Unit 2A.4

Social Psychology of Sport

Learning objectives

At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

2A.4.1       Social facilitation

4    Understand the reasons for social facilitation effects

4    Understand home-ground advantage for individual team performance

4    Consider home advantage and different sports

2A.4.2       Team cohesion

4    Understand factors associated with team cohesion (task and social)

4    Consider cohesion and satisfaction in a team and how to measure team cohesion

4    Demonstrate awareness of cohesion and performance in relation to type of sport


Suggestions for coursework

‘Straws and peas’ experiment                                       Activity, page 31

2A.4.1  Social facilitation

Sport psychology is the application of psychological principles and techniques to assist athletes in developing athletic skills and enhancing performance in competitive situations. Sport psychologists help athletes prevent problems and overcome difficulties when they happen. In this way sport psychologists help them to increase their chances of achieving peak performances. Sport psychologists are also involved in assisting athletes in their personal growth and development. They assist coaches in their approaches to working with individual athletes and groups of athletes as well as improving their motivation.

One area of psychological research that has been applied to sports performance is the form of social influence known as social facilitation. Social facilitation is an effect on performance caused by the presence of others.

Psychological research into social facilitation


Would you perform differently in front of an audience? Write down any ideas about how your performance might change, and try to suggest reasons for this change.


Triplett (1898) noticed that cyclists doing the same time trials obtained better times when other riders were either in direct competition with them or were riding with them, than when they were alone. He carried out an experiment which supported his initial observations — later recognised as the first experimental investigation in the field of ‘sports’ psychology. Triplett referred to this effect as ‘Dynamogeny’, now known as social facilitation.

Allport (1924) broadened to scope of Triplett’s findings by investigating whether social facilitation occurs in non-competitive situations. He carried out a study setting multiplication tasks for students but instructing them not to compete with each other. He still found that performance was improved in the condition when they were merely working alongside others. However, although there was increased quantity and increased speed in these tasks, there was a reduction in quality of performance. Dashiell (1935) found that co-action effects occur even when individuals are simply told that others are performing the same task at the same time elsewhere.

These studies looked at the effect of working with others (co-action). Travis (1925) found that social facilitation can occur with a passive audience. He trained people in a hand-eye co-ordination task until they reached a certain standard. They did 10 trials in front of a passive audience and 10 trials alone. The results were that most did better in front of an audience. However a later study by Pessin (1933) showed that the effect of a passive audience was not always beneficial. He asked people to learn a list of seven nonsense syllables (e.g. NIV) either alone or in front of an audience. The results were that people took longer in front of an audience and also made more mistakes.

In fact, much work that has been carried out on social facilitation has produced results that are contradictory. On some occasions it seemed that performance was enhanced (i.e. social facilitation), whilst in other tasks performance was impaired (social inhibition). Whether the presence of others affects performance or not depends on a number of factors, but in particular how complex the task is and how well learned it is. The following table summarises the findings.

Table 1: Influence of nature of task on task performance


Effect on performance

Nature of the task



Task complexity



Extent well-learned




& Reading: Gross pages 447-448


Conduct an informal survey among any of your friends that have taken part in competitive sport. Have they noticed the effect of an audience. Has it helped or hindered? Did they notice a change as they became well practised?


Explanations of social facilitation effects

There are a number of different theories that have been put forward to explain social facilitation:

4    Zajonc (1965): ‘Drive theory of social facilitation’. This states that the presence of others causes arousal, which has an ‘energising effect’ on performance and acts as a drive. Increased arousal increases the likelihood that an individuals dominant response will occur. If the task is simple or well-learned, the dominant response is the correct response and this leads to improved performance. If the task is new or complex, the dominant response is the incorrect response and this leads to impaired performance.

4    Cottrell (1972): ‘Role of evaluation apprehension’. Increased arousal was a learned response to the presence of others, and not an innate one as Zajonc suggested. People are aroused in the presence of audiences because they have learned to associate the presence of others with performance evaluation. This can result in positive or negative outcomes. Audiences produce ‘evaluation apprehension’ which enhances arousal.

4    Baron (1986): ‘Distraction-conflict model’. Suggests that performance is affected by attentional conflict between the task and others. Well known or simple tasks, being more automatic, require less attention and so will be less distracted by the presence of others. Difficult tasks however, require more attention and so are more open to disruption.

& Reading: Gross pages 448-451

!SAQ 1

a)     Explain what is meant by the term ‘social facilitation’.

b)     Distinguish between audience and co-action effects.

c)      Outline two explanations of social facilitation.



Conduct an experiment to assess the extent of social facilitation. You will need some straws, a quantity of dried peas and two saucers. The task is to transfer 15 peas from one saucer to another using only a straw to carry them across. Do this three times alone and three times in front of an audience, counterbalancing the trials. Time each trial and find the mean of each condition (i.e. alone vs. audience). Is there a significant difference?


