Recent research says the “forward momentum” narrative motivates athletes to keep going.
Whether coming off a victory or loss, competitive athletes are always training for their next game.

Katherine Tamminen, Associate Professor of Sport Psychology at U of T, describes her research as being “interested in understanding how athletes experience and cope with stress and adversity in their sport and in their lives.” While primarily centred around understanding the experiences of athletes, her recent publication, “‘It’s easier to just keep going’: elaborating on a narrative of forward momentum in sport,” is a read that proves to be beneficial for a vast array of people. 

One recurring theme across the interviews suggests that athletes generally believe hard work, resilience, and diligence eventually pay off in the form of performance improvement. The study focuses on listening to diverse athletes and understanding how their stories fit into the narrative of “forward momentum,” or the idea of a progressive template which dictates how an athlete progresses through their career. 

Study participant Sydney, a camogie player, focuses on preparing for her next game after taking part in a competition. “In terms of the winning,” she says, “I think […] next one, next one, next one.”

Professor Tamminen and her team took note of whether a given athlete in their study sees themselves as the hero or victim of their story—are they positioning themselves as someone who has overcome adversity or someone who has been the target of injustices? “We looked at what these stories are doing in their telling,” Professor Tamminen says. “[That is], what is accomplished by telling these stories in these ways.”  

In some cases, the forward momentum narrative served as a useful companion story. Victoria, for example, a soccer player who suffered a knee injury, single-mindedly worked towards rehabilitation because she wanted to compete in a tournament. Following through on a schedule she had made for herself, the narrative motivated her to overcome a challenge, and thereby led to her successful return to the field earlier than anticipated. 

The forward momentum narrative, however, can also be a dangerous companion story. When hard work did not pay off for the athletes in the study (a phenomena Professor Tamminen refers to as a “contract violation”), they worked even harder to the point of burning out. 

The forward momentum narrative is not inherently bad, nor is it inherently positive. It simply exists, and it is the way we interact with the narrative that determines our perception of our experiences. 

When setting goals and making action plans to achieve those goals, Professor Tamminen encourages us to ask ourselves: “To what extent am I drawing on this narrative to shape my career and my life experiences? […] Am I aligning myself with it and is that helpful for me?” 

And as narratives influence our lives in many ways, Professor Tamminen warns of the importance of being “sure that you are not being dragged along by this story [of forward momentum], and rather you’re participating in it and writing it in a way that works best for you.”


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