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Understanding 'alternative' sport experiences: a contextual approach for sport psychology.

In the 1990s, some U.S. corporations grouped a number of formerly marginalized, youth-dominated activities, such as skateboarding, BMX (bicycle motocross) riding, and BASE (building, antenna, span, Earth) jumping, under a new label: "extreme" or "alternative" sports. Participants in these sports allegedly sought risks, thrills, and new skills and subscribed to an "outsider identity relative to the organized sports establishment" (Kusz, 2007, p. 359). Over the past decade, so-called alternative sports have experienced rapid growth in many Western, and some Eastern (e.g., China, Japan, Korea), countries (see Booth & Thorpe, 2007). In 2003, for example, five of the top 10 most popular sports in the United States were alternative sports, with inline skating ranked first, skateboarding second, snowboarding fourth, BMX biking eighth, and wakeboarding ninth (Survey Says, 2005). As alternative sports continue to grow in popularity, they are garnering more attention from sports psychologists (e.g., Boyd & Kim, 2007; Self, Henry, Findley, & Reilly, 2007). Much of the existing psychological research, however, pays scant regard to the distinctive socio-cultural and historical contexts of these sports; this deficit is apparent in discussions surrounding the Lindsey Jacobellis incident at the 2006 Winter Olympics.

When American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis fell near the end of the boarder-cross course in the 2006 Olympic final, the mass media asked psychologists to explain why an athlete willingly risked a certain gold medal by performing a showy stunt in the final stages of the race. Ignoring the distinctive cultural values held by snowboarders (and, indeed, the sport's complicated historical relationship with the Olympics), some sport psychologists described this incident as a classic case of distraction and loss of attention and focus, leading to a mistake (Harrison, 2006; Sachs, 2006). Such statements were widely circulated via newspaper and television coverage. Jacobellis admitted that she was overly excited (see below). However, her explanation that she was "having fun" and wanted to share her "enthusiasm with the crowd" (cited in S. Jenkins, 2006, [paragraph] 18) (1) went largely unheard, even though some snowboarding greats endorsed her justifications. Professional snowboarder, commentator, and ex-Olympian Todd Richards (2006), for example, commented: "I would have probably done the same thing. Snowboarding is all about style" ([paragraph] 2). My key point here is that in-depth knowledge of alternative sports cultures, their development, and the values of cultural members (e.g., snowboarding is "all about style" and "having fun") is an essential prerequisite for those hoping to understand and explain the behaviors of athletes and practitioners in alternative sports such as snowboarding. This is not, however, a particularly new argument. Horn (2002), for example, proclaimed that individual behavior cannot be completely understood without an accompanying analysis of "the [sporting] cultures in which the individual subscribes, the value systems inherent within those cultures, and the degree to which the individual subscribes to or endorses those cultural values" (p. 281). Thus, in this article, I set out to extend the work of various feminist, cultural, and critical sport psychologists by advocating the need to carry out more systematic and psychological analyses of the impact of the broader social, cultural, and historical context on individuals' sporting behavior. I argue that understanding of the cultural context is particularly important for those attempting to explain and enhance the experiences of alternative or extreme sport athletes.

This article comprises four parts. In the first part, I describe the role of context in mainstream psychology and sport psychology, respectively, and conclude that both disciplines should take the broader socio-cultural context more seriously. Building upon arguments proposed by some sociologically oriented sport psychologists (e.g., Thelma Horn, Diane Gill) regarding the need to consider the broader social context, I then offer a multi-level contextual approach as a potentially fruitful strategy for investigating the dynamic interplay of individual and social factors in traditional and alternative sports alike. Here, I also discuss the value of a multi-methodological and ethnographic approach for understanding the experiences of alternative sport participants. In the third part, I highlight the potential of this approach by applying it to further contextualize the Lindsey

Jacobellis incident at the 2006 Winter Olympics. More specifically, I draw upon a multi-methodological approach to analyze her experiences on three contextual levels--micro, meso, and macro. In so doing, I link her behavior with the larger social, cultural, and political structures in which they were produced. Lastly, I consider the practical implications of this model for sport psychologists working in both the practical and academic fields.

How Context Informs Psychology

Within the domain of psychology, individual behavior, thoughts, and feelings have typically been focused on. It seems highly doubtful, however, that we can "fully understand the individual without considering the larger world--the social context" (Gill, 2002, p. 356). Indeed, scholars from various backgrounds (e.g., identity development, indigenous psychology, feminist psychology, and cultural psychology) question what Wilkinson (2001) refers to as the "contextual sterility" (p. 20) of traditional psychology. Miles (1996), for example, proclaims "psychology's narrow person-centered approach has cut it off from the realities of the inseparable context in which behavior occurs" (p. 143). Phinney (2000) also comments that, in its search for universal principles of human behavior, Western psychology has traditionally "ignored or treated as epiphenomena" cultural and historical considerations (p. 27).

There are, of course, notable exceptions. Working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lev Vgyotsky, founder of socio-historical psychology, was a contextualist in that he regarded human behavior as profoundly dependent upon the social environment. Interestingly, for Vgyotsky, it was the socioeconomic system that fundamentally shaped psychological activity. Early identity psychologist Erik Erikson (1968) also noted the development of individuals as inextricably intertwined with their social context. In one study, he compared the nature of identity formations in different national cultures (America, Germany, and Russia) during the same historical conjuncture (Erikson, 1950/1963); in other investigations he focused on the particularities of history as well as culture in his psychobiological studies of Luther (Erikson, 1958) and Gandhi (Erikson, 1969).

Contemporary feminist, indigenous, and cultural psychologists increasingly recognize the effects of social, cultural, economic, political, and historical contexts on the psychological development of individuals. According to feminist researchers, excluding the influence of the broader socio-cultural context is particularly problematic when it comes to psychological understandings of gender. "Women live and think in a society, and their actions and thoughts are shaped partly by the dominant practices of that society," explains Markula (2003, p. 61). "This means," she continues, "that women actively make sense out of their social world and construct different meanings in different social contexts" (p. 61). To reiterate, gender (as distinct from biological sex) is not a purely psychological phenomenon. It is, by definition, also social and, therefore, heavily contextualized. To study only the psychological manifestations of gender--at the level of the individual--is to "artificially isolate it from the social, economic and political scene of which it is a part" (Burr, 1998, p. 10).

