The podium illusion: a phenomenological study of the influence of social support on well-being and performance in elite para swimmers

BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2021 Apr 21;13(1):42. doi: 10.1186/s13102-021-00269-1.


Background: The value of social support in enhancing performance is well established in non-impaired and sub-international level athletes with impairments. Despite this, no research to date has explored the experiences of social support in elite para-athletes. The aim of this study was to explore the experiences of social support in elite British para-swimmers and the influence on their wellbeing and performance.

Methods: A hermeneutic phenomenological study involving semi-structured interviews was undertaken with 8 elite British para-swimmers (3 male, 5 female, mean age 24.9 years). Participants represented 5 para-swimming classes and all 10 of the International Paralympic Committee impairment categories. Data were analysed following a modified version of the Framework Method. Research quality and trustworthiness were ensured through employing techniques including data triangulation, member checking and reflexivity.

Results: Five themes and 11 sub-themes were generated. The five themes were: 'the coach-athlete relationship', 'team bond', 'tangible aid', 'The Podium Illusion' and 'British para-swimming'. The overall findings and the magnitude of support mentioned in the fourth theme led to the development of a new model called 'The Podium Illusion' which reflects the magnitude of support that is available to elite para-swimmers to help maximise their performance and wellbeing.

Conclusion: Social support is essential for athlete wellbeing and performance. Findings underpin a new model, 'The Podium Illusion'.

Keywords: Para-sport; Para-swimming; Paralympic; Performance; Social support.