How fast time flies! I’m now reaching the middle of my master’s work in sport psychology, spending the summer in lovely Leipzig, Germany. This is an intensive term filled with seminars taught by leading international sport psychologists who are all presenting cutting-edge research, and who remain available for direct thesis consultation following lectures. This post marks the beginning of a miniseries on these guest lectures.
Peter Schneider is a sport psychologist from Detroit whose main sports growing up were soccer and diving. He’s been living in Germany for the past six years, where he’s completing a PhD in the field. His expertise lies in athlete career transitions, specializing in athletes’ long-term, holistic development. He has lots of practical experience, something that shines through whenever he talks of sport psychology interventions or techniques. Lastly, Peter is also the program coordinator in charge of this Leipzig semester, something he’s been doing since the inception of the EMSEP program five years ago. Here he serves as editor of the program blog, as well as maintaining regularly-updated YouTube and Twitter accounts for his sport psychology consulting service, POPS Training. What I personally love about him, though, is his direct, honest approach to life. He will say it like it is, but will also do so with a smile and with support. That he learned to speak German fluently is also pretty neat (despite the name, he’s actually a full-blooded American).
Peter gave us our first lecture, this one on team cohesion. The talk was marked by a barrage of excellent practical interventions we tucked away in our toolboxes for future use as sport psychologists. When we first walked into the classroom we didn’t even pay attention to the tables that were divided into groups seating only four. Peter then gave us our first lesson: when working with a group which you’ll want to divide for activities later, why not manipulate the environment beforehand? This could be through strategic table placement, through allocating sports equipment in distinct piles, etc. This strategy leads to quick, organized, organic group formation whereby students aren’t singled out, but rather where they experience autonomy right from the get-go and don’t waste time assembling. A second practical point was demonstrated by Peter when he asked everyone to take a paper out for an exercise. Everyone chose different papers and, when submitting them at the end of the task, some folded them once, others twice; some had haphazardly ripped a paper out of a notebook, others had painstakingly torn their sheets with rulers or table edges to get them even. Peter then drew our attention to the papers as metaphors of all the varied individuals who make up any given group: some are messy, others are creative, yet others are borderline OCD. However, we all have to work together, he said, and this is why he’s here. This was a great introduction to how to work with a team during the initial stages of an intervention.
Next, Peter had us do a neat team-building ice-breaker. He asked alternating groups to read out facts about himself at random, drawn from a hat, after which all groups had to determine if the fact read was true or false. The facts he gave us were carefully chosen to show his past athletic history and to tell us a bit about him, making us comfortable with him while simultaneously facilitating our accepting him as a credible expert in psychological training. This was an especially pertinent exercise for us to understand, as sport psychology remains a very fresh field and many athletes still exhibit a stigma against it, believing the dubious mantra that they can develop their psychological edge on their own, thank you very much. Other facts recommended for inclusion in this get-to-know-me task included experience with injuries, high-level competition, and coping with relationship strains.
The best part about this whole exercise was that Peter promised to buy the winning team a beer… and our team totally kicked butt after a score of 7/10 and an edge-of-your-seat coin toss!
Social loafing & facilitation
Following his establishment as a competent authority in our group, Peter took us through the Ringelmann effect, otherwise known as “social loafing”. This was discovered by French agricultural engineer Maximilien Ringelmann in 1913, when he found that the average per-person pull on a rope decreased the more people were pulling. Many reasons have been put forth to explain why group productivity plummets, but they always fit into one of two categories: loss of motivation or loss of coordination. Understanding and being aware of this phenomenon is useful for a team as they can then proactively work to lessen its effect on their performance.
Peter pointed out the importance of taking the Ringelmann effect into consideration when dealing with player “ratings” from a coach’s perspective. Players are sometimes rated according to psychometric or physiological data, eg. one player might have a 9/10 in technique and a 6/10 in confidence. Coaches might unwittingly pair this player with another who has a 7/10 in technique but an 8/10 in confidence, hoping they will balance each other out. These coaches would be neglecting to realize that their players’ combined technique rating might not become the expected 8/10, but rather hover around a 7.5 due to the Ringelmann effect, or even shoot up to 8.5 due to the opposite phenomenon that is social facilitation.
