods and practices
used and discussed in executive coaching research and practice (Athanasopoulou &
Dopson, 2018; Augustijnen, Schnitzer, & Van Esbroecka, 2011; De Haan, 2019b).
After clarifying how this thesis interprets executive coaching, the following will focus
on how the coaching literature relates to goals and goal pursuit concepts.
2.4.3. Most common ingredients of executive coaching as they relate to
MT
Throughout the literature, four common frameworks can be identified that influence
executive coaching practice (Lai & Palmer, 2019). They are shown in table 2.4, which
summarises the significant differences and similarities between the approaches.
Beyond those frameworks, many different combinations of methods are used (De
Haan, Bertie, Day, & Sills, 2020; De Haan & Nieß, 2015; Grant et al., 2009).
28
Table 2.4
Summary of differences and similarities between common executive coaching
frameworks, adapted, based on Brunning (2006, p. 13ff) and Lai and Palmer (2019).
<-Increasing dependence on the coach’s psychological competence->
Coaching
framework
Psychodynamic-
psychotherapeutic
Cognitive
behavioural
coaching
(CBC)
Strength-
based
GROW
Degree of
structure
low
low
high
high
Coaching
directiveness
low
low
high
low
Duration of
intervention
Average between six and twelve months
Length and
frequency
Average of approximately 2 hours
every three or four weeks
Contracting
and potential
stakeholders
Either directly with the executive or
including the sponsoring organisation
(in the latter case, recognition of conflict potential is important)
Primary aim
Focus on personal
development in the
personal-systemic
interface
(person and family,
childhood
experiences, work
system, organisation)
Identifying
the roots of
aspects
stopping the
person from
achieving full
potential.
Thus,
improving
behavioural
outcomes
(most often in
terms of
action and
performance)
Identifying
and
cultivating the
strengths of
the client and
applying them
appropriately
to the
situation
Increase
awareness and
responsibility
for action
29
Table 2.4 continued
Summary of differences and similarities between common executive coaching
frameworks, adapted, based on Brunning (2006, p. 13ff) and Lai and Palmer (2019).
<-Increasing dependence on the coach’s psychological competence->
Coaching
framework
Psychodynamic-
psychotherapeutic
Cognitive
behavioural
coaching
(CBC)
Strength-
based
GROW
Located on a
continuum
between
improving
outputs and
increasing
insight
Increasing insight
Improving
outputs
Utilising
positive
emotions,
engagement
and meaning
in a goal-
focused way
(improving
outputs)
Self-reflection
to become
more effective
in achieving
goals
(improving
outputs)
Leverage
points for
motivational
aspects
Identification of deeper
psychological,
motivational forces,
including a long-term,
systemic perspective
Identification
of deeper
psychological
blockages and
the relating
motivational
forces
Focuses on
identifying
intrinsic
motivation for
the aim of
strength
development
Proposes the
idea that
willpower is
central to
putting the
desired and
coaching-set
goals into
action
Focus of
goal
achievement
Mostly personal
Personal and corporate based on the contracting
and stakeholder interests
30
The psychodynamic-psychotherapeutic framework recognizes that individuals are
located somewhere on a continuum between psychological pathology and health,
which depends on particular situations and events and can shift due to changing goals
and motivation (Freud, Strachey, & Freud, 1978; Leichsenring & Leibing, 2007).
Applying psychodynamics to the coaching of executives is helpful because often
enough, healthy, performance-oriented individuals, such as executives, are kept from
exploiting their full potential or from becoming even more effective by deeply rooted
psychological issues (Brunning, 2006; Kets De Vries, 2011).
The main keywords of applying psychodynamic frameworks are, for instance, that the
unconscious has a much higher impact on humans than non-psychologists would
expect (Cohen, Cavanagh, Chun, & Nakayama, 2012; Nani et al., 2019). Moreover,
psychological conflict based on one's wishes and desires in contrast to moral
obligations puts a lot of pressure on people (Lauterbach, 1975). Often, defence
mechanisms are used to sustain psychological and mental stability and balance so that
painful and unpleasant feelings are kept in the unconscious, automatically and without
recognition (Kramer, 2010). Another aspect is the prominence of childhood, life events
and sensitive phases in the development of a person's personality and the resulting
interpersonal styles and behaviours (Evans, Garner, & Porter, 2004). Those have been
recognised as a significant factor for leadership ability needed as an executive (Murphy
& Johnson, 2011; Zaccaro et al., 2018). Overall, the psychodynamic approach fits the
idea of working at the core of a problem instead of taking shortcuts. However, this is
at the cost of simplicity in coaching because it needs hard work by the client and
significant psychological competence of the coach (Lai & McDowall, 2014) to deal
with psychodynamics. Therefore, this might also be an exciting framework to explore
31
at the core of applying MT beyond the ideas already seen in the literature (Anthony et
al., 2017).
Cognitive behavioural coaching (CBC) is another crucial framework used. The depth
and intensity of CBC are moderate in contrast to psychodynamic coaching. Instead,
CBC is an integrative approach which combines the use of cognitive, behavioural,
imaginal and problem-solving techniques and strategies within a cognitive behavioural
framework to enable coachees to achieve their realistic goals (Palmer & Szymanska,
2019, p. 108). Advocates claim that it can improve performance, increase
psychological resilience, enhance well-being, prevent stress and help to overcome
blocks to change. CBC methods and processes seem to have some alignment with MT.
Such improvements are, for instance, revealed in two studies that found that CBC
increases self-efficacy, self-awareness, and organisational commitment (Bozer, Joo, &
Santora, 2015; Bozer & Sarros, 2012).
Methods and approaches of CBC can be summarised in working with the client on
modifying existing or learning new thinking and behaviours that better fit a given aim.
CBC targets the individual’s premises, assumptions, attitudes and underlying
cognitions (Fernandez, Dobson, & Kazantzis, 2021). Moreover, CBC also works with
methods that usually aim to adjust particular behaviour towards a more effective one,
such as habituation, understanding and systematic training of relevant competencies
or reducing anxiety (Pugh, 2017). It is plausible that such CBC methods could also be
used to foster thinking, recognition, and behaviour to support clients in applying or
improving MT.
Strength-based coaching is another important framework since it can be summarised
as an intervention that aims to develop the client based on the positive aspects of
32
individual circumstances. Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman (2000) and Seligman (2007)
argue that such strength-based coaching fundamentally resorts to positive psychology
to foster positive emotions, engagement and meaning in clients. This way, strength-
based coaching aims to help clients excel based on the premise that happiness occurs
when a balance and optimal configuration of positive progress is achieved. It focuses
on improving individuals' relevant and significant strengths and pursuing goals that
foster these strengths. Therefore, it might be appropriate and plausible to target the
client's applied MT by focusing on strengths. For instance, Anthony et al. (2018)
discuss such a potential relationship to fostering strengths in their research about
behavioural coaching to promote MT. They collected a summary of the perceived
strengths and areas for improvement for each participant. The results were then used
for interventions modifying and fostering strengths with behavioural coaching. Hence,
strength-based coaching and MT seem to align as MT describes a summary of
strengths with sub-features, similar to aspects that strength-based coaching might
benefit from focusing.
Although it is not a research-derived concept, GROW-related coaching has
considerable popularity among practitioners. It refers to Whitmore’s (2002,2010)
model and is based on the coach questioning and actively listening to the coachee with
regard to four aspects: goals, reality, options, and will. Goals refer to coaching on goal
setting with the client, considering the current reality and using the available options
to achieve future goals. Finally, will is needed to implement the plan to achieve the
previously set goals. The coach discusses alternatives along with the GROW model
and guides the client in the achievement process. The will-element in the GROW
process has an interesting similarity to the ideas of MT. The GROW model highlights
33
the need to build up and maintain energy to pursue goals. It also emphasises that a goal
can only be attained if the effort is sustained (with an ongoing energy supply).
From the above discussion, it becomes clear that the combination of focusing on goals
and using specific ways of motivational clarification in the client are the key
components of the above coaching frameworks and other coaching ideas. Each
coaching framework supports coachees to achieve goals, either personal or corporate.
The aim of each coaching intervention shown in table 2.4 can also be interpreted in
terms of goals. Whereas psychodynamic-psychotherapeutic coaching focuses on
achieving personal development, especially on deeper levels of the human psyche and
personality, CBC instead aims to identify the mental roots of problems and find
possible solutions. Strength-based coaching seeks to identify and cultivate strengths in
the client and promote them. For GROW model-related coaching, the goal is to
increase awareness and responsibility for the executive's actions. GROW underscores
the willpower necessary to pursue goals, comparable to the above ideas of MT, which
clarify that goal pursuit needs mental energy.
2.4.4. Central working areas and effectiveness of executive coaching
The examination of diverse concepts above has illustrated that the aim to analyse the
potential of MT in executive coaching needs to be grounded on a broad understanding
of central ideas in executive coaching practice. Therefore, the following will discuss
the central working areas and effectiveness, critical coaching skills and coaching
processes of executive coaching.
Research has shown that executive coaching can significantly affect the coachee when
different main drivers are combined, aligned and allocated appropriately. De Haan
(2021) summarises the following outcome variables based on reviewing research with
34
significant empirical evidence shown in table 2.5 with the corresponding mastery
domain.
Table 2.5
Outcome variables across literature developed from De Haan (2021,p.11)
Improved behaviour of executives
Domain of improvement
Better 360-degree feedback ratings from
direct reports
(Tach, 2002)
Relationships
Improved job-related skills, confidence
and knowledge
The individual
Gains in self-efficacy beliefs, goal-
attainment, satisfaction and outcome
expectancies
Improved resilience, workplace well-
being, and career satisfaction
(Grant, Curtayne, Burton, 2009)
Improved health and life satisfaction,
which results in less depression, stress,
burnout, and need for recovery
Grant et al. (2009) found that after coaching, executives were better able to nurture
their working environment and improved their ability to maintain and build cross-
functional relationships. Their improvement in cross-functional relationships in turn,
enhanced their overall workplace wellbeing. Positive outcomes found on the
organisational level were, for example, increased employee satisfaction, higher
productivity, higher leadership effectiveness and the emergence of a coaching culture
in the organisation. Additionally, increased followers' trust, resilience and well-being
could be observed (Ladegard & Gjerde, 2014).
Those outcome variables give an initial indication of the potential benefits of executive
coaching. According to De Haan, Gray, and Bonneywell (2019), the focal point of
effectiveness is the coaching relationship, determining all other effectiveness aspects.
35
Such an insight is not surprising when looking at the definition and the core of
executive coaching, where the one-to-one relationship is the central element of the
intervention.
