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Leader & Team Dynamics

Materials presented here are based in part on information in Wann, D. L. (1997). Sport psychology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

The purpose of this Page is to develop an understanding of the intricate relationship between leader style and behavior and sport team performance.

Leader Dynamics


Most successful organizations or teams are managed by effective leaders. A leader may be the expert, the one who's in-charge, the person most respected by her/his followers, the man that controls aversive power or the individual that has the capacity to dispense rewards. In fact, a leader may possess any one, or any combination of the above described sources of leadership powers (Wann, 1997).

Leadership Theory

Leader Traits

Early systematic studies on leadership focused on psychological traits that are common among proven successful leaders. By the end of the 1970s it became quite clear that leaders, such as, Joseph Stalin and Martin Luther King, were successful despite possessing very different traits, leadership styles and goals. Thus, the focus of inquiry has shifted from trait to other possible explanations of successful leadership.

Leader Behaviors

The study of personal leader characteristics did not produce dependable predictions of successful leadership. An alternative explanation to successful leader performance is based on the study of leader behaviors. The premise of this approach is that leaders engage in specific behaviors that contribute to their success. Thus leaders are better defined by what they do as apposed to who they are.

Leadership Styles


A directive or possessive style coach takes full charge of her/his team and its business, and closely monitors athlete behavior and performance.

A permissive or "laissez-faire" style coach delegates responsibility to her/his athletes and thus has more time to personally handle issues that he/she deems most critical.


An autocratic or command style coach maintains single-handed control over decisions and action regarding team business. As pointed out by Wann (1997), a directive autocratic style is effective with young, unexperienced athletes who have a lot to learn and little to offer.

A democratic or interactional style coach involves assistant coaches, team captains and other player representatives in team business related decisions. To maintain credibility, interactional coaches must lead by persuasion, i.e., explain their choice for action rather than force it on their assistants and athletes.

Task- or Person-Oriented

A task- or production- oriented coach, according to Wann (1997), are mostly interested in the task at hand. Precise descriptions of team members' roles and responsibilities are of primary concern to the production-oriented coach. Assistant coaches and athletes alike are expected to be familiar with practice and match protocols.

Person-oriented coaches, on the other hand, emphasize interpersonal ties on the team. Teams headed by a player-coaches, as Wann (1997) suggested, and less competitive teams that display strong social relationships are most likely to have and benefit from this leadership style.

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Theories of Leadership

Fiedler's (1978) Contingency Theory

Utilizing laboratory controlled experiments, Fiedler (1967), tested his contingency theory of leadership. His model includes three situational factors (group atmosphere [good or poor], task structure [high or low], and leader position power [strong or weak]). His analysis predicted group performance based on a leadership style that corrsponds to situational factors and their direction or value. A re-examination of Fiedler's original data during the early 1980s using a different statistical analysis procedure yielded insignificant and unconclusive results. Fiedler's model like Kohlberg's, and the McClelland-Atkinson models is still relevant, not because it provids an accurate theoretical framework, but because it sparked a debate that paved the way to new, more robust theories of leadership (moral development, and motivation).

The Normative Theory of Leadership

Utilizing Vroom and Jago's (1988) normative theory of leadership, Chelladurai (1993) proposed a normative model of decision styles (autocratic, participative, and delegative) in coaching (Wann, 1997). A casual observer of the dynamics on a typical competitive sport team would conclude that coaches make all decisions alone and take the blame for failure. Athletes on the other hand, like to concentrate on their responsibilities as players and prefer not to get involved in coaching. The available research clearly suppports the above observation.

The Attributional Theory of Leadership

The Normative Theory of Leadership

The Multidimensional Theory of Leadership

Team Dynamics

Dream Teams: From Collections of Individuals
to Effective Sport Teams

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Anyone traveling around the world and observing different people can readily notice that human beings spend a great amount of time doing things together in groups. German sociologist, Kurt Lewin coined the term "group dynamics" and created fertile grounds for new ideas such as "group culture" and "group mind."