Theory in place, Peter then honed in to demonstrate how poor coordination contributes to the Ringelmann effect. He held a pen with his fingertips, pointed it at the ground, and then cupped his second hand to create a tunnel through which the pen would fall. He then dropped the pen and caught it immediately, to no one’s surprise. But things got interesting when he asked a classmate to catch the pen: it took her 2-3 tries to properly catch it despite his even counting down to when he would release it (and even then she caught it much later than he did, measured by her grip’s location on the pen compared to his). Peter called this phenomenon “process loss”, defined as any aspect of group interactions that inhibits good problem solving
Peter closed off this part of the lecture with underlining social loafing as possibly the main cause of process loss in groups, and showed us the four main factors leading up to it: low task meaningfulness, low personal involvement, seeing efforts as being redundant, and the presence of strangers in the team. The common denominator among all four is that they distance an actor from wanting to complete the act.
Creating a sociogram
The next part of the session focused on team problem-solving and on the mapping-out of intra-group relationships. Our first exercise was to, within our groups, create a hypothetical team with its own identity. Ours, for example, was a lower league soccer club from a poor coastal Portuguese town who had just found oil. The next step was for an outsider from a neighbouring group to come in and tell us what they “heard” about us (turns out we had a nasty opinion of buying off the refs and of not giving back to the community). The last step was for us to absorb this feedback to fix our identity. Our solution was to use our newfound money to fund after-school youth soccer programs, while a top-league curling team from Finland the next table over decided to change their successful fundraising model of bingo nights to something more exciting, moving the curling image away from something boring to something exciting. This exercise was useful in our hypothetical scenario, but could also be used with real-life input during coaching conferences or in workshops with athletes from different teams.
Peter’s final exercise was something I was seeing for the first time: a sociogram. This is a visual representation of the network present within your team. You ask group members to pick 2-3 people based on whatever metric you are trying to analyze: “best friends”, “whom you trust most when the game is on the line”, etc. Then you map all these relationships out as single-line connections between individuals and a graph will emerge showing who holds the most social weight within the group. In the first example, this weight is based on social cohesion while the second will result in a task cohesion map. You can then know which players are pivotal when it comes to keeping the team together socially, and which ones are the de facto captains.
Understanding a team’s complex human interactions in this way has many uses. It might prevent a coach from cutting a poor player when he serves a much more important role as social glue keeping the team together. This knowledge in hand would also help the coach name the appropriate person team captain to prevent role confusion or even outright mutiny within the team. It also comes in handy when trying to understand cliques within a team, immediately showing which clique members might be good initial points of contact to merge cliques together. Lastly, coaches love visuals. We as future sport psychologists are often told to be prepared to present coaches with graphs and charts so they can actually “see” what it is our intervention does. Well, this is one such way. Generally, athletes are not privy to the final analysis but for the exceptional scenario where team cohesion is high and you would like to share your findings to boost it even higher. In this case though, I would probably wipe out the names and just present the relationship net to demonstrate the tightness of the group.
Should you want to go further with this, you can add weight to relationships (eg: “Of the three people, rate them 1-3 in terms trust”.) and show this through bar thickness, or even add in a negative component and display it in a different colour (eg: “Write down two people whom you really trust to get the game out of a rut, and two who probably won’t be much help.”).
Peter wrapped this session up with a few practical points regarding sociograms. First, in youth aged 16-18, social cohesion that has a lot more pull in bringing about change than any authority figure. Secondly, beware the automatic bias to view the person in the middle of your first sociogram as a leader — you put him there! Rearrange the chart after analyzing relationships so that central figures are positioned based on merit. Lastly, a second tool useful for measuring team cohesion is the Group Environment Questionnaire, developed by Carron, Widmeyer, and Brawley in 1985. However, Peter encouraged us to adapt the questionnaire to our needs, that is to say to find meaningful/purposeful questions from it to apply in our interventions, and not just use the whole questionnaire because it’s there.
And this wrapped up our first EMSEP Leipzig period lecture!