Support Group

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.

Multidimensional Support

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.


  1. Freeman, P., Coffee, P., & Rees, T. (2011). The PASS-Q: The perceived available support in sport questionnaire. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 54–74.
  2. Rees, T. (2007). Influence of social support on athletes. In S. Jowett & D. Lavallee (Eds.), Social psychology in sport (pp. 223–231). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  3. Rees, T., & Freeman, P. (2011). Coping in sport through social support. In J. Thatcher, M. Jones, & D. Lavallee (Eds.), Coping and emotion in sport (2nd, pp. 102–117). London: Routledge.
  4. Rees, T., & Hardy, L. (2000). An examination of the social support experiences of high-level sports performers. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 327–347.

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