South African Journal for Research in Sport, Physical Education and Recreation

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Changing relationships with significant others: Reflections of National and International Level Student-Athletes

L Höll, C Burnett


The paper explores the nuanced articulation of social dynamics in relationships between elite athletes and their significant others. It captures that these relationships changes over time. A case study was undertaken at the University of Johannesburg to determine the roles of significant others at various phases of elite athletes’ sporting careers. A retrospective research perspective was pursued, which yielded insightful data, reflecting on various socialisation phases. Symbolic interactionism provides the framework for analysing the building of relationships between elite athletes and their significant others. In-depth interviews were conducted with elite throwers and decathlon athletes. The sample included current (n=15) and retired (n=5) student-athletes, parents (n=5), coaches (n=2) and managers (n=10) from the University of Johannesburg (UJ Sport). A multi-method approach ensured triangulation and comprehensive data was obtained from case studies. The results reveal that a priority shift occurs in athletes’ relationships over time. Support from parents demonstrates an engendered interaction and focus in addition to assisting in the provision of support and material resources. In one technical event, the athlete’s father became the coach, and a similar transition from teacher-coach to professional-coach occurred during high school years revealing deepening commitment. The increased reliance on and solidarity with peer athletes increased after socialisation.

Key words: Socialisation; Significant others; Social agents; Elite athlete; Student-athlete.

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