Roles in Sport

Roles  are  important  structural  components  of  all groups and represent the expectations for behaviors of individuals within a particular social situation.

This entry briefly highlights the history, types, and emergence of roles and presents a number of cognitive  (e.g.,  role  clarity),  affective  (e.g.,  role  satisfaction),  and  behavioral  (e.g.,  role  performance) elements to role involvement.


The term role is common to many disciplines. For example, the term is employed within the entertainment industry to indicate the part that is played by an actor. Furthermore, roles exist in organizations, sport  teams,  marriages,  and  so  forth.  Essentially, where  there  are  groups,  there  are  roles  being enacted  by  group  members.  The  examination  of roles as an academic area of study was facilitated by  the  work  of  Bruce  Biddle  and  Edwin  Thomas in 1966. Their book, Role Theory: Concepts and Research, was an influential publication that communicated  the  knowledge  base  pertaining  to  the concept  of  roles.  Around  the  same  time  frame, Robert Kahn and his colleagues published a summary  of  studies  examining  two  role  perceptions in the book Organizational Stress: Studies in Role Conflict  and  Ambiguity.  Both  of  these  contributions  have  served  as  valuable  resources  in  the development of role-oriented research in sport that began in earnest in the 1990s.

Types of Roles

There are a number of ways in which to describe the  types  of  roles  within  sport  groups.  In  a  very specific manner, roles and the associated responsibilities can be identified on a sport-by-sport basis. For example, roles occupied by basketball players can  be  identified  by  the  position  they  hold  (e.g., point guard, shooting guard, center) and the specific behaviors expected of them (e.g., rebounding, scoring,  defending).  Obviously,  these  roles  would differ  greatly  in  comparison  to  other  sports  (e.g., curling).  However,  two  categorization  schemes have  been  utilized  to  more  generally  describe  the types of roles that occur in groups. The first categorization  is  based  on  the  primary  objective  of the role and is differentiated based on task versus social orientations. Task roles pertain to those that focus on the accomplishment of the group’s objectives. In contrast, social roles pertain to those that facilitate  interaction,  integration,  and  harmony within the group.

The  second  categorization  that  can  be  used  to classify roles pertains to the degree of formalization of responsibilities. Formal roles are those that are established  by  the  group,  organization,  or  team and  are  directly  prescribed  to  group  members. Examples of formal roles in a sport context include the positional responsibilities held by athletes and the  leadership  role  of  captain.  The  majority  of sport  research  to  date  has  focused  on  the  formal role responsibilities held by athletes.

Conversely,  informal  roles  are  those  that  arise through the interactions of team members but are not  directly  prescribed  to  individuals.  In  essence, they emerge naturally in the group environment. In 2010, Cassandra Cope and colleagues highlighted 12  descriptions  of  informal  sport  roles  including positive examples such as the mentor (one-on-one counselor), spark plug (energy booster), comedian, and informal leaders. In addition, they noted that negative informal roles such as a distracter and a cancer are also discussed in sport literature.

Overall,  research  across  contexts  suggests  that informal roles can act to supplement or resist the existing  formal  roles  and  can  be  viewed  as  positive or negative. Furthermore, it can be stated that some  informal  roles  appear  to  be  present  across contexts  (e.g.,  a  social  organizer  may  be  present in sport, work, church groups, and so forth) while others may be quite unique to a specific sport (e.g., the enforcer in ice hockey).

Transmission of Role Responsibilities

Discussion  pertaining  to  the  emergence  of  roles (i.e., formally vs. informally) leads directly to consideration  of  how  role  responsibilities  are  transmitted. Toward this end, a major contribution of the aforementioned work by Kahn and colleagues in 1964 was the Role Episode Model, which highlights  a  communication  process  between  two actors. The first actor is called the role sender and is  the  individual  who  develops  role  expectations for the second actor, the focal person. Within the context  of  sport,  it  is  typical  that  the  role  sender is the coach while the focal person is the athlete. The Role Episode Model includes five events in the transmission  of  role  responsibilities:  (1)  the  role sender must develop expectations for the focal person, (2) the role sender will exert pressure on the focal  person  to  fulfill  these  expectations,  (3)  the focal person will experience the role pressure and expectations,  and  (4)  respond  accordingly.  The fifth event is that the responses of the focal person will be interpreted by the role sender. In addition to this ongoing cycle of events, a number of organizational, personal, and interpersonal factors are proposed to influence (and be influenced by) this role transmission process.

Elements of Role Involvement

As  noted  at  the  beginning  of  this  entry,  there  are several  cognitive,  affective,  and  behavioral  elements to an individual’s experience with his or her role.  In  the  following  section,  these  elements  are described.

Role Performance

This  represents  the  prime  outcome  of  the  role episode  and  is  the  behavioral  element  of  role involvement. Clearly, the aim of developing expectations for a focal person is to have him or her successfully execute the role responsibilities. However, a number of factors may influence the congruence between the role performance of the focal person and  the  expectations  that  were  derived  by  role senders.

Role Clarity or Ambiguity

The degree of understanding one has about his or  her  role  responsibilities  is  referred  to  as  role clarity. Alternatively, researchers also use the term role ambiguity to reflect a similar idea (i.e., a lack of  understanding  regarding  role  responsibilities). Of all the role elements described in this entry, this concept  has  received  the  most  research  attention within a sport context. In 2002, Mark Beauchamp, Mark Eys, Bert Carron, and Steven Bray proposed a  conceptual  model  of  role  ambiguity  (concurrent with an assessment tool: the Role Ambiguity Scale),  suggesting  the  need  to  consider  athletes’ understanding  of  (a)  the  general  scope  of  their responsibilities, (b) the specific behaviors necessary to fulfill their responsibilities, (c) how they will be evaluated  with  respect  to  role  performance,  and (d) the consequences of not fulfilling their responsibilities. Research conducted since the development of this conceptual model and assessment tool has provided support for the importance of providing clear and consistent information to athletes regarding their responsibilities on the team.