Culture is also a socially contextualized set of practices, and cultural and indigenous psychologists are increasingly finding new ways to understand the role of culture in human development without overemphasizing or ignoring either psychological (micro) or structural (macro) processes. That is, they are coming to understand cultures as "developing systems of individuals, relationships, material and social contexts, and institutions" (Cooper & Denner, 1998, p. 579). According to cultural psychologists, each socio-culture offers a system of interrelated premises that individuals internalize in such a way that they "provide norms for feelings and ideas, and hierarch[ies] of interpersonal relationships" (Loving, 2006, p. 319). Of course, this line of thinking is not particularly new. For example, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's (1968) notion of the habitus--a set of acquired schemes of dispositions, perceptions, and appreciations, including tastes, which orient our practices and gives them meaning--was an attempt to integrate social structures and mental structures (see Lizardo, 2004). The key point here, however, is that, despite some psychologists placing real importance on the power of context to elucidate the psychological enterprise, such approaches tend to remain on the margins of a field dedicated primarily to the development of universal concepts and theories of human behavior.

Many contemporary sport psychologists know that both individual characteristics and the social situation affect behavior. This premise is, of course, reflected in the basic tenet of social psychology as set forth in Kurt Lewin's (1935) formula B=f(P, E), where behavior is a function of person and the environment. Although sport psychologists are increasingly adopting social psychological approaches that examine factors in the immediate social environment (e.g., motivational climate, and parental, peer, and coach behavior) that may influence athletes' psychological responses and behaviors, fewer adopt a socio-cultural perspective that "focuses on the broader social, economic, political and cultural forces that affect people's behavior in sport and physical activity contexts" (Horn, 2002, p. 281). Sport psychology, like its parent discipline, is largely "macro-blind" (Olssen, 1991). That is, it tends to be "blind to systems, groups and the collective nature of society to shape individuals" (p. 200). Moreover, sport psychologists have conspicuously neglected the dynamic context in which individuals live and construct their sporting behaviors. This is particularly problematic for those of us seeking to understand, explain, and enhance the experiences of individuals in alternative sports cultures. Rather than being "immutably fixed phenomena, frozen statically at a particular point in history" (Osgerby, 1998, p. 76), alternative (and traditional) sports cultures are in a constant state of change and flux. Advocating the need for greater understanding of the dynamic context in sport sciences, Gill (2000) states that "any particular behavior takes place within the context of many interacting personal and environmental factors, and all those factors and relationships change over time" (p. 230; emphasis added). Despite giving considerable attention to factors in the immediate social environment that effect performance, few sport psychologists give adequate attention to the way the broader, dynamic, socio-cultural context shapes and gives meaning to individual's everyday sporting behaviors and interactions.

A variety of scholars are, however, recognizing that the lack of consideration of the cultural, social, political, and historical context in sport psychology seriously limits our understanding of the complexity, diversity, and dynamicism of human behavior and experience (e.g., Brustad & Ritter-Taylor, 1997; Horn, 2002; Gill, 2000). Advocating a socio-cultural approach to sport psychology, Horn (2002) warns:
   Although sport psychology researchers may choose to focus primarily
   on the psychological factors affecting sport performance and
   behavior, we still need to understand, or consider, the role that
   the social, political, cultural, and economic context may play.
   Thus, if we truly wish to advance our knowledge base in sport
   psychology, we must read about, reflect on, and incorporate into
   our worldview ... socio-cultural and sociopolitical issues. (pp.

But what precisely does "taking the broader context more seriously" mean for sport psychologists? Ingham, Blissmer, and Wells Davidson (1999) propose combining sport psychological and sport sociological perspectives. Others advocate an innovative sport psychology as cultural praxis perspective that acknowledges the interaction between broader cultural, social, and political forces and individual behaviors (see Fisher, Butryn, & Roper, 2003; Ryba & Wright, 2005). But remarkably few advocates of the approach provide adequate elaboration or clarification of how to incorporate the broader context into our research and practice. In this article, I extend some of the arguments proposed by sociologically oriented sport psychologists regarding the need to consider the broader social-cultural and historical context by offering a multi-level contextual approach.

A Multi-Level Contextual Approach

Recently, feminist psychologists have adopted a conceptual framework that examines human behavior at multiple contextual levels (Deaux & LaFrance, 1998; Rabinowitz & Martin, 2001). Originally developed in social psychology (Doise, 1997), social ecological psychology (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), and identity theory (e.g., Erikson, 1968), this perspective guides research by expanding the frame of reference from individual difference to interpersonal, social, and cultural levels of explanation. More specifically, this approach identifies three (mainly analytical) contexts of analysis, micro-, meso-, and macro-levels. The micro-level represents intra-individual emotions and cognitive processes; the meso-level corresponds to the domain of social interactions; and the macro-level equates to the social structural domain, which, as I will show, is also represented, at least in part, on the micro-level. For feminist psychologists Rabinowitz and Martin (2001), "research that appreciates and, where possible, incorporates multiple levels of analysis, from the biological to the cultural, represents one of the most exciting developments in psychology" (p. 32). This model can help facilitate a more multidimensional understanding of athletes' sporting experiences by shedding light on the dynamic interplay of factors in the micro- (e.g., athlete motivation), meso- (e.g., coach and teammate influence on an athlete's motivation), and macro- (e.g., structural and cultural influences on the team and individual athletes) contexts.