Audiences and sport performance

Researchers have questioned whether there is a relationship between the type of audience and facilitation. For example, is it better to play in front of other expert performers or is a less knowledgeable (and therefore less critical) audience to be preferred? The following characteristics are important regarding audience characteristics:

4    Liked or disliked peers have different effects, depending on the situation and the performer’s competency. It seems that performing in front of friends is more threatening than being observed by strangers or disliked peers if the task is new or has a high potential for embarrassment. When skill is developed, however, friends may enhance performance to a greater extent than other observers.

4    Type and expectations of the audience (i.e. pro-winning or pro-human relations) has an effect. Pro-winning audiences facilitated a dominant response, whereas pro-human audiences inhibited the dominant competitive response.

4    An evaluative audience leads subjects to devote more attention to the progress of the automatic task sequences which results in improved performances. In more complex tasks the presence of an evaluative audience tends to impair performance because the subject is distracted (Semin, 1980).

Mediating factors

The relationship between audience and performance is influenced by a number of factors. These can be conveniently divided into situational and personal characteristics.

Situation characteristics: Research has shown that previous success or failure on a task in front of an audience can lead to poorer or enhanced performance in front of an audience on other tasks. Generally however, experience on performance in front of an audience will lead to the perception of a reduced threat in that situation later on. It is, therefore, beneficial to simulate performance conditions in training by working with an audience.

Personal characteristics: High anxiety prone individuals tend to perform more poorly in the presence of others than when alone, and vice versa for low anxiety individuals. Age and sex may also have an effect. It is recommended that young athletes should not be subjected to high pressure audience events. There is some evidence to suggest that females are more susceptible to social influences than males.

Coping with audience effects

In summary, a number of techniques have been suggested to help performers cope with the potentially negative effects of an audience:

4    Mental rehearsal

4    Using relaxation techniques (e.g. diaphragm breathing)

4    Positive thinking

4    Selective attention to relevant cues

4    Concentration

4    Including spectators in practice situations

4    Progressing gradually

Coaction effects in sport

So far we have emphasised the effect of audiences. However, as was shown the case in Triplett’s original study, other individuals who perform in close proximity to the individual will exert an influence. In the case of team sports, this coaction effect will result from other team members.

Performance at the highest level in sports often involves overcoming ‘the pain barrier’. Research has shown that more pain can be tolerated and physical effort be sustained longer if coactors are doing the same task at the same time. Martens & Landers (1969) tested boys of three different age groups. The task was to hold one leg horizontally while sitting for as long as possible. One-third of the boys in each of the age groups did the task alone, another in pairs and another in fours. The results showed that the larger the number of participants, the longer the time the legs were held out.

However, the relationship influence of coactors is not always straightforward. Seta (1982) found that participant’s performance improved when they were paired with coactors who appeared to be performing at slightly superior levels but performance was not influenced by the presence of coactors who seemed to be performing at inferior, identical or very superior performance levels.

Home ground advantage

Landers et al (1978) pointed out several problems with social facilitation research. They noted that even though some laboratory experiments support Zajonc’s predictions, the findings have not been generalised to actual sport settings and so the practical value of the research is limited.

One issue involving audiences and performance that has been studied is the belief in the ‘home advantage’. Schwartz & Barsky (1977) documented this with US professional base-ball, football and hockey teams and also with college basketball and football teams. Not surprisingly, teams won games more often at home than away. This was true for every sport, but the home advantage was greatest for the indoor sports (hockey and basketball). Further analysis revealed that the home advantage held for offensive play (hits, shots, points, goals), but defensive statistics (saves, fouls, errors) did not differ for home and away games.

Varca (1980) observed that home and away teams did not differ on field goal percentage, free throw percentage or turn-overs. However, the home team showed more ‘functionally aggressive behaviour’ (blocked shots, rebounds, steals) whereas the away team showed ‘dysfunctionally aggressive behaviour’ (fouls). This study suggests that the main effect of playing at home or away is to create differences in aggressive behaviours.

A criticism of this view of home-ground advantage comes from Baumeister & Steinhilber (1984). They suggest there is a home-field disadvantage brought about by directing attention to the internal performance process . This disrupts the performance of well-learned automatic skills. Professional athletes perform sport skills automatically with little conscious attention. Baumeister reasoned that the opportunity to win before a home crowd increases self-consciousness and disrupts skilled performance. This may be why there is a tendency to ‘choke’ in final, decisive home games.


Football fans might like to test the theory of choking by looking at records of the Nationwide League play-off semi-finals. It is usually assumed that there is a home advantage in the deciding game and that is why the highest finishing team gets to play at home in the second match. Do the statistics support this?



