Conflict in Sports

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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  2. Copeland, B. W., & Wida, K. (1996). Resolving team conflict: Coaching strategies to prevent negative behavior. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 67, 52–54.
  3. 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.
  4. Jehn, K. A. (1995). A multimethod examination of the benefits and detriments of intragroup conflict. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 256–282.
  5. Jehn, K. A. (1997). A qualitative analysis of conflict types and dimensions in organizational groups. Administrative Science Quarterly, 42, 530–557.
  6. 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.
  7. Sullivan, P. J., & Feltz, D. L. (2001). The relationship between intrateam conflict and cohesion within hockey teams. Small Group Research, 32, 342–355.

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