The aim of attachment theory has largely been to explain how relationships with parents in childhood have such a persistent effect on personality development. The focus of attachment theory has subsequently been extended from child to adolescent and adult development and social relationships within the context of both contemporary personality and social psychology. Attachment has been viewed as a natural phenomenon sought by all human beings. Subsequently, the theory postulates that, whereas successful bids for proximity and connectedness with warm, kind, dependable, and encouraging attachment figures are important for optimal functioning, the loss of such proximity and connection can be a natural source of distress and psychosocial dysfunction.
In sport and exercise psychology, attachment theory has recently been used to understand (a) how athletes and coaches perceive and cope with fears and anxieties, injuries, and performance slumps; and (b) how personal relationships (parent–athlete or parent–child) and social relationships (coach–athlete, athlete–athlete) help their members to either flourish or diminish. The appeal of attachment theory to explain a whole host of research questions has sparked research within sport and exercise psychology that has the potential to advance theory, measurement, and practice, as seen in work by Sam Carr and Neil Fitzpatrick and by Louise Davis and Sophia Jowett.
Attachment Figures, Interactions, and Relationships
Attachment figures are not just any close relationship member. Attachment figures are special individuals to whom, for example, an athlete turns when assistance, encouragement, and cooperation are needed. In the context of sport, coaches serve as attachment figures when they allow their athletes to act independently. Athletes, in these cases, are encouraged to explore and discover new techniques, skills, or competition in the knowledge that their coaches are near and they can reliably provide protection, comfort, encouragement, or relief should the athletes need it (failing to execute the technique or the skill, failing to qualify, losing a major championship, getting injured during a task). While there are numerous interpersonal behaviors that cannot be characterized as attachment interactions, such as organizing a training session or providing feedback and criticism, there are other interpersonal behaviors that can be characterized as attachment interactions. In such interactions, the expectation is that the athlete would feel a degree of threat or distress, thus compelling that athlete to seek comfort and support from the coach. In competitive sport especially where the stakes are high, athletes undergo numerous stressful situations, including dealing with complicated technical routines, serious injuries, team selections, career transitions, or personal circumstances such as the loss of a loved one, financial problems, and social pressures—all of which could require them to seek comfort and support from people they trust. The attachment bond becomes apparent when coaches are shown to be available, sensitive to the needs of their athletes, and responsive to the athletes’ feelings of threat, worries, distress, hurt, or bids for proximity when in need.
Attachment Working Models
According to attachment theory, variations in attachment figure responses to an attached individual’s bids for proximity, connectedness, and protection are capable of progressively producing lasting changes in how attached individuals function personally and interpersonally. For example, over time, athletes (attached individuals) have a host of interactions with their coaches (attachment figures) and the quality and type of responses of these interactions are stored in athletes’ long-term memories. This stored knowledge takes the form of internal working models (IWMs) and allows, for example, athletes to predict future interactions with their coaches and guide their behavior, cognitions, and feelings. Specifically, IWMs are capable of orienting individuals in specific ways toward their own self and toward their close others. On one hand, IWM of the self reflects how worthy one feels in obtaining assistance when in need (I am a valued member), and on the other hand, IWM of others refer to whether an individual can expect assistance, including responsive and caring behavior, from an attachment figure in times of stress (I expect or don’t doubt coaches’ understanding and help). According to attachment theory, IWMs are thought to account for the long-term effects on individuals’ personality functioning as this relates to attachment interactions during infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. An individual’s attachment style reflects the most constantly accessible IWM, and thus how typically an individual functions within one’s attachment system at a local level and within a specific relationship like the coach–athlete relationship or at a global level and across a number of relationships in general attachment style.
There are three most commonly referred to attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. Individuals with a secure attachment style display confidence in the availability of close others like a coach for comfort and support in times of need. Those who display an anxious attachment style have a desire for proximity and intimacy to an attachment figure even in nondistressing conditions. Under stressful situations, they can display excessive distress and may withdraw in anger even if support is offered from the close other on the basis that the support offered is not good enough. Finally, individuals with an avoidant attachment style display little distress during stressful events and few attempts at maintaining contact with an attachment figure. As mentioned earlier, attachment styles are thought to be determined by an individual’s IWM of both the self and others. Individuals with a secure attachment style typically have an expectation that assistance should be available in times of need and that they
are worthy of such assistance; this helps them develop and maintain a positive IWM of themselves and others. Conversely, individuals with insecure attachment styles typically expect either inconsistent assistance (anxious), or no assistance at all (avoidant), in times of need; this results in the development and maintenance of feelings of unworthiness regarding others’ care and affection while also becoming suspicious of any affection they may receive. This leads individuals with anxious attachment to display a negative IWM of themselves, and for those with an avoidant attachment style to display negative IWMs of others.
