Peers have a particularly powerful social influence on youth development, particularly during adolescence. Positive peer interactions can help adolescents acquire a range of skills, attitudes, and behaviors. In sport settings, high levels of peer support and quality friendships have been associated with higher ratings of sport enjoyment, commitment, intrinsic motivation, and perceived competence.
Alan L. Smith and Meghan McDonough have generated some important understandings of peer interactions in youth sport contexts. But, as they observed, the term peer has rarely been explicitly defined in sport and exercise psychology research. Peer groups are often context specific, which means that individuals can engage with different peer groups in different contexts, such as school, sport teams, or groups people hang out with informally. Peer groups can also change over time as adolescents’ interests and habits evolve. This issue makes it difficult to specifically define who are one’s peers, but in a general sense, peers can be defined as individuals of similar age and with similar interests. For example, in sport teams or schools, teammates or classmates can be considered as peers.
Peer networks reflect the structure of peer connections. For example, individuals on a sport team can identify a network of people they interact with most frequently (e.g., cliques). Peer support is a concept that stems from the peer network. Support can be viewed in terms of structural, functional, and perceptual dimensions. Structural dimensions are represented by the composition of a peer network. Functional dimensions refer to specific tangible functions of support provided by others (received support). Perceptual dimensions refer to the extent to which individuals feel supported by others (perceived support).
The role of peers has been recognized in various theoretical frameworks used in sport and exercise psychology. For example, Susan Harter’s competence motivation theory considers ways in which social agents influence motivation in achievement domains. Reinforcement, modeling, and approval of mastery attempts can enhance individuals’ perceptions of competence and intrinsic motivation to participate in a task. In Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, personal (individual) factors, environmental (social) factors, and behavior are proposed to influence each other in a reciprocal manner. Peer support is a means by which peers can socially reinforce certain behaviors, such as providing encouragement for individuals to act in certain ways. For example, peers can have a positive influence on children’s and adolescents’ physical activity behaviors and enjoyment of sport participation.
Kenneth H. Rubin, William Bukowski, and Jeffrey G. Parker put forward a contemporary framework of peer relationships in the developmental psychology literature that has recently been used by sport psychology researchers. Rubin argued that peer experiences are considered across several nested levels of social complexity: individuals, interactions, relationships, and groups. The framework begins with the individual. Individuals bring relatively stable social orientations to groups. Individuals involve each other via interactions (the simplest level of social complexity), which are short-term social exchanges. Interactions change in response to fluctuating circumstances of the social situation, such as the characteristics and responses of a partner. During interactions youth may cooperate, compete, fight, resolve conflict, or engage in a range of other behaviors.
Interactions are shaped by relationships (a higher order level of social complexity). Relationships are influenced by past events and future anticipated events, can take many forms, and have characteristics that are not necessarily found in lower level interactions. But, the nature of a relationship is defined by the characteristics of its members, the types of interactions that take place, and the individual’s history of earlier relationships. Friendships are an example of the relationship level, and are discussed with reference to sport psychology research here. Relationships are further embedded in and influenced by groups, which are networks of relationships with relatively clearly defined boundaries like a competitive sport team. Peer groups are more than an aggregate of individuals, interactions, and relationships. Rather, groups have norms (e.g., shared cultural conventions), processes (e.g., cohesion) and properties (e.g., hierarchal organization) that are not necessarily found in children’s experiences at lower social levels. Groups help define the type and range of relationships that occur within them. Groups therefore influence interactions and relationships and vice versa.
Peer acceptance (or popularity) is based on how a group views the status of an individual. Adolescents with higher levels of athletic ability tend to enjoy more peer acceptance and be more popular in school than adolescents with lower levels of athletic ability. Even within sport teams, the most highly skilled athletes tend to be most accepted and viewed as leaders among their teammates. Additionally, peer comparison and acceptance are important sources of information for judging physical competence. In fact, higher peer acceptance has also been associated with greater physical self-worth, positive affect, and intrinsic motivation for physical activity. Therefore, skilled athletes tend to enjoy high peer acceptance, which is further associated with other positive outcomes.
