Coach Perspectives of “Groups Within the Group”: An Analysis of Subgroups and Cliques in Sport

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Abstract

The importance of identifying and understanding subgroups within teams has been highlighted in the sport literature for a number of years (e.g., Eys, Loughead, Bray, & Carron, 2009; Fletcher & Hanton, 2003). Despite a tendency for previous research to focus on undesirable outcomes associated with their presence, recent work from an athlete perspective has revealed that subgroups are inevitable, and result in both facilitative and debilitative consequences depending on subgroup behaviors (Martin, Wilson, Evans, & Spink, 2015). Whereas this past research has focused on athlete perceptions, the current project sought to extend our understanding of subgroups by analyzing perspectives from other influential sport team members—coaches. Using tools inherent in grounded theory and consensual qualitative research, semistructured interviews were conducted with 21 elite level coaches who were asked to reflect on the subgroups that emerge within teams. Focusing on personal experiences, coaches discussed the nature of subgroups, drawing particular attention to the distinction between the terms subgroup and clique—a distinction that related to a range of positive and negative experiences. Elements or situations that would render the development of subgroups more or less likely were also identified. Finally, coaches reflected on efforts to maintain awareness of team members’ relationships and, in turn, selectively facilitate or reduce problematic subgroups (i.e., cliques). From a theoretical perspective, these results afford a greater understanding of the nature of subgroups in sport. Practically speaking, coaches advanced strategies for identification and management of subgroups that could be implemented by those interested in improving the dynamics within their teams.

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