Different layers can be summarised regarding the impact of interventions on an
individual to achieve effectiveness in coaching. For example, De Haan and Nieß
(2015) provide an overview of the skills a client needs to develop and cultivate to be
effective, as shown in figure 2.1. It includes how these skills relate to values, attitudes,
knowledge, skills and behaviour. Although their overview was developed initially as
a structuring tool for their empirical investigation, it provides a valuable way of
categorising the main ideas of executive coaching outcomes, highlighting the leverage
points of such outcomes.
36
Figure 2.1
Leverage points of coaching and the related skills developed in the intervention
proposed by De Haan and Nieß (2015, p. 43)
37
What is outstanding about the model above is that it addresses the aspects of
resourcefulness, resilience and energy. It includes two elements that are very rare for
a perspective on coaching and which are very proximal to the ideas of MT as put
forward in this thesis. The perspective on energy in executive coaching has only been
addressed by a minority in literature, most from the practitioner side. For instance,
Loehr and Schwartz (2003), who work as executive coaching consultants, have
demonstrated that working with the client on skilful management of energy is the
fundamental principle to achieving performance, health, and happiness. Their central
claims can be summarised in how they see a paradigm shift in energy management,
shown in table 2.6. The authors propose that coaches pay more attention to abilities
that enable the client to deliver maximum capacity and full engagement, displayed in
the table's right column.
Table 2.6
The full engagement paradigm created by Loehr and Schwartz (2003) compared to
older paradigms of high-performance coaching (p. 6)
Old paradigm across literature
New paradigm developed by
Loehr and Schwartz (2003)
Manage time
Manage energy
Avoid stress
Seek stress
Life is a marathon
Life is a series of sprints
Downtime is wasted time
Downtime is productive time
Rewards fuel performance
Purpose fuels performance
Self-discipline rules
Rituals rule
The power of positive thinking
The power of full engagement
38
2.4.5. Overview of the current research that relates executive coaching to
MT
Current research offers two striking aspects that consider the idea of transferring MT
into executive coaching. First, MT and character strengths have already been brought
up in executive coaching literature. One of those ideas explicitly targets MT in
executive coaching; the other refers to bravery and character strengths (Selk, 2009,
2012). Second, prominent and recent research literature identifies a research gap in
goal-related knowledge in executive coaching theory and practice (Grant, 2020;
Mueller & Kotte, 2020).
Among practitioners, the idea of applying MT in executive coaching has already
sparked in the USA. Selk (2012) has developed a program called Executive
Toughness, aiming to increase leadership performance based on MT. Selk claims that
MT is handy and applicable for executives. Executive Toughness is based on the
features of MT and provides exercises to practise. He argues that accountability and
"doing what needs to be done" (p. 148) are vital, and "infrequency" (p. 171) and
"under-accountability" (p. 172) must be overcome. "Increasing focus" (p. 149),
"becoming optimistic" (p. 150), and developing purpose are, in his opinion, the three
top priorities in life. These ideas, combined with "choose[ing] to be great" (p. 160),
can be summarised as Selk’s interpretation of executive coaching MT. He refers to
MT as "the 30-second vision of self-image", which suggests that an executive should
work 30 seconds a day visualising oneself to be great. Other principles are "schedule
it or forget it" (p. 185), "prioritize or perish" (p. 186), and different strategies supplied
for benchmarking the everyday process and scheduling, such as "the success log:
knowing the score every day" (p. 197), which leads to "look[ing] in the mirror and
see[ing] accountability" (p.204). Another aspect that goes back to MT is that Selk
39
suggests controlling emotions, arousal and thereby performance. With regard to a
salesperson, he argues that one should "always say the right thing" (p. 216) and
explains that it is crucial to be prepared to know what to say in any case "by knowing
and practising what you are going to say before you say it!" (p. 217). Thus, he
proposes to practice the most efficient script so often that it becomes natural. For
instance, he suggests that "100 seconds a day keeps failure away" (p. 224), i.e.,
to"complete a 100-second mental workout every day to dramatically improve your
focus and ability to execute consistently" (p. 225).
The motivation of this thesis is that beyond the applied focus of Selk (2012), robust
empirical data are needed to examine whether and how MT is relevant for executive
coaching and if it is truly as promising and positively useful as he argues.
As discussed in the literature, character strengths come close to the essence of MT.
Sosik et al. (2012) define integrity as acting with authenticity and honesty by speaking
the truth and genuinely representing oneself. Furthermore, acting sincerely, being
without pretence, and taking responsibility for one's feelings. Integrity results in
credibility as one acts according to previously stated values. By bravery, the authors
understand a form of courage and not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty or
pain and speaking up for what is right even when there is opposition. The concept of
bravery is interpreted as courage from a behavioural perspective, i.e. to take the lead
in unpopular situations through necessary actions. Moreover, the importance of social
intelligence is highlighted. It is regarded as acting with emotional and personal
intelligence to adapt appropriately to situations while being aware of other people's
motives and feelings.
40
An important aspect of this literature review is the importance of goal pursuit within
executive coaching. However, this process is under-researched under-theorised
(Mueller & Kotte, 2020). The influential author Grant (2020) argues that goals are
central to coaching but that it matters how the coach understands and thinks about
goals. He points to the fact that “goals and goal constructs have been extensively
researched (…), and sophisticated understandings of goals are evident within the
broader psychological literature. This is not the case within the coaching-related
literature” (p. 117). He further illustrates that coaching literature puts forward a
superficial picture of goals. In his opinion, it is popular to simplify the matter using
the acronym SMART (specific, measurable, attractive, realistic, and timeframe bound)
to summarise goals as being specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and bound to
timeframe action planes.
However, the reduction of goal theory to, for instance, SMART goals ignores most of
the critical facts already established by goal research (Aarts & Elliot, 2012; Mueller &
Kotte, 2020). This thesis follows the research suggestion of Mueller and Kotte (2020).
They argue that the relationship between the goal activities of the coachee and the
outcomes of coaching needs intensive research on influencing factors, particularly
contextual factors. “Studies on supporting goal implementation (e.g. setting and
supporting coachee’s development plans) or goal adaptation throughout the coaching
process is far less frequent and thus little is currently known about them empirically”
(Mueller, Kotte, 2020, p. 91).
Goals and particularly goal pursuit, need to be understood by coaching executives. To
overcome the scarcity of goal-related knowledge in executive coaching, Grant (2020)
proposes the following generic model, depicted in figure 2.2, as a first step to
integrating goal theory and knowledge into executive coaching theory and practice.
41
Figure 2.2
A generic model of goal-directed self-regulation proposed by Grant (2020)
This model depicts a series of stages but pays little attention to how exactly these stages
are achieved. This thesis attends to this gap in knowledge by examining the potential
of MT as a feature of coaching to enhance goal pursuit. Recognising the importance
of a clear understanding of goals in relation to MT and executive coaching is essential
because MT is defined as a concept applied to sustain the mental energy to pursue
goals. The purpose of the research is to examine how MT might contribute to executive
coaching to better support goal pursuit processes.
Such research makes sense because there is a growing trend in the importance of
executive coaching. In optimizing executive coaching based on research as intended
42
in this thesis, work organisations could profit from their executives' improved skills
and efficiency.
2.4.6. Growing importance of executive coaching in work organisations
The focus on executives has become a well-established branch in coaching practice
and research in the last two and a half decades.
Kilburg (1996) and Diedrich (1996) were among the first to summarise the concept of
executive coaching in work organisations, its impact, scope and implications.
However, research and practice were very fragmented at the time of their writing. The
disagreement about desired and effective methods as well as practitioners
qualifications was high, and the empirical evidence lagged far behind the influential
authors claims (Baek-Kyoo, 2005). This is not surprising considering the complexity
and diversity of factors that influence executive coaching, as already evident in the
early work of Kilburg (1996). His discussion of aspects such as psychodynamic
conflict, adaption, and the specific processes that he claimed must find their
recognition in executive coaching was outstanding at the time. Simultaneously, it
exerted pressure on subsequent experts to build a foundation of theoretical
understanding backed by research. In contrast to a mass of published practitioner
literature, the rarity of empirical evidence made it even harder to establish executive
coaching as an academic discipline (Feldman & Lankau, 2005). It was almost
impossible to distinguish practitioners’ claims from evidence-based results gained
from academic research for a long time.
Practitioners realised long before scholars what would influence the coaching industry
in the executive branch. Influential publications of practitioners were continuously
developed, integrating increasingly more research, for instance, by Peltier (2010),
43
Kilburg (2000), Bruning (2006) and Kets de Vries (2011). However, it also seems to
be a tradition of the field to mix research foundations with practitioner experience.
Also, the individual interests of the researchers, who also want to promote their
business, are common. For instance, influential authors such as De Haan are ambitious
researchers and likewise practitioners who can be supposed to write to sell their ideas
and consulting services (De Haan, 2019a; De Haan, 2019b; De Haan et al., 2019).
From an overview perspective, the development of executive coaching as a field of
practice and research has found significant clarification of many aspects. At the same
time, executive coaching is still very diverse and fragmented in theory and practice on
the conceptual level (Correia et al., 2016).
According to a study produced by the international coaching federation (ICF, 2020),
the leading global coaching body, a growing need for coaching can be identified. The
study shows that the coaching industry is rapidly growing (ICF, 2020), evident, for
instance, in a 21% increase in the revenues generated by coaching (overall) in the year
2019 compared to 2015. The net worth of the coaching industry is now around 2,849
million US Dollars (ICF, 2020). In addition, there has been a 31% increase in coaching
practitioners from 2015 to 2019, now at an estimated number of 71.000 practitioners
globally (ICF, 2020). One prominent trend is that "there has been a sharp rise among
managers/leaders using coaching skills in the strength of agreement that clients expect
their coaches to be certified/credentialed." (p. 17). Thus, the global trend highlighted
by the ICF report highlights confirms the earlier study of Lai and MacDowall (2014),
who have clarified the need for professional competence in the field of coaching as
detailed above.
There have been exciting investigations into German executive coaching, which have
relevance for this study. These show that the field is beginning to move in a direction
44
where evidence-based research results are desired, even though the complexity of the
subject makes it difficult to set up research (Greif, 2014, 2016; Rauen, 2021). Boening
(2015) found that self-efficacy, a crucial feature of MT, was significantly improved
through coaching both in senior and top managers. He details the coach-coachee
relationship as a voluntary, individual and interactive consulting relationship (p.20)
where reflection about problems and the self are central (Greif, 2008). Thus, Boening
(2015) reveals that the coach-coachee relationship and the corresponding
understanding of roles in Germany fit into the picture of coaching illustrated in the
literature discussed above, where the focus was not put on one particular country.
2.5. Opportunities and Challenges of Applying Concepts from Elite
Endurance Sports Coaching
The following section will consider the sporting field of triathlon and its value for this
study to evaluate the potential contribution of MT, as practised in sports coaching, to
the executive coaching field.