Yet, do terms like "group mind," or "team spirit" make any sense when examined through a Newtonian perspective of reality? Can the extent of the team's spirit be somehow measured? Is a team's performance a reflection of the added individual talents of its individual members or is a team's performance a reflection of a sum that is greater, or smaller than, the tally of each of the individual performances?

Sir Isaac Newton's motto was to make no hypotheses. Newton's criterion for the validity of any observation was an experimental verification of that observation. Newton would put an observation in writing if he could produce the same result over and over again, and others using the same procedures could also get the same results. Given the fact that one has all the necessary information, according to Newtonian physics, it is possible, in principle, to predict exactly how a given event is going to unfold.

Quantum mechanics (the study of motion of quantities) or the new physics is not an alternative for the old physics but is an extension of it. When the atomic and sub atomic levels are studied, the available data can only predict the probability of a certain event as opposed to the precise event as is the case in Newtonian physics. Subatomic particles cannot be pictured as an object, rather they can be viewed as "tendencies to exist" or "tendencies to happen." Experiments in the subatomic realm demonstrate that there is no way to predict individual events at that level. Therefore, quantum mechanics concerns itself only with group behavior (example of billiard balls vs. subatomic particles).

Psychologists William McDougal and Floyd Allport led two opposing views regarding the "group mind" controversy (Gergen, 1982). F. H. Allport was a harsh critic of the anthropomorphic conception of human groups. In his view only individuals were real and groups or institutions were "sets of ideals, thoughts, and habits repeated in each individual mind and existing only in those minds (Allport, 1924)." Allport's view of interactions between members of a group is analogous to the relationships among billboard balls. They move and hit each other and affect each other in precisely predictable ways, and stay intact throughout the whole process. McDougal, on the other hand, held the position that groups, institutions, and culture formed new realities and forces that could not be explained by strictly adding the particular individual group members' talents and contributions. McDougal's view is analogous to the relationships between subatomic particles which mix and merge with the neighboring particles and create new relationships.

Floyd Allport's individualistic orientation was the dominating view in academia until Mayo (1933) and his associates reported their extensive research at the Hawthorn plant of the Western Electric Company. What started as a project to investigate the relation between conditions of work and the incidence of fatigue among workers ended up changing radically and irrevocably the thinking about industrial worker dynamics. "The role of the leader began to shift from one who directed work to one who enlisted cooperation. The incentive to work was no longer seen as simple and unitary but rather infinitely varied, complex, and changing (Haire, 1954)."

Sports, as most sport scientists would agree, is a microcosm of society--it mirrors the values, structure, and dynamics of the society in which it exists (Coakly, 1994). It is no wonder, therefore, that the concept "group mind" was eventually investigated in the realm of sports and sports teams. Different groups, as well as sport teams, display a great variety of properties such as size, duration, objectives, internal structures, norms and many other aspects. The large variety of properties displayed was the main reason for the difficulty in the formulation of an all encompassing definition of the term "group." Such a definition would have to provide a clear distinction between those social entities to be called "group" and those to be given some other name.

According to Homans (1950) "A group is defined by the interaction of its members." Lewin's (1948) point of view was that a group is best defined as "...a dynamic whole based on interdependence rather than on similarity," and Bass (1960) defined 'group' as "...a collection of individuals whose existence as a collection is rewarding to the individuals." It does not take a sport sociologist to see how each of the above mentioned definitions of 'group' describe some aspects of a sport team.

This presentation focuses on the term first introduced by Kurt Lewin in 1935 "cohesiveness" (Cartwright & Zander, 1968) and the term "group dynamics." The relationship between social cohesion, group dynamics and sport team participation and performance will be examined. Athletes coaches and researchers alike often assumed that when players on a team display unity and "stick together," they will have a greater chance of team success. Although some evidence supports this view (Arnold & Straub, 1972); Ball & Carron, 1976; Carron & Chelladurai, 1981; Gosset & Widmeyer, 1981; Widmeyer & Martens, 1978), there is also research which fails to provide support (Melnick & Chembers, 1974; Ruder & Gill, 1981), or research that support the opposite view; that is--there is a negative relationship between team cohesion and performance (Landers & Lueschen, 1974; Martens & Peterson, 1971).