In order to illustrate the potential of this multi-level contextual model for sport psychology, I link the subjective experiences of Lindsey Jacobellis with the larger social, political, and cultural structures to facilitate understanding of her actions and justifications and the response of the snowboarding culture. Seeking to provide rich, multilevel understandings of the various contextual factors influencing this event, I employ a multi-methodological approach. Published interviews and articles provide key insights into the micro-level behaviors, values, emotions, and mental states of Jacobellis leading up to, during, and after the 2006 Winter Olympics. I then draw upon television coverage to further inform the print media sources, which facilitates my meso-level investigation of the immediate social environment within which the events occurred. In order to offer a macro-level contextualization of the event, it was necessary to gain an in-depth understanding of the snowboarding culture and the behaviors, values, and experiences of cultural members. Ethnography offers an important methodological tool for gaining such insights.

According to Krane and Baird (2005), ethnography is an "area of research sorely needed in applied sport psychology" (p. 104). They argue that it is "impossible to comprehend athletes' mental states and behaviors without understanding the social norms and culture that encompass them" (p. 88) and subsequently advocate ethnography as a vital tool for understanding a social environment and perceptions of the members of the social group. In this study, I employed multiple ethnographic methods to inform my macro-level analysis of snowboarding culture, which in turn significantly enhanced my understanding of the Jacobellis incident. More specifically, my macro-level analysis draws upon access to 51 websites, 23 videos, and more than 100 magazines from 17 different publishers. "Even the humblest material artifact is," as T. S. Eliot explains, "an emissary of the culture out of which it comes" (cited in Vamplew, 1998, p. 268). Indeed, cultural sources, such as magazines, films, and websites, play a decisive role in the lives of snowboarders, by confirming, spreading, and consolidating cultural perceptions; analysis of these documents facilitated my understanding of snowboarding's cultural complexities at the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels.

My macro-level understanding of snowboarding culture is also informed by 13 ethnographic phases set in an array of snowboarding communities in New Zealand, North America (Canada, USA), and Europe (France, Switzerland, Italy) during the 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 winter seasons. Observations were made in natural settings both on and off the snow, including lift lines, chair lifts, resort lodges, snowboard competitions, prize giving events, video premiers, bars, cafes, local hangouts, and snowboard shops. During this fieldwork I observed, listened, engaged in analysis, and made mental notes, switching from snowboarder to researcher depending on the requirements of the situation. The ethnographic phases enabled me to develop in-depth knowledge of snowboarding culture and the values of cultural members, which greatly facilitated my understanding of their responses to the Jacobellis incident. To further inform my knowledge of the snowboarding culture, I also conducted informal interviews (see Andrews, Mason, & Silk, 2005) with 20 female and 20 male snowboarders. Participants ranged from 18-56 years of age and included novice snowboarders, weekend warriors, committed/core boarders, professional snowboarders, an Olympic snowboarder and Olympic judge, snowboarding journalists, photographers, film-makers, magazine editors, snowboard company owners, snowboard shop employees and owners, snowboard instructors and coaches, and event organizers and judges. During the interviews, I asked participants to reflect on their beliefs about various aspects of the snowboarding culture and encouraged them to express their attitudes, ideas, and perceptions. Interviews ranged from 30 minutes to four hours in length, depending primarily on the willingness of participants.

The key point here is that, although previous cultural experience is beneficial (2), researchers and practitioners new to a particular sporting culture are able to develop an intimate understanding of the values and beliefs of participants by employing ethnographic approaches. As Krane and Baird (2005) proclaim, adopting various ethnographic methods, including cultural sources (e.g., magazines, websites, videos), participant-observations and interviews can "help enrich our understanding of sport cultures and concomitant behaviors and mental states of athletes" (p. 102). Indeed, such an approach lent insight into snowboarding culture and the behaviors, values, and emotions of participants, which proved essential for gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the Lindsey Jacobellis incident at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Moreover, combining the empirical evidence with secondary sources (especially scholarly research relating to the kindred activities of surfing, skateboarding, and windsurfing) greatly facilitated my understanding of the macro social, cultural, political, and historical contexts within which this event occurred.

A Contextual Case Study: Snowboarding at the 2006 Winter Olympics

Here, I offer a case study of the Lindsey Jacobellis incident at the 2006 Winter Olympics to illustrate the potential of a multidimensional model for shedding light on the dynamic interplay of individual and contextual factors in the sporting realm. I begin by offering a brief biography of Jacobellis and a description of the "the most talked about moment of the 2006 Olympics" (Kaufman, 2006, [paragraph] 2). Micro- and meso-levels of analysis, that is the intra-personal and inter-personal dynamics of the situation, are inherent in this narrative. Following this discussion, I sketch the macro-context within which this event occurred. In so doing, I highlight the need to consider the macro social, cultural, political, and historical context for understanding Jacobellis' actions and response and the widely divergent reactions of snowboarding culture and mainstream America.

The "Lindsey Leap:" A micro- and meso-level analysis

Lindsey Jacobellis (b. 1985) is a four-time X Games gold medallist and two-time world champion snowboarder. Growing up in Connecticut, Jacobellis skied from a young age. Her older brother, Ben, introduced her to snowboarding in 1996, and over the next few years, they made weekly trips to Stratton Mountain, Vermont, where they raced each other down the slopes and started training and entering competitions together. Often the only female entered in these events, Lindsey regularly raced against her male peers. In her own words, "the guys weren't going to let me win, so I had to be more aggressive. It made me tougher right off the bat" (cited in Murphy, 2006). Further pursuing her passion for snowboarding, Jacobellis attended Stratton Mountain High School, which scheduled classes around training times. At age 16, she won her first major boardercross event at the 2001 U.S. Open. In the following years, she won the world junior boardercross championship, the world junior halfpipe championship, and the first three consecutive X Games boardercross competitions. According to U.S. snowboarding coach, Bud Keen, Jacobellis is a dedicated and highly competitive athlete:

She wants to be in the winner's circle. She wears her competitiveness on her sleeve a little more than most girls. And if you can scare someone before the race starts, you're halfway there. Lindsey definitely does that in snowboardcross. Even as a little girl, she always had the eye of the tiger. (cited in Swift, 2006, [paragraph] 14)

Peter Foley, another U.S. snowboard team coach, also describes her as "super-competitive ... when somebody is next to her, she will do anything to pass her" (cited in Higgins, 2007, [paragraph] 21). According to fellow competitor Avery Mackenzie, Jacobellis is "the most self-assured person I have ever met, and she has the right to be;" "Not only can she do everything, she does everything. She's confident and goes out and wins. Everything: racing to halfpipe to boardercross" (cited in Swift, 2006, [paragraph] 1).

