Thoughts on Narrative Analysis in Sport Studies

As part of my work as a PhD student last year I participated in a course on qualitative methods in social science. The course was aimed at social sciences in general, and included PhD students from fields such as anthropology, sociology, political science. At this particular course I was the only one with a background in sport science. I have always found that attending conferences and courses with fellow sport scientists consistently has helped me develop myself as a researcher. Yet, venturing outside of my own field of study and attending courses (or conferences) like this one, with groups of researchers from an even broader scope of academic fields forces me to think and reflect on my own work in a different way.

A large part of this particular doctoral course was qualitative analysis of text material outside of the more traditional analysis of transcribed interviews. For instance, it included lectures on narrative analysis of patient journals in public mental health care systems and analyzing political documents and statements in search of underlying power relations. The course had a  ‘final exam’ of sorts, which required me to write a paper utilizing one of the methods of research that had been discussed during the lectures. Dwelling on my own personal experiences with studies in sport science and sport sociology, I realized I had encountered few empirical studies of narrative analyses in sport. The exception here being sport history articles. Hence, I made it a point to write my paper as narrative analysis of a sport topic. In this blogpost, I wish to share some of my experiences with using narrative analysis as a research method in sport studies.

When I sat down to start my paper, firstly I thought about where I should look for narrative material to analyze. What would be my object of analysis? Where would I find narrative material relevant to sport? Narrative material exists in a number of different types of media, such as transcribed interviews, articles, documents, books and other texts, but also in movies, documentaries, photos and posters. Narrative material can either be produced by the researcher herself or it can be obtained from other sources (Andrews, 2014). Perhaps the most common type of narrative material in social sciences are spoken narratives (Squire et al., 2014). Spoken narratives are often obtained via interviews with corresponding transcripts and recordings. However, spoken narratives are also available in other forms, such as autobiographical books. Reflecting on these thoughts on what narrative material is and where it can be found, as described in “What is narrative research?” by Squire et. al. (2014), I thought about all the sports documentaries I had seen over the years, and about all the biographies of famous athletes and coaches that I had read. I thought about all the stories these films and texts contained, and about how reading them and seeing them had helped me understand the lives of people involved in sport in a broader and more diverse way. I decided to go back to two sport biographies I had read earlier, as well as a documentary, and try to re-read and re-watch them as narrative material for my paper.

Personally, I’ve always been interested in how sports often are thought of as ‘gendered’, linked either to masculinity or femininity. In general, sport is often considered to be a masculine area of social life, and few sports are more commonly associated with traditional norms of masculinity than ice hockey. Along with boxing, ice hockey tops ESPN’s ranking of the “toughest sports in the world”. Ice hockey is played with a great level of intensity and body contact. This is true for both the women’s and the men’s game. However, men’s ice hockey has been particularly subjected to criticism for the excessive violence in the game (Juhn, Broilson, Duffey,, 2002). With this in mind, I chose to go back and analyse two biographies of former National Hockey Leauge (NHL) players and a hockey documentary as my narrative material. My aim was to develop an understanding of what these books and film could tell me about not only the lives of the athletes, but also what stories of masculinity and violence in hockey they contained.  I settled on the books “Tough Guy – My Life on the Edge” by Bob Probert and K. McLellan Day (2010) and “Boy on Ice – The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard” by John Branch (2014), as well as the NHL documentary “The Last Gladiators” (2010) as my narrative material.


