In a broad sense, norms reflect inferences about accepted, appropriate, valued, and/or desirable behavior. Norms differ from rules and laws in that they are implicit (as opposed to explicit) in nature, and normative influences have been studied since at least the late 19th century in the fields of social psychology and sociology. More recently, these processes have been integrated as fundamental components within prominent group dynamics and health behavior models (see, e.g., the entry Theory of Planned Behavior, this volume), and in the contemporary literature, norms are often categorized on the basis of whether they are injunctive or descriptive in nature. Injunctive norms refer to one’s appraisals about what significant others think one should do (e.g., my parents think that I should exercise), whereas descriptive norms relate to one’s appraisals about what significant others actually do (e.g., my parents exercise a lot). As a method for guiding our intentions and behavior across a variety of settings, context-specific norms exist in relation to various independent (e.g., exercise, diet) and interpersonal (e.g., sports teams, coach–athlete relationships) activities. We might, for instance, feel that our parents place great importance on us making healthy dietary choices, that it is necessary to be punctual for meetings with our coach, or that members of our sports team are expected to exert maximum effort during training drills. At their most global level, injunctive and descriptive cultural norms (e.g., regarding eye contact, greeting rituals) also provide a framework for what is considered acceptable (or not) for diverse groups of people across the globe.
In sport and exercise, norms have been investigated in individual, relationship, and team-based contexts. With respect to individual pursuits, perhaps the most widely studied normative concept is that of subjective norms. Within the theory of planned behavior, subjective norms reflect an injunctive perception that develops as a function of (a) individuals’ inferences about the extent to which others think they should perform a behavior (e.g., my friends think it’s really important to exercise) and (b) the degree to which they are motivated to comply with those inferred views (e.g., I don’t care much about what my friends think I should do). In conjunction with attitudinal and control perceptions, subjective norms have been shown to be important in predicting individuals’ intentions to perform a given behavior. A substantial body of literature has demonstrated that individuals may hold elevated exercise intentions when they believe that their friends and family think they should exercise regularly and when they are motivated to conform to those opinions. Alongside subjective norms, there is also evidence that descriptive norms support behavioral intentions in exercise and health settings. For example, it is not uncommon for adolescents to seek to engage in desirable (e.g., exercise) or undesirable (e.g., smoking) health behaviors due to the notion that “everyone else seems to be doing it.”
In relational and team contexts, norms are common in dictating interpersonal behavior and team harmony. For example, in order to limit conflict and promote relationship maintenance in one-to-one interactions, coaches and athletes may develop norms regarding what they consider to be desirable communication strategies, rewards or incentives, and practice behavior, among other things. Similarly, in larger interdependent networks, such as sports teams, group norms emerge that help provide consensus about the behaviors that are (and are not) considered appropriate and desirable. Group norms develop through the interactions and reinforcement processes that exist within a team, and they serve an important function in terms of informing group members about behavioral standards, as well as unifying the group around a common set of principles. Research has shown that group norms develop regarding both task (e.g., at competition and practice) and social (e.g., at social events) aspects of behavior. For instance, group members have often been shown to endorse productivity norms, which state that all players are expected to display a strong work ethic during practice and competition, and to maintain their fitness and physical condition during the offseason. Importantly, these perceived group productivity norms can facilitate team member effort and bolster overall team effectiveness. It has also been shown that teams develop implicit standards around various other issues that include, but are not limited to, appearance (e.g., we all stick to the dress code), punctuality (e.g., players must be on time for all team meetings), attendance at practice and social events (e.g., it is expected that all team members attend all team activities), and attitudes toward social events (e.g., we don’t embarrass our team during outings). Group dynamics research in sport has documented that adherence to group norms is at its greatest when individuals feel they are part of a highly cohesive (i.e., united) team. However, when an individual transgresses and violates a group norm, sanctions are likely to be placed on that person that help further reinforce the nature and importance of these consensus standards. For example, if a player violates a norm for fair play by committing an aggressive foul and harming a teammate during practice, she or he may receive criticism from the rest of the team and in extreme cases may be dropped (temporarily or permanently) from the team’s roster.
Another type of normative belief that has been studied in relation to competitive behavior within team sports is the concept of moral norms. Moral norms reflect players’ perceptions of the behaviors that others, such as coaches and teammates, view as either moral or immoral and have been shown to align with important aggression-related outcomes. For instance, when coaches place a strong emphasis on winning (rather than on personal or team mastery), players are more likely to endorse a norm that supports the acceptability of aggression and seek to injure an opponent, as well as show reduced respect for rules and officials. In sum, injunctive and descriptive norms not only help shape our intentions and behavior in sport and exercise but they also provide an important implicit scaffold that guides our interactions in relationship and team settings.
- Carron, A. V., & Eys, M. A. (2012). Group dynamics in sport (4th ed.). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
- Munroe, K., Estabrooks, P., Dennis, P., & Carron, A. V. (1999). A phenomenological analysis of group norms in sports teams. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 171–182.
- Rivis, A., & Sheeran, P. (2003). Descriptive norms as an additional predictor in the theory of planned behavior: A meta-analysis. Current Psychology, 22, 218–233.