!SAQ 2

What are the factors that contribute to a home-ground advantage for individual and/or team performance?


2A.4.2 Team cohesion

Although some sports are very much based on individual participation (for example marathon running), the majority have some sort of social context, especially those that are team sports. In fact, many people are attracted to an activity because of this very feature — the sport provides a chance to participate with others who share their enthusiasm for it. The study of group behaviour is therefore an important aspect of sport psychology.

The team as a group

According to one widely quoted view on group development— Tuckman’s (1965) Group development model — a group goes through four basic stages:

4    Forming: team members get to know each other

4    Storming: conflict develops between members

4    Norming: co-operation replaces conflict, group cohesiveness develops

4    Performing: relationships have stabilised and each member works towards group success

These stages take time to develop. A player joining or leaving calls for adjustment and performance can be negatively affected. Clearly, different sports will take different times for the teams to mature and remain on top.

Team cohesion

Cohesion can be defined as ‘a dynamic process which is reflected in the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of goals and objectives’. (Carron 1982). Cohesiveness of a group is the result of all the members wanting to remain in the group. It embodies an underlying sense of co-operation. It can be identified as the essence of team spirit where there is the attraction of belonging to a group with high morale and shared responsibility. It usually involves the development of lasting friendships. An individual member tends to follow the collective will of the group in a form of mutual mimicry.

Group cohesion is therefore, a set of forces acting on members of a group which tends to keep them within the group. It involves resistance to group disruption and commitment to group goals. It also involves individual responsibility for the achievement of goals. It is the basis of the sense of co-operation between team members, i.e. team spirit. It is a shared commitment to a task. Cohesion can be either co-acting (e.g. rowing) or interacting (e.g. football).

Task and social cohesion

Group cohesion has two important aspects:

4    Task cohesion: the degree to which group members work together and are committed to achieve common goals, such as winning a match

4    Social cohesion: the degree to which group members like each other and get on well, trust and support each other

Although related, these two dimensions are often independent of each other. Thus a player might be committed to achieving the goals of the team (task), but not attached to other members of the team (social). A team in which members get on well and are committed to achieving common goals (the performing stage of group development), may be successful. However, a team in which there are major disputes (storming stage) could do as well despite this if there is a high commitment to the common goal.

The following factors seem to be associated with group cohesion:

4    Type of sport

4    Stability

4    Size of the group

4    External threats

4    Similarity

4    Satisfaction

4    Success

These factors are associated with group cohesion but the nature of the association is not always clear. Successful performance may lead to group cohesion that in turn improves performance. Similarly, satisfaction with team members may also lead to success as a team, which then increases group cohesion. On the other hand, it could be that successful performance increases team satisfaction and cohesion.

There is a significant positive relationship between cohesion and performance in interactive sports, i.e. those in which interaction must take place between team members, such as basketball, rugby and football. However, and for fairly obvious reasons, this is not the case in team sports in which a large amount of interaction does not take place between individual members, such as golf, bowling and archery. The emphasis in such sports is very much on individual performance rather than working as a team.

& Reading: Gross pages 452-453

!SAQ 3

a)     Identify the two sources of team cohesion.

b)     How is cohesion related to performance?




Indicate how important you think task cohesion is in the following sports, chose from ‘very important’ or ‘not important’ and write your response next to the sport.

            SPORT                             IMPORTANCE OF TASK COHESION






            Athletics (sprint relay)

            Swimming relay

            Rifle shooting


Measuring team cohesion

One technique used to assess cohesion is to measure the attraction of group members toward each other. This is known as sociometry, a research process used to give an objective picture of relationships existing between and among group members (Moreno, 1953). The more numerous and stronger the relationships, the greater we can assume the cohesion (particularly social) to be.

Other methods involve the use of a variety of measuring instruments, including the use of questionnaires. One such technique is Martens & Peterson’s (1971) Sport Cohesiveness Questionnaire. They used a number of measures that fell into three categories: direct individual assessment; sociometric measures; and direct team assessment.

Two recently developed measures, the Multidimensional Sport Cohesion Instrument (Yekelson et al 1984) and the Group Environment Questionnaire (Carron et al, 1985) both assess cohesiveness as a multidimensional construct in sport-specific terms. Both of these are considered to be potentially useful, psychometrically sound measures.

Yekelson’s inventory includes task and social forces, the factors that they analyse include: attraction to the group; unity of purpose; quality of teamwork; and valued roles.

Carron & Ball (1977) used seven measures of cohesion to examine the relationship between performance outcome and cohesion with ice-hockey teams. The inventory includes:

4    Group integration (task cohesion)

4    Group integration (social cohesion)

4    Attraction to group (task cohesion)

4    Attraction to group (social cohesion)

Cohesiveness and performance

Positive cohesiveness/performance relationships are reported most for team sports that require extensive interaction among players, such as basketball and volleyball. With sports that require independent performances and little interaction, such as bowling and rifle teams, cohesiveness may not relate very strongly to performance.

