The term support group refers to all those supportive and potentially supportive people in an athlete’s or exerciser’s environment (e.g., parents, siblings, friends, peers, teammates, coaches, exercise leaders, athletic trainers, physiotherapists, physiologists, psychologists). This topic has been implicated widely within sport and exercise psychology (SEP) and has been noted to explain nearly a quarter of the variance in sports performance. In addition, many of the world’s greatest athletes attest to the importance of their support group in helping them to achieve their goals. Provided here are definitions of support, its multidimensional nature, theory and mechanisms, and when support should be effective.
Support comprises three major subconstructs. Social integration reflects the number of different types of relationships in a person’s support group. Perceived support reflects a person’s potential access to support from the group, and is a subjective judgment that the support group would provide assistance if needed. Enacted support reflects the actual provision of help by the support group within a specific time frame.
Perceived and enacted support are generally considered to be multidimensional. This means that support may be further broken down into specific dimensions, such as emotional, esteem, informational, and tangible support. Emotional support refers to other people being there for comfort and security, leading to a person feeling loved and cared for; esteem support refers to bolstering a person’s sense of competence or self-esteem—for example, expressing a belief that an athlete is capable of coming through under pressure; informational support refers to providing a person with advice or guidance; and tangible support refers to providing a person with assistance— for example, acting as a training partner to help an exerciser through a tough weights session. In order to better understand and assess the influence of these specific dimensions, sport and exercise researchers have developed measures such as the PASS-Q (the Perceived Available Support in Sport Questionnaire).
Theory and Mechanisms
The key theoretical perspective used to help understand support is the stress and coping perspective. According to this perspective, perceived and enacted support operate through appraisal and coping mechanisms. Athletes who perceive themselves as having high levels of support are less likely to consider challenging situations as stressful compared with athletes with low levels of perceived support. When athletes do experience stress, however, it is the enactment of support that will then help them to cope with the situation and maintain their performance.
The preceding lines refer to the idea that support can reduce or “buffer” the potentially detrimental impact of stress on outcomes, such as performance in a competition. This is known as the stress buffer effect. For example, a stress buffer effect would be demonstrated as follows: At low levels of stress, there would be no difference in performance between those with high and low levels of support; at high levels of stress, however, those with low levels of support would perform worse compared with those with high levels of support. Alternatively, when support impacts performance independently of stress, this is termed a main effect; put simply, the more the support, the better the performance.
Research to date has demonstrated that support is associated with a host of important variables in SEP. For example, support and encouragement enhance the confidence of exercisers in their ability to maintain an exercise program, and they also enhance the confidence of athletes to perform well in competitions. Furthermore, those with good support cope better with stress and injury, perform better, and are less likely to burn out.
What Makes Support Effective?
Although research has demonstrated that social integration and perceived support are associated with many positive outcomes, the evidence for effects of enacted support is mixed—enacted support is often unimportant, or worse still, has detrimental consequences; this is known as the paradox of support. The effectiveness of enacted support may be influenced by a number of different factors. Support may be most effective when it matches the needs arising from the situation. According to the optimal matching hypothesis, relatively uncontrollable situations (e.g., the pressure of competition) lead to a need for emotional and esteem support, such as someone giving moral support and instilling the player with the confidence to deal with the pressure. In contrast, relatively controllable situations (e.g., technical problems in training) lead to a need for informational and tangible support, such as someone giving technical advice and planning, setting, and organizing training sessions to deal with the problems.
The context in which support is provided may influence its effectiveness. In exercise settings, emotional and esteem support (e.g., encouragement and moral support) may be considered particularly nurturing and beneficial. In contrast, informational and tangible support (e.g., direct advice and being pushed by an athletic trainer) may be considered obtrusive, controlling, and more likely to undermine a person’s confidence to complete an exercise program on his or her own.
The timing of support may also be important. Support may be particularly effective when an athlete has already had the chance to consider the demands of the situation and decided to request help. However, when support is provided before it has been requested, there may be a greater risk that the unsolicited support will be interpreted negatively. In the latter case, support may still have its intended effect if it is delivered in such a way that the athlete does not notice it or interpret it as support; this is termed invisible support.
Finally, some members of a person’s support group may simply be better than others at providing specific types of support. Coaches and exercise leaders may be particularly important providers of informational support, whereas friends and family may be important providers of emotional and esteem support. Furthermore, the quality of relationship shared between the support group and the athlete or exerciser may well determine how support is viewed and whether it will be interpreted as intended.