In 1954, Muzafer Sherif, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, and Carolyn W. Sherif undertook a project that allowed them to examine inter and intragroup relationships in a naturalistic setting. This classic field-based experimental study, known as the Robbers Cave Experiment because of its location (Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma), involved 22 boys (mean age 11 years, 1 month) with similar appearances and backgrounds. The children were assigned to one of two groups (they named themselves the “Rattlers” and “Eagles”), with each group unaware of the other’s existence, and were transported separately to opposite sides of the camp. This segregation enabled the initiation of the first of three experimental stages: in-group formation, friction, and integration. In the first stage (in-group formation), through camping situations, the researchers witnessed spontaneous friendship choices and the development of status hierarchies (e.g., leadership roles, group norms) within the two groups. After a week, the groups were made aware of each other’s presence in the camp and quickly developed an us-versus-them mentality (in-group favoritism and out-group rejection). This marked the beginning of the second stage (friction) in which direct competition activities involving camp chores and sports were implemented. Initially, these activities led to minimal tension between groups; however, in a short time, this tension escalated to the point where the researchers were required to intervene. Interestingly, this intergroup hostility also resulted in greater intragroup solidarity. In order to decrease intergroup conflict, the third stage (integration) involved a variety of noncompetitive scenarios in which the groups played games and ate meals together. When these scenarios failed to decrease hostilities, the members of both teams were required to engage in a series of collaborative tasks that required the pursuit of a series of superordinate goals, and only when members of both teams worked together in this way did the tension and intergroup conflict dissipate.
The Robbers Cave example is a useful representation of what is known as intergroup conflict. Conflict can be generally described as a situation in which one party believes its goals or objectives to be adversely influenced by another. Conflict involves a minimum of two individuals and refers to disagreements or friction involving verbal or nonverbal actions and emotions. This can occur between members of opposing groups (intergroup) or between members within a group (intragroup). In light of the pervasiveness of groups across diverse life contexts, it is perhaps unsurprising that individuals are constantly placed in situations where collaboration and competition, either within or between groups, is necessary; and where interactions are inevitable, so too, is conflict. Sport represents one prominent social context in which conflict is particularly evident.
In sport, a common criterion for success is to defeat one’s opponent. Naturally, this leads to competition and occasionally highly overt intergroup conflict between the competing parties. Intragroup conflict on the other hand, is often much less obvious. Although team members share common goals and must interact in order to achieve these goals, individuals frequently compete with one another for personal accolades or recognition within the team. Such intragroup conflict can develop from interactions between teammates as well as those that occur between a coach and athletes. The former (intragroup conflict between teammates) represents the primary focus of this entry. The relationships (and potential incongruence) between coaches and their athletes are covered in greater detail within other entries in the encyclopedia. (See, for example, “Attachment Theory and Coaching”; “Autonomy-Supportive Coaching”; “Coach–Athlete Relations”; and “Relational Efficacy Beliefs in Coach–Athlete Relations.”)
Conceptual Framework for Intragroup Conflict
A prominent conceptual framework that differentiates between types of intragroup conflict that may exist was advanced by the organizational psychologist Karen Jehn. Based on her model, intragroup conflict is considered to be multidimensional in nature, consisting of relationship, task, and process dimensions. Relationship conflict refers to incompatibilities or disagreements relating to social attachments. Task conflict, on the other hand, results from differences in beliefs or opinions in relation to the instrumental (performance-related) objectives of the group. Finally, process conflict involves controversies or arguments relating to how established objectives will be carried out. This occurs when parties have differing beliefs and expectations with regard to the roles and responsibilities for different members of the group and the processes by which they carry out their specific assignments. In the organizational psychology literature, the process conflict dimension has been the focus of debate, with some suggesting that it is not a distinct dimension in itself but, rather, represents a specific form of task conflict. The other two dimensions, task and relationship conflicts, however, are widely accepted.
In the sport literature, even though research on intragroup conflict is in its infancy, the presence of these two dimensions has also been supported. Jehn contended that relationship conflict is detrimental to group processes and outcomes, whereas task conflict is not necessarily debilitative, and if resolved may in fact result in improvements in team performance. This is also the case in sport settings. To elaborate, task conflict can provide an outlet for athletes to voice their opinions and provide insight into different viewpoints and beliefs. Take, for example, a pitcher and a back catcher in baseball who disagree on the type of pitches that should be thrown. If task conflict arises, and both parties are able to voice their opinions, a superior strategy may be derived and consensus can subsequently improve the commitment from both athletes with regard to the pitches chosen.
Research with youth sport participants has found that friendship conflict (similar to relationship conflict) is positively correlated with athlete anxiety, and negatively correlated with perceptions of friendship quality. Furthermore, research with youth girls has found the presence of friendship conflict to inhibit the development of friendships and social support. At the university level, athletes have been found, in general, to be adversely affected by intragroup conflict. They indicate that task and relationship conflicts are inevitable in the sport domain, and the tendency for these conflicts to arise increases when athletes exhibit self-centered behavior in relation to both the task (e.g., not involving certain teammates in practices or game systems) and relationships (e.g., not reciprocating support offered by teammates). Although both types of conflict have been found to hinder team performance, in certain instances, if task conflict is moderate in nature and managed at an early stage, it can have positive consequences.