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Developing the Sport Team Concept

  • proximity
  • distinctiveness
  • similarity, and
  • Team goals and rewards (personal vs. team).

Team Structure

Team Roles: Formal vs. Informal Roles
role clarity, role acceptance, and role performance

Establishment of Group Norms

Norm for Productivity
  • "rate busting" and "malingering"
  • stability of team norms (Jacobs & Campbell, 1961)

Stabilizing Group Structure

Zander (1982, cited in Carron, 1986, p. 82) provides the following suggestions for the stabilization of group structure:

Show individual team members how the group's standards can contribute to the achievement of desirable qualities for the team, more effective team performance, and a greater sense of team unity.

Point out to all team members how their contribution toward developing and maintaining the standards can contribute to the team's success.

Develop a method of assessing whether there is adherence to the group's standards, and then reward those team members who do adhere and sanction those who do not.
  • Your team members will adhere best to those decisions in which they have had input.

Properties Associated with Cohesiveness

  • Attraction to Group/Team (a-t-g)
  • The Bidimensionality of Cohesiveness
    Social vs. task Cohesion
  • Interpersonal Attraction (IA)
    Within and out of team interactions, sociogram, cliques
  • Uniformity/Conformity
    Race, culture, religion....
  • Communication
    Patterns of verbal and nonverbal interactions
  • Perception
    Team vs. nonteam members)
  • Team productivity

Team Cohesiveness Defined

Festinger, Schachter, and Back (1950): "...the sum of the forces that cause members to remain a part of the team."

Gross and Martin (1951): "...the resistance of the group to disruptive forces".

Carron (1982, p. 124): "...dynamic process which is reflected in the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of its goals and objectives." Models of Team Cohesiveness

Life cycle
Cohesiveness: A Positive or a Negative Force?

The Circular Nature of Team Cohesiveness

Correlates of Team Cohesiveness

Practical Implications

Summary and Discussion

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Yukelson's (1984) nine effective ways to enhance coach-athlete communications and team harmony:

  • Open communication channels by providing opportunities for athlete input. Communication is a group process, and mutual trust and respect are essential in order to keep the channels open.
  • Develop pride and a sense of collective identity within the group by setting out realistic team, individual, and subunit goals. Feelings of pride and satisfaction develop when individuals and groups attain challenging but realistic goals.
  • Strive for common expectations on what types of behavior are appropriate. "An organizational philosophy should specify not only the desired objectives the group is striving to achieve but also the strategy, operating procedures, or means to reach these goals as well" (pp. 236-237).
  • Value unique personal contributions by emphasizing the importance of each of the roles that are necessary for group performance.
  • Recognize excellence by rewarding exceptional individual performance. Realistic objectives are set out and each individual clearly understands his or her role, the outstanding execution of that role should be recognized to enhance feelings of pride and commitment in the group and its members.
  • Strive for consensus and commitment by involving the total team in goal-setting activities.
  • Use periodic team meetings to resolve conflicts. Many explosive situations can be resolved by encouraging open communication within the team.
  • Stay in touch with the formal and informal leaders in the team. The team members with high prestige and status are not only a barometer for assessing for implementing necessary changes.
  • Focus on success before discussing any failure. A positive group climate is developed if the positive nature of group and individual performance is highlighted before errors and omittions are discussed.

Examples of specific strategies that may be utilized to facilitate team cohesiveness: (Adapted from Carron & Spink, 1991)


Example of Intervention Strategies Used

Distinctiveness: Solicit suggestions for team name and vote on the submitted titles. Similarly, choose a team logo and uniform. Create chants, slogans, and team routines.

Individual Positions: Assign personal lockers and personal equipment. Let team members pick their own spot in the grid or on the field during warm-up, and encourage them to remain in it throughout year.

Group norms: Have members introduce each other to increase social aspects. Encourage members to become fitness friends. Establish a goal to improve certain aspects of a skill together. Promote a smart work ethic as a group characteristic.

