Business School


15 February 2018

With the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games less than two months away, the 2018 Winter Olympics in full swing and the AFL/ARL seasons starting soon, the spotlight is on elite athletes and what makes them special.

  • QUT-led study proposes important personality resources to mental toughness
  • Disposition, motives and life story key factors in mentally tough elite athletes
  • Mentally tough behaviours are a product of both social and personality interactions

Sport psychologist Dr Tristan Coulter, from QUT’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, headed a research project in which a star AFL player, renowned for his mental toughness, was the focus of a psychological case study.



The outcome - A Three-Domain Personality Analysis of a Mentally Tough Athlete - has just been published in the European Journal of Personality.

“Our aim was to examine the personality of a high-performing, driven person and understand him through the lens of McAdams’ three-layer conceptualisation of personality, which expresses the self through people’s dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations, and narrative identity,” said Dr Coulter, who worked with co-authors from the UQ and Connecticut College in the United States.

“This player, who for ethical reasons cannot be named, is described as being a very mentally tough individual. Mental toughness is often defined as the ability to perform well under stress conditions.

“In the highly elite, competitive context in which this footballer was drawn, being mentally tough is a sign of somebody who demonstrates unrelenting standards and sacrificial displays, such as putting one’s body on the line for the team or being an obsessive and perfectionistic trainer.

“Our study attempts to do three main things. The first is to examine the potential use of McAdams’ framework in a sporting context; second, to reinforce the idea that examining personality in sport across three layers is a worthwhile thing to do; and third, to show that one way of gaining a good psychological understanding of particularly persistent and resilient people is to examine their resources through their traits, goals, and internalised story.”

Dr Coulter, formerly a professional dancer with artists including Kylie Minogue, said they found a high level of coherence across each layer, suggesting that the mentally toughest performers may have a personality that complements itself. In this case, the findings indicated the player was highly conscientious, goal-orientated, and had internalised a life story that included themes of legacy and redemption.

“Certain core themes kept coming up across the different layers of his personality, which spoke of his desire for success, ability to cope, and necessity to give himself up for others,” he said.

“The in-depth nature of the study also gave us an insight into how the participant’s surroundings may have influenced and shaped his personality.

“I think people have the basic traits to help get them through many difficult times,” said Dr Coulter, “but they also have certain goals that they want to achieve and are able to derive a deep sense of purpose from their own constructed story, which can give them a lot of resolve.”

Dr Coulter has recently commenced a pilot project with the Queensland Academy of Sport with a focus on building strong coach-athlete relationships through this profiling procedure that promotes the whole person.

Media contact:

Amanda Weaver, QUT Media, 07 3138 3151,

After hours: Rose Trapnell, 0407 585 901,




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