Triathlon is an endurance sport requiring extensive stamina and skill across different
disciplines (Etxebarria, Mujika, & Pyne, 2019). Hence, elite athletes on the world-
class level face demands of high-quality training to achieve their goals and be
competitive (Myburgh, Hansen, Beck, & Boyle, 2017). Furthermore, the extensive
effort needed across different disciplines combined with high-quality and high-
quantity training (Millet, Vleck, & Bentley, 2011) makes triathlon coaching a fair
comparison to executive coaching. Executive coaching is also multidisciplinary and
requires long term stamina and resilience (Sosik et al. 2012).
45
In this thesis, triathlon coaching is defined
as the relationship between a coach and an elite athlete that intends to
achieve the athletes' goals and aim for success in the triathlon context on
a world-class level (Hoffmann, Moeller, Seidel, & Stein, 2017).
Table 2.7 summarises the similarities and differences in the contexts in which
executive coaching and elite triathlon coaching occur.
46
Table 2.7.
Comparing the most prominent aspects between top executives and elite triathletes
Top executives
Elite triathletes
Goal difficulty
Significantly high and above average
Task focus and
goal pursuit
Task and relationship-oriented
behaviour to achieve interpersonal
goals with subordinate managers
which affect the achievement of
corporate goals (Behrendt, Matz, &
Goeritz, 2017)
Primarily focusing behaviour and
goals on training to deliver the
performance necessary to achieve
success on the elite triathlon stage
(Friel & Vance, 2013)
The proximity
between coach
and coachee
The coach is an external and often
very distant facilitator for self-
reflection who is consulted from time
to time
The coach is a very proximal and
usually physically present leader
for the daily life of the athlete
Emergence in
the social
framework
Long term journey towards top performers in both contexts
Long developmental path of skills
across life and hierarchies (Yukl,
2012).
Skills advance when rising across
different managerial hierarchy layers
(Mumford, Campion, & Morgeson,
2007)
Several years-long journeys
towards professional athlete
performance (Woods, 2007)
Superior
achievement
dimension
High achievement in both contexts
The role of
results and
consequences
that determine
achievement
Commonality: Person-situation-interaction theory (Heckhausen,
Heckhausen, 2018) applies.
It can only be defined based on the
previously set aims of the concrete
corporate context (Hiller &
Beauchesne, 2014)
World cup, Olympic ranking and
wins (Moeller, 2012)
The goals of executives vary and can
not be measured as clearly as in
triathlon
The outcome is measured by
optimal performance in
competition. The ultimate desired
result is winning WC, Olympics
or world championships
47
2.5.1. Goal pursuit and achievement
Achieving goals in both environments depends on applying effective behaviour
(Leavy, 2013) based on willful self-regulation (Bauman & Kuhl, 2013; Collins &
Jackson, 2015). Behrendt et al. (2017) simplify executives’ behaviour using two vital
cornerstones. First, executives act task-oriented, fulfilling a variety of tasks between
regular routines and change management. The concrete behaviour enhances
understanding, strengthens motivation and facilitates implementation in their
followers (Gottfredson & Aguinis, 2017; Hinojosa, Davis McCauley, Randolph-Seng,
& Gardner, 2014; Junker & van Dick, 2014; Uhl-Bien, Riggio, Lowe, & Carsten,
2014). Second, relation-oriented behaviours, such as coordination, promote
cooperation and activate resources in a dynamic between internal and external forces
(Yukl, 2012).
The main contrast between triathletes and executives is the range of behaviours.
Executives need to behave in exceptionally varied ways compared to the predictable
and simpler behaviours of triathletes who primarily concentrate on training and
competing (Etxebarria et al., 2019). In other words, the athlete prepares in training
sessions to deliver performance in a competition (Friel & Vance, 2013). The executive
needs a multitude of sophisticated behavioural strategies (Yukl, 2011, 2012, 2013) as
well as the related skills and competencies to fulfil many different roles (Gentry,
Baker, & Leslie, 2008; Mumford et al., 2017; Zaccaro et al., 2018). The overlap is the
significant goal difficulty.
A further area of commonality is the high-performance element researchers and
practitioners attribute to both contexts. Elite triathletes and top executives are
performance-oriented high-achievers in their domain (Feldman & Lankau, 2005;
48
Hambrick & Mason, 1984; Hoffmann et al., 2017; Jones, 2002a). Literature shows that
triathletes MT is high (Sharp & Hodge, 2014; Sleivert & Rowlands, 1996), whereas
there is no research evidence for MT in executives.
Many who reach elite triathlon levels or the boardroom are assumed to have superior
skills (Myburgh et al. 2017). An attitude of making the best better and always looking
for improvement can be seen in executive coaching interventions (Passmore, 2015)
and sports coaching alike (Aoyagi, 2013; Loehr, 1986; Orlick, 1980).
2.5.2. Proximity between coach-coachee
One fundamental difference between triathlon coaching and executive coaching is that
the EC is not present consistently in the coachee's daily life. The triathlon coach (TC)
is an integral, or even the integral part of goal-achievement and the resulting overall
and long-term success of their athletes (Ruiz-Tendero & Salinero Martin, 2012). In
contrast, there are several different solution-focused outcomes of executive coaching,
improving executives in many different areas and ways (Athanasopoulou & Dopson,
2018; Correia et al., 2016; De Haan, 2019; De Haan, Duckworth, Birch, & Jones, 2013;
De Haan & Nieß, 2015; Hall et al., 1999; Kilburg, 1996).
However, an EC is consulted on-demand if an executive needs development in a
specific competence area. The element of sharing everyday life and a close relationship
is missing between the EC and their clients.
2.5.3. Emergence in the social framework
The social framework of what is regarded as achieving goals is significantly different
between the two contexts. Like every sports discipline, triathlon is a socially
constructed environment with sports-specific aims, goals, and circumstances
49
(Luschen, 1980). The values, goals and performance hierarchy depend fundamentally
on the premise that only legitimate methods are used (Coakley, 1996; Coakley, 2011).
Considering this, elite athletes emerge over a long time and usually reach their world-
class status after an extensive journey towards triathlon as professional athletes
(Woods, 2007).
Similarly, executives live and work in the social framework of their company (Yukl,
2012). In a corporate environment, executives usually develop their skills on a long
path across life (Murphy & Johnson, 2011) and climb the corporate ladder over years
of consistent, outstanding performance (Booth, Murray, Overduin, Matthews, &
Furnham, 2016). In addition, skills and competencies increase as individuals emerge
within a company (Mumford et al., 2007). Hence, triathletes and executives develop
over a long time based on the measures and social framework for achievement in their
context. The concrete values of those contexts differ, but the underlying structure
seems comparable, especially when considering the long-term development of a
person within the context and the skills and competencies that need to be acquired.
2.5.4. Results and consequences that determine achievement
The measurement of achievement of goals differs significantly between executive
coaching and triathlon coaching. The athletes’ results in a triathlon competition depend
on the visible individual performance measured in the ranking at the athlete's top
events such as the World Cup or the Olympics (Moeller, 2012). Whereas in triathlon,
winning is the only meta-goal, business results are dependent on many and, at the same
time, often uncontrollable and sometimes random influences (Tuncdogan, Acar, &
Stam, 2017). Hence, top management executives' measures and benchmarking in
business are complex (Hiller & Beauchesne, 2014). Sometimes results cannot be
50
compared regarding different years in the same company and even less across different
companies or businesses (Cavazotte, Moreno, & Hickmann, 2012). For instance, it can
even be the case that different goals shift the appraisal of results so that the same
achievement can be regarded as either a success or a failure depending on the
perspective (Porter, Franklin, Swider, & Yu, 2016). Successful goal achievement
further depends on establishing a long-term functioning relationship between
executives and middle managers (Raes, Heijltjes, Glunk, & Roe, 2011).
The fundamental difference is in the final goal and outcome in the context. Elite
triathletes train to be in shape for competing with others on a world-class level, and
the competition is the final goal (Etxebarria, Mujika, & Pyne, 2019). Executives’ goals
translate into managing and leading their company to achieve diverse business goals
(Booth et al., 2016; DeChurch, Hiller, Murase, Doty, & Salas, 2010; Leitch & Volery,
2017). Hence, an athletes success is visible, and the bests receive high status and can
make their living from sports (Woods, 2007). In contrast, executives achievements
depend on various factors, including the interests of many others and satisfying their
relevant stakeholders (Hambrick, 2007). Moreover, for executives, goal achievement
and success include earning and using wider societal power, moral results and
consequences (Bournois et al., 2010). Consequently, goal achievement in the
executive world is complex, and when analysing the goal pursuit process, one must
acknowledge that many factors influence the process (Clarke, 2013).
This section has detailed the opportunities and challenges of applying concepts from
elite endurance sport (triathlon) coaching to top management executive coaching
contexts.
51
2.6. Research Gap and Research Question
The literature review has identified similarities and differences between elite
endurance sports (triathlon) and top management executive coaching contexts. It has
shown that features from the concept of MT, which are applied in triathlon coaching,
may add value to executive coaching frameworks and practices. While practitioner
literature describes several uses of MT ideas in a practical setting, there is yet no
systematic scholarly appraisal of the transferability of the MT concept from sports
coaching to the executive coaching context. The critical evaluation of the literature
concerning MT and executive coaching presented in this chapter suggests that MT may
have value to executive coaching in relation to goal pursuit. These conclusions form
the basis for the research questions posed in the thesis as well as the research design
and data analysis.
This thesis aims to examine the concept of MT as applied in international elite triathlon
coaching and consider its potential role within top executive coaching in Germany.
The early part of this chapter regards the concept of MT in sports coaching literature
and the potential value of the concept for executive coaching.
52
Therefore, the first research question explores how the concept is understood in both
executive coaching and triathlon coaching. The second research question builds on the
second part of the literature review, which considers issues of goal pursuit in executive
coaching and suggests that MT may be useful for coaching practice to enhance goal
pursuit behaviours.
SRQ1: How is the concept of MT described by international elite triathlon
coaches and German executive coaches?
SRQ2: To what extent and in what ways is MT relevant for German
executive coaching contexts?
53
3. Research Methodology
3.1. Introduction and Objective
This chapter describes the methodology used to collect, analyse, and interpret data
relating to the research questions. It explains the chosen research philosophy and the
rationale for specific methodological choices made in this thesis. Further, it specifies
the process of data collection, handling, and analysis and considers the quality of the
research study.