VANCOUVER, BC. MARCH 11, 1987 -- Vancouver Canucks Michel Petit and Detroit Red Wings Bob Probert exchange punches during NHL action at the Pacific Coliseum filed March 11, 1987. (Steve Bosch/Vancouver Sun) [PNG Merlin Archive]

VANCOUVER, BC. MARCH 11, 1987 — Vancouver Canucks Michel Petit and Detroit Red Wings Bob Probert exchange punches during NHL action at the Pacific Coliseum filed March 11, 1987. (Steve Bosch/Vancouver Sun) [PNG Merlin Archive]


Having selected my objects of analysis and my material, I looked into the different ways in which narrative researchers approach narrative analysis. For instance, narrative researchers might be concerned with the truth of stories (e.g. their accurate representation of physical realities), narrative context (e.g. how the narrative works and what it does) or narrative content (e.g. themes or meanings in stories) (Squire et al., 2014; Freeman, 2003). In all cases, narrative analysis is concerned with stories as resources for research – that is, what stories can tell us about the narrators and their worlds (Squire et al., 2014). In my paper, I decided to use a narrative content approach to analysing the stories of lives of professional NHL-hockey players. This narrative research strategy was fruitful for me, because it enabled me to explore the social experiences of the ice hockey players during their professional careers (Squire, Andrews & Tamboukou, 2008). Furthermore, the narrative research approach can provide information about individual athlete, but it can also give insight into wider social, cultural and political contexts (Squire et al., 2014; Engebretsen & Heggen, 2012). Even the most personal narratives do not only talk about the individual, but also about social worlds. People’s personal stories provide a window into a particular socio-historical moment (Riessman, 2008). In my case, the narratives of hockey players did not only tell personal stories of athletes’ lives, but they also tell broader stories of masculinity and violence among men in modern sports. From this perspective, narrative analysis can assist sport researchers in understanding the complexities of athletes’ and coaches’ lives in diverse ways (Smith & Sparkes, 2009), but it can also create new viewpoints on broader socio-cultural topics and contexts in modern sport.

In my paper, I used narrative methods to explore how norms of masculinity and acceptance of player violence and ‘violence of the self’ (Young, 2012) affected the lives and careers of professional hockey players, as well as explore links between expressions of masculinity and violence among hockey players. Looking at personal biographies and documentary films as narrative material was for me quite a challenging task, as I am more used to dealing with transcribed interviews. However, going into some of the diversity of stories and experiences athletes accumulate through a long career and seeing how many of their stories talk about topics relevant to sport scientists, such as masculinity in sport or violence in sport, was (for me at least) fruitful and rewarding.



  • Andrews, M. (2014). Narrative imagination and everyday life. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Branch, J. (2014). Boy on Ice – The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Engebretsen, E. & Heggen, K. (2012). Å lese makt i tekst. I E. Engebretsen og K. Heggen (eds). Makt på nye måter. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
  • Freeman, M. (2003). Rewriting the self: history, memory,narrative. New York: Routledge.
  • Juhn, M,S., Brolinson, P.G., Duffey, T., Stockard, A., Vangelos, Z. A., Emaus, E., Maddox, M., Boyajian, L. & Henehan, M. (2002). Violence and Injury in Ice Hockey. American Osteopathic Academy of Sports Medicine (AOASM). Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, vol 12, issue 1: 46-51.
  • Probert, B. & McLellan Day, K. (2010). Tough Guy: My Life on the Edge. Chicago: Triumph Books.
  • Riessman, C. (2008). Narrative methods for for the human sciences. New York: Sage.
  • Smith, B. & Sparkes, A.C. (2009). Narrative analysis and sport and exercise psychology: Understanding lives in diverse ways. Psychology of sport and exercise 10: 279-288
  • Squire, C., Davis, M., Esin, C., Andrews, M., Harrison, B,, Hyden, L-C. & Hyden, M. (2014). What is narrative research? London: Bloomsbury.
  • Squire, C., Anderws, M. & Tamboukou, M. (2008). Introduction: what is narrative research? In M. Andrews, C. Squire & M. Tamboukou (eds), Doing narrative research. London: Sage.
  • Young, K. (2012). Sport, Violence and Society. New York: Routledge.


About author
Anne Tjønndal er utdannet idrettsviter (MSc. Sport Science) fra Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet (NTNU) i Trondheim. For tiden er hun tilsatt som doktorgradsstipendiat (PhD Research Fellow) ved Universitetet i Nordland (UiN) i Bodø. Hennes doktogradsavhandling omhandler innovasjon og idrett.
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