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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Mellalieu, S. D., & Juniper, S. W. (2006). A qualitative investigation into experiences of the role episode in soccer. The Sport Psychologist, 20, 399–418.