Friendship is a feature of the relationships level of peer experiences. There are three fairly distinct aspects of friendships: whether or not a child has friends, who these friends are, and the quality of these friendships. Some of the most influential work on peer friendships in sport was conducted by Maureen R. Weiss, Alan L. Smith, and Marc Theeboomin the United States. Through interviews with 8to 16-year-olds they identified that the key aspects of best sport friendships were companionship and pleasant play, loyalty and intimacy, self-esteem enhancement and supportiveness, things in common, conflict resolution, and conflict. These findings were used by Weiss et al. to develop a questionnaire (the Sport Friendship Quality Scale; SFQS) to assess friendship quality in sport. Research using the SFQS has revealed that adolescent junior tennis players who reported higher quality of sport friendships rated tennis enjoyment and commitment higher than players with lower quality sport friendships.
Playing on a team or training with a squad expands adolescents’ social networks and requires them to learn to deal with different types of people. Moreover, different types of people may not otherwise be part of the adolescent’s social group if it were not for involvement in sport. A recent study of peer relationships among members of early adolescent girls’ soccer teams showed that players integrated new members into the team and learned to interact with different types of people, but as the season progressed, they had to manage conflicts that arose. For example, teammates attempted to intervene and mediate conflicts among other teammates, and people learned to accept others’ point of view. Over time, a structure of leadership emerged and players learned to work together. Although peer interactions may not always appear to be going smoothly, the ways in which peers learn to deal with each other and manage difficult situations seems to have important implications for their social development, both within sport and beyond.
Constellations of Social Relationships
Peer acceptance, friendship, and conflict are important issues, but artificially separating these issues for the purposes of research may produce only limited understandings of peer experiences. In adolescents’ day-to-day lives, they likely experience a complex mixture of peer interactions. Smith has encouraged researchers to consider multiple dimensions of social experiences in youth sport and physical activity settings by highlighting the notion that constellations (or combinations) of social relationships influence adolescents’ lives. For example, studies looking at such constellations of social relationships have shown that higher perceptions of adaptive peer group profiles (like high peer acceptance and friendship) predicted adaptive motivational responses. Subsequent research has considered an even broader range of social relationships and shown that positive perceptions of issues such as peer friendship quality, peer acceptance, and child–parent relationship were associated with more positive motivational outcomes like enjoyment and perceived competence. Combined, these findings highlight the importance of examining combinations of social relationships in youth sport contexts.
During the early stages of adolescence, gender differences emerge in peer relations, with females usually assigning higher importance to friendships, intimacy, and emotional support than males. One study conducted in the United States showed that for female high school athletes peer acceptance and friendship quality, along with perceived competence, instrumental, and expressive behaviors, predicted self-ratings of leadership, whereas coach and teammate ratings were primarily related to ability only. For males, the psychosocial variables and ability were related to self, teammates,’ and coaches’ ratings of leadership. Interestingly, other research has shown girls who play gender-appropriate or traditionally feminine sports such as volleyball and gymnastics typically report high social acceptance. Also, physical ability in boys is viewed as a desirable quality associated with popularity and leadership, while in girls it is valued in some groups but not others.
Social Competence and Life Skills
One of the goals of studying peer relationships in sport and physical activity settings is to find ways in which to promote individuals’ social competence. Rubin et al. described social competence in peer relationships as adolescents’ capacity to engage effectively and successfully with each social level in their framework (interactions, relationships, and groups). Hence, a socially competent adolescent would be able to engage in a peer group structure and effectively participate in group-oriented activities, nurture satisfying relationships based on balanced and reciprocal interactions with others, and fulfill individual goals and needs through these interactions with peers.
Although such dimensions of social competence have yet to be widely explored in youth sport settings, several studies have shown that learning to deal with different types of people and working as a team to achieve common goals are some of the most important life skills people acquire through their involvement in youth sport. In addition, such social life skills seem to readily transfer from sport settings to other areas of adolescents’ lives. For example, youth sport participants have reported that learning to interact with people in sport teams has helped them work better in group assignments in academic settings and effectively engage with others in work settings. Hence, the peer relationships and friendships that occur through participation in youth sport have potentially important consequences for youth development.