3.2. Research Philosophy
This research study's aim to examine the concept of MT as applied in international
elite triathlon coaching and consider its potential role within top executive coaching in
Germany, determined the choice of adopting an interpretivist approach. An
interpretivist research paradigm allows examining and understanding the
meaningfulness and usefulness of a social phenomenon by drawing on in-depth
knowledge production (Silverman, 2017). Thus, it enables the exploration and analysis
of the social phenomenon MT in the richness of their context based on descriptions by
executive coaches and triathlon coaches.
Silverman (2017) proposes that polarity between subjective and objective
epistemological approaches is not useful, and interpretivism is accepted and
recognised as the basis for robust research quality (Braun & Clarke, 2013; Gill &
Johnson, 2010). Moreover, it provides the chance to explore phenomena in their
holistic richness and generate a profound understanding of a phenomenon. Therefore,
this thesis follows the leading idea of constructivism, which is “that the world we live
in and our place in it are not simply and evidently ‘there’ for participants. Rather,
54
participants actively construct the world of everyday life and its constituent elements.”
(Holstein & Gubrium, 2008, p. 3). Constructivism fits the aim of this thesis very well,
which is to understand better how triathlon coaches and executive coaches describe
MT. Here, the interest lies in how each coach experiences the potential relevance of
MT in their work with clients.
In this thesis, the epistemological assumption is that the construction of thoughts is
strongly related to the findings because the data is context-sensitive and context-
depended. Second, it is the intention of this thesis to explore perceptions under
specified contextual circumstances and deliberately include the systemic ideas about
how triathlon coaches and executive coaches construct their ideas.
After explaining why constructivism based on an interpretivist philosophical position
fits this thesis best, the following section describes how this methodology is applied in
the context of this study.
3.3. Qualitative Research in the Executive Coaching and Sports
Science Fields
As revealed by the literature review, the transfer of MT from triathlon coaching to
executive coaching is a new way of looking at MT in a research project. Along with
the specific research questions to explore how experts describe MT and to what extent
and how MT might be used in executive coaching contexts, such a new way of thinking
about MT has specific implications for the considerations of a suitable type of data
collection.
Edmondson and McManus (2007) argue that the maturity level of theory in a domain
is a good starting point for choosing the appropriate methodology. In their view, theory
55
in any domain develops continuously from nascent to intermediate and then to mature
theory. At the same time, a nascent theory is typical for emerging areas where only
limited research exists. In contrast, a mature theory reflects a stage where precise
models and a well-developed body of research exist.
Table 3.1 summarises their recommendations for matching the maturity level of a
domain with appropriate methodological decisions.
Table 3.1
Methodological fit between maturity state of theory and research methodology
modified based on Edmondson and McManus (2007, p. 1160)
Nascent theory,
this applies to MT
Intermediate
theory
Mature theory
Type of data
collected
Qualitative
Qualitative and
Quantitative
Quantitative
Most common
data collection
methods
Interview and
observation
Interview,
observation and
survey
Interview and
survey
Constructs and
measures
Typically new
constructs, few
formal measures
Typically one or
more new
constructs or new
measures
Typically relies
heavily on existing
constructs and
measures
The goal of
data analysis
Pattern identification
Preliminary or
exploratory testing
of new
propositions or
new constructs
Statistical
inference, standard
statistical analysis
Data analysis
methods
Thematic content
analysis, coding for
evidence of
constructs
Content analysis,
exploratory
statistics, and
preliminary tests
Standard
multivariate
statistical analyses
Theoretical
contribution
A suggestive theory
is often an invitation
for further research
A provisional
theory, often one
that integrates
previously
separate bodies of
work
A precise theory,
is one that adds
specificity, new
mechanisms, or
new boundaries to
existing theories
56
As demonstrated in the literature review, the status of MT research in triathlon
coaching and executive coaching is nascent. Consequently, drawing on the
recommendations of Edmondson and McManus (2007), this leads to the adoption of
qualitative research methods to identify patterns in the way triathlon coaches and
executive coaches think and how they articulate what they have experienced. Such
patterns can then be used to analyse how triathlon coaches and executive coaches refer
to MT descriptions as well as to indicate the application potential of MT in executive
coaching.
As table 3.1 shows, focusing on qualitative methods has specific implications that
directly fit the goal of exploring MT in the two target domains, triathlon coaching and
executive coaching. The different implications of using a qualitative approach, such as
data collection and analysis method, will be discussed in the next sections.
Using a qualitative approach is also in alignment with the disciplinary domains
touched on in this thesis. This thesis's primary research areas are business and
organisational behaviour, psychology, and sports science. The above reasoning of
Edmondson and McManus (2007) applies to the business and organisational behaviour
domain. As Stainton and Stainton (2017) argue, qualitative methods also align with
psychology principles for sports as well as a business focus. Their overview indicates
that for the two domains, qualitative methods, as they will be used in this thesis, are
very useful to produce results that can help explore these areas. The same applies to
sports sciences, where qualitative methods have a long research tradition and are
common to explore new areas of knowledge (McGannon, Smith, Kendellen, &
Gonsalves, 2019).
57
Having detailed that qualitative methods fit the maturity level of the research domains,
the nature of the present study and the common research practices in the relevant
domains, the next section describes the decisions for the specific data collection
method used.
3.4. Data Collection Method
When choosing the most appropriate data collection method to investigate a transfer
of MT from triathlon coaching to executive coaching, it is crucial to consider which
method has the most advantages compared to its limitations. After careful
consideration of alternative methods and their usefulness in the triathlon coaching and
executive coaching context, interviews were chosen. Interviewing via
videoconferencing was the option that allowed experts to take part in the study despite
their demanding schedules. With the videoconference interview, they could freely
choose a time that suited them best.
Hence, the purpose of the research determined the choice of the data collection
technique. The explorative nature of this thesis is best suited by once in a time
interviews based on questions that guide the interview to the focus of the research aim.
The main advantage of interview topics is that they allow centring the respondents
attention on the aspects relevant to answering the research questions. Hence, the
structure guides the respondent to stay close to the studys aims while it is still open to
any divergent ideas and remarks. Saunders et al. (2011) argue that interviews also
provide the opportunity to probe answers. Paying attention to how respondents use
words and ideas in a particular way is what Saunders et a. (2011) define as adding
significance and depth to the obtained data. Hence, the interviewers attention to
58
inquiring further when relevant and interesting aspects emerge is the ideal technique
to collect meaningful, profound data.
Before it was decided to use interviews, an analysis of alternative methods was
performed. The methods were considered based on the potential usefulness of
producing quality data and the potential feasibility and building a relationship, trust,
and genuine conversation.
For instance, ethnography focuses on observing a specifically planned interaction with
the environment. It centres on the researcher entering the environment of study to
observe it. The resulting data illustrates how the environment operates and the subjects
in the environment behave, often over a prolonged period. The data produced would
be much less helpful as descriptions of MT can hardly be found in such a manner since
the environmental setup is not the main focus of interest in answering the research
questions.
Ethnography would miss the critical point of how MT could be transferred and applied
to executive coaching. Simultaneously, the complex environment and the multitude of
situational parameters in the triathlon coaching and executive coaching environments
would have made it unrealistic to apply ethnography.
Another potential method is using focus groups. Focus groups are planned group
discussions about the envisaged subject (Bell, Bryman, & Harley, 2018). The main
advantage is that these discussions generate rich data that can be focused on the
research question by using an interview guide. Further, focus group data includes
discussions among the participants as additional valuable data, which is not available
when sampling each person alone. Thus, data could be highly condensed as one
discussion would reveal the ideas of several individuals at the same time (Saunders,
59
Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2011). Although this method had consolidated a high
amount of expert knowledge, the feasibility applied for this thesis was questionable.
Focus group discussions are often inconvenient because they need to occur at a specific
time when all participants come together. It would have been unrealistic for experts to
travel to a place or spend time for a focus group discussion. A video conference focus
group was considered an alternative; however, finding a suitable time for more than
one person was unrealistic. Simultaneously, the time available in such a focus group
discussion would not have been enough to let each expert express their thoughts in
detail. Hence, the risk that essential aspects might have been overlooked was much
higher than in using one-moment-in-time one-on-one interviews. Furthermore, biases
such as groupthink and confirmation biases could have led respondents to easily share
each others’ views, especially if a very well-known person was part of the discussion.
Hence, comparing one-on-one interviews with alternative methods shows why
interviews are the most appropriate instrument for this thesis.
The time frame for the study was set to interviewing each respondent once. An
explorative mission can best be achieved with a one-moment-in-time approach.
Longitudinal research would have meant extending the study period over a longer time
to collect data more than once for each individual to identify changes in attitudes due
to different periods. For the aim to explore the transfer of MT from triathlon coaching
to executive coaching, no such comparison between two or more data collection times
is needed. The most important indicator for the ideal fit of a one-moment-in-time
approach is that the specialists knowledge is likely to be stable over a considerable
period. As a result, this method is more effective and produces an equal data quality
than the much more resource-consuming longitudinal method. Moreover, a one-
moment-in-time design optimises the relationship between interviewer and
60
interviewee and can help build rapport by using an effective communication style that
excludes repetition and redundancy (Buchanan, Boddy, & McCalman, 1988).
Following the above deliberation on why the applied collection method is most
efficient and appropriate for the aims of this thesis, the subsequent section will detail
the considerations for the research population, sampling strategy and access to
informants.
3.5. Research Populations, Sampling Strategy and Access to
Informants
Literature analysis shows that MT has its origin in elite sports, where it was initially
recognised for its performance-consistency and performance-excellence features
(Gucciardi et al., 2015; Farnsworth et al., 2019). Top athletes are meant to apply MT
across the multiple challenges of a demanding life and at competitions to deliver
performances on the edge of what is possible (Jones, 2002b). In many ways, elite
sports coaching compares to top executive coaching such that it works with clients
who are at a considerably advanced level in the performance hierarchy. Like elite
athletes, the top executive role involves much work that needs consistency and
performance excellence to endure the multiple tasks of such a role (Yukl, 2012;
Behrendt et al., 2017).
In elite sports, triathlon coaching is in many ways unique and might even have
relevance for executive coaching. For instance, the level of applied MT to achieve
world-class results is extraordinarily high, which is evident in how experts and the
media illustrate elite triathlon (Etxebarria et al., 2019). Therefore, valuable insights
can be expected to emerge from using the elite triathlon coaching high-performance
context as the comparative frame for the aims of this thesis. Overall, the comparison
61
between elite triathlon and top executive coaching offers a unique way to broaden the
horizon of experience about MT and goal pursuit persistence.
3.5.1. Research populations
Becoming aware of the learning opportunities inherent in MT for executive coaching
as detailed in the literature review, the next question is how to exploit such a potential
effectively. Executive coaches work with individuals who have demonstrated
throughout their careers that they are already very good at facing everyday challenges
and mastering a demanding life (Mumford et al., 2007).