Although Jacobellis successfully competes in halfpipe and giant slalom events, she specializes in boardercross, because, in her own words, it's "more fun" (cited in Swift, 2006, [paragraph] 10). Arguably, it is also more dangerous; with four (and sometimes six) snowboarders racing shoulder-to-shoulder down a specifically designed course at speeds often in excess of 55 mph, maneuvering for positions on turns and sometimes passing each other in the air, boardercross is often described as the snowboard version of BMX racing or motocross. According to Olympic downhill skiing veteran Graham Bell, the strategies and tactics employed in this event are in stark contrast to many other winter sports:

Boardercross is so frenetic and you have to think on your feet, you have to look behind you and assess what is going on, decide what is the best time to attempt to pass. The best bet is to get out into the lead and stay out of trouble, but that is easier said than done. You cannot mentally prepare a good line like in downhill skiing; in this you have to mentally prepare for when it goes wrong. (cited in McKeown, 2006, [paragraph] 6)

Coach Keene also describes the event as "crazy. It's like roller derby. You have three other people who can take you down and hurt you. You can either put the pedal down or wuss out ... Lindsey almost always punches it. She goes for it" (cited in Swift, 2006, p. 64).

Boardercross has been a popular event among snowboarders since the early 1990s, and an annual feature in the Winter X Games since its establishment in 1997. However, it wasn't until 2006 that boardercross (renamed Snowboard Cross) was scheduled to make its Olympic debut. Here, riders would compete on their own, against the clock, for their first two runs; athletes with the top 32 times would then move into the next round where they would race in groups of four, with the top two in each heat surviving until just four are left to contest the final. Heading into the Games, Jacobellis was the defending world champion and was confident in her abilities. However, she was also aware of the unpredictable nature of the event: "I've been the best for a while, so of course I'd be disappointed if I didn't win. But it's freaky. You can't predict it" (cited in Swift, 2006, p. 65).

In the months leading up to the Winter Olympics, the mass media and corporate sponsors recognized Jacobellis as "an Olympic marketer's dream" (Swift, 2006, p. 63). Not only was she the favorite for the gold medal in an exciting new sport, Jacobellis has "a killer smile, saucer-sized greenish-blue eyes and a shock of blonde curls" (Swift, 2006, p. 63). Moreover, she purposefully disrupts stereotypes of snowboarders as "pot smoking punks" by "play[ing] the piano, speak[ing] in complete sentences, and avoid[ing] saying 'like' or 'dude' during interviews" (Swift, 2006, p. 63). Corporate sponsors quickly recognized the potential in Jacobellis for connecting snowboarding culture with mainstream America, and she gained a number of major sponsors including Nike, Scott, Visa, Dunkin Donuts, Frosted Flakes, Sprint, Paul Mitchell, and Palmer Snowboarders. "She's the Wheaties-box kid," says coach Keene, "Lindsey's so made for the mainstream media. The stereotype for snowboarders is they come from a hippie upbringing and all that that entails. That's not Lindsey. She's the all American girl. She's a winner and always will be" (cited in Swift, 2006, p. 63). Prior to the Olympics, a NBC Nightly News reporter described Jacobellis as "a sweet contradiction'" she is "a sweet goldilocks, a modest girly girl who still has her stuffed toys and yet she is also a competitor with a heart of a gladiator" (Murphy, 2006). With extensive media coverage leading up to the Games (including a high profile Visa advertisement) portraying her as simultaneously "the girl next door" and a serious contender for the gold medal, Jacobellis captured the attention of the American public like few snowboarders before her.

On February 17, 2006, the women's Olympic snowboard cross final began with the gates dropping and four competitors, Tanya Friedan (Switzerland), Dominique Maltais (Canada), Maelle Ricker (Canada), and Jacobellis thrusting out and over the first set of jumps. Despite a close start, Maltais crashed spectacularly on a jump early in the course, and Ricker soared through a fence after a small scrimmage with Friedan, allowing Jacobellis to take the lead and gain an unprecedented three-second advantage over her nearest competitor (Friedan). At this point, Jacobellis appears unstoppable; the crowd in the gallery cheers wildly and the NBC commentator declares it a "lap of glory for Jacobellis." But, such celebrations are premature; while soaring over the penultimate jump Jacobellis grabs her board with her hand and, pushing the tail of her board slightly forward in the air, performs a "backside method air" (a stylistic maneuver common in freestyle events such as halfpipe and slopestyle). Unfortunately, rather than landing on a flat base, she lands on the edge of her board causing her to lose her balance and tumble to the snow. As Jacobellis frantically scrambles to get back on her feet, Freidan rounds the corner and races past Jacobellis to cross the finish line first, leaving Jacobellis to settle for second place. As the flabbergasted commentator exclaims, "Unbelievable! Lindsey Jacobellis has thrown a gold medal away in the last 100 meters. This is ridiculous. I have never seen anything like it. What was she thinking?" the camera pans across a scene of high emotion. U.S. coach Peter Foley has fallen to the snow in disbelief; Friedan jumps joyfully, hugging her friends and coach; Jacobellis stands stunned. In the grandstands, her family and friends, dressed in red, white, and blue outfits limply hold flags and homemade banners and watch on with mouths agape and tears rolling down checks. But Jacobellis doesn't have long to wallow in her state of shock; she is quickly drawn into a huddle with her coach and teammates, who are presumably preparing her for the media frenzy that will inevitably ensue.

