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The Psychology Of Team Sports

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Published: 24th Apr 2017 in Sports

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Hardy and Grace, (1997) outlined the importance of team building research in sport when they suggested whether a team is successful or not is frequently attributed to the effectiveness of their teamwork. To develop the effective team many team building programs attempt to increase cohesion amongst a group as team cohesion can affect performance (Eys et al, 2005). Different areas of group dynamics can be used to increase team cohesion, this section of the report will focus on the research conducted on leadership, role ambiguity and goal setting.

Leadership is an important component for developing cohesion in sports teams (Carron et al, 2005). It has been suggested that effective leadership is a vital contributor to member satisfaction (Reimer & Chellandurai, 1995). Leadership behaviours and styles adopted can have a big impact on team cohesion and subsequent performance. (Carron et al. 2005)

An early study, investigating the relationship between (the coaches) leadership behaviours and team cohesion within sports teams, found adopting a democratic style produced higher levels of task cohesion (Lee et al. 1993). In addition, a variety of studies reported that an increase in social support behaviour increased task cohesion (Lee et al. 1993, Westre & Weiss, 1991; Riemar & Chellandurai, 1995). One study, Riemar & Chellandurai, (1995) went further and examined the leadership behaviours preferred and perceived by players depending on their position. They found defensive athletes perceived and preferred higher levels of social support and democratic and autocratic styles then the offensive athletes. They also found member satisfaction was greatly influenced by social support.

More recent research has tended to focus on the role of the athlete as a leader within the team, for example, the captain. Research has suggested athlete leaders are in fact better than coaches at administering leadership behaviours, such as; a democratic decision making style and social support (Loughead and Hardy, 2005). What’s more, further research has been conducted to assess different types of athlete leadership. For example, Loughead et al, (2006) discovered two types of leader within a sports team; a team captain and a peer leader (supplies leadership to at least 2 team members). In addition, Eys et al, (2007) investigated how 218 athletes perceived the athlete leader distributions within their sports teams. Their results suggest that members of a team are more satisfied when 3 leadership roles (social, task, external) are performed to the same extent regardless of how many are leaders present within the team.

Carron et al, (2005) identified individual clarification of role responsibilities to be one of the most important factors in sport. The vast majority of research on role states in team sports has been on role ambiguity (role clarity) and its relation to performance using the conceptual model proposed by Beauchamp et al, (2002).

The effect role ambiguity had on both task cohesion and task self efficacy was investigated by Eys & Carron (2001). They concluded that members within basketball teams who were unsure of their role responsibilities, reported lower levels of attraction towards the team and felt their team was less unified in their task approach.

Another study, Eys et al, (2003) demonstrated that team member’s perceptions of role ambiguity decreased throughout a competitive season. Additionally, although perceptions of role ambiguity are individual, members of a team could share the same beliefs. Finally, new editions to the team are more likely to perceive role ambiguity compared to experienced members of the team at the start of the season. Nevertheless, as the authors suggested, the results of this study will be difficult to apply to other team sport settings (e.g age group, competitive standards) as it was undertaken on a homogeneous population (Eys et al, 2003).

It has also been reported that greater role ambiguity and role clarity could affect an athletes’ self efficacy, satisfaction and performance. These factors could not only affect the individual but the team as a whole (Forsyth, 1999). Beauchamp & Bray (2001) investigated university athlete’s perceptions of role ambiguity and role conflict among their respective sports teams. Results demonstrated that members who perceived greater levels of role ambiguity and conflict had lower levels of efficacy and were less inclined to perform their role responsibilities. This is concurrent with Bandura, (1997) who suggested a decrease in persistence and effort will occur if the athlete is unclear of their role. The associated performance is also likely to suffer (Bandura, 1997) as indicated by Beauchamp et al, (2002) who found a negative relationship between role efficacy and role performance. Additionally, the relationship between leadership and role ambiguity could prove further understanding of this subject (Eys et al, 2003).

The more detailed, specific and challenging yet realistic a goal is the more effective it will be (Gould, 1993). However, research found team members often set themselves unclear and generally descriptive goals (Brawley et al, 1992).

In addition, when Dawson et al, (2002) interviewed varsity athletes to determine their goal setting habits, they found team members set personal goals and their respective teams had group goals. Research has indicated that team as opposed to individual goals are better for improving team sport performance (Johnson et al, 1997). The authors demonstrated how subjects who set team goals improved their bowling performance in cricket, yet subjects who set personal goals did not.