Elite sports is one such context that appears to be an ideal analogy to business
executive coaching. Elite sports are an outstanding source for a learning transfer
because they offer the most advanced and achievement-oriented perspective available
for that specific domain, as coaches and athletes who emerge at the top have shown
their excellence in their context (Woods, 2007).
When looking at elite sports, triathlon coaching deals with one of the most training
intensive endurance sports disciplines. Preparing the body for outperforming others at
top events such as world cups or the Olympics is extraordinarily difficult. The
physiological performance needed to compete at the top is incredibly high (Etxebarria
et al., 2019). Athletes who reach the top level in triathlon look back at a long-term
coaching relationship (Ruiz-Tendero & Salinero, 2012). Their physiological strain is
at the threshold of what the human body can tolerate (Moeller, 2012). Elite athletes
spend a considerable amount of their time and energy over many years in a planned
sequence of training, sleep and recovery, which is an ultimately demanding and
challenging lifestyle in which each coaching detail counts (Myburgh et al., 2017).
62
The literature review shows that little is known about whether a transfer of MT to
executive coaching would contribute to effective coaching practice. Therefore, it was
important to include both executive coaches and triathlon coaches in the study
population to address the research questions.
3.5.1.1. Elite triathlon coaching
Elite triathlon coaches have comprehensive knowledge about training, leading and
coaching athletes at the highest level of triathlon performance. According to Lara-
Bercial et al. (2017), these individuals possess significantly advanced coaching skills
and knowledge about the context due to their career paths in elite sports. It can be
assumed that the higher the competence of a coach is, the higher their potential
contribution of sophisticated experience for answering the research question will be.
Thus, the target group for the research population are elite triathlon coaches who work
with the worlds top elite triathletes. In this highest category of triathlon coaching, the
international population possess the best possible knowledge to contribute to
answering the research question.
Given this target groups specification, the initial number of possible respondents who
have coached athletes successful at world-class and Olympic levels is approximately
250 worldwide, based on an assessment of the author in 2017. This estimate takes into
account the number of individuals involved in triathlon coaching who have forged a
career as a national or world-class coach in the last twenty years. Furthermore, those
individuals work on a global stage where the aims of creating top triathlon
performance standardise cultural aspects in producing a triathlon related culture high-
performance culture (Craig & Beedie, 2010; Luschen, 1980).
63
3.5.1.2. Executive coaching
To explore the potential of MT in executive coaching, the research population need to
be aware of their domain's thinking, coaching models, and theories applied in their
daily coaching practice on a holistic level. Based on the criteria of excellent executive
coaching practice demonstrated by Li and Palmer (2014), an analysis conducted by the
researcher revealed that experience, skills, and education in the field are essential.
Three key aspects were identified. These are the competency of coaches established
by managerial expertise and business acumen, coaching experience and psychological
awareness.
Due to the geographic limitation to Germany, approximately 550 persons were
identified as a possible research population. The estimated number takes into account
those coaches who predominantly coach top management and CEO levels of an
organisation. This thesis focuses on the top management level, as the study compares
elite triathlon coaching with top executive coaching.
While MT has already been partially included in the English-speaking executive
coaching practitioner community (Selk, 2009, 2012; Selk & Reed, 2021), this is not
the case for Germany. The limitation of a German research population means that
cultural differences between different countries could be expected (House, Hanges,
Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta, 2004). Culture is a dominant and influential factor
affecting perceptions, thinking, and acting (Schein, 1985). Hence, it is vital to focus
the research population on a culturally homogeneous group to answer the research
questions. Using more than one cultural setting would jeopardise the findings so that
some aspects might be explained by the intention and the culture of the respondent.
64
3.5.2. Sampling strategy
A purposive sampling strategy was adopted to recruit triathlon coaching and executive
coaching samples. Purposive sampling was selected to ensure experts in the respective
fields were invited to share their experiences and opinions. The potential risks of
purposive sampling are that the researcher might select respondents assumed to
confirm a particular way of thinking. The way the sample was determined, as well as
the selection of final samples, were discussed continuously with peers to avoid these
potential risks.
Saunders et al. (2011) set out four distinct options for recruiting respondents when
using a purposive sampling strategy, heterogeneous sampling, homogeneous
sampling, critical case sampling, and case sampling. This thesis uses a homogenous
sampling strategy to interview only coaches who have an advanced level in their
education, expertise and competence.
For the triathlon coaching sample, the inclusion criteria for the minimum experience
in elite triathlon was that the coach had worked with successful national and
international athletes for a minimum of three years.
The aligning of the homogeneous sampling strategy with the circumstances in the
executive coaching context needed careful attention to the selection criteria. In
executive coaching, managerial experience indicates that the person has had the
opportunity to gain leadership experience and business acumen. Such experience can
be specified based on career stages in their curriculum vitae, e.g. leading a team or
unit. Hence, a selection criterion for the chosen EC was that they had at least five years
of leadership experience in their career while or before turning to executive coaching.
Coaching experience is central as it is the core of the study to explore the knowledge
65
of experts. Hence, only coaches who have more than five years of experience in
executive coaching were included in the study. The experience of top-level executives
was identified from the profiles of the coaches, available from their homepage or
professional networks such as LinkedIn or Xing.
As Lai and Palmer (2019) argue, the true purpose of executive coaching ranges on a
continuum between therapy and counselling. They argue that psychological skills are
helpful for a range of interventions. Given the roots of MT in psychology, a general
awareness of the psychological foundations of executive coaching is also crucial for a
respondent in this thesis. Accordingly, only coaches who either use psychology in their
publicity and promotional information or were recommended by well-known
institutions were selected in this study.
3.5.3. Access to informants and obtained data
The above-specified target groups were approached via email invitation. The invitation
consisted of an explanation of the study and the reason why the person was addressed.
It was made clear that the estimated time for the interview was forty-five up to sixty
minutes and that the audio was recorded with the guarantee of anonymity and
confidentiality. Given the importance of a quiet space that allows concentration and
an engaging discussion, all the meetings were held online via video conference. All
respondents joined from their offices or homes.
For each interview, the researcher was careful to put the interviewee at ease and to
reassure them about the confidentiality of the interview process. They were also
provided with the opportunity to ask questions about the study. Simultaneously, any
information the participant gave was summarised briefly and frequently to provide an
appropriate form of respondent validation and ascertain correct understanding by the
66
researcher. Such member checking improves the quality of research and confirms that
the subject under discussion is properly understood. Concurrently, the researcher was
honest about his perceptions about MT when situations arose where clarification was
needed.
Some interviews were carried out in German and some in English, depending on the
preference of the interviewee. All interviews were transcribed by the researcher.
The translation was assured to be accurate by focusing on translating the meaning of
what was said in a straightforward and direct way, including phrases such as "ahm" or
"uh. Although the decision to use a verbatim transcription and translation affected the
clarity and length of citations, it was favoured because it allows a more accurate
display of the connotation of each remark. Further, different speakers were marked
clearly across all transcripts in each section.
The supervisory team of this thesis, consisting of two native German speakers and one
native English speaker, randomly reviewed selected transcripts and translations. They
confirmed that all actions were taken to assure data quality and validity within
processing data, from the raw audio data to the transcript used for coding and
publishing extracts in the findings chapter.
Based on the above, the following final samples were collected.
3.5.3.1. Elite Triathlon coaching
For the triathlon coaching target group, the interviews took place between December
2017 and February 2018.
As table 3.2 shows, eight out of ten coaches are among the best in their field based on
the achievement of their athletes and therefore have celebrity status in the elite
67
triathlon domain. The two coaches (TC7 and TC9) who have not produced world-class
winning achievements with their athletes are, nevertheless, working internationally.
Hence, all coaches have significant elite coaching experience, and the sample is highly
homogeneous. The coaches are labelled TC1 to TC10 to ensure anonymity.
68
Table 3.2
Details of the triathlon coaching sample
Respondent
Highest achievements in their athletes’ wins
(WCR= world cup race, JWCR= Junior world cup race,
WCO= world cup overall, WC= world champion, OL=
Olympic Gold, WR=World Record, IM= Ironman World
Champion or favourite, TK=Olympics gold favourites
Tokyo)
Closest
current
country
affiliation
TC1
WCR, WR, TK, IM
Norway
TC2
WCR, WCO, WC, OL, WR, TK, IM
Germany,
various
TC3
WCR, WCO, WC, OL, WR, TK
Italy,
different
TC4
WCR
Brazil
TC5
JWCR, WCR
Germany
TC6
WCR
Germany,
various
TC7
Operates or has operated on an international level
Germany,
various
TC8
JWCR, WCR, WC, WR, IM
Different
TC9
Operates or has operated on an international level
Germany
TC10
WCR, JWCR
Germany
Table 3.2 indicates the coaches (40%) who might differ from the German reference
culture used in this thesis. Although the interview guide was designed to minimise
cultural inferences, the interviews were analysed with the awareness that culture might
play a role.
3.5.3.2. Executive coaching
The interviews for the executive coaching target group took place between December
2019 and May 2020. Table 3.3 provides the overview of details for coaches labelled
EC1 to EC12 to ensure anonymity.
Four of the coaches are among the most well-known executive coaches in Germany
based on their excellence, function, and position within associations such as the
69
respected German coaching institution the Deutscher Bundesverband Coaching e.V.
One coach had received the leading global coaches award as a sign of top-tier mastery
in the field. Three coaches have produced leading books and publications in the
German and international coaching environment. Three coaches possess a related PhD.
The association between more detailed significant achievements and the coaches are
not further stated here for anonymity reasons. In summary, the sample is highly
homogeneous in fulfilling the requirements of managerial experience, executive
coaching experience and psychological awareness.
70
Table 3.3
Details of the executive coaching sample
Re-
spon-
dent
Position
Location
Managerial
experience
(Years)
Executive
coaching
experience
(Years)
Oper-
ating
environ-
ment
Qualification
EC1
Executive
Coach,
CEO of a
coaching
institute
Bonn
25+
25+
All
inclu-
ding
MNC
Clinical psychology
degree
(German Dipl. Psych.)
EC2
Executive
Coach and
leader of a
coaching
team
Hamburg
8+
19+
Privat,
public,
SME
Diploma in Psychology
(German Dipl. Psych.)