Indeed, the media pounced upon Jacobellis, demanding an explanation for why she would choose to perform a needlessly risky aerial maneuver in such a critical situation. Perhaps on the recommendation of her coach, agent, or media advisor, Jacobellis' initial response was to deny showboating, claiming she grabbed for "stability" (Press Release, 2006, [paragraph] 7). Coach Foley confirmed: "Lindsey grabs her board on lots of the jumps, because that's a stable position for her" (Press Release, 2006, [paragraph] 11). Journalists and reporters, however, refused to accept this rationale and, upon showing Foley a frame-by-frame breakdown of the "Lindsey Leap," eventually got the desired response: "She definitely styled that a little too hard. That's a good stable grab but she pulled it across too far ... for it to be safe" (cited in S. Jenkins, 2006, 11). After watching the footage, American Olympic gold medallist Seth Wescott also admitted, "sometimes it's subconscious, but that was putting on a show" (cited in L. Jenkins, 2006, [paragraph] 14). In a teleconference two hours after her initial response, Jacobellis softened her argument, acknowledging that the grab was not necessarily for stability purposes: "I was ahead. I was having fun. Snowboarding is fun. I wanted to share my enthusiasm with the crowd" (cited in S. Jenkins, 2006, 18). Nonetheless, she denied that her backside method grab was showboating and described the cognitive processes (e.g., high arousal, attentional shift) that influenced her actions: "I was really excited ... I got caught up in the moment and stopped paying attention ... I forgot I still had to win the race" (cited in S. Jenkins, 2006, [paragraph] 20). Admitting initially feeling "a little frustrated and a bit angry" (Press Release, 2006, [paragraph] 8) that she "messed up" (cited in S. Jenkins, 2006, [paragraph] 18), her shame was not in losing the gold medal but rather in not landing her trick: "as a freestyler I bow my head in shame" joked Jacobellis (cited in L. Jenkins, 2006, [paragraph] 5). Continuing, she rationalized her behavior by reminding herself (and others) that she had accomplished her initial goals: "I came to the Olympics to do my best and have fun" (Press Release, 2006, [paragraph] 8).

According to the New York Times, Jacobellis "symbolizes Generation X Games, the dudes and dudettes more interested in styling than winning" (Araton, 2006, [paragraph] 2). Many journalists, commentators, and members of the American public, however, perceived "having fun" and "styling it" to be incompatible with Olympic ideals. NBC sports commentator Bob Costas, for example, was relentless in his interview with Jacobellis, grilling her for "counting her chickens before they hatched" and "showboating," and ultimately condemning her as "self-congratulatory" (cited in Teton, 2006, [paragraph] 2). Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey wrote, "It probably would be a good thing if somebody explained to the snowboarders that once they decided to sit at the adults' table, they made the tacit agreement to play to win. They made the decision to act like Olympians, which now means to act professional" (cited in Snowboard Culture, 2006, [paragraph] 15). An online poll conducted by MSN live revealed that many Americans held similar attitudes. In response to the question: "What's your reaction to Lindsey Jacobellis doing a hot-dog maneuver, falling with a big lead and losing the women's snowboardcross gold medal?" 68 percent of the 50,600 respondents claimed they "[couldn't] believe she tried that stunt," although 32 percent admitted "feeling sorry for her" (Live Vote, 2006).

Many snowboarders, however, do not "share the same sensibility of Mr. and Mrs. America when it comes to gold medals" (S. Jenkins, 2006, [paragraph] 15) and, thus, empathized with Jacobellis. Fellow U.S. Olympic team member and gold medallist Seth Wescott, for example, explained:

The trick she tried is second nature to us. The people who criticize don't understand the sport at all. The aesthetic of the sport, the style aspect, is what draws all of us into it. In many ways it's an artistic expression. The freestyle aspect of it is where the soul of the sport lies. It would have been a shame if she didn't go for it. (cited in Teton, 2006, 4)

Ken Hodge, a sport psychologist working with the New Zealand snowboard team during the 2006 Games, noted that the typical response of his athletes to this event was, "she crashed because she was 'styling it out,' but so what, that is what I would have done too. That's what we (boarders) do, we show off! But it's not really showboating or arrogance, it's confidence that you can go fast and be styley" (personal communication, March 7, 2008). With the support of the snowboarding culture (and her corporate sponsors), Jacobellis changed tack in the midst of a seemingly endless barrage of accusatory comments and questions: "I don't really care what people think. I still won a silver medal, and no one can take that away from me" (Snowboard Culture, 2006, [paragraph] 17). The "sweet All-American girl" was standing up for herself and her sport in the face of some of the nation's most authoritative sports critics and commentators.

Although some athletes might struggle to recover psychologically from such an incident, Jacobellis wrote it off as "just some kind of fluke thing that happened" (cited in Higgins, 2007, [paragraph] 17) and proved her mettle by winning the 2007 FIS World Cup season championship and the gold medal in the 2008 X Games Snowboard Cross (despite event organizers in the latter replaying footage of the infamous "Lindsey leap" prior to, and during, her heats). Describing her strategy for overcoming past mistakes and blocking out irrelevant stimuli during competitions, Jacobellis said, "It's funny because all you hear at the top of the course is the commentators [saying] 'oh, she's out for redemption.' Actually, no, I couldn't care less. Focusing on the past isn't going to do any good ... I just focus on the next event, the next race" (cited in Marshall, 2008, [paragraph] 4).

This narrative reveals how intra-individual factors at the micro-level, that is emotions and cognitive processes experienced by Jacobellis pre-Olympics (e.g., confidence), during the Olympic final (e.g., excitement, high arousal, shift in attentional focus), and post-Olympic final (e.g., frustration, anger, guilt, shame), interacted with meso-level factors in the immediate social environment (e.g., race dynamics, coaches' advice, accusatory reactions of journalists and commentators, empathetic support of teammates and fellow snowboarders) to influence Lindsey Jacobellis' experiences at the 2006 Winter Olympics. To fully comprehend Jacobellis' behavior and the response of the snowboarding culture, however, the incident must be placed in the macro social, cultural, political, and historical context.

