Group-Centered Coaching: Addressing the Whole Team [ARTICLE]

Group-Centered Coaching: Addressing the Whole Team
By: Marshall J. Milbrath, M.Ed

Originally Published in: Techniques Magazine

Provided by: USTFCCCA


We live in an era of athlete-centered coaching. Athlete-centered coaching aims to educate and positively influence the athlete in body, mind and spirit. This practice is rooted in a focus on individuals as they strive for unmet potential in an effort to seek self-fulfillment (Lombardo, 1987). As coaches, we aim to do this as we plan and conduct our training sessions. We do this to ensure that our athletes are training appropriately for both the events in which they compete and for their individual developmental states. However, this coaching of the body is only part of athlete-centered coaching. Even the most detailed and appropriately derived training programs can fall flat when athletes are not prepared with the knowledge (mind) or the proper attitudes (spirit) for training and competition. Creating an environment where athletes are motivated and believe in their ability to perform is integral in addressing these remaining parts of the athlete-centered coaching approach.

It has been long acknowledged that there is no one "right" way of coaching. An approach could be wildly successful one year only for it to be rendered ineffective the next (Warhurst, 1984). One reason for this might change in the team environment. Focusing on the training environment requires attention to all of its external influences, including the collective group of athletes involved. As coaches, we rightfully attune ourselves to the needs of individual athletes. However, these needs can, and are, influenced by the team as a whole. Group dynamics has been a prominent area of research in the field of social psychology. This article addresses some of the group dynamics that can affect cross-country teams and provides recommendations for how the coach can create a beneficial group dynamic.



As coaches, recruitment is a large part of the job. Especially in high school settings, one of the challenges is to recruit interest for cross-country and to build a sizable roster to increase the chances of finding talent and to also create depth. Indeed, Vigil has stated time and time again in coaching clinics, "The halls of your schools are filled with champions. It's your job to find them" (Vigil, 2016). As we build our team rosters, we may have thoughts of "the more [athletes], the merrier," "two heads are better than one," or "many hands make light work," (Albert V. Carron & Brawley, 2006). But opposite points of view state "Three is a crowd," "Too many cooks spoil the broth," or "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link," (Steiner, 1972). We know of this idea that more is better, but others suggest that less is more.

So what is a coach to do? Studies in social psychology have examined group size and its effects on sport team dynamics. Steiner's theory of group productivity (1972) sheds some light on this issue. Steiner suggests that each group setting has an optimal group membership. As a group grows, it increases in productivity until it gets to this optimal number. The reason for this is intuitive; an increased number of people increases the ability to benefit from a wide range of personal abilities. With a cross-country team, this can be witnessed by teams who cast a wide net. They are more likely to bring in athletes who are predisposed to distance running, as well as athletes who have the physical abilities to withstand the rigors of distance running training. We also see this with teams that have extraordinary depth. Not only are they more likely to find the athletes who contend for individual championships, but they are also able to place high caliber runners consistently in the fourth and fifth team positions, which is critical for team success.

Some studies in social psychology have given evidence, however, that sometimes a team can be too large. Once an optimal number has been reached, the productivity experienced by the group begins to level off. There are several reasons for this. First, there is the possibility that the increase in size creates barriers in interaction and communication (Albert V. Carron & Brawley, 2006). Considering this, the planning and coordination of each person's role becomes more difficult, and senses of individual purpose may begin to decrease for individual members on the team. This is demonstrated by evidence showing that as a team size increases, perceptions of cohesiveness (which will be addressed further later), feelings of enjoyment, of influence, of responsibility and of organization decrease (A. V. Carron, Brawley, & Windmeyer, 1990).

Steiner's model suggests that these attitudes result in a drop in overall productivity for each group member. This largely occurs because group efficiency decreases and, in larger groups, individual members begin to exhibit less effort than they would if they were in a smaller group (Albert V. Canon • Brawley, 2006). This phenomenon is referred to as social loafing. Research on social loafing has suggested that it reliably occurs across a wide range of activities, including sport (Karau & Williams, 1993). Signs that social loafing may occur include:

• individuals' performances cannot be evaluated independently,

• tasks are low in meaningfulness,

• individuals' personal involvement is low,

• comparison of individuals' effort against group standards is not possible,

• individuals within a group are strangers to each other,

• individuals' teammates are expected to do well

• individuals believe that personal efforts are not necessary for the success of the group (Karau & Williams, 1993).

