An athlete leader in sport is defined as an individual who holds a formal or informal leadership role within a team and influences other group members in the pursuit of common objectives. Researchers suggest that approximately one quarter of athletes occupy some form of leadership role within a team, and highlight the potential importance of athlete leadership toward positive group functioning as well as the need for a more thorough understanding of the topic. The following entry briefly highlights the characteristics, types, and functions of athlete leaders, as well as other important variables associated with the presence of these individuals on sport teams.
Characteristics of an Athlete Leader
Research generally demonstrates that individuals possessing athlete leadership roles within a group have similar characteristics. Maureen Weiss and colleagues Molly Moran and Melissa Price revealed that athlete leaders self-report greater friendship quality and peer acceptance, while Joseph Bucci, Gordon Bloom, Todd Loughead, and Jeffrey Caron found that these individuals have a stronger work ethic, desire for high performance, and respect from teammates. The latter researchers also noted that possessing these characteristics leads to positive relationships with both coaches and teammates, helping foster effective levels of communication within the overall group structure. However, despite the importance and prevalence of the social psychological characteristics noted above, the most consistent characteristic of athlete leaders found in previous research pertains to sport-related competence; in other words, athletic ability is positively associated with ratings of athlete leadership.
Types of Athlete Leadership
To garner an understanding of how athlete leadership manifests itself in the sport context, it is important to understand the emergence of the leadership role, as well as the extent to which leadership behaviors influence group members.
Formal and Informal Athlete Leadership
The formal athlete leader represents a role that is prescribed by another individual within the group or sport organization, usually a member of the coaching staff. This type of leader is highly visible within the group and is assigned specific responsibilities. A common example of a formal athlete leader in sport is the team captain. In many instances, the coach selects the captain of the team and, within certain sports, the occupant of this role may even be formally designated by such things as a C on the uniform or an armband to wear during competitive matches.
Conversely, an informal athlete leader emerges as a function of (a) group interaction, (b) distinct group needs, and (c) the personality traits of individual athletes. This type of athlete leader acts in a way that often complements the style of an established leader within the group (the formal athlete leader). However, the informal leader emerges naturally, without designation by another group member or the organization. For example, an athlete may assume the role of an emotional leader to help rally a team around its goals. This potential informal athlete leader may exist on teams in which the formal leader is more task driven (less expressive in nature); however, in other teams this informal role may be redundant if the formal leader possesses high interpersonal attraction and engages in socially supportive behaviors.
Team and Peer-Level Athlete Leaders
In addition to the level of formality, athlete-to-athlete leadership is categorized in terms of the scope of influence held by each individual. Todd Loughead, James Hardy, and Mark Eys discussed the presence of both team and peer-level leaders. First, a team-level leader is more influential and is identified as an athlete leader by the majority of the team (over 50% of the membership). Examples include veteran players who provide valuable advice to all members of a group at different times or who are highly vocal (in a productive manner) during team meetings. It is also worthwhile to note that the team-level athlete leader likely emerges through the formal leadership process discussed previously.
In contrast, peer-level leaders represent those who are identified by a lower percentage of the team (less than 50%). Equally important in a team setting, peer-level leaders exert individualized influence on a small number of athletes. An example of this type of leader is an individual within the team who acts as a mentor to two or three less-experienced teammates. Although other team members may never be influenced by this specific individual, the inexperienced athletes may view the mentor as a very important leader.
Functions of Athlete Leadership
Athlete leadership roles are often differentiated by their specific functions within the group. These functions revolve around both internal and external activities. Athlete leaders who attend to the internal functions focus on the (a) task or (b) social related activities of the group.
- Internal task functions. Task-related functions represent the behaviors executed by a leader surrounding a group’s instrumental objectives, such as the performance of the sport team. The behaviors oriented toward this function, for example, influence group members to perform to the best of their abilities and to coordinate effectively with their teammates.
- Internal social functions. Social-related functions represent the behaviors executed by a leader surrounding interpersonal relations and optimal team unity. An example of an athlete leader concerned with the social activities of the group would be someone who works to resolve conflict or plans events aimed at bonding the members of a team together.
- External functions. Athletes can also serve the function of leading their team in external activities. Todd Loughead et al. described the external athlete leader as one who leads and represents the group outside of the competitive setting. Specifically, an external athlete leader helps a team cope and adapt to the surrounding environment. As examples, individuals who represent the team at different community-driven events or speak to the media on behalf of the group undertake external functions.
It is important to note that the various functions of an athlete leadership role, although distinct from one another, are not necessarily performed by different people. One individual may have the ability to occupy a leadership role that is solely task related, whereas another individual may occupy a leadership role that executes all three functions.
Correlates of Athlete Leadership
Interesting insights have been yielded with respect to the presence of athlete leadership in sport. The following sections briefly highlight both individual (satisfaction) and team level (group cohesion and collective efficacy) correlates of athlete leader behavior.
Following research that linked leadership behaviors of the coach with athlete satisfaction, Mark Eys, Todd Loughead, and James Hardy demonstrated that athletes who perceived a balanced dispersion of athlete leaders across the aforementioned functions (approximately equal number of leaders focusing on task, social, and external objectives) had higher satisfaction with their sport experiences. Specifically, these athletes were more satisfied with team performance and the degree of integration of team members than those who perceived a relative imbalance with respect to the focus of athlete leaders on their team, as with a high number of task leaders but low numbers of social and external leaders.
Athlete leadership is also related to the perceptions of cohesion experienced by group members. Two studies provide different perspectives on the relationship between these variables. First, Price and Weiss found that adolescent female soccer players who self-reported higher leadership abilities with respect to instrumental and prosocial behaviors perceived greater task and social cohesion on their teams. Furthermore, those who were rated higher by their teammates in the same leadership abilities perceived greater social cohesion.
In a second study, Hardy, Eys, and Loughead were interested in the links between the percentage of athlete leaders on sport teams (i.e., dispersion) and group members’ perceptions of cohesion. Their findings indicated that the dispersion of leaders focused on task functions was negatively related to perceptions of task cohesion. In other words, a more constrained number of task-focused leaders was associated with increased group unity. Furthermore, these researchers found that intrateam communication mediated this relationship. The interpretation of these results was that a lower number of task leaders leads to better quality communication in terms of consistency, clarity, and overall effectiveness that, in turn, is associated with more positive perceptions of task cohesion.
Finally, athlete leadership is linked to members’ beliefs regarding the group’s ability to carry out required tasks, as well as its general ability to perform at a high level. Price and Weiss revealed that the self-reported instrumental and prosocial leadership behaviors of athletes were positively related to their indications of efficacy related to the team’s ability, unity, effort, preparation, and persistence.
Overall, athlete leadership represents an important aspect of group functioning. This entry has briefly highlighted the characteristics, types, and functions of athlete leadership. Future research, however, must continue to build upon the current breadth of knowledge regarding the influence of athlete leaders within sport. In doing so, sport psychology researchers can continue moving toward unearthing different individual and group level variables that are related to both effective and ineffective cases of athlete leadership. Furthermore, another future step can involve translating this knowledge into the group exercise setting to test similar relationships to those found in sport like individual satisfaction and group cohesion and determine if exerciser-to-exerciser leadership influences important outcomes such as physical activity adherence.