The Psychology of Individual and Team Sports (Technical)

LACityThere is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ but what if you’re only playing for yourself? Many factors beyond basic physical conditioning work together to contribute to athletic performance, but what about the nature of the sport itself? In the vast array of competitive sports played by athletes, a key difference could have a major effect on the psychological aspects of athletic performance—whether the sport is individual or team-based. This attribute plays a role in all stages of performance, from basic motivation and preparation to in-competition functioning.

Perhaps the most prominent difference between team and individual sports would be sources of motivation. In solo activities, such as long-distance running, the athlete is responsible for the training and strategy required to ensure his or her own success, whereas in a group sport like football, team members must work together toward victory. In its most general sense, motivation refers to the reasoning that leads to a behavior or absence thereof (Keegan et al. 2011). Most people are familiar with the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, with intrinsic motivation referring to the drive to perform an activity for its own sake without requiring any external impetus (Deci 1975). Extrinsic motivation would be the opposite—engaging in an activity not for its own sake but as a means to an end which involves expected outcomes not inherent to the activity itself (Vallerand 2007).

Several theories of motivation that draw upon this concept have been established in psychological literature, one of the most prominent of which in the field of sports psychology is Deci and Ryan’s (2000) Self-Determination Theory (SDT). This theory expands upon intrinsic motivation, stating that such behavior is prompted by the satisfaction of three psychological needs, all of which turn out to have social implications: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Competence refers to the ability to effectively interact with one’s social environment, relatedness would be the desire to feel connection with other individuals, and autonomy is the basic need to see one’s own behavior as freely chosen. It seems that all three of these factors would influence the motivational aspects of athletes involved in both individual and team sports. A 2008 study by Gillet and Rosner investigated just that. They hypothesized that athletes involved in individual sports would exhibit more self-determined behavior. Athletes in the study were asked to complete a series of questionnaires measuring different types of motivation in relation to their sport. The data collected revealed that athletes involved in individual sports did indeed experience greater feelings of autonomy than their team-based counterparts. This could be due to the greater freedom to make decisions provided to individual athletes, such as a tennis player choosing when and where to register for competitions (Gillet and Rosner 2008).

Individual athletes may exhibit higher levels of intrinsic motivation in terms of autonomy, but team athletes could have an advantage in terms of relatedness. In addition, extrinsic motivation is an effective and not necessarily negative phenomenon. Deci and Ryan (1985) expand upon Self-Determination Theory to address extrinsic motivation, some types of which still involve varying levels of autonomy. The first type, arguably the most classic example of extrinsic motivation and also the least autonomous, would be external regulation, which is motivation on the basis of external factors such as rewards or punishment. This would be the grade school student who joins the softball team in order to earn a trip to Disneyland that her fitness-conscious mother promised to reward that behavior. The next type of extrinsic motivation is introjected regulation, which is prompted by pressure imposed upon the individual by his or her own volition, such as the risk of guilt or anxiety if he or she does not attend a practice. The third type, identified regulation, is more autonomous and involves freely  choosing a behavior because it will be beneficial in the long run even though it is not inherently pleasant. An example of identified regulation would be a football player who dislikes eating vegetables, but does anyway because he knows a balanced diet will improve his performance. The last described type of extrinsic motivation, also with a fair amount of autonomy, is integrated regulation, which involves making choices to balance various aspects of the self, such as a swimmer who postpones a late-night movie with friends in order to perform well at her swim meet the next morning (Vallerand 2007).

As described, different types of motivation play significant roles across the board among both individual and team athletes. It may be easier for members of individual sports to experience autonomy thanks to the greater capacity for decision-making in their chosen sports, but all athletes perform extrinsically to some level, such as during uncomfortable practice sessions and lifestyle choices.

In addition to motivation, several other factors could contribute to different experiences between individual and team athletes. Participating in a team sport comes with its own set of challenges. Team members each play an individual role, yet they have to successfully meld their responsibilities and talents in order to create success for the group. When successful, this works quite well, but it also creates an additional opportunity for failure that individual athletes do not experience—the team will fail if members do not effectively synchronize their efforts, in addition to the standard threat of failure due to athlete inability. However, the flip side of this conundrum is that particularly stellar team members can help mediate the shortcomings of team members with lower ability levels.

Another variable affecting team performance is the need for a large amount of coordination in a dynamic environment. Especially in the realm of professional sports, team members must cope with managers and stakeholders who often have contradictory agendas, as well as sometimes function as a ‘virtual team,’ wherein all members are not centrally located. Next, leadership plays a critical role in the success or failure of a team. Regardless of the natural ability and coordination among team members, it is up to the leader to make the necessary goals and judgment calls that lead to success (Zaccaro et al. 2002). Among these responsibilities of the coach is the need to individualize training for team members. Regardless of the nature of the sport, not all athletes are the same, and each team member needs a specific training plan that is applicable to his or her role within the team and ability level. Although athletes in all sports have important relationships with coaches, research has found that empathic accuracy among coaches of individual sports was higher than team sports (Lorimer and Jowett 2009). Individualized attention from coaches in team settings is important- as prescribing the same training plan to all team members could result in detraining of the athletes in less active roles, and overtraining for those who receive larger amounts of playing time (Hoffman 2014).