The "Lindsey Leap:" A macro-level analysis

Snowboarding, as we understand the activity today, emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s in North America. Most of the early pioneers of the activity embodied the idealism of the bygone counterculture and, in direct contrast to skiing (which was an expensive and bourgeois sport framed by a strong set of rules of conduct), embraced snowboarding as a free, fun, and individualistic activity. Terje Haakonsen, a snowboarder of legendary status, best captured the counter-cultural ideology among early boarders when he described snowboarding as about making "fresh tracks and carving powder and being yourself" rather than "nationalism and politics and big money" (cited in Lidz, 1997, p. 114).

Ski resorts initially banned snowboarders. Owners, managers, and their skiing clientele defined the snowboarding cohort as "13-18 year olds with raging hormones" who liked skateboarding and surfing (Hughes, 1988, [paragraph] 11). Negative images of surfing and skateboarding from the 1970s contributed to the public dislike and distrust of snowboarding. According to David Schmidt, the national sales manager for Burton Snowboards, "most people visualize snowboarders as a bunch of skate rats who are going to terrorize the mountain" (cited in Nelson, 1989). But, in 1983, Stratton Mountain (Vermont) became the first major ski field to open its slopes to snowboarders. Others quickly followed. Skiing had reached a growth plateau, and snowboarding offered ski-fields a new youth market and ongoing economic prosperity. Kathleen Hughes (1988), writing for The Wall Street Journal, described snowboarding as the "biggest boost to the ski industry since chairlifts" ([paragraph] 8). But, even after gaining access to the ski-fields, snowboarders continued to see themselves as "different" from skiers (see Thorpe, 2004). Summarizing the cultural differences during this period, Humphreys (1996) wrote that whereas "skiing embodied technical discipline and control," snowboarding "embodied freedom, hedonism and irresponsibility" (p. 9).

Modern competitive snowboarding began in 1981 with the first American national titles held at Suicide Six (Vermont). The next year the resort hosted the first international snowboard race. Snowboard competitions during the mid to late 1980s embodied an inclusive ideology. Early US snowboarder Tina Basich (2003) recollects one of the first regional competitions in 1986 in which "everybody," from both genders, competed together. Susanna Howe (1998) describes these events as "cultural hotbeds" that effectively ironed out any notions of social stratification (p. 51). Everyone, she adds, was "drunk and disorderly" (p. 41). Early snowboard competitions were poorly organized and, in keeping with counter-cultural traditions, privileged fun and "personal style" over serious competition (p. 23).

Significant change occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The convergence of several factors contributed to the escalating number of board-sport participants. More ski resorts opened their pistes to snowboarders, the mainstream media started reporting favorably on snowboarding culture, and snowboarding magazines (e.g., Absolutely Radical [1985]) and films (e.g., Totally Board [1989]) communicated images, attitudes, and styles to snowboarding cultures around the world. Technological advances and an increasingly competitive market also provided participants with a cheaper and wider variety of equipment. Economic growth and institutionalization accompanied higher levels of participation.

The institutionalization process, however, angered many snowboarders: Some overtly resisted the process. In 1990, world champion U.S. snowboarder Craig Kelly retired at the peak of his career from the competitive circuit that he likened to "prostitution" (Howe, 1998, p. 82). As he put it,

Society is full of rules, and I use the time I spend in the mountains as an opportunity to free myself of all constraints ... I decided that competing on the World Tour restricted the freedom that I found with snowboarding in the first place. (cited in Reed, 2005, p. 54)

Debates over the institutionalization process in snowboarding came to the forefront in the lead-up to the 1998 Winter Olympics. Certainly, the inclusion of snowboarding into the Olympics signified a defining moment in the sport's short history and divided boarders. The loudest voice of opposition came from Terje Haakonsen, who refused to enter the Games because he believed that the International Olympic Committee comprised a group of Mafia-like officials and that the event was tantamount to joining the army. Haakonsen refused to be turned into a "uniform-wearing, flag-bearing, walking logo" (cited in Humphreys, 2003, p. 421). Flakezine magazine also predicted that, once included in the Olympics, snowboarding would become "exactly like golf or tennis ... boring, dull, and staid. Sure, snowboarders, snowboard companies, and the snowboard media will make a lot more money (yippee) but it will be in exchange for their souls, creativity, and individuality" (cited in Baccigaluppi, Mayugba & Carnel, 2001, p. 145).

Although many snowboarders resisted snowboarding's inclusion in the Olympics, it is important to note that some embraced these changes; "I want to go to the Olympics ... be the first snowboarder to win a gold medal and be written into the history books" (Jimi Scott, cited in Howe, 1998, p. 151). Todd Richards (2003) also admitted, "I'd be a liar if I said the thought of being on the first U.S. Olympic Snowboard team didn't fire me up. Wheaties boxes, international prestige, the best half-pipe in the world--and let's not forget the cold hard cash that goes with it all" (p. 185). Continuing, Richards (2003) explained that although "half of the companies and riders were looking forward to the Olympics as the ultimate forum that would legitimize the sport," the other half "didn't give a damn about the Olympics because it reeked of skiing--a stuffy by-the-books sport with an attitude that was the kiss of death for snowboarding's irreverent spirit" (p. 135).