Harkins and colleagues (1980) identified four reasons why this might happen: 1) people save their best efforts for solitary work because it is most beneficial, 2) people are motivated to get by with as little effort as possible, 3) people do not believe their efforts are necessary for success, and 4) people do not want to provide a free ride for others.

This section has identified ways that group size can affect team environments. Indeed, we can likely think of successful teams who are both large and small. The purpose of this section is not to suggest that there is a magic number that will grant our teams success. We understand that for each unique team, a unique approach to match it is necessary. This section intends for the coach to examine her or his environment and think purposefully about the size of the team and how it benefits her or his overall mission and philosophy. The following section will now look at some of the related attitudes that can be affected by group size and who this applies to a coach.



Efficacy in general is a measure of how confident someone is that an objective can be accomplished, or that the required skills for a goal to be carried out successfully (Albert V. Carron & Brawley, 2006). Collective efficacy, as it implies, is the collective competence shared among individuals in a group that share a common goal (Zaccaro, Blair, Peterson, & Zazanis, 1995). This sense of collective efficacy positively related to increased performance (Gully, 2002). How does the coach use this to her or his advantage? Collective efficacy is effected by five main influences:

1) prior performance,

2) vicarious experiences,

3) verbal persuasion,

4) leadership, and

5) cohesion (A. V. Carron & Eys, 2012).

A coach can use these influences to increase collective efficacy, which may help foster success on a team.

Prior performance is largely considered one of the most powerful sources of efficacy (A. V. Carron & Eys, 2012). When a group is successful, it begins to form expectations for future success. A reliable relationship between successful performance and collective efficacy has been well-established. The cross-country coach can make use of this by providing experiences in which she or he is confident the athletes will be successful. This might include creating training sessions that are well within the athletes' abilities or entering the team in meets where they are likely to finish near the top or even win. As the team's collective efficacy increases, the level of difficulty that can be used to provide successful experience also increases.

Vicarious experiences are developed by seeing the success of a team that is similar in competence, ability or other important characteristics (McCullagh, 1987). A coach can foster this by having the team compare themselves to successful teams who are similar to themselves. Other methods might include using live or symbolic models as modeling influences (Bandura, 1986). Live modeling might include watching a comparable team at a meet against an upcoming opponent. This can be accomplished by having athletes demonstrate skill or exercises that are a regular part of the training program. Symbolic modeling might involve watching a training film or even a movie about an influential runner with whom the athletes can relate. This might also be implemented by using credible instructional videos (Carron & Eys, 2012).

Verbal persuasion, or encouragement and support from others, is effective at developing collective efficacy (Bandura, 1986). Some theories have suggested that effective leadership acts as a source of persuasion and develops the beliefs of a group just as much as prior experiences (Zaccaro et al., 1995), but this has not been validated to date. Although, it is still common for coaches to use inspirational messages or speakers to develop team confidence (Carron & Eys, 2012). The validity of the positive relationship between verbal encouragement and collective efficacy is not strong. On the other hand, this technique's ability to boost self-efficacy of individual athletes is well demonstrates its usefulness in coaching (Bandura, 1986). This can be accomplished by regularly providing individual positive reinforcement in training and in competition.

Leadership also contributes to collective efficacy (Zaccaro et al., 1995). Athletes have preferences for specific types of leadership behaviors. Experiencing these preferred leader- ship behaviors lends confidence in the leadership and ultimately themselves as a team (Watson, Chemers, & Preiser, 2001). Literature that has examined athletes' preferred leadership styles has found that, overall, athletes prefer leadership styles that are in some ways democratic (e.g., Cuka & Zhurda, 2006; Hastie, 1993, 1995). However, there is evidence to suggest that these preferences may vary with some athletes preferring a leadership style that is more autocratic (Lindauer, 2000). To best foster collective efficacy, it is advisable that the coach should be aware of the styles of leadership to which her or his team will be most responsive and aim to provide that kind of leadership.