Overtraining, defined as an increase in volume or intensity of physical activity that is met with inadequate recovery (Hoffman 2014), is a widespread problem among athletes from all sports. Success in endurance activities relies on progressive training increases, and it is generally accepted that some level of overtraining is a prerequisite for peak performance (Morgan et al. 1987). Intense training sessions will naturally produce a state of acute fatigue that dissipates within a day or two. However, overtraining can lead to chronic fatigue and subsequent underperformance, often referred to as a state of physical ‘staleness’ (Morgan et al. 1987). Staleness is a risk among all athletes, though research has found that its incidence is higher among participants in individual sports. A 2001 study of Swedish athletes by Kentta, Hassmen, and Raglin found that 48% of study participants involved in individual sports reported staleness as opposed to 30% of the team athletes. This could be attributed to individual athletes’ greater levels of autonomy in developing their training plans, resulting in overambitious goals and higher incidences of overtraining.

Differences between individual and team athletes are apparent when it comes to motivation and training, but does the nature of a sport affect performance during competition? A good indicator of this would be how often athletes enter ‘the zone,’ or a state of psychological flow. Flow is described as an optimal psychological state in which the perceived challenge of a given activity is balanced with an individual’s ability, which involves complete absorption and focus in the activity (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).  Research indicates the positive relationship between athletes’ experience of psychological flow and optimal performance (Jackson et al. 2001). Nine factors have been found to help facilitate flow in athletic performance: pre-competition preparation plans such as repeated rituals, confidence and positive thinking, physical preparation, good performance during warmups, focus, optimal environmental conditions, positive coach/team relationships, optimal pre-competition arousal, and motivation (Jackson 1995). Several studies have investigated the effect of sport type on achieving a state of flow among athletes. It is possible that factors more likely to be experienced by athletes in team sports, such as lower levels of intrinsic motivation and negative interactions with coaches and team members, could be more likely to disrupt flow and subsequent performance. In spite of this possibility, research indicates that the experience of flow is universal among athletes regardless of what sport they play (Young and Pain 1999). Additionally, a specific analysis of flow state in college athletes in team and individual sports failed to indicate a statistically significant relationship between type of sport and occurrence of flow state (Russell 2001).

Research in the field of sports psychology has yielded some significant differences between athletes in individual and team sports, especially in terms of sources of motivation, coaching, and training. However, in terms of overall enjoyment and experience of optimum psychological state, the type of sport does not appear to have an effect on an athlete’s output during performance itself. Satisfaction from a particular type of sport would depend on the personal preferences and experiences of each athlete.  For the rest of us trying to decide if one type is better than another, it really depends on whether you ask a runner or a football player.
By Alycia Parnell
Alycia Parnell holds degrees in Psychology and Environmental Studies from the University of Utah. She lives, works, and writes in Salt Lake City.

Literature Cited 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row, New York, NY, USA

Deci, E. L. 1975. Intrinsic motivation. Plenum, New York, NY, USA

Deci, E.L., and R. M. Ryan. 1985. Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Plenum, New York, NY, USA

Gillet, N., and E. Rosnet. 2008. Basic need satisfaction and motivation in sport. The Online Journal of Sport Psychology 10.

Hoffman, J. 2014. Physiological aspects of sport training and performance-2nd edition. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, USA

Jackson, S. A. 1995. Factors influencing the occurrence of flow in elite athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 7: 138-166.

Jackson, S. A., P. R. Thomas, H.W. Marsh, and C.J. Smethurst. 2001. Relationships between flow, self-concept, psychological skills, and performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 13: 129-153.

Keegan, R., C. Harwood, C. Spray, and D. Lavallee. 2011. From ‘motivational climate’ to ‘motivational atmosphere’: a review of research examining the social and environmental influences on athlete motivation in sport. Pages 1-55 in B.D. Geranto, editor. Nova Science Publishers, Hauppauge, NY, USA.

Kentta, G., P. Hassmen, and J.S. Raglin. 2001. Training practices and overtraining syndrome in Swedish age-group athletes. International Journal of Sports Medicine 22: 460-465.

Lorimer, R., and S. Jowett. 2009. Empathic accuracy in coach–athlete dyads who participate in team and individual sports. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 10: 152-158.

Morgan, W. P., D. R. Brown, J. S. Raglin, P. J. O’connor, and K. A. Ellickson. 1987. Psychological monitoring of overtraining and staleness. British Journal of Sports Medicine 21: 107-114.

Russell, W. D. 2001. An examination of flow state occurrence in college athletes. Journal of Sport Behavior 24: 83-107.

Ryan, R. M., and E. L. Deci. 2000. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist 55: 68-78.

Vallerand, R. J. 2007. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in sport and physical activity. Handbook of Sport Psychology 3: 59-83.

Young, J. A., and M. D. Pain. 1999. The zone: evidence of a universal phenomenon for athletes across sports. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology 1: 21-30.

Zaccaro, S. J., A. L. Rittman, and M. A. Marks. 2002. Team leadership. The Leadership Quarterly 12: 451-483.

Articles by Alicia Parnell.

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