Meaning in elite sport – A narrative review of scholarship in sport psychology

Keywords: meaning, purpose, existential, crisis, elithe sport, athlete



Athletes’ heart-felt stories about their experiences in elite sport almost naturally evoke the notion of meaning. However, although various scholars and practitioners have suggested the concept of meaning to the sport psychology audience in the past two decades (e.g., Beckmann, 2023; Ravizza, 2002; Ronkainen & Nesti, 2020), its study in this discipline is still in the early stages compared to established psychological scholarship on the topic. To promote meaning as a complementary lens for research and applied work in sport psychology, the presentation aims to introduce the concept informed by psychological inquiry, and to synthesize and critically comment on the extant scholarship. For this, the wider meaning in life literature will be drawn on to give an overview of components, sources, pathways, and qualities of meaning and set it apart from the related concept of purpose.


A narrative review of 15 studies on meaning (n = 10) and purpose (n = 5) from elite sport contexts was conducted.


The scholarship on meaning and purpose in elite sport revealed itself diverse in terms of employed study designs (quantitative, qualitative), methodologies and theoretical frameworks (e.g., narrative inquiry, phenomenology), conceptualizations of meaning and purpose (e.g., existential meaning, purpose in coaching), interpretations of meaning (intrapsychic or relational), and topics researched in relation to it (e.g., forced migration, injury experiences). To date the literature base on meaning and purpose in elite sport is characterized by fragmentation and largely imprecise use of the concept.


To assist future empirical research and increase conceptual clarity of meaning in elite sport, sport psychology should integrate knowledge from its parent discipline psychology. Additionally, to make the somewhat abstract notion of meaning tangible for sport practitioners, more applied questions must be addressed. Through this, meaning could offer a truly holistic approach to well-being and mental health research and practice in sport. Importantly, “working” with meaning requires personal positioning, since conceiving of meaning as performance enhancement tool or as existential concern has major implications for how it is investigated and for how or whether it should be increased.


Beckmann, J. (2023). Meaning and meaninglessness in elite sport. In I. Nixdorf, R. Nixdorf, J. Beckmann, S. Martin, & T. Macintyre (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Mental Health in Elite Sport (pp. 31–44). Routledge.

Ravizza, K. (2002). A philosophical construct: A framework for performance enhancement. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 33, 4–18. 

Ronkainen, N. J. & Nesti, M. S. (2019). Meaning and Spirituality in Sport and Exercise: Psychological Perspectives. Routledge.

How to Cite
Oblinger-Peters, V., Henriksen, K., & Ronkainen, N. J. (2024). Meaning in elite sport – A narrative review of scholarship in sport psychology. Current Issues in Sport Science (CISS), 9(2), 002.