Role Efficacy

This  role  perception  refers  to  athletes’  beliefs in   their   capabilities   to   carry   out   their   role responsibilities  in  an  interdependent  fashion  (i.e., in  conjunction  with  other  team  members).  Early work on this concept by Steven Bray demonstrated that athletes with stronger perceptions of role efficacy  were  rated  more  positively  in  terms  of  role performance by their coaches.

Role Acceptance

The willingness of the athlete to execute his or her role responsibilities is generally referred to as role acceptance. From a sport perspective, limited research has been conducted on this topic despite a  great  deal  of  anecdotal  evidence  suggesting  its importance.  Previous  literature  devoted  to  the topic  of  conformity  and  persuasion  offers  some perspective on how role acceptance develops in the focal person including the person’s perceptions of the  credibility  of  the  role  sender  and  the  power held by the role sender. Recent qualitative research by Alex Benson in 2012 supported this suggestion and  also  highlighted  that  the  significance  of  the role,  team  cohesion,  and  experience  on  the  team were  among  several  potential  antecedents  of  role acceptance for athletes.

Role Conflict

This  cognitive  role  element  refers  to  the  presence of conflicting expectations for the focal person. For example, athletes may receive role-related information  from  a  head  coach  while  simultaneously receiving conflicting messages from assistant coaches. This represents just one type of role conflict, and Kahn and colleagues noted several ways in which role conflict could occur within groups. First, intersender conflict refers to the reception of inconsistent  expectations  from  different  individuals  within  the  same  social  context  (illustrated  by the  previous  example  of  conflicting  information from  different  coaches).  Second,  intrasender  conflict  occurs  when  the  inconsistent  information  is received from the same person (e.g., the head coach provides role information on one day but provides conflicting information the next day). Third, role requirements  may  not  be  consistent  with  who the  athlete  is  as  a  person  (e.g.,  a  nonaggressive individual  who  is  expected  to  antagonize  opponents).  This  is  referred  to  as  person-role  conflict. The final type of role conflict is inter-role conflict, which  refers  to  incongruent  expectations  arising from different roles in one or more social contexts. For  example,  the  role  responsibilities  held  by  a competitive  youth  soccer  coach  (e.g.,  ensure  that individual outcomes for all players on the team are positive; make decisions that benefit the group as a whole) who is also a father of one of the team members (i.e., with specific role responsibilities to ensure  the  well-being  of  his  child)  may  at  times come into conflict for that coach–father.

A separate concept, role overload, shares some overlap  with  role  conflict.  Role  overload  has  not received  any  attention  within  sport  literature  and is  not  particularly  well  defined  due  to  a  number of perspectives that can be taken on this concept. However,  generally,  overload  refers  to  issues  pertaining  to  the  volume  of  role  responsibilities.  For example,  role  overload  could  manifest  itself  in several ways within sport including (a) having one role  responsibility  that  exceeds  the  capability  of the  athlete  and  (b)  holding  several  roles  that,  in combination,  exceed  the  capability  of  the  athlete (although no one role is unmanageable on its own).

Role Satisfaction

This  affective  component  of  role  involvement refers to the degree to which one finds his or her role fulfilling. In 1987, Genevieve Rail conducted a  study  with  volunteer  sport  organization  executives  to  gauge  how  they  derive  satisfaction  from their  role.  The  information  she  derived  from  her interviews  suggested  that  role  satisfaction  was influenced  by  the  degree  of  autonomy  the  individuals held over their roles, the amount of significance ascribed to their responsibilities, the degree to which their specific abilities were used, and how much feedback or recognition they received.


Overall,   roles   represent   important   structural aspects of all groups. There is long-standing interest  in  the  topic  of  roles  within  organizational psychology.  More  recently,  sport  psychology  (SP) researchers have recognized the necessity to investigate the previously given concepts in an athletic context.  Future  research  can  continue  to  add  to our  understanding  with  respect  to  the  conceptualization,  assessment,  and  practical  applications pertaining to role involvement.


  1. Beauchamp, M. R., Bray, S. R., Eys, M. A., & Carron, A. V. (2002). Role ambiguity, role efficacy, and role performance: Multidimensional and mediational relationships within interdependent sport teams. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 6, 229–242.
  2. Bosselut, G., McLaren, C. D., Eys, M. A., & Heuzé, J. (2012). Reciprocity of the relationship between role ambiguity and group cohesion in youth interdependent sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 341–348.
  3. Cope, C. J., Eys, M. A., Beauchamp, M. R., Schinke,R. J., & Bosselut, G. (2011). Informal roles on sport teams. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 9, 19–30.
  4. Eys, M. A., Carron, A. V., Beauchamp, M. R., & Bray, S. R. (2005). Athletes’ perceptions of the sources of role ambiguity. Small Group Research, 36, 383–403.
  5. Eys, M. A., Schinke, R. J., & Jeffery, S. (2007). Role perceptions in sport groups. In M. R. Beauchamp & M. A. Eys (Eds.), Group dynamics in exercise and sport psychology: Contemporary themes (pp. 99–116). New York: Routledge.
  6. Kahn, R. L., Wolfe, D. M., Quinn, R. P., Snoek, J. D., & Rosenthal R. A. (1964). Organizational stress: Studies in role conflict and ambiguity. New York: Wiley.
  7. Mellalieu, S. D., & Juniper, S. W. (2006). A qualitative investigation into experiences of the role episode in soccer. The Sport Psychologist, 20, 399–418.

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