Inevitably, incorporation continued regardless of boarders' contrasting viewpoints. By the late 1990s, television and corporate sponsors had identified the huge potential in extreme sports as a way to tap into the young, male market, and mainstream companies began appropriating the alternative, hedonistic, and youthful image of the snowboarder to sell products ranging from chewing gum to vehicles. During this period, snowboarding increasingly became controlled and defined by transnational media corporations like ESPN and NBC via events such as the X-Games and Gravity Games. In 1998, ESPN's different sport channels beamed the X-Games to 198 countries in 21 languages (Rinehart, 2000). The incorporation of snowboarding into the 1998, 2002, and 2006 Winter Olympics, video games including Play Station's Cool Boarders and Shaun Palmer Pro-Snowboarder, and blockbuster movies such as First Descent (2005) helped further expose the sport to the mainstream. According to a Leisure Trends survey, 32 percent (nearly 92 million people) of the United States population watched the 2002 Olympic snowboarding half-pipe competition in which Americans won gold (Ross Powers), silver (Danny Kass), and bronze (J J. Thomas) in the men's event (this was the first U.S. Winter Olympic medal sweep since 1956) and gold (Kelly Clark) in the women's event. Of those viewers, 18.6 million Americans said they wanted to try snowboarding (Snowboarding, 2004). (3) A report released by the NBC also highlighted the success of snowboarding's inclusion in the Olympic program for attracting younger viewers; the snowboarding-fueled 2002 Olympics, for example, saw a 23 percent increase in ratings among 18 to 34 year-olds (Berra, 2006).

As snowboarding became popularized and incorporated into the mainstream, it adopted many of the trappings of traditional modern sports: corporate sponsorship, large prize monies, rationalized systems of rules, hierarchical and individualistic star systems, win-at-all costs values, and the creation of heroes, heroines, and, in the words of sports sociologist Michael Messner (2002), "rebel athletes who look like walking corporate billboards" (p. 178). Unlike earlier generations, many current boarders embrace commercial approaches or, in the more colorful words of Todd Richards (2003), are "milk[ing] it while it's lactating" (p. 178). Professional U.S. snowboarders, including Shaun White, Danny Kass, Gretchen Bleiler, Lindsey Jacobellis, Kelly Clark, and Hannah Tetter, have benefited from the recently commercialized form of snowboarding. They have achieved superstar status within the culture, attracting American corporate sponsors, including Target, Play Station, Nike, and Mountain Dew. Some earn seven-figure salaries. But with major corporate sponsors offering large prize monies, the focus of many boarding competitions is no longer fun; extreme forms of individualism and egocentricity prevail. Observing these changes, snowboarding journalist Cody Dresser (2004) notes:

The existence of a professional snowboarder has degraded into a serious, high-pressure situation over the years. The transformation was subtle but somewhere, somehow, everything changed. Stress levels rose as the fun factor slowly crumbled. Snowboarding has been sterilized and neutered by the mainstream, the Olympics, the X-Games...homogenized by way of professionalism practiced in team sports like football or track and field--tainted by training and endless competition. (p. 125; emphasis added)

Olympic silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler also believes the "industry pressure" and "ultrahigh" level of snowboarding ability are creating an "extremely competitive" atmosphere in snowboarding and decries a younger generation who, in their hunger to win, are "changing the overall feel at the top of the half-pipe" (cited in Sherowski, 2003, p. 146).

Despite the increasing professionalism at the elite level, residual traces of snowboarding's countercultural past remain. Professional and amateur snowboarders alike continue to embrace the somewhat idealistic philosophy that snowboarding is about "fun, self-expression, and getting back to nature, not making money" (Humphreys, 2003, p. 416). Athena, a professional U.S. snowboarder, describes snowboarding as "an individual thing ... [that] gives you freedom to express your own style. The perks that come along with the sport, such as friends and travel and money are the bonus" (cited in Coulter-Parker, 1997, p. 57). Moreover, when asked how her "mistake" would affect her deals with sponsors, Jacobellis retorted, "I think it's silly for athletes to look at a sport to get better deals and endorsements. They should do it because they enjoy and love it" (cited in Teton, 2006, [paragraph] 8).

Based on his work with the New Zealand 2006 Olympic snowboarding team, Ken Hodge noted that contemporary competitive snowboarders tend to be "as dedicated to elite performance and the pursuit of excellence as any other elite athlete" (personal communication, March 7, 2008). However, they are also distinct from "other" athletes in various ways. A recent study conducted by Anna, Jan, and Aleksander (2007), for example, reveals that the primary motivation of snowboarders training for the Olympic Games in Turin (Italy) was fun and pleasure (90%); secondary motives included specific snowboard atmosphere (27.5%), money benefits (22.5%), keeping fit (22.5%), and fashion (5%). Hodge also observed that, in contrast to the "very serious and business-like" approach adopted by the skiing team, snowboarders were "more relaxed and fun-loving. They don't take themselves remotely seriously [and] aren't afraid to have a laugh" (personal communication, March 7, 2008). Arguably the most professional competitive snowboarder, Olympic half-pipe gold medalist Shaun White also downplayed the professionalism of snowboarding in an interview with Rolling Stone: "At the Olympics we are still the dirty ones in the bunch, the sketchy snowboard kids. I don't think I'd have it any other way" (Edwards, 2006, p. 45). White acknowledges that, although the Olympics are "really awesome," for most snowboarders it is "not the biggest thing in the world ... While other athletes were wound pretty tight ... we are pretty lighthearted about the whole situation" (Edwards, 2006, [paragraph] 13). Indeed, although the Olympics are the pinnacle in the careers of many athletes (e.g., skiers, speed skaters), among snowboarders, events such as the U.S. Open and X Games hold more "cultural authenticity" and, thus, tend to be more highly valued within the snowboarding culture and industry. Furthermore, in contrast to more explicitly competitive sports, respect and status or "performance capital," as Dart (2002, cited in Ford & Brown, 2006, p. 77) terms it, are assessed more subjectively by snowboarders in terms of style, commitment to snowboarding, capability on challenging terrain, difficulty and range of maneuvers (also known as your "bag of tricks") able to be performed, and so on. In his recent autobiography, Richards (2003) identified gaining peer recognition as his primary motive; "Gaining respect from my friends" he said, is "way more important than the prize money or the trophy" (p. 166).