In recognition of this potential facilitative role for task-related conflict, a preliminary study by Phillip Sullivan and Deborah Feltz distinguished between constructive and destructive conflict styles in sport teams. An example of a constructive conflict style might involve an individual tackling disagreements by actively involving all affected parties and working to derive a mutually beneficial result, whereas a destructive conflict style might involve teasing a teammate or making the teammate feel guilty. The results of this work indicated that although destructive conflict was negatively related to task and social cohesion, constructive conflict (in particular by using integrative tactics) was positively related to social cohesion. This is significant because cohesion is positively related to many important psychological variables, such as participant satisfaction, motivation, and adherence.
Strategies for Preventing and Resolving Intragroup Conflict
In acknowledgement of the potential deleterious effects of destructive intragroup conflict (especially relationship conflict), the prevention (proactive approach) and resolution (reactive approach) of these debilitative intragroup dynamics becomes increasingly important for optimal group functioning. However, because conflict can arise for many different reasons and in many different situations, there is no one best established method to alleviate such conflict. Nevertheless, there is evidence from the group dynamics literature of the existence of effective conflict prevention and resolution strategies. The most ideal situation is to prevent elevated levels of intragroup conflict from developing in the first place. Because conflict arises when differing parties perceive their objectives as being negatively influenced or impeded by another party, one method to successfully prevent intragroup conflict involves targeting athletes’ understanding of their own and their teammates’ preferences for interdependent interaction. By having open lines of communication and conducting role playing activities, team members are able to see (a) how their personal preferences directly affect their teammates, and (b) why their teammates might act in different ways to themselves. By helping athletes to better understand themselves and their teammates (empathy is developed), they are better able to adapt and connect with one another.
Another successful way to prevent intragroup conflict is through the implementation of peermentoring systems. During a sport season, athletes are often in close proximity to one another and although this can foster positive social interactions and team cohesion, there is also the potential for increased task and relationship conflict. By assigning partners, athletes are encouraged to provide feedback to one another, discuss situations that may cause conflict, and consider strategies to prevent such interpersonal conflict. Through this process, athletes are better equipped to handle and address the idiosyncrasies of their teammates.
Nevertheless, when conflict does arise and is allowed to go unresolved, it has the potential to intensify and cause problems for the team at important times during the season. Identification and intervention at an early stage are important for two reasons. First, emotions are not as intense at an early stage and resolution is easier than if the conflict is allowed to fester. Second, and based on the literature that suggests there are positive benefits relating to conflict resolution, if conflict is resolved early, there is potential for the added advantage of different viewpoints and strategies to be voiced that could eventually result in improved group functioning.
From an interventionist perspective, conflict resolution can be approached in a negative or positive manner, and by taking a passive or active approach, resulting in four types of conflict management: (1) avoiding (negative and passive), (2) fighting (negative and active), (3) yielding (positive and passive), and (4) cooperating (positive and active). The latter (cooperating) of these has generally been found to be the most effective in guiding conflict resolution. One strategy for resolving conflict that utilizes a positive and active approach is through the use of a third party mediator. Ideally, this mediator should be a formal (captain or assistant captain) or informal (senior athlete) leader who is not directly involved with either of the conflicting parties. It is also possible, however, that using teammates as mediators can lead to further conflict because the mediator can be forced to take sides. In certain instances, a coach can act as a mediator, although on occasions athletes may be reluctant to involve the coach in this process. An alternative is the use of a sport psychology consultant. These options should be implemented based on the needs of the athletes or team as well as the context of the conflict.
Another somewhat related conflict resolution strategy involves clear-the-air team meetings. The difference between team meetings and the third party mediator approach is that the whole team participates in the discussion rather than only the parties involved. These meetings can be executed with (a) only the athletes (without an authority figure), (b) a coach as the mediator, or (c) a sport psychology consultant as the mediator. In these sessions, athletes are encouraged to voice their opinions and discuss issues pertinent to the group. Through this process, athletes take ownership of the conflict resolution and develop perceptions of autonomy and empowerment.
To summarize, intragroup conflict is inevitable in sport. Based on the extant literature, conflict can be resolved and the negative outcomes can be minimized if handled properly. In addition, the resolution of task conflict in certain instances can lead to positive outcomes such as increased teammate understanding and cooperation and, subsequently, group functioning. In order for this to occur, conflict should be handled at an early stage and ideally in a collaborative manner.
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- Holt, N. L., Knight, C. J., & Zukiwski, P. (2012). Female athletes’ perceptions of teammate conflict in sport: Implications for sport psychology consultants. The Sport Psychologist, 26, 135–154.
- Jehn, K. A. (1995). A multimethod examination of the benefits and detriments of intragroup conflict. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 256–282.
- Jehn, K. A. (1997). A qualitative analysis of conflict types and dimensions in organizational groups. Administrative Science Quarterly, 42, 530–557.
- Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup cooperation and conflict: The Robbers Cave Experiment. Norman, OK: Institute of Group Relations.
- Sullivan, P. J., & Feltz, D. L. (2001). The relationship between intrateam conflict and cohesion within hockey teams. Small Group Research, 32, 342–355.