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Team Cohesion within College Athletics: Bonding or Isolation?

  • 12/14/2016 2:31:00 AM
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Team Cohesion within College Athletics: Bonding or Isolation?

Arden Anderson, M.S.

The over 460,000 student-athletes competing in college athletics across the United States do so in a team environment, which undoubtedly impacts their experience in and out of sport. In the name of "team bonding", college coaches work very hard to build more cohesion within their teams with the hopes of improving athletic performance, since it is generally accepted that higher levels of team cohesion generate improved athletic performance, athlete satisfaction, and overall well-being.

However, recent evidence suggests the relationship between cohesion and performance may not be additive but curvilinear. That is, there is an optimal level of cohesion at which performance is maximized - too little cohesion produces separation among team members and too much cohesion leads to groupthink - both of which decrease team performance. Therefore, stronger cohesion is not always beneficial and can in fact be harmful. Researchers need to help coaches better understand the nuances of building cohesion so their athletes will be better performers on and off the court.

One consequence of overly cohesive teams may be that athletes are isolated from other people, groups, or experiences on campus. In fact, it is well documented that athletes are academically (e.g., funneled into select majors), geographically (e.g., dorms, athletic buildings). temporally (e.g., practices, games, travel), and culturally ( e.g., race, international status) isolated from the larger student body and overall campus community. This isolation may have an impact both on the athlete's personal quality of life and sport performance. While the majority of research in this area has focused on African American athletes, especially in revenue sports, these same practices are likely impacting other athletes as well, yet these athletes have received little to no attention.

So, researchers must explore the potential implications of overly high team cohesion in order to best inform practice within college athletics and improve the college athlete experience (which may also inform other student groups' experiences). By exploring the experiences and perspectives of the athletes themselves (not coaches or experts), researchers in concert with practitioners can inform the ideal "look" of team cohesion so that it works to improve performance without the accompanying social isolation. Further investigation is necessary to identify potential differences in the experiences of athletes based on sport, gender, and race. Moreover, this research has potential policy implications that will allow athletes to be better integrated into the larger university culture. Ultimately, this research will be able to contribute to the conversation of how to effectively manage teams and individuals within teams to achieve optimal outcomes for both.

For Further Reading:

1. Adler, P., & Adler, P.A. (1985). From idealism to pragmatic detachment: The academic performance of college athletes. Sociology of Education, 58, 241-250.

2. Rovio, E., Eskola, J., Kozub, S.A., Duda, J.L., & Lintunen, T. (2009). Can high group cohesion be harmful? A case study of a junior ice-hockey team. Small Group Research, 40(4), 421-435.

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