Case study

Optimising Performance and Training: An Interactionist Perspective 

Sometimes it seems like individuals are 'born to perform' - they have a natural talent and will excel within it, not matter what. In contrast, a team of University of Derby researchers are showing this to be a myth by evidencing the importance of ‘nurture’ in developing talented performers.

Our research has shown that continually taking part in practice and developing the ability to maintain or outperform others under difficult situations is critical to succeed in competitive sport.

The research also applies to other performance settings, such as academia, business, military or the workplace. Additionally, the research team have considered and built on the nurture perspective, embracing the idea that no one model fits all. Instead, they believe that given appropriate support resources, all individuals can fulfil their performance potential.

Aim of the project

The aim of the project is to understand the influence of personality and individual differences on an individual’s training and performance. The team also explore specific factors such as psychological skills, compassionate mind, and leadership. These characteristics increase the advantages and reduce the disadvantages of an individual’s born characteristics in contexts of training and performance. This is the interactionist perspective.

The project in detail

The team of researchers, led by Dr Shuge Zhang, have produced several ground-breaking studies in this research area. One of these studies includes the removal of confusion around the fluctuation in individuals’ performance.

In some situations, when people with a high level of narcissism lack the opportunity for personal glory, their performance does not match with their self-view of being exceptional. Also, when there is an opportunity for reward or recognition, people with high narcissism tend to excel and outperform their competitors.

In addition, the team’s research demonstrated the importance of motivation in maintaining high levels of performance and superior task processing under pressure. In other words, individuals high in narcissism can be great performers but only when they are motivated to dominate.   
Building on the identified link between narcissism and performance (Zhang, Roberts et al., 2020), the researchers explored how specific psychological skills may help individuals with narcissistic traits train better (Zhang, Roberts et al., 2021). This is because narcissists’ craving for lionisation of the self (in other words getting a lot of attention and approval as if they were famous) may make them less likely to engage in the relatively mundane, tiring, and tedious training environment.

The research found that using goal setting was particularly helpful for narcissistic individuals, especially for those lacking in a motivation to fulfil dominance. Goal setting helped them to look forward to opportunities for glory and to commit more fully to routine training and performance. This line of research also considers the conceptualisation and establishment of differences between self-inflated (overconfidence debilitating training and performance) and dominant (willingness for dominance boosting training and performance) aspects of narcissism in performance settings.   
Narcissistic traits are associated with performance potential. This includes seeing challenging performance situations as an opportunity for personal glory, rather a threat. Given the high level of narcissistic traits in competitive athletes, the researchers further investigated how they can reduce possible risks associated with narcissism that might prevent the fulfilment of personal success in sport.

One of these possible risks is intentional doping or the use of banned substances to facilitate training and for performance enhancement (Zhang & Boardley, 2022). An individual with high narcissistic traits has a desperate need to seek out opportunities for personal glory (being an exceptional player and to beat competitors) and this may increase the likelihood of doping to increase work rate in training and improve performance.

The research found that various risks for doping appear more prominent in individuals high in narcissism, such as:

More importantly in this research, the team found that adopting a compassionate mind that acknowledges adversities, failures, or negative emotions and experience as a common, shared element in competitive sport can help mitigate narcissism-associated risk for doping. In other words, when approaching negative events in sport (for example injury, deselection, setbacks) with a more accepting and gentler mind, athletes high in narcissism are more likely to recuperate and re-engage in routine training and performance, rather than risking their sport career taking banned substances for training and performance enhancement.

Along this new line of research, researchers at Derby are leading a multi-country collaborative programme into psychology-based anti-doping intervention funded by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
In addition to these highlighted studies from this project, the team have undertaken more research exploring strategies for optimising performance and training grounded on the interaction between person/nature and environment/nurture.  


Findings from this project have been shared with collaborating sport clubs, organisations, and at annual conferences of national/international societies such as the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences and the European College of Sport Science.

The project has contributed a book chapter in the new Chinese Higher Education textbook “Theory and Practice in Sport and Exercise Psychology”, published by Sun Yat-Sen University Press, China. Also, two book chapters are being developed, one with Routledge on talent development and the other with McGraw Hill on research handbook in sport and exercise psychology.

We look forward to disseminating findings from our current multi-country study (funded by WADA) through various national anti-doping agencies to inform anti-doping interventions for cleaner, healthier sport, and are continuing our project to generate new knowledge for optimising performance and training.  

Key collaborators and funding


Research outputs

Zhang, S., Beattie, S., Pitkethly, A., & Dempsey, C. (2019). Lead me to train better: Transformational leadership’s moderation of the negative relationship between athlete personality and training behaviors. The Sport Psychologist, 33, 119–128.   

Zhang, S., Roberts, R., Woodman, T., & Cooke, A. (2020). I am great, but only when I also want to dominate: Maladaptive narcissism moderates the relationship between adaptive narcissism and performance under pressure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 42, 323–335.    

Zhang, S., Roberts, R., Woodman, T., Pitkethly, A., English, C., & Nightingale, D. (2021). Foresee the glory and train better: Narcissism, goal-setting, and athlete training. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 10, 381–393.   

Zhang, S., & Boardley, I. (2022). The ‘selves’ in banned performance enhancement: Investigating narcissism and compassion in the context of doping. Performance Enhancement & Health, 100243.    

Zhang, S., Wang, L., He, Y., & Liu, J.-D. (2023). The divergent effects of resilience qualities and resilience support in predicting pre-competition anxiety and championship performance. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 1–9.