Lastly, group cohesion and collective efficacy appear to be related. Suggesting that using coaching strategies to increase collective efficacy will likely result in a more cohesive team and vice versa (Spink, 1990). As the following section addresses specifically what can affect cohesion on a team, it is important to recognize that the above characteristics may influence cohesion as collective-efficacy is developed. Likewise, the below characteristics that may affect cohesion may also influence group-efficacy as cohesion on a team increases.


Cohesion describes the "togetherness" or the unity of a group (Canon & Eys, 2012). This has been widely studied in the world of social psychology. Cohesiveness can be generally defined as a dynamic process where a group sticks together and remains united in pursuit of its goals and objectives (A. V. Carron, 1982). This bonding comes from two main orientations, a task orientation that relates to the group's tasks or purpose, and a social aspect that relates to the development of sustained social relationships (Albert V. Carron & Brawley, 2006). Therefore, cohesiveness can be rooted in commitment to do a task well, or in a social commitment to the team itself. Both of these orientations have been shown to contribute to the success of a team, but also have some unique characteristics. Studies that have measured the prevalence of these two types of cohesiveness have found that, in sport, task orientations of cohesiveness tend to develop early with social orientations developing later (A. V. Canon et al., 1990). These studies point out that in sport, there is usually a strong emphasis on the physical objectives of the group rather than on purposeful development of a social identity. It has been hypothesized purposefully integrating social interaction may allow for accelerated development of social cohesiveness.

So why is this important for the coach? A review of 46 studies on cohesiveness has shown an association with team success for both men and women, across several types of sports (e.g., independent or dependent), and across levels of competition from elementary through elite (A. V. Carron, Colman, Wheeler, & Stevens, 2002). Additionally, this review also suggests that neither task nor social cohesiveness has yet been found to be more effective than the other in fostering success on the team. This suggests that a coach should develop cohesiveness, either task or social, within her or his team. Understanding what influences cohesiveness can help develop this important part of the team environment.


A team's unique situation has effects on cohesion. This includes team culture, group size and purpose (A. V. Carron & Eys, 2012). The following paragraphs address how these factors affect team cohesion.

Cultural considerations are rooted in the expectations and nature of a team setting. In some settings, expectations are set through the use of contracts. This external factor can keep a team bonded together, though be it by obligation (A. V. Carron & Eys, 2012). While few cross-country runners find themselves committing to a formal contract, this can still be successfully implemented within a team. Freeman (2009) described the use of a 'team covenant' or a document of expectations for team involvement that was developed by the captains of the team and signed by the entire team. For Freeman's coaching context, this sealed a bond between all members of the group. Practices like this also create normative pressures, or pressures to exhibit the agreed upon appropriate conduct, which also contributes to the team's culture. These normative pressures keep individuals bonded to the group and the mission of the group, especially considering the cultural expectation of commitment, and breaking that commitment, as either through lack of effort or by quitting, would be looked down upon.

Group size, as mentioned earlier can have effects on the functioning of a group. Part of this is through its effect on cohesion. Windmeyer and col-leagues (1990) found that as group size increased, the level of task cohesion decreased. Additionally, it found that as group size increased, social cohesion also increased before decreasing when the group size became presumably too large. This suggests that groups of intermediate sizes may foster the highest levels of social cohesion. As stated earlier, this article does not aim to prescribe the optimal size for a cross-country team as this number likely varies between situations. But as a coach makes judgments on the optimal size for her or his team, it is advisable to consider how cohesion within a group may be affected by the size of the roster.

Lastly, the purpose of the team can have an impact on cohesion as well and can affect task and social cohesions differently. Spink & Carron (1994) found that exercise settings where the group was primarily focused on performance was more task-cohesive in comparison to recreational groups who were more socially-cohesive. Additionally, unifying a group around a common purpose has been shown to resolve a conflict between groups which could reasonably suggest that it increases cohesion (Sherif, 1956). It is important for the coach to recognize that the environment she or he creates will likely affect the level and type of team cohesion. This also highlights the importance of creating a sense of purpose to unite the team.

Personal effects of cohesion refer to characteristics of the individuals who compose the group. The sharing of these characteristics influences the cohesiveness of the group as a whole. Personal effects addressed here include social cognitions, attitudes, and group behaviors.

