Skip to main content

The Psychology of Developing Group Cohesion in Sport

Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist and a lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.

How important is team cohesion in sports?

How important is team cohesion in sports?

Team Cohesion and Its Role in Sporting Success

In any team sport, success is often determined by how well a group of individuals works together as a cohesive unit. We have all listened to an interview in which a coach states that their team simply did not play well together on a particular occasion or watched a game in which a player became too focused on their individual glory at the expense of their team's success.

This article examines the psychology behind teamwork as it relates to sports and explores a communal approach to sporting success.

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.

— Michael Jordan

How Can We Define Cohesion In Sport?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines cohesion as “the action or fact of forming a united whole.” Back In 1950, Festinger, Schacter and Back formed a definition based on forces that act upon members of a group based on two classes.

  1. The assertiveness of the group through the need for individuals to interact with other group members.
  2. Means control related to the associated benefits of being within the group.

Great Examples of Group Cohesion in Sports

  • Sports clubs having open days to encourage players to bond with their supporters.
  • Rich Froning winning an event at the CrossFit World Championships then walking back down the field to encourage his fellow competitors on.
  • Pre-season teambuilding camps used by teams with new members to help develop group cohesion.
  • Manchester United clawing back from 1–0 down in the 1999 Champions League Final to beat Bayern Munich 2–1 in the final 3 minutes of the game.

Teamwork In Sports

In sports, it is widely acknowledged that a group of individuals working well together is significantly more effective than a group of individuals working independently of one another. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale may be about to do great work when running with the ball for Real Madrid, but in the interest of team success, the whole of the team needs to do their jobs at the height of their abilities to ensure success. Whether it's Xabi Alonso sitting back to control possession or Pepe putting in the tackles to thwart opposition forward, every team must have a structure.

Shared goals and tasks can enhance group cohesion. This was a group of strangers five days before trekking to the summit of Jebel Toubkal, Morocco.

Shared goals and tasks can enhance group cohesion. This was a group of strangers five days before trekking to the summit of Jebel Toubkal, Morocco.

Tuckman's Stages of Team Development (1965)

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). ”Development sequence in small groups.” Psychological Bulletin, Vol 63(6), Jun 1965, 384-399.

Stage Attribute









The Psychology of How a Team Is Formed

  1. Forming is the first stage and refers to the birth of the group (this is sometimes referred to as 'Dorming'). There are numerous ways a team can be put together from a group of children all being at the same primary school to a lavish Russian Oligarch attempting to buy in the seemingly best players from across the world for his latest project. Within the forming stage, there will be an emphasis on working out the logistical aspects of the group (such as positions), and individuals tend in general to be on their best behaviour to avoid initial conflicts and bad impressions.
  2. The Storming phase is where the honeymoon period is over and the boat starts to sail into some pretty rough seas. This stage can be one of difficulty, as members of the team are starting to find their individual voices and begin to contribute different perspectives on how success can be achieved, which not all team members will agree with. A good manager will allow creativity to be developed and a level of required critical analysis. This is the stage where conflicts between team members can easily escalate and potentially cause problems regarding the development of an effective team in the long term.
  3. The Norming stage brings together all the different ideas and perspectives from the storming stage to create shared values for the team in terms of a particular mission statement, objectives (whether it's avoiding relegation in the first year at Premiership football level or making a push for a European competition spot the following year) and helping the members to develop a clear view on their roles and responsibilities within the team environment.
  4. When a team is Performing, they are at their highest capability level. Productivity will be high, and effective communication will help the team avoid potential pitfalls of conflict. For this stage to be reached, it is believed that all of the members of the team should have passed through the previous stages of effective team development.

How Can We Measure Team Cohesion?

It's always going to be challenging to take into account why people are attracted to team scenarios. Some find a sense of achievement, whilst others are socially attracted to groups and therefore the sport is not one of the most important factors in their participation. It is possible to classify team cohesion based on the task at hand and social factors associated with being part of a team.

Task cohesion occurs where individuals identify with some specific group goals and are able to push towards success in achievement. Such examples could be winning the Super Bowl or promotion to a higher division.

Social cohesion occurs where the attractiveness of the group and social interaction are the most important aspects of involvement in the team. The sense of togetherness is often what defines these teams (Bollen and Hoyle, 1990).

As there are a significant number of factors that influence an individual's participation within a team Carron, Widmeyer and Brawley (1985) developed the Group Environment Questionnaire (Often referred to as GEQ), which focuses on four dimensions of team cohesion.

  • Group Integration: Task (GI-T)
  • Group Integration: Social (GI-S)
  • Individual Attraction to the Group: Task (ATG-T)
  • Individual Attraction to the Group: Social (ATG-S)

The Group Environment Questionnaire is used by many sports psychologists to assess team cohesion due to its favourable psychometric analytic properties.