The addition of team goals to a group has proven successful in the past. Lee (1988) found that adding team goals to female hockey teams had a positive effect on team performance. This was concurrent with Senecal et al’s, (2008) study of female basketball players. Over a season long intervention, they found team cohesion significantly increased in the intervention group compared to the control groups when they utilised team goal setting. Furthermore, Mellalieu et al. (2006) found a goal setting program with professional rugby players to have a positive impact on performance. It has been suggested that goal setting can enhance team cohesion by providing a team focus (Widemeyer & Ducharme, 1997). Focusing on one goal can improve group communication, commitment and satisfaction, improving group cohesion and subsequent performance (Carron & Spink, 1993)

Nevertheless, there have not been many studies carried out in sport that have investigated the effect of team goals on team performance (Widemeyer & Ducharme, 1997), with the majority of studies conducted outside of the sport setting (Weingart, 1992).

Team building intervention

A team goal setting program was chosen as the intervention topic to improve team cohesion (see appendix a). Early research from Widemeyer et al, (1992), as cited in Widemeyer & Ducharme (1997) found athletes felt having a team goal was the most significant contributor to task cohesion from a choice of 35 variables. More recently, Stevens & Bloom (2003) found team goals to be the most effective topic to utilise in a team building intervention. The following team building intervention applied principles from Eys et al, (2006) in Senecal et al. (2008), Widemeyer & Ducharme, (1997) and Widemyer & McGuire, (1996) in Carron et al, (2005).

Step 1: Developing Long term goals

Firstly, the athletes and coaches will work together to decide the long term goal of the team (Kyllo & Landers, 1995) for example, achieve a top 3 position in the league. This will take place during an all day workshop during the first week of pre season. The athletes will work in small sub groups of 3-4 and discuss long team goals for the team (Eys et al, 2005). Once the sub groups have decided a long term goal, the coach will write the goals on the white board and the team will discuss together (Dale & Wrisberg, 1996), narrowing down to one specific and measurable goal (Gould, 1993). The Long term goal will then be posted in the changing rooms for the remainder of the season, to help motivate the athletes (Weldon & Weingart, 1988).

Step 2: developing short term outcome goals

To achieve the long term goal, specific and measurable (Carron et al, 2005) short term goals will be set as stepping stones (Kingston & Hardy, 1997), for example, win the next 3 out of 5 games. To decide the goals, the coach will remind the players of last season’s statistics (eg. Wins, losses, league position) (Widemeyer & Ducharme, 1997). After the long term goals are decided, the players will use these statistics and repeat the same procedure as in step 1 by getting into subgroups (Eys et al, 2005). Once discussed, 5-6 specific and achievable short term outcome goals will be decided (Widemeyer & Mcguire, 1996)

Step 3: Developing short term performance goals

In addition, the players will set performance goals during a second all day workshop, 2 weeks into the pre season. The use of multiple goal setting strategies has been shown to be more beneficial to performance (Filby et al, 1999). For this intervention, the players will only be working towards team goals as previous research has suggested team goals are better for improving team performance (Johnson et al, 1997) and that individually hidden goals have no significant impact on performance (Kyllo & Landers, 1995).

The performance goals will be decided through the use of performance profiling (Dale & Wrisberg, 1996). This will be a group profile for the team as a whole. Firstly, the players will discuss what characteristics they believe a successful football team has. The players will express their opinions to the coach while they write them down onto a white board. The characteristics will need to be specific, so if there too general they will be re-evaluated until clearer. When the athletes and coach are happy that at least ten appropriate characteristics are on the white board, the players will individually and anonymously write all the characteristics off the white board on to paper. Examples of characteristics could be; putting 100% effort into every training session and game, winning over 80% of their aerial battles. The players will then proceed to evaluate their team’s characteristics between a scale of 1-10, with 1 being weak and 10 being strong. Once completed, each characteristic will be calculated as a mean. The lowest mean scores will be the areas developed into performance goals that the team will aim to achieve. Additionally, the coach will use the same procedure to demonstrate their perceptions of the team. At the next group meeting the team will discuss the results (lowest scores) and agree on 5-6 performance goals to improve their perceived weaknesses (Dale & Wrisberg, 1996).