Lifespan Perspective of Attachment
It is important to note that although an individual’s attachment style could remain stable over time, this can be dependent on the caregiving environment or attachment figure. If, for example, an individual’s attachment bond with the coach supports and reinforces one’s dominant or currently most active IWM, the stability of an attachment style would be expected. However, if an individual develops an attachment bond (e.g., with the coach) that is substantially different from attachment bonds formed in the past (predominantly by the primary caregiver, such as a parent or indeed a previous coach), then there is a chance of altering IWMs (tendencies to anticipate, attend to, interpret, and recall behavior) and, in turn, attachment style. For example, an athlete who has constantly received inconsistent support and responsiveness from previous attachment figures, such as parents, teachers, or coaches, is likely to develop a negative IWM of self and thereby bring about an anxious attachment style. However, the intense and enduring support, responsiveness, and encouragement demonstrated by a new coach over a period of time can foster a much more positive intrapersonal outlook, which can potentially lead to an alteration of the athlete’s IWM and consequently the adoption of a secure attachment style within the coach–athlete relationship.
Attachment Theory in Sport
Research within the broader discipline of social psychology on adult attachment has demonstrated the importance of secure attachments for relationship quality and functioning as well as psychological well-being (for a comprehensive review, see Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). In sport and exercise psychology, research is gathering momentum in this area. At present, the findings suggest that athletes displaying insecure attachment (anxious or avoidant attachment) are likely to report poor relationship quality with the coach, less sport satisfaction, greater risk of developing an eating disorder, low perceptions of basic psychological need satisfaction, and ill-being (e.g., lack of vitality, negative affect, depression) when compared to more securely attached athletes. Moreover, findings highlight that the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, such as connectedness, competence, and autonomy, can potentially explain the association between insecure attachment and well or ill-being. It would appear that while security attachment can satisfy basic needs and thus lead to athletes’ wellbeing, insecure attachment can thwart basic needs and lead to athletes’ ill-being. These studies started to underline the significance of attachment theory in understanding important research questions of practical significance for effective coaching and successful athletic performance.
Given that coaching is an interpersonal affair revolving primarily around the coach and the athlete, it is important that both coach and athlete have an appreciation of the potential impact that their attachment styles can have on their own and the other’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. As described earlier, an avoidant attachment style is reflected in an individual’s being heavily self-reliant and uninterested and unwilling to connect with others. If an athlete appears to be distant to the coach when interacting in training or competitions, it does not mean that that athlete is being indifferent toward sport or dislikes the coach; it may simply be a reflection of the athlete’s personality. Athletes with insecure attachment styles may be misunderstood by their coaches, and thus coaches may decide to write them off or not give them the time and attention they require to progress. Coaches who recognize their athletes as insecure can, instead of adopting a similar pattern of behavior (e.g., less connection, responsiveness) that only serves to strengthen the athlete’s IWM and further reinforces the athlete’s negative IWM, try creating a positive, caring, and nurturing environment that is consistently unambiguous. Ultimately, coaches’ persistent positive interpersonal behaviors are more likely to help athletes satisfy basic
psychological needs and promote their well-being. Happy and satisfied athletes are more likely to persist and achieve in their chosen sports. Thus, coaches who (a) behave in an autonomy-supportive manner, while avoiding controlling behaviors, allow the athlete to take on a more integral role in their training and competition; and (b) develop positive relationships characterized by trust, respect, appreciation, commitment, readiness, reassurance, and security are more likely to help their athletes recognize that they are being valued and cared for. Such enduring, supportive, responsive, and encouraging interactions may begin to lay the foundations for a substantial change in the insecure athletes’ IWMs, leading to a more secure attachment style for that athlete within the coaching context. Theory and research suggest that secure attachment styles are more advantageous for optimal functioning at both intrapersonal and interpersonal levels. Given that sporting success is the product of the combined interrelation between the coach and the athlete, as typically neither of them can do it alone, understanding their personalities can make the journey to achieving performance success much happier, easier, and rewarding.
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- Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.
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- Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York: Guilford Press.
- Shanmugam, V., Jowett, S., & Meyer, C. (2011). Application of the transdiagnostic cognitive-behavioral model of eating disorders to the athletic population. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 5, 166–191.