In his influential theory of motivation and emotion, Ivan Weiner proposed that attributions, the reasons that people use to explain the causes of behavior, are powerful determinants of emotions and motivation. Although attribution researchers in sport have predominantly focused on self-referent attributions (attributions for one’s own behaviors), it has been proposed that team attributions, the explanations provided for group behavior, may also be important determinants of individual (e.g., emotions and motivation) and group (e.g., team cohesion and communication) level consequences. Team attributions are sometimes described and studied as the shared belief held by the group (team attributions) and sometimes as the perception held by the individual athletes within the team (team-referent attributions).
Although there are an almost infinite number of possible team attributions, attributions are best understood when classified into underlying dimensions. Historically, team attributions have been considered to vary in terms of locus of causality (the extent to which causes are perceived as residing within the team or outside of the team), stability (the extent to which causes are seen as variable over time), and controllability (the extent to which causes are perceived to be regulated by the team or other factors). More recently, it has been suggested that a greater number of attribution dimensions should be considered. These include globality (the degree to which the cause is perceived as localized or occurring across many situations) and universality (the degree to which the cause is perceived as common among other teams).
Consequences of Team Attributions
The fundamental drive for exploring team attributions is that, as with self-referent attributions, they are considered to be important determinants of a range of outcomes that, in turn, are important determinants of achievement and enjoyment in sport. Researchers have proposed that team attributions will influence emotional and cognitive responses to team success and failures. In terms of the emotional responses, evidence suggests that following successful performances, individuals who report controllable and internal team attributions like teamwork and tactics experience greater levels of self-esteem than individuals who report uncontrollable attributions like luck or refereeing decisions. Additionally, it has been proposed that internal and controllable team attributions after successes will promote higher levels of happiness, pride, and satisfaction; whereas, following unsuccessful performances, internal and controllable (and global) team attributions will lead to higher levels of dejection, hopelessness and shame.
In terms of the cognitive responses, research also provides partial support for the effects of attributions on collective efficacy (a group’s belief in its ability to achieve specific goals) and expectancies for future team performances. Specifically, research has shown that, following successful performances, greater increases in collective efficacy are seen in individuals or teams who use controllable and stable attributions (team coordination), whereas following failure, greater decreases in collective efficacy are seen in individuals or teams who use uncontrollable and stable attributions (team ability levels). However, such relationships are modest and research has not consistently identified the same associations between attributions and collective efficacy.
In addition to these consequences, it has also been proposed that team attributions influence perceptions of the team’s cohesion; following success, attributions that give more credit to the team for the performance are likely to promote cohesion. Also influenced are psychophysiological reactions, and recent research indicates that hormonal responses, such as changes in testosterone and cortisol levels, to success and failure are moderated by self-referent attributions; and behavioral responses, where again, research conducted with self-referent attributions indicates that persistence following failure is enhanced if individuals engage in internal, controllable, and unstable attributions.
Thus, it appears as if team attributions have the potential to influence some important responses to performances. Overall, it is contended that those people or teams who use team-serving attributions (internal, controllable, and stable attributions following successes and internal, controllable, and unstable attributions following failures) will experience more positive emotions, hold higher expectancies for future performance levels, be more attracted to being part of their team, and devote more effort in the pursuit of team goals than will individuals or teams who report different attribution responses to successes and failures.
Determinants of Team Attributions
Given the potential role of team attributions in determining important team consequences, researchers have also begun to investigate determinants of team attributions and those factors that may promote team-serving attributions. Underlying this interest is the belief that team attributions may be relatively amenable to manipulation and a tendency to engage in team-serving attributions can be trained. Essentially, although it is acknowledged that individuals will vary both in their tendency to use certain attributions following success and failure and in their knowledge of the determinants of success and failure in their sport, the development of attributions will also be determined by the interplay of situational factors such as the results of the sporting encounter; the publicly expressed explanations of coaches, teammates, and spectators; team cohesion; and event importance. At present, many of these potential sources of attributions have yet to be empirically examined, but research does indicate that factors such as match outcome, event importance, and gender may interact to influence the team attributions that people use. Specifically, research has consistently shown that winners or subjectively successful performers use different attributions than losers or subjectively unsuccessful performers, although the exact nature of these differences is not consistent and the extent to which team-serving attributions are used following success may be moderated by factors such as gender (males tend to be more team-serving than females) and event importance (athletes tend to use team-serving attributions following important encounters than after less important encounters). It is possible that this research will lead to the development of team-attribution retraining programs.
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- Greenlees, I. A., Lane, A., Thelwell, R. C., Holder, T. P., & Hobson, G. (2005). Team-referent attributions among sport performers. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 76, 477–487.