EC3
Executive
Coach and
CEO of a
coaching
institute
Frankfurt
35+
35+
All
inclu-
ding
MNC
Diploma in Psychology
(German Dipl. Psych.),
Lecturer, PhD
EC4
Executive
Coach
Wies-
baden
20+
20+
All
inclu-
ding
MNC
Shown in the self-
description, PhD
EC5
Executive
Coach and
CEO of a
coaching
institute
Munich
30+
30+
All
inclu-
ding
MNC
Psychology-oriented
education such as family
therapy and other
significant concepts
EC6
Executive
Coach
Berlin
25+
5+
Private,
SME
Affiliation to
psychological aspects
revealed in work, long
time HR leader
71
Table 3.3
Details of the executive coaching sample
Re-
spon-
dent
Position
Location
Managerial
experience
(Years)
Executive
coaching
experience
(Years)
Oper-
ating
environ-
ment
Qualification
EC7
Executive
Coach
Duessel-
dorf
25+
10+
Private
, SME
INSEAD Clinical
organisational psychology
diploma
EC8
Executive
Coach
and CEO
of a
coaching
institute
Bremen
20+
20+
All
inclu-
ding
MNC
Diploma in Psychology
(German Dipl. Psych.),
lecturer, PhD
EC9
Executive
Coach
Duessel-
dorf
35+
5+
Private
, SME
Affiliation to psychological
aspects revealed in the
work and long term
corporate and
entrepreneurial experience
EC10
Executive
coach
Wupper-
tal
30+
15+
Private
, SME
Shown in self description
EC11
Executive
coach
Berlin
15+
10+
Private
,
Public,
SME
Recommended from a
leading DBVC-member
institute
EC12
Executive
coach
Hamburg
15+
15+
Private
, SME
Diploma in Psychology
(German Dipl. Psych.)
Important for this study, Gerber (2011) points out that the German language does not
fully attend to the term MT which raises the problem of translating MT into German.
Therefore, in the communication with the respondents, the term MT was used and
highlighted, and each coach was asked for a definition to verify that the understanding
of MT was similar to its meaning in English-speaking countries. None of the
respondents provided a definition that could have indicated understanding MT
differently from international and English-speaking perceptions.
72
3.6. Research Planning and Implementation
As revealed by the literature review, the Gucciardi features have dominant relevance
in MT research in sports coaching. Although basing research on an existing model has
the disadvantage that such a model might narrow the potential range of the
respondents ideas, it allows focusing on planning and implementation. The resulting
concentration on using the Gucciardi features as an anchor was considered valuable
for the reasons discussed in the literature review.
3.6.1. Interview guide development
Saunders et al. (2011) argue that the researcher must be clear about which data is
required and ask questions that direct the respondent towards the focus of the
investigation. The procedure includes the researcher ensuring that the meaning of
questions and answers is understood similarly from both perspectives, the interviewer
and the interviewee, as shown in figure 3.1.
73
Figure 3.1
Stages of designing and implementing a valid interview process based on Saunders et
al. (2012, p. 429)
The above process is vital for the design of interview questions and guidelines. Items
must be carefully considered concerning their potential to evoke the responses needed
to answer the study's research questions. As evident from figure 3.1, the researcher
needs to clarify which data is required and ensure that data collection and data
decoding align with the purpose of the study. At the same time, the interpreted meaning
of each question must be consistent with the perception of the researcher and the
respondent.
The first implemented sub-research question refers to how triathlon coaches and
executive coaches perceive MT in their coaching capacity and experience. Therefore,
the guideline questions focused on the definition and description of MT and
respondents understanding of the seven elements in the Gucciardi features. The
1. The researchers
clarifies the data required
to answer the research
questions
2. The respondent
decodes the question in
the way the researcher
intended
3. The respondent
answers the question
4. The researcher
decodes the answer in
the way the respondent
intended
74
second sub-research question referred to the transferability of ideas from triathlon
coaching to executive coaching and was addressed by asking triathlon coaches how
they perceive a transfer of triathlon MT to executive coaching. Executive coaches were
asked if they or how they had already implemented aspects of MT, such as the MT
features, even if they label those differently. The interview schedule used was
developed after analysing the Gucciardi features and its underlying literature, as shown
in Appendix E.
3.6.2. Research ethics
The research process was approved by the University of Portsmouth ethics committee
(reference number E475).
All respondents received an invitation, together with an information sheet and a
consent form. The information sheet clarified anonymity issues, the voluntary
character of participation and the anticipated length of the interview. Moreover, it
encouraged the individuals to ask questions and contact the researcher or an involved
person whenever questions arose. After the interview, a written consent form was
signed by the respondent. It clarified essential aspects and confirmed anonymity and
confidentiality for both sides.
Further, the entirely voluntary character of the participation was confirmed, including
the anonymised use of data for this thesis. The consent form additionally checked the
agreement to record the interview according to GDPR principles, and that anonymised
citations of verbal accounts might feature in the final thesis.
Participants could also find additional details in an extended information sheet.
75
3.7. Data Analysis and Interpretation
This thesis used thematic analysis for analysing the interviews. Guest, MacQueen, and
Namey (2012) explain that thematic analysis is a method that requires involvement
and interpretation from the researcher while it allows in-depth insights into a matter.
The essence of thematic analysis moves beyond counting exact words or phrases and
focuses on identifying and describing implicit and explicit ideas within the data (Guest,
MacQueen, & Namey, 2012). Thus, this method is appropriate to explore expert
knowledge in a suitable way for this thesis.
Applied thematic analysis was compared to grounded theory and phenomenological
analysis before the decision was made. Grounded theory systematically compares
themes in the data to create codes that are established in the data. Its main strength is
the exhaustive coverage of data and the resulting deep understanding of the ideas in
the data. Phenomenological analysis focuses on the lived experience of phenomena.
Therefore, it would not have been realistic to provide an exhaustive data analysis with
grounded theory nor to explore the lived experience of MT with phenomenological
analysis, as MT is not yet known in executive coaching.
Consequently, thematic analysis was chosen as it identifies key themes in a text as a
basis for generating codes and an aggregated codebook. It allows relating the expert
knowledge to the core structure of the Gucciardi features based on the interview
guideline. Finally, it is the most practically-oriented out of the three methods, which
is best suited to address real-world problems (Guest, MacQueen, & Namey, 2012).
The analysis was based on the six-step process recommended by Stainton and Stainton
(2017), which is described in the findings chapter.
76
Some illustrative extracts from the transcripts are shown in appendix A. The coding
developed for the triathlon coaches is shown in figure 3.2.
Figure 3.2
The occurrence of codes for the triathlon coaching sample across the respondents
indicated the saturation of each code
A continuous analysis process was used in which each interview was analysed after it
was finished. As clarified in section 3.8.3., the concept of saturation was used to
determine the endpoint of data collection. Saturation, meaning the point at which one
77
additional sample does not provide sufficient new insights, is argued to be an
advantageous method of deciding when enough data is collected to make the sample
robust (Guest, Bunce, & Johnson, 2006). Saturation has also been criticised because it
is always theoretical. Even after a first significant saturation point, additional
information or new insights could emerge in any new sample (Kuada, 2012). However,
Saunders and Townsend (2016) resolved the debate about saturation by pointing out
the stance taken in this thesis. They argue that if saturation is (theoretically) not
reached, this only means that the phenomenon has yet to be fully explored, but it does
not mean that the findings are invalid. Hence, saturation is an additional criterion to
ensure an appropriate endpoint for data collection as applied in this thesis. The
approach recognises both the usefulness of reaching saturation while allowing for the
fact that some aspects might be missed beyond the saturation achieved, which would
not, however, make the study less credible.
The code saturation for the data set with triathlon coaches was achieved with 32 codes
with six data sets, as shown in figure 3.3.
78
Figure 3.3
The code saturation for the triathlon coaching sample happened after six interviews
and produced a total number of 32 codes
Given the correspondence of the coding with the Gucciardi features, it was carefully
considered if perceived saturation was affected by its use. It could be argued that the
structure might affect the interpretation, the coding and the attribution of meaning to
the codes by the researcher. Therefore, the coding was continued for all ten interviews.
It was carefully considered if there were negative cases or inconsistencies in the data.
Also, the complexity level of the coding structure was challenged before it was
accepted. The extracts of the codes shown in appendix B further detail the coding
structure.
An experienced triathlon coach evaluated the coding structure. She agreed that the
applied scheme was reasonable and that no significantly different form of coding
would have made sense.
The coding developed for the executive coaches is shown in figure 3.4.
79
Figure 3.4
The occurrence of codes for the executive coaching sample across the respondents
indicated the saturation of each code
80
Similar to the procedure with the triathlon coaching data, the concept of saturation was
applied to determine the endpoint of data collection. Again, to minimise the potential
effect of using the Gucciardi features with saturation after eight interviews with 51
codes, four more were collected to make the study maximally robust, as figure 3.5
illustrates.
Figure 3.5
The code saturation for the executive coaching sample happened after eight interviews
and produced a total number of 51 codes
No correspondence between the coding and the Gucciardi features was found.
Therefore, the data is not related to the features of the executive coaching population.
The saturation point marks the point where no significant and relevant additional
information could be found in the data from consecutive interviews. Similarly to the
data from triathlon coaching, the executive coaching sample was carefully considered
and examined to see if there were any negative cases or inconsistencies in the data.
Also, the complexity level of the coding structure was challenged before it was
accepted. The extracts of the codes shown in Appendix B detail the coding structure.
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An experienced executive coach evaluated the coding structure. He agreed that the
applied scheme was reasonable and that no significantly different form of coding
would have made sense. Hence, it is another indication that an appropriate structure
was applied.
Having detailed how the research was planned and implemented, the next section
describes the steps taken to produce high research quality.
3.8. Research Quality
Anderson (2017, p. 130) proposes six quality criteria that determine the
methodological rigour and the resulting research quality in qualitative research studies.
Those criteria are reflexivity, methodological coherence, sampling and data access
issues, member checking of data collected, discussion of transferability, and ethical
issues. The first three are discussed below, member checking will be indicated
throughout the thesis, and ethical issues were already discussed above. Transferability
and further limitations of the study are detailed in the discussion chapter below.
3.8.1. Reflexivity
Levitt et al. (2018) argue that a researcher's description is helpful to indicate how their
understanding might have influenced the study results. The researcher of this thesis is
located in Germany and has gained experience in the triathlon coaching and executive
coaching environment while being an entrepreneur in German SMEs for many years.
He has studied psychology, business administration and general management and
holds the advanced triathlon coaching A licence from the German triathlon federation.
Given the researcher's practical and theoretical background knowledge, it can be
expected that the proper understanding of underlying concepts before, during and after
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the research process allows for providing a balanced perspective and realistic
assessment both in theory and practice. Such a pragmatic view is also reinforced in
consideration of potential biases (Kahneman, Slovic, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982), which
psychologists are trained to recognise. Whereas the merger of psychology,
organisational behaviour and sports knowledge has many advantages, there could be a
danger of becoming overconfident in the respective fields. To prevent this, the
researcher has been in regular and frequent discussions with colleagues. Moreover,
avoiding overconfidence and other effects that may occur when becoming very
familiar with a specific domain were constantly acknowledged and monitored.
