From figure skater to doctoral researcher

My PhD fieldwork journey

In September 2014, I started my doctoral research on high performance coach education in the UK. The idea was to conduct ethnographic fieldwork to explore the perceptions of those who deliver and consume the programs. With my supervisor’s support, I launched myself into the project, yet I did not expect how challenging the first eighteen months of fieldwork would be.

“Hello. I am a figure skater. My name is Petra. I was born in Croatia and I am living in Austria.”

I was two years old when, in 1991, my parents aimed to escape their troubles by moving from their birth country, with my sister and me, to start a better life in Austria. Growing up, we spoke Croatian and practiced Croatian traditions. However, in public, it was important to my parents that my sister and I fit in. I learned German as my second mother tongue, I visited a private school and I engaged in hobbies – one of which, figure skating, became my everything.

By the time I was twelve years old, my training was 15-20 hours per week. I defined myself as a figure skater – it was the one thing I called myself, besides explaining that I am a Croatian living in Austria.

“From figure skater to the girl that’s different to the woman, who felt she can’t do it.”

In 2013, I moved to the UK to further my studies. I noticed I was different to other girls, but I thought, “You’re an international student who has spent most of your childhood at ice rinks. Of course you’re different.”

When I started to conduct my fieldwork, however, this feeling of being different turned into an overwhelming sensation. At my first data collection weekend, I missed the enthusiasm I experienced when I had first planned my fieldwork. I was now feeling lonely, isolated, and sometimes so lethargic that I struggled to function on the day before a fieldwork trip. “What is wrong with me?” I asked myself, whenever I sensed panic arising inside my chest.

While the structured and planned life I had led since childhood had made me a highly organized individual, it had also embedded a strong drive towards perfection. It was the sense of being out of control that frightened me. Gradually, I realized what had seemed like a normal way to approach life had become the biggest hurdle in completing my PhD.

The lessons I have learned

After months of low mood and self-pity on days of data collection, I questioned myself: “Who am I? Who do I want to be beyond the figure skater Petra?” I had to admit to myself that I was responsible for not moving past the role of a figure skater when I had ended my sporting career.

As an athlete, my parents had allowed me to remain in a bubble, where the sole focus was to strive for “best performances”. Unfortunately, I have taken this to an obsessive level, raising the expectations of who I am and the work I do to an unachievable standard. I now realize that my PhD fieldwork forced me to take things as they come. It triggered something inside me that initially embarrassed me. I learned, however, that my actions are not always about delivering “perfect” results.

Today, I see my PhD fieldwork as a journey that allowed me to research a topic I am passionate about. Most importantly, however, it prompted me to face my inner sense of belonging and turn barriers into features that make me who I am: Petra, who was a figure skater.


Petra is a lecturer in the Department of Exercise & Sport Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. With a background in competitive figure skating, Petra has strong interest in elite sporting environments, and is currently completing her doctoral research on the impact of high performance coach education in the UK. She has experience in conducting ethnographic fieldwork, working with stakeholders and presenting her research at international conferences.