Social cognitions refer to psychological traits that characterize a person's thoughts and expectations (Bandura, 1997). One such cognition is how an athlete attributes success and failure. Attributions to success and failure refer to whom the team gives credit for team outcomes. A team that has low cohesiveness is more likely to blame teammates for failure while taking disproportionate amounts of credit for successes (Weiner, 1986). Conversely, cohesive teams are more likely to attribute success to the efforts of the group, while refraining from singling out teammates in the aftermath of failure. Further psychology studies (e.g., Weiner, 1979) have shown that individuals who blame others for failure are poor self-regulators which are associated with poor performance. To foster individual success and develop team cohesion, the coach may benefit from implementing self-regulatory strategies (e.g., Zimmerman & Kitsantas, 2005) teaching athletes to use training logs may help teach proper attribution skills (e.g., Milbrath & Humble, 2014, 2015).

Shared attitudes that affect cohesion include feelings of satisfaction and anxiety. In general, people feel more satisfied and less anxious when they experience feelings of belongingness (Baumeister, 1995). These attitudes and emotions within sports teams are no exception and are also related to social cohesion within teams. Multiple studies have revealed that satisfaction grows (Williams & Hacker, 1982; Windmeyer & Williams, 1991) and debilitating anxiety is reduced (Eys, Hardy, Carron, & Beauchamp, 2003; Prapavessis & Carron, 1996) when teams are high in social cohesion. Assessing the satisfaction and anxiety of the athletes, therefore, can be a great way to get a sense of the cohesiveness in a team. Additionally, there is also an emphasis on the importance of creating purposeful and positive social interactions for your team. These interactions foster social cohesion and satisfaction while also helping reduce senses of anxiety.

Lastly, shared group behavior can affect cohesion within a team. Two group behaviors that share a relationship with cohesion are adherence to the team and sacrifice behavior. Adherence is the tendency for members of a group to stick together and is a sign that a team is highly cohesive (Canon & Eys, 2012). Teams that are high in adherence are less likely to be late or absent for team events (A. V. Canon & Eys, 2012) and are also more likely to give maximal effort during training (Prapavessis & Carron, 1997a). Additionally, individuals on teams high in adherence are more likely to return for future seasons (Spink, 1995, 1998). The second behavior, sacrifice, also has a positive relationship with cohesion. In general, a member of a group is more attracted to a group if she or he is asked to sacrifice something to benefit the whole group (Zander, 1982). Research shows that sacrifices by individuals and teammates in practice or competition result in the largest increases in task cohesion (Prapavessis & Carron, 1997b).

While witnessing these characteristics is a sign that a team is cohesive, the coach can also teach these group behaviors to foster an environment of cohesion. Other psychological research demonstrates very reliably that attitudes are affected by actions, even if those actions are out of obligation (Festinger, 1962; Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). In other words, people tend to shift their attitudes to be in favor with tasks they are asked to do. While as coaches, we optimally want to foster intrinsically motivated teams, setting and enforcing expectations for timeliness, presence, effort and selflessness carry likelihood of facilitating self-driven behaviors of adherence and sacrifice which can increase social cohesion in your team.


This article has provided a brief overview of the group dynamics that can affect a cross-country team. The recommendations from the research presented in this article uses sources from a vast range of studies across multiple group settings. Like any body of research, while overall effects are witnessed and reported, and also largely explain the majority of social interaction in groups, we recognize that variability between individuals exists. It is important to recognize that as coaches, it is not our responsibility to demand congruence from our athletes with the scientific literature. Instead, we are to use our understanding of the literature as a starting point by which we direct training taking into account the uniqueness of the group. This article provides likely explanations for changes in group productivity, collective-efficacy and team cohesion. Knowledge of what affects these group characteristics enables a coach to address them as is appropriate for her or his team.


The Author would like to thank Dr. William Woody of the University of Northern Colorado for his expertise and feedback in the formation of the article.


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Marshall Milbrath is a PhD student in Sport Pedagogy at the University of Northern Colorado. Milbrath has 7 years of coaching experience at both high school and college levels.


1 Review
Dennis Spencer
Corbett, Oregon
Group Centered Cross Country Training

Well thought out presentation of influences determining the tangible and intangible outcomes of high school and college cross country seasons. Highly recommended.

October 2016

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31 Oct 2016

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