As detailed in the section about sampling strategy and access to respondents, the
researcher selected and approached each respondent personally. All contacts were
either established through the researcher's network or via cold acquisition in the form
of emailing potential respondents. In both cases, no incentives or compensation were
offered. In all cases, the communication before the interview consciously avoided
stimulating ideas in the respondents. The minimum of information about MT was
given before the interview to ensure that the ideas were initially based on the
respondent's perceptions.
Furthermore, the specific concepts of MT before the interview were not talked about
to make sure no biases were introduced. The awareness and mindfulness of the
researcher were always essential components in the analysis process. The aspect of
reflexivity will be further detailed in the conclusion and the professional development
sections.
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3.8.2. Methodological coherence
The methodological coherence of this study is based on the appropriate selection and
application of research methods for the exploration of MT in triathlon coaching and
executive coaching.
Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill (2011) define reliability as “the extent to which data
collection technique or techniques will yield consistent findings, similar observations
would be made, or conclusions reached by other researchers or there is transparency
in how sense was made from the raw data.” (p. 680) The research design reliability is
best revealed in the fact that each conclusion in this thesis is drawn based on a remark
of one of the interviewed coaches revealed in the raw data. Reliability for this
qualitative thesis means that all potential procedures to ensure quality were
implemented deliberately and with close attention to detail (Silverman, 2017). This is
illustrated by the diligence of applying the suggestions of Anderson (2017) and in the
awareness that reliability in qualitative research differs significantly from reliability in
quantitative research, as discussed above.
Validity is the extent to which the data collection method accurately reveals what was
sought from the data and to which extent research findings are truthful (Saunders et
al., 2011). Combining the results from the literature review and the interview guideline
based on this model allows a concise and straightforward way to collect relevant and
valid data. The precision of the fit regarding the theoretical foundation, research gap,
research questions and the resulting interview data was fully confirmed in the data
collection phase. It became evident that the developed interview guideline fulfilled its
aim to guide the coaches towards the information needed to answer the research
questions of this thesis. Hence, the data based on the guided interviews uncovered
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exactly those MT descriptions and further information needed to analyse the transfer
potential to executive coaching. Therefore, the methodology of this thesis has achieved
high validity because it produced the data that it was meant to produce.
3.8.3. Sampling and data access
There is an ongoing debate about the representativeness of qualitative interview
sample sizes (Silverman, 2017). Small sample sizes are often considered problematic,
especially for persons who adopt a positivistic stance (Kuada, 2012). Therefore,
selecting and justifying a specific sample size needs to consider different aspects,
including potential feasibility in a doctoral thesis (Fulton, Kuit, Sanders, & Smith,
2012).
Hennink, Kaiser, and Marconi (2017) suggest that the following parameters are useful
for choosing an appropriate sample size:
purpose of the study
population
sampling strategy
data quality
type of codes
codebook
saturation goal and focus
Smaller samples are needed when the sample is intended to capture themes based on a
homogeneous population, like in this thesis. In such a case, themes emerge from thick
description, which is based on an interview guide. The resulting codes, in this case,
relate directly to previously conceptualised ideas, such as the Gucciardi features
developed in the literature review. The result is a stable codebook and the striving for
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core code saturation and code identification. The focus, on describing and evaluating
MT, in a homogeneous sampling strategy allows the emergence of a much clearer
picture of the codes, their meaning and possible data saturation than in other, more
generic cases. Hence, code saturation is apparent in the occurrence of codes, as shown
in figures 3.3 on and 3.5.
In line with Francis et al. (2020), who argue that an initial sample size of ten is often a
good starting point for operationalising data saturation in theory-based interview
studies, the initial aim for this thesis was set on ten interviews for each data set.
Moreover, the recommendations of Buchanan et al. (2014) were considered and
implemented carefully to gain cognitive access to the respondents, as detailed above.
This is another essential aspect of producing thick descriptions representing the
respondents' true intentions and thoughts. Cognitive access means engaging in a
sincere conversation with each respondent in which the person feels comfortable
(Buchanan et al., 2014) to talk about the genuine aspects of MT needed for optimal
data quality.
3.9. Summary
This chapter has clarified the decisions made to optimise the fit between the theory
from the literature review, the research gap and the methodology used to collect data.
An interpretative perspective is the most appropriate research paradigm for the aims
of this thesis based on the nascent state of research in the MT field. Using interviews
allows exploring the descriptions of elite triathlon coaches and executive coaches and
a detailed view of their perceptions about MT. Research quality, validity and rigour
were achieved by a plausible and well-designed research process.
The following chapter will illustrate the findings from the interviews.
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4. Findings
The following chapter summarises the findings of the empirical investigation of this
thesis. It shows the findings derived from ten interviews with elite triathlon coaches
and twelve interviews with executive coaches. The chapter is structured in two parts.
While the first describes the results from triathlon coaching, the second turns to the
executive coaching context.
4.1. Findings from the Elite Triathlon Coaching Data
The analysis of the interviews with elite triathlon coaches was conducted in a six-step
process as recommended by Stainton and Stainton (2017). After the familiarisation
and coding, the development of themes was performed. The main contributions were
summarised in a table after listening to the audio recordings multiple times and reading
the transcripts. The aim was to identify salient patterning and clusters in the data. In
such a way, it was possible to identify themes and subthemes. Those themes were then
revised and evaluated until an ideal representation of the data could be ensured.
Afterwards, the report below was produced. The Gucciardi features were used to
structure the interview guideline before the interview. However, the data represents a
holistic picture of the triathlon coaching context that goes beyond the framework
extensively. Appendix A shows detailed codes, the corresponding codebook, and a
detailed extract of the triathlon coaching interview transcripts.
4.1.1. MT as a feature of the elite triathlon environment
There is consensus among triathlon coaches that athletes need MT to make it to the
elite level in triathlon. This is evident in three aspects of the coaches responses.
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The respondents statements reveal that training and competition are the main areas
that constitute a triathletes life. MT and the strength to "withstand the demands in
training and competition" (TC4) are fundamentally related to success. TC2 specifies
that he needs to make "a hundred per cent sure that the athlete is in the right
environment. Otherwise, it is quite difficult to build up performance". Hence, the
potential of the athlete is significantly determined by the environment. The coach
understands the environment as the place where the athlete usually trains and the
opportunities this provides, instead of the broader triathlon environment this thesis
usually refers to. This contrasts with the literature review perspective, where the
environment is viewed more generally and also compared to the term context. For
training, the ability to "deal with being fatigued" (TC3) and to deal with "the everyday
grind" (TC3) is one of the most determining aspects of triathlon life. Simultaneously,
the frequent competitions demand athletes to "bear the best out of themselves on any
given day" (TC3), even if they have a bad day or if problems occur. It means that
athletes can still get excellent performance even in the face of obstacles.
In such an environment where the athletes need to train at a high quality and volumes
over an extensive period of many years, MT is vital. Therefore, athletes must have "the
discipline to do what is necessary" (TC3) because "without buoyancy, there will only
be a few who get up in the morning at six to go to the swimming pool and then running
in the noon and running or cycling in the afternoon" (TC9). Simultaneously, to do what
is physiologically necessary, the athlete must optimise rest and recovery before and
after training (TC3, TC5). Triathlon coaches describe excellent athletes as knowing
every detail about their recovery. This could be, for instance, specifics such as sleeping
(TC8) " in a good hotel" (TC5). Across the interviews, recovery and rest are decisive
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because the better the recovery after the training, the sooner the next training can be
performed.
The environment is a decisive part of high-performance and success, which builds on
a substantial physiological preparation. Therefore, coaches deliberately optimise all
the small pieces and ingredients that make an environment ideal for the athlete. When
TC1 says, "we are doing it better than everyone else in the world", he highlights that
the goal to win the Olympics or world championships does allow for any compromise.
Instead, it is an all-in strategy where the environment plays the most significant role
because it determines training opportunities and the surrounding circumstances. It is
more than a simple sign of respect that "the athlete must feel comfortable in [the
environment]" (TC4). Instead, each element of "the environment fitted" (TC6) for the
athletes who were successful in the past. "The one who deploys it [all resources and
the environment] most efficiently" (TC4) is potentially most successful.
At the same time, the risk of an all-in strategy for adolescents and young adults is high
because "the fact is that 95% of the athletes have to work afterwards [their career]"
(TC5). Professional triathlon is astonishingly poorly paid compared to many other
sports, which means that even the best struggle to save money for the future even when
they are successful (see also TC5). If they fail, they have lost precious time to build up
a significant professional education and start far behind in the competition for an
appropriate position (e.g. TC 10). Hence, triathlon high-performance is based on the
willingness to invest in everything and optimise every detail that enables athletes to
pursue their ambitious goals between training and competing.
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4.1.2. Goal orientation
Goal orientation was the most prominent aspect that emerged as an overarching theme
across the interviews in relation to MT. The data shows this in the following. First,
triathlon centres on long-term planning and organising training (e.g. TC 8). Therefore,
persistence to put high volumes of training into practice means being oriented toward
a goal and achievement (e.g. TC 3). Second, the ability to do the necessary work
determines the outcome (e.g. TC 3). It is about pursuing the goal despite all obstacles,
hindrances, and potential costs. An absolute desire to win is needed (e.g. TC 1). Third,
most successful athletes seem to be able to orient everything in their actions towards
triathlon and bear the sacrifice (e.g. TC 7).
Long-term planning and organising training towards a goal are substantial in their
consequences. For TC8, this is the basis of achievements in professional life, and he
defines his successful world championship-winning athletes as follows: "these athletes
are extremely goal-conscious (...), they can define goals (...), and they can follow the
path to make the goals real." Hence, as "structure is an essential aspect" (TC5) in
triathlon, "in the end, it is always about goals" (TC10). Moreover, it seems that
successful athletes have the best ability to pursue their plan and to be "very well
organised (...) towards something that you [they] want" (TC4), "they do not let
anything stop them from pursuing their plan; they "keep the plan, no matter what others
say" (TC2).
To continue doing whatever is necessary leads to the revelation that MT for most
successful athletes to carry on with the work over the years. The challenge is to sustain
this process, no matter what happens: "A lot of athletes, they sort of reach a point
where they (...) do not have the MT to continue with that process, they can do it for
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two weeks, three weeks at a time, but then they, (...) struggle to continue, (...) they
become very inconsistent in their preparation" (TC3). As triathlon requires elite
athletes to orient their whole life towards being successful, the most challenging part
is "commitment, attitude every day, (...) discipline every day, (...) all that training
involves" (TC3). For some athletes it is also the case that they want to do it, but "on a
really fundamental basic level they are not able to make themselves do the work that
is necessary for (...) world-class" (TC3). Hence, MT seems to play a significant role in
how to translate the goal orientation into action: "if it[, the action,] does not happen, it
is not efficient. So, it's not mentally tough" (TC4). Moreover, coaches argue that MT
is revealed in delivering from "step one, you can say you want something (…); step
two is what you are prepared to do" (TC3). Further, while there might be " plenty of
reasons why not to do it, [the athlete must ] just do it" (TC6). In summary, the athlete
increases their chance of world-class success only when goal orientation is turned into
practice, withstanding every temptation to try short-cuts.