Positioning the "Lindsey Leap" in the broader cultural, social, political, and historical context helps us understand Jacobellis' actions and her response to charges of "showboating," as well as the reaction of her peers and coaches. Among the latter, Peter Foley responded to an accusatory journalist by proclaiming, "If Lindsey got caught up in the moment, what are you going to do? If people think that's a big deal, they miss the point of snowboarding" (cited in L. Jenkins, 2006, [paragraph] 18). Indeed, as the macro-level discussion illustrates, snowboarding is an activity with a distinctive cultural and political history, and despite the rapid institutionalization, professionalism, and commercialization of the sport, participants continue to privilege fun, friendship, and creative freedom (e.g., style) over winning, ruthless individualism, and conformity.

Future Implications and Final Thoughts

In this article, I have proposed that, to better comprehend the complexities of individual's behavior in alternative sports cultures such as snowboarding, we must consider the dynamic social, political, cultural, and historical context. Advocating broader socio-cultural contextual analyses and more systematic psychological analyses of individuals' sporting behavior, I offered a multi-level contextual approach. To highlight the potential of this approach, I briefly described the micro- and meso-level experiences of Lindsey Jacobellis at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games and sketched the macro-context within which this event occurred. In so doing, I illustrated that in-depth knowledge of alternative sports cultures, their development, and the values of cultural members, gathered via ethnographic methods, is an essential prerequisite for those seeking to understand and explain the behaviors of athletes in new sports such as snowboarding.

Although the case study offered in this article is specific to snowboarding culture, the contextual and methodological approach offers two key implications for sport psychologists. First, it highlights the need for those working with athletes to consider the broader social, cultural, political, and historical context within which they have grown up and currently live. Athletes are actively making sense of their social worlds and constructing different meanings in different social contexts. Thus, rather than "looking at the athlete in isolation as a whole, singular, unified individual," in the way that orthodox sport psychology has tended, the multi-level contextual approach offered here has the potential to help us understand that each individual is a subject "immersed in a particular socio-cultural and historical context" (Ryba & Wright, 2005, p. 204). Not only can a multi-level contextual model offer insights into how cognitive (micro), interpersonal (meso), and broader structural (macro) factors interact to influence individuals' sporting behaviors, it also has the potential to facilitate more comprehensive understandings of the cultural and gendered experiences of athletes. For example, the sporting experiences of a 55-year-old female marathoner or a 15-year-old female sprinter will be more accurately and completely interpreted if the macro socio-cultural influences on gender identity are taken into account. Indeed, the constantly changing characteristics of gender-relations in contemporary society, and sports cultures per se, represent an important focus for those of us seeking to understand and enhance women's sporting experiences. Simply put, the motivations, expectations, and aspirations of female athletes continue to change and a multi-level contextual approach, such as that offered in this article, could facilitate the task of understanding their experiences in different historical conjunctures.

Second, this case study illustrated the potential of combinations of research strategies for analyzing sporting behavior on multiple levels simultaneously. Drawing upon published articles and interviews, television coverage, and a variety of ethnographic methods enabled me to link individual (e.g., Lindsey Jacobellis, coaches, teammates) and public (e.g., reactions of snowboarding culture and mainstream America) subjective experiences with the larger social structures in which these experiences were produced (e.g., the cultural, social, political history of snowboarding and its complicated relationship with the Olympics), providing rich, multi-level understandings of Jacobellis' sporting behavior. Moreover, whether one is studying snowboarders, tennis players, body-builders, or boxers, ethnographic methods (e.g., participant-observation, interviews, analysis of cultural sources such as websites, magazines, films) have the potential to shed new light on the social dynamics of the sporting culture and thus the cultural beliefs and values of participants. To further inform understandings of the macro social, cultural, political, and historical contexts within which a particular sporting behavior or event occurred (or is occurring), I also encourage researchers and practitioners to delve into the secondary sources, particularly scholarly sociological or historical research relating to the activity. Perhaps it is in discussions of the multiple contextual levels influencing sporting experiences where psychology, sociology, and history can interact and support each other--rather than argue that one can "encompass the other" (Kohlenberg, 1993, p. 189).

Ultimately, although contextualization does not stand on its own as psychological analysis, context is a useful complementary tool for general psychology and sport psychology alike. In particular, the value of the multi-level contextual approach offered in this article lies in its ability to identify a) the cultural and historical context of a particular sporting behavior; b) issues of multiplicity and intersection; and c) the negotiation of, and changes in, sporting experiences, all of which offer considerable possibility to sport psychology researchers seeking new lines of inquiry and practitioners working meaningfully with clients.


I would like to thank the editors, Tatiana Ryba and Robert Schinke, the anonymous reviewers, and Douglas Booth, Richard Pringle, Bob Rinehart, and Ken Hodge for their helpful comments and suggestions in developing this paper.


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Holly Thorpe

University of Waikato

Corresponding author: Holly Thorpe, Department of Sport & Leisure Studies, University of Waikato, Private Bag, 3105, Hamilton, 3240, New Zealand. Tel: +64-7-8384500, Ext 6528, Email:


(1) Of course, this could also be interpreted as an ego protective bias.

(2) During the late 1990s and early 2000s, I spent approximately 600 days snowboarding on more than 30 mountains in New Zealand, Canada, and America. During that time, I held many roles in the snowboarding culture and industry (i.e., novice, weekend-warrior, committed/core boarder, semi-professional athlete, snowboard instructor, event organizer, and journalist). My physical abilities and knowledge about snowboarding gave me access to the culture and a head start in recognizing the significant issues and in discerning relevant sources.

(3) The mainstream exposure of snowboarding had a significant influence on cultural demographics; snowboarding attracted an influx of participants from around the world and from different social classes and age groups, as well as females and minority groups. More than 18.5 million individuals currently snowboard worldwide (Fastest Growing, 2005), and during the late 1990s and early 2000s, snowboarding was one of America's fastest growing sports (Select Snow, 2004). Although the snowboarding cultural demographics have changed considerably over the past two decades, it should be noted that more than 75 percent of snowboarders are 24 or younger, 70 percent are male, and approximately only 11 percent of American snowboarders are members of racial/ethnic minority groups (NGSA, 2005).
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Date:Sep 1, 2009
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