Individual Sacrifices: Use the help of the more skilled team members to improve the performance of the less skilled ones. Ask individual members for their goal for the day and try to accommodate them, even though it may not be the wish of the entire team.

Interaction and Communication: Create activities that require a partner. Make sure that team members practice, at least for part of the time on any given day, with a different partner. Create activities that engage small groups and rotate group members among the mini teams.

Definitions: (Based on lecture notes, and unpublished manuscript by Dr. Merril Melnick, SUNY Brockport, New York, Spring 1982)

1. Clique: "A relatively small, informal, voluntary group (two persons or more), without a formal structure, based on mutual interests and usually friendship. The relationship among members of the clique are usually intimate and cooperative ... The members of a clique share certain common interests that may be at variance with the structure or goals of the larger organization. The structure of social relationships within the clique is not part of and may to some extent run counter to the formal social structure of the group" (Theodorson & Theodorson, 1969).

2. Conformity: "Behavior that is in accord with the expectations of a social group . . . the endeavor is to maintain the group's standards" (Theodorson & Theodorson, 1969).

3. Culture: "The common meanings, the definitions of a situation

Cohesiveness Defined and Conceptualized

1. Cohesiveness as attraction-to-group (a-t-g).
" Cohesiveness of a group is... the resultant of all the forces acting on the members to remain in the group... in other words, cohesiveness is the attraction of membership in a group for its members (Festinger, Schacter, and Beck, 1950).

2. Cohesiveness as interpersonal attraction (IA)
"... regardless of the unique properties in terms of which groups may be described, a group is inescapably made up of individuals. It is suggested, therefore, that when we speak of a group as being attractive, we are referring actually to the attractiveness of the members of the group" (Lott, 1961)

"... that group property which is inferred from the number and strength of mutual positive attitudes among the members of a group" (Lott and Lott, 1965)

"When the group dynamicist speaks of the 'attraction of the group for the individual' does he not mean just attraction of the individuals for one another? If individuals are all drawn toward one another, are they not ipso facto drawn to the group?" (Allport, 1962)

"Cohesiveness and attractiveness are two similar ways of describing the same thing. It seems obvious that if a collection is more attractive to each of its members, each of its members must be more attracted to each other" (Bass, 1960).

3. Cohesiveness as intrinsic attraction (a-t-g) and instrumental attraction (social satisfaction).
"Group cohesion refers to the relative attraction, both intrinsic and instrumental, of a small group for its individual members... Cohesion should be reviewed as a bidimentional property of small groups considering of intrinsic attraction or 'sociometric cohesion' (a-t-g) and, instrumental attraction or 'social satisfaction' (IA) (Enoch and McLemore, 1965)

4. Cohesiveness as the unification of the group field.
"Cohesiveness appears to be a group concept but has, in reality, been dealt with on an individual level...Attraction-to-group is on a lower level of abstraction than cohesiveness... It might be conceivable to develop a concept of 'cohesiveness' which... refers to the group as a whole and not only to the individuals composing it. Such a concept, however, should not include a-t-g. To prevent contamination with individual motivation, the tipological approach seems to be more fruitful. The essence of cohesiveness should not be the staying in or leaving of the group but should be related to the degree of unification of the group field" (Bergen and Kolkebakker, 1959)

"...the ability of individual members to work together... The coach often refers to this ability as teamwork, togetherness, or morals, while the researcher refers to it as group interaction or group cohesiveness... The ability of individuals to effectively interact with teammates to obtain a group-desired goal has been recognized as contributing to team effectiveness" (Martens and Peterson, 1971)

5. Cohesiveness as uniformity/conformity.
"Although there may be numerous definitions of team cohesion, each of which would be correct, for our purpose, we define it as a group of individuals thinking, feeling, and acting as a single unit" (Tutko and Richards, 1971).


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  • Bass, B. M. (1960). Leadership, psychology, and organization behavior. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers. (Ch. 18, "Interaction Potential and Group Effectiveness," pp. 371-400)
  • Carron, A.V. (1980). Social psychology of sport. Ithaca, NY: Mouvement.
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