The reality in professiona triathlon according to TC3 is that "every decision they[, the
athletes,] make has a connect to being successful, (…) it is like the 24/7 mentality,
everything that we do has an impact on performance, recovery, preparation, and
everything should be oriented in that direction." TC3 also acknowledges that
successful athletes " become unbalanced (...), too far in this direction [of applying a
strict 24/7 mentality], but on the other hand, you could argue that this is what it takes
to be successful and what it takes to be great; now [that] we are talking about the
world's top performers in any discipline, I do not think you are describing these people
as well balanced, well-connected individuals." In the perception of TC3 an athlete who
wants to be successful on the highest level must make this success their top priority in
their life: "the ones that are (...) the most successful, are the ones, it is not that they do
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not have those reasons or those challenges, that adversity, but they orient their life (...)
in order to be successful". On the other hand, for those who are not able to commit
well enough, "for many athletes, its actually the price [of] being successful is higher
than they will pay" (TC3). Hence, the most successful athletes seem to be best in
keeping focused on their goal despite challenges: "an athlete that has the best skills
will absorb a bad performance and get back to work in a shorter timeframe than an
athlete who is less skilled or less mentally tough." (TC3). Hence, MT and goal
orientation need to endure over a long time and are necessary to keep up an extreme
focus. Whereas it seems that some athletes like triathlon so much that they enjoy such
an extreme lifestyle, TC6 warns that there are significant sacrifices to be made.
In summary, orienting life towards being a successful elite athlete needs deep
involvement and a long-term willingness to live a tough life, which is entirely oriented
towards short, medium and long term goals.
4.1.3. Factors that drive motivational perseverance
Different factors emerge, comparable to MT, that drive motivational perseverance.
These relate to the necessity to orient every decision in daily life to be successful, as
demonstrated above. Furthermore, they extend the idea of MT and add richness to the
holistic picture of motivational perseverance. The aspects coaches view as the most
essential for elite athletes are diligence, confidence, patience, focus, and pragmatism.
All those factors are needed for mentally shifting boundaries to the limit in preparation
and competition.
Diligence is essential to do the grind necessary for elite triathlon achievements: "here
are enormous differences between people who like to do sports and there are quite
many who like to do performance sports and (...) do that quite well, but then, there are
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only a very, very few who do the very last step into high-performance sports with all
that this means" (TC5). Since the demand for extensive and hard training increases
toward world-class performance, casual athletes might be limited as they must train to
fulfil their plan. Too many training sessions may soon be more work than fun.
To gain excellence, athletes need confidence in their abilities. This means "to keep the
right mindset even in times when you fail, or you have no success" (TC2); "there are
bad days, but there are a few that are not able to cope with that" (TC8). It is inevitable
that things do not always go as planned and that athletes do not win as often as they
wish. Despite that, it is vital to recovering fast from such setbacks. Confidence also
means to believe in the ability to be ready for winning at the top level: "the optimal
preparation will never happen because of the constraints. Therefore, you need to be
confident and make the best of what is possible" (TC10). In summary, confidence leads
to an optimistic attitude that allows athletes to regard setbacks as normal and positively
influences everything they can do to prepare as well as possible.
As detailed above, "intermediate success is not possible, [and] it is a long-term journey
that requires a lot of toughness and discipline to drive yourself " (TC3). Therefore,
athletes need the patience to work hard: "the best athletes have a kind of patience about
their training, that takes the pressure off them in the short term" (TC3). This is a
fundamental aspect because the belief in their ability and the patience to go step by
step are vital to staying healthy. The risk to build the body up too fast and getting
injured is extraordinarily high: "there is no [single] one training session that makes
world champions (...), but there are many training sessions in one day that can break a
champion" (TC3). What counts is to build up performance step by step and allow the
process to take the time it needs.
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The elite athlete needs to focus entirely on fulfilling the training. Such a focus is also
described by keeping it simple and strictly concentrating on the aspects that matter.
Often, it is problematic when athletes let "a lot of other noise and stress come into their
minds to disturb them all the time" (TC1). The opposite is necessary: focus, calmness,
a clear head and "cleverness to see in advance what the race will need" (TC2). An
athlete needs to regulate emotion and attention and "block out everything unimportant"
(TC5). Such emotional control means "pragmatically moving ahead" (TC7) and being
entirely concentrated on what needs to be done at a particular moment.
In summary, the shifting of boundaries in preparation and competition is vital for
athletes who want to fight for the win at a world-class level. At the same time, the
above shows that relatively simple and easily detectable virtues practised at the
extreme make the best athletes. It comes down to a pragmatic, diligent, confident,
patient and focused attitude that makes world champions. It is not a fancy or glamorous
thing. When applying a very narrow viewpoint, this might even mean that the concept
of MT is too extravagant to describe the basics that determine elite triathlon success
most significantly. Instead, it is the day-to-day hard work, and even for the Olympics,
it is about "reproducing what they[, the athletes,] did before under more stressful
conditions" (TC3). This includes that "in preparation for the race you ask (…) what
can happen in the competition so that you do this mental training, that you prepare for
exactly the things that can happen" (TC8). Hence, goal orientation and the motivation
to do the basics on an extremely high level prepare athletes for high performance.
4.1.4. Appropriate positivity
The interviews with triathlon coaches reveal that a better way to conceptualise a
positive attitude might be to use the term appropriate positivity. Positive energy is a
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valuable source, but positive thinking, such as applying an optimistic mindset despite
severe challenges or mental discomfort, seems to be a risk.
TC10 recognises that "good athletes are very good at looking at the bright side and
making the best of it." Moreover, they focus on the positive and do not waste time
thinking about negative things that could potentially happen. Positive energy can also
be interpreted as "to extract the best out of the worst." (TC4). Even if excellent athletes
might be good at sustaining positive energy, they are also influenced by their previous
results: "when you know that you are in good shape, then maybe you can tolerate the
pain more because of that" (TC8). Moreover, confidence and positive thinking are
usually interconnected when athletes have already achieved excellent results: "then
you go into the race with less pressure and on the other hand with great self-confidence,
but you also bring along the positive mindset with you, and you know the season goes
well" (TC8).
The data suggests that positive energy must not be confused with positive thinking.
TC9 argues that "it is overdone to demand an optimistic style". In his opinion, general
optimism is unrealistic because weaknesses and doubts need to be appropriately
addressed. These must be considered and managed carefully because otherwise, they
can seriously harm an athlete.
There seems to be an appropriate positivity in top athletes that is deeply based on
realistic situational analysis instead of an on the surface optimistic mindset, which
might cause overlooking the roots of issues due to the one-dimensional focus on the
positive. Instead, such appropriate positivity is still strong enough to give athletes a
comfortable, productive feeling. This could not be more critical than in triathlon,
where it is crucial to be realistic and not driven by enthusiasm when training too hard
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could ruin the career. TC3 addresses this aspect very precisely: "often (...) it is not that
things are going bad and overcoming that, no it is the opposite, its things are too good,
and they push too hard and then lack a bit to control themselves" (TC3). Hence, it is
vital to "learn to handle those things like anxiety, doubt, (...) insecurity" (TC9). These
feelings must be accepted as normal and manageable to reduce or avoid the risk of
superficial positive thinking. Optimism that ignores more substantial problems under
the surface is therefore dangerous. In contrast, appropriate positivity stands for a
balanced and integrated perspective on using positive energy while maintaining a
realistic and honest perspective on the negative aspects of triathlon life.
The triathlon coaches’ perspective can be summarised as highlighting that appropriate
positivity is understood as pushing the limits distinctly and consistently to the
threshold the athlete’s body can tolerate but never beyond.
4.1.5. The role of the coach in sustaining and enhancing MT
In elite sports, the coach is the central person in the daily life of an athlete and is
responsible for developing the athlete physically and mentally. Moreover, the coach
decides what is important and unimportant and is responsible for the atmosphere
within the training group as well as interventions to improve MT. Hence, the coach is
significantly determining the life of an elite triathlete and provides leadership for
primarily adolescent and young athletes. However, leadership in this context differs
considerably from how leadership is understood in business contexts, where more of
a guiding relationship is expected.
Therefore, in the elite sports context, the coach is the decisive factor in developing an
athlete, and the coach's competence might be a significant criterion for elite success:
"the coach is the most important person (...) cultivating a tough athlete" (TC4). This is
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because the coach decides what is essential and must be done and educates the athletes
to live their life in a way that is compatible with elite triathlon success: "the ability to
distinguish between to know what's important and what's not, I think is actually again
a gross success factor" (TC3). Therefore, coaches must clarify to the athlete that
consistency is needed, even when it is hard to sustain training, for instance, during the
holidays or Christmas (TC5).
At the same time, coaches need to create a demanding but warm atmosphere for their
athletes and among athletes (TC2). Therefore, it is crucial to listen to the athletes
carefully and understand their viewpoints to react accordingly (TC2). To establish such
an atmosphere, the coaches need to be clear about their own emotions and not carry
their problems into the work with athletes (TC2). Moreover, the coach must fill up
their own energy to perform the demanding job well (TC2).
Building on the warm and demanding atmosphere, the coach organises training to
build the athlete physically and mentally. Athletes who come to the elite class, they
have to be guided, that doesn't come from one day to another" (TC4). Hence, young
athletes who have potential need to be built up with caution and patience, whereas
experienced athletes need to get the right amount of support accompanied by solid
demand that they can continuously develop. Coaches "train with them under the most
difficult conditions; we also try, when it is extremely windy, to train on the highway,
the same when it is extremely hot" (TC8). Thus, the athlete adapts to extreme
conditions, and TC8 even claims, "I try to teach the guys that they indeed are looking
forward to it. That they not only think the others suffer more but that they are delighted
about it." He continues, "I try to build them up mentally, that in the cold, they look
forward to very, very bad weather, but that they also look forward to the heat and
extremely much wind." Hence, the development of the athlete depends on providing
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experiences tough enough to get better and, at the same time, on an intense warm
relationship between coach and athlete. Coaches state that they also work together with
psychologists to improve the positive thinking of athletes or emotion regulation. For
instance, "visualisation and also relaxation techniques, because these are simple forms
that can be applied easily" (TC10). Elite triathlon coaching is teamwork in that coaches
always search for methods and expert knowledge that can help make the athlete
mentally and physically stronger.
In summary, the data suggests <