However, although some negative relationships have been observed, cohesiveness should not normally impair performance, even in individual sports. Zander (1971) suggests that cohesiveness increases motivation and commitment to team goals and, therefore, cohesiveness should enhance performance. However, if emphasising team goals detracts from recognising individual contributions, then performance may suffer. Also, high interpersonal attraction could detract from performance if team members sacrifice performance goals and task interaction strategies to maintain friendships. On the other hand, social support and encouragement from team-mates have potential positive effects on performance if individuals are committed to performance and task goals.

Up to now discussions have implied that cohesiveness leads to success. However, it could be argued that the evidence makes a stronger case that success leads to greater cohesiveness (i.e. nothing brings a group of players together better than winning). As we noted early, causality is difficult to establish because most of the data is correlational.

Cohesion, size and homogeneity

Bales & Slater (1955) studied groups ranging in size from two to seven who met for discussions on four separate occasions. They noted that the greater satisfaction was found in the group of five; as the groups became larger, they tended to become more competitive and impulsive.

In another study, Bales (1950) experienced similar results. It was found that the larger the group, the more disparity there was in individual contribution. In large groups some people either spoke a lot or hardly at all. In the smaller groups, contributions by individuals were more equal.

Working in groups allows us to pool our resources together and allows for division of labour. There are problems though, in working with groups, for example, if group cohesiveness is high, members may spend a lot of time engaging in pleasant activities not related to work. If there are strong pressures to adhere to a certain working practice, this may interfere with better procedures being adopted. Thomas (1992) suggests that conflict can affect performance, and as group size increases this can result in difficulties for the group members as they cannot co-ordinate their activities and output can suffer.

Another question that social psychologists have tried to answer is ‘are groups more effective when composed of homogenous (similar) people or heterogeneous (diverse) people?’ McGrath (1966) suggested that a general mix of personalities results in better performance; however homogeneity for some traits may be more effective for performance than heterogeneity. A group composed of dominant people could result in conflict and a group of submissive people could result in poor performance, as no one will take the initiative.

Pennington (1986) states that the search for consistent correlations between effective group performance and individual abilities, personality and intelligence has been disappointing. If groups need specialist skills and these are lacking, the group will not perform well; also low levels of motivation for achieving goals can result in poor performance.

!SAQ 4

a)     Are large groups always better than small ones? Give reasons for your answer.

b)     Discuss homogeneity and heterogeneity in sport.


Suggestions for further reading:

Gill, D. L. (1986) Psychological Dynamics of Sport. Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. Champaign, USA.

Hewstone, M. et al. (Eds.) (1996) Introduction to Social Psychology. 2/e. Oxford: Blackwell.
Chapter 16 ‘Social influence in small groups’.

Myers, D. G. (1996) Social Psychology. 5/e. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Chapter 9: Group Influence.

Woods, B. (1998) Applying Psychology to Sport. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Other references

Bales, R. F;(1950) Interaction, Process Analysis: A Method for the study of small groups. Cambridge, Mass: Addison-Wesley.

Bales, R. F. & Slater, P. E. (1955) Role differentiation in small decision-making groups in T. Parsons et al eds. Family, Socialisation and Interaction Process. New York Free Press.

Baron, R. S. (1986) Distraction-Conflict Theory: Progress and problems. In L.Berkowitz (ed.) Advances in experimental social psychology, 19. New York Academic Press.

Baron, R. A. & Byrne, D. (1994) Social Psychology: Understanding Human Interaction 7/e. Allyn and Bacon.

Berger, J., Fisek, M. H., Norman, R. Z. and Zelditch, M., (1977) Status Characteristics and Social Interaction. New York. Elsevier.

Brown, R. (1986) Social Psychology: 2/e. Free Press.

Brown, R. (1988) in Hewstone, M., Stroebe, W., Codol, J. and Stephenson, G. (1988) Introduction to Social Psychology. Blackwell.

Deaux, K., and Wrightsman, L. S. (1988) Social Psychology 5/e. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

McGrath, J. E. and Altman, I. (1966) Small Group research. New York. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Osborn, A. F. (1957) Applied Imaginations. New York: Scribner’s.

Shaw, M.E. (1981) Group Dynamics: The psychology of small group behaviour 3/e New York: McGraw-Hill.

Steiner, I. D. (1976) Group Processes and Productivity. New York Academic Press.

Taylor, D. T., Berry, P. C. and Block, C. H. (1958) Does group facilitation when brain-storming facilitate or inhibit creative thinking? Administrator’s Science Quarterly, 3, 23-47.