Team Cohesion for Coaches

Coaches must be aware of the importance of the development of both social and task cohesion in their teams to ensure buy-in from all members of the team. No member's motivating factors are the same.

Factors Determining Team Cohesion in Sport

There are a large number of factors that function as determinants of sports team cohesion. One way of defining these is to break them down into personal, team, leadership and environmental factors associated with being a member of a team and their subsequent consequences.

Personal Factors

  • Personal satisfaction derived from team membership
  • Experience reinforcement (similarity of experience shown to team members)
  • Visible external competition and threat

Team Factors

  • Success of the team both present and past
  • Aspects of communication experienced within the team
  • Shared goals
  • Competitive nature of individuals in achievement of goals as part of a team
  • Similarity of group members' attitudes and values
  • Difficulty of entry into the team (in tight-knit communities)

Leadership Factors

  • Establishment of cohesion
  • Establishment of role models, team leaders and managers

Environmental Factors

  • Group size
  • Weather conditions

Performance Consequences and Team Cohesion

One of the key questions sports psychologists ask is whether team cohesion can lead to improved performance. The consequence in absolute performance measurement is simple—does the team win or lose?

Psychologists can register whether a win is outright and absolute or relative to previous performance last week or last year. In an absolute analysis, a rugby team may not have won the World Cup on the last occasion, but relatively speaking, they may have progressed further than they had previously.

In some teams, cohesion can be directly related to levels of sporting performance, whether it's league position or team belief. Success sells, and individuals buy into the structure leading to team stability and subsequent performance effectiveness.

The direction of causality is one of difficulty. Does team cohesion lead to success in sports? Or does a degree of success foster improved team cohesion? Whilst there is a likelihood that heightened levels of cohesion improve on field play, it is also likely that improved performance helps to develop further team cohesion. When your team is winning, you feel on top of the world and more at ease with your teammates despite their inherent faults.

Is there a circular relationship between cohesion and personal satisfaction?

Is there a circular relationship between cohesion and personal satisfaction?

Additional Psychological Factors Affecting Cohesion

Whilst previous research has emphasised the relationship between cohesion and performance, there are many other factors of potential significance to the team environment. As cohesion refers to groups, satisfaction refers to the individual members of a group.

There have been two models proposed. One hypothesis shows a circular relationship hypothesis where cohesion leads to success, which subsequently leads to feelings of satisfaction amongst team members A second hypothesis (Model B) hypothesizes that performance success leads to higher levels of group cohesion, which subsequently lead to greater satisfaction levels.

In reality, a coach or team leader building group cohesion will add elements of individual satisfaction and team performance benefits, as studies have shown clear positive relationships between member satisfaction in cohesive groups and negative impact of non-cohesive groups, whether in business or sport (Hogg 1992).

Conformity Within Successful Teams and Groups

Whether it's a group of friends or a sports team, studies have found that the higher the cohesiveness of a group, the more influence the group will have on its individual members. This includes a greater pressure to conform to the perceived norms of the group through a whole manner of factors from attitudes to choice of clothing and productivity output.

Group Stability and Cohesion

Group stability can refer to the length of time members have been part of the group or the turnover of group members. The transfer system in soccer can cause havoc on team cohesiveness. In many studies, it's been shown that teams that experience fewer lineup changes during the course of a season tend to be more successful than those whose lineups are constantly changing. Despite this, managers have often worked through policies of constant rotation of players.

High levels of cohesiveness can also help to protect against and allow better resistance to disruptions so as personal changes or enforced new members.

Achieving team goals such as a race win can enhance team cohesion

Achieving team goals such as a race win can enhance team cohesion

Group Goal Setting as a Cohesiveness Tool

In a team or group environment, goals are usually set as a whole for the group. These refer to the clear objectives of the group in terms of performance and refer to a shared vision. It has been found that group cohesiveness is enhanced when the group has been engaged in the process of goal setting. Member satisfaction with team goals enhanced team cohesion, although over the course of a competitive season, levels of cohesion can differ within a team environment. As with any goal setting, the SMART analogy is often used.

Team Goals Must Be . . .

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timeframed


  • Atkins. B., (2010) Saxo Bank-SunGard teambuilding in
  • Bollen, K. A., and Hoyle, R. H. (1990) Perceived cohesion: a conceptual and empirical examination. Social Forces, 69,2, 479-504
  • Carron, A.V., Widmeyer, W.N. and Brawley, L.R. (1985). The development of an instrument to assess cohesion in sport teams: the Group Environment Questionnaire. Journal of Sport Psychology, 7, 244-266.
  • Festinger, L., Schachter, S., Back, K., (1950) Social Pressure in Informal Groups: A study of a housing project New York: Harare.
  • Hogg, M. A. (1992). The Social Psychology of Group Cohesiveness. New York: New York University Press.
  • Tuckman, B. W. (1965). ”Development sequence in small groups.” Psychological Bulletin, Vol 63(6), Jun 1965, 384-399.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.