When the specific performances goals are established, the team needs to decide realistic yet challenging target levels for these goals (eg. more than 5 shots on target per game) (Carron et al, 2005). To make sure their realistic and challenging the coach will again provide the athletes with statistics from last season (eg. shots on goal, tackles won). The sub group procedure used in step 1 and 2 will be utilized to achieve this (Eys et al, 2005). After negotiations the team will conclude the appropriate targets for their team. This process will be repeated during the middle and the end point of the competitive calendar (Dale & Wrisberg, 1996) so that the performance goals can be updated throughout the season

Step 4: Monitoring and evaluation of short and long term goals

The Long and short term goals will be continually monitored throughout the intervention. Prior to every match and practice session (1 of each per week) throughout the pre and competitive season the team will be reminded of the goals they set for themselves in attempt to provide a focus for the team and help motivate the players (Weldon & Weingart, 1988). To do this team goals will be written on the white board in the changing rooms, the coach will then highlight the importance of these goals during their team talk.

In addition, after each match team statistics (eg. goals scored and corners won in that game) and the statistics for the agreed performance indices will be posted in the changing rooms. The team members can then look at the statistics and measure their progress towards their target levels.

Step 5: Updating team goals

After every 3-5 games, the coach and players will work with the intervention specialist on evaluating and possibly updating the team goals if needed, eg. Removing or adding performance goals and changing the target level (Senecal et al, 2008). This will be achieved using their performance statistics from the previous 3-5 games and the characteristics of their next 3-5 opponents (Widemeyer & McGuire, 1996). Again, the procedure demonstrated in step 1 will be used to administer the changes.

Stage 6: Praise continued progress toward team goals

During the intervention the coach will continually openly praise his team when they do well and progress toward their team goals, feedback on goal progress may enhance the use of team goals (Widemeyer & Ducharme, 1997).

Step 7: post intervention check.

1 week after the intervention was completed; A 5 question, post intervention questionnaire (Stevens & Bloom, 2002) was completed by every player to assess the effectiveness of the intervention (Senecal et al, 2008). In addition, 1 and 3 months after the intervention is completed interviews will be conducted with each player (Stevens & Bloom, 2003). Players will be instructed to relax and openly discuss their opinions of the TBI’s effectiveness.

Critical analysis of team building interventions in sport

Team building interventions are designed to improve group performance by increasing group cohesiveness (Carron et al, 1997). However previous studies have produced mixed results on the effectiveness of team building interventions (TBI) on improving cohesion. Some were effective (Voight & Callaghan, 2001; Senecal et al, 2008; McClure & Foster 1991; Mellalieu et al, 2006) and some were unsuccessful (Prapavessis et al, 1996; Cogan & Petrie, 1996; Stevens & Bloom, 2002). One study, Steven & Bloom (2003) found their TBI to be effective during the pre season but not throughout the competitive season.

Nevertheless, Brawley & Paskevich (1997) have highlighted many methodological concerns with the research conducted using team building interventions. For example, the pre-test, post-test experimental design employed by various TBI (Voight & Callaghan 2001: Senecal et al, 2008; Prapevessis et al, 1996; Stevens & Bloom, 2002; Mellalieu et al, 2006) makes it difficult to determine the effectiveness of the intervention. Although three of these studies were effective (Voight & Callaghan 2001: Senecal et al, 2008; Mellalieu et al, 2006), due to the absence of measures throughout the competitive season, although likely it makes it difficult to determine whether or not it was the TBI that improved performance or outside interference, questioning the validity of their results. For example, Brawley & Paskevich, (1997) suggested leadership change; a less competitive calendar or the loss of an unsettling member could have all influenced team cohesion independent of the TBI.

Some studies that employed a quasi – experimental design (Cogan & Petrie, 1996; Stevens & Bloom, 2003) reported their TBI to be ineffective at improving team cohesion. The design could be the reason for their lack of significant results. A quasi – experimental design rarely includes random assignment making it difficult to determine whether factors such as differences in coaching style and team atmosphere affected the results (Stevens & Bloom, 2003). Randomly assigning members to different teams, allows experimenters to observe which treatment of the TBI infers change (Brawley & Paskevich, 1997). One study employed an experimental design (Mclure & Foster, 1991). The results of their study suggested their intervention was effective at increasing cohesion among gymnasts. The positive results of their study could be attributed to the experimental design as this method includes random assignment. Therefore they were able to notice a difference in cohesion amongst randomly assigned athletes without interference from some of the problems mentioned above.

Furthermore, some studies did not utilise a control group, one was effective at improving cohesion (Voight & Callaghan 2001) another was ineffective (Bloom & Stevens 2002). The absence of a control group however, questions the validity of Voight & Callaghan’s (2001) results. As suggested by Brawley & Paskevich, (1997) it is difficult to establish whether their TBI was actually the cause for the improvement in performance as there were no control or placebo groups to compare the results to. In addition, as Stevens & Bloom (2002) did not include a control group, whether or not cohesion levels would have decreased over the season and therefore whether or not the intervention was helpful to the team is unclear.

Additionally, the duration of the TBI is another methodological concern identified by Brawley & Paskevich (1997). It has been suggested interventions are fairly slow processes (French & Bell, 1984) and at least 1 season of a TBI is needed to produce results of any significance (Brawley & Paskevich, 1997). Therefore the results of studies that lasted less than a season (Prapavessis et al, 1996; Mellalieu et al, 2006) may not portray the long-term effects of the intervention. Studies that have lasted at least a season (Senecal et al, 2008; Mclure & Foster 1991; Stevens & Bloom, 2002; Voight & Callaghan, 2001; Stevens & Bloom, 2003; Cogan & Petrie, 1996) are more likely to provide clearer results. In addition, although the vast majority some of these studies administered post intervention checks (Cogan & Petrie, 1996; Senecal et al, 2008; Mellalieu et al, 2006; Stevens & Bloom; Voight & Callaghan, 2001; Prapevessis et al, 1996; Stevens & Bloom, 2002) none of these studies administered any questionnaires 3 or 6 months after the intervention to examine the long term effects of their intervention.

Sampling size can be another methodological concern for researches conducting TBI’s. Two studies had a very small sample size (Mellalieu et al, 2006: 5 participants; McClure & Foster, 1991:15 participants. Some studies have only used a slightly larger sized sample consisting of no more than 45 participants (Cogan & Petrie, 1996; Voight & Callaghan, 2001; Stevens & Bloom, 2003; Stevens & Bloom, 2002). Only 2 studies have used relatively large sample sizes: Senecal et al, (2008); (n=86) & Prappevessis et al, (1996); (n=137). Nevertheless, all studies have reported sufficient details such as gender, age, sport and team ability (Cogan & Petrie, 1996; Voight & Callaghan, 2001; Stevens & Bloom, 2003; Stevens & Bloom, 2002; McClure & Foster, 1991; Mellalieu et al, 2006; Senecal et al, 2008; Prapavessis et al, 1996) However, some of the characteristics reported in the studies can be vague. Many studies have failed to state appropriate details, such as race (Voight &Callaghan, 2001; Prapevessis et al, 1996; Senecal et al, 2008; McClure & Foster, 1991; Stevens & Bloom, 2002; Mellalieu et al, 2006). Furthermore, the majority of studies also seem to be generalized to similar populations. For example, the majority of studies were conducted on females (Voight &Callaghan, 2001; Senecal et al, 2008; McClure & Foster, 1991; Cogan & Petrie, 1996; Steven & Bloom, 2003; Stevens & Bloom, 2002), on ages ranging between 18-24 (Voight &Callaghan, 2001; McClure & Foster, 1991; Cogan & Petrie, 1996; Steven & Bloom, 2003; Mellalieu et al, 2006) and on high school or university teams (Cogan & Petrie, 1996; Steven & Bloom, 2003; McClure & Foster, 1991; Senecal et al, 2008). In addition, the studies that indicated the race of the subjects were predominately on Caucasians (Cogan & Petrie, 1996; Steven & Bloom, 2003). As these studies are on similar populations the generalizability of these interventions is limited. Therefore, the results are difficult to apply to a wide range of sports teams, as member characteristics such as age, gender, race and ability can vary greatly per team.

Previous studies on sport teams have had the coach/manager as the main facilitator of the intervention, working with the intervention specialist. As a result, Some TBI’s have taken a more indirect approach (Prappevessis et al, 1996) or used a combination of indirect and direct models (Steven & Bloom, 2003; Cogan & Petrie, 1996; Mellalieu et al, 2006). However, Brawley & Paskevich (1997) identified indirect models to have weaknesses. The authors explain that coaches/managers may not be capable of undertaking a TBI as they do not have the knowledge, time and commitment to make it successful. On the other hand, direct models have the advantage of often allowing the intervention specialist to work directly with the participants. In addition, the team members become more involved in the decision making process during the intervention. Bloom, (1996), suggested the involvement of the athletes is a key factor in improving team performance. From the four studies reviewed that utilised a direct team building model, 3 were effective at improving cohesion (Senecal et al, 2008; Voight & Callaghan 2001; McClure & Foster, 1991) with only one unsuccessful (Stevens & Bloom, 2003).


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