Cohesion represents the degree to which task and social bonds exist among group members, as well as the strength of individuals’ attractions to the task and social activities of the group. This entry briefly highlights the history, characteristics, conceptualization, measurement, and correlates of cohesion within sport and exercise environments.
Interest in and discussion surrounding the concept of cohesion has a long history across a wide variety of academic domains, including sport, exercise, business, education, and the military. This has resulted in the development of a number of definitions, conceptualizations, and assessment tools. As examples, previous research has proposed that cohesion is represented by the factors keeping members in the group, the degree to which the group can resist disruption, the commitment displayed by group members, and individuals’ attractions to other members and the group’s tasks.
Despite the varied historical approaches to understanding cohesion, the 1985 work by Albert Carron, Neil Widmeyer, and Larry Brawley served to provide a strong foundation for research within the fields of sport and exercise psychology, and highlighted four characteristics of group cohesion:
Multidimensional. There are a number of facets to consider with respect to cohesion, including the orientation of the social cognitions individuals hold about their group (perceptions of group integration and personal attractions to the group), as well as the focus of those perceptions (task and social objectives of the group). Importantly, groups within one context like sport or across contexts like sport versus business may differ in terms of which factors are most important to group unity.
Dynamic. Another assumption about the nature of cohesion is that it is dynamic. Essentially, cohesion can change over the course of group development. From a practical perspective, this is encouraging as it suggests that effective intervenetions could facilitate more positive perceptions of group unity.
Instrumental. Whether for task or social objectives, groups form with some purpose in mind. Furthermore, individuals hold perceptions about the unity with which the group pursues these objectives.
Affective. The interactions and communication that occur in groups result in social relationships among members and a larger sense of social cohesion.
A well-accepted conceptual model of cohesion was advanced by Carron et al. in 1985 in conjunction with the development of their Group Environment Questionnaire. This model draws distinctions with respect to the two aspects of cohesion outlined previously (refer to the multidimensional characteristic of cohesion). The first considers the general objectives of the group, and broadly assumes that these objectives can be classified as being either task or social in nature. Task objectives refer to those that focus on the productivity and performance of the group. In contrast, social objectives refer to those that focus on maintaining group harmony and interrelationships among the members.
A second distinction that is made in the conceptual model considers cohesion from the perspective of the group as a whole (group integration), as well as individual members’ attractions to the group. Group integration refers to the degree of bonding, closeness, and unity displayed by the members, while individuals’ attractions refer to the personal motivations and feelings that draw and keep members within the group.
Consideration of the general objectives of the group (task vs. social), as well as the group versus individual perspective, results in a four dimension model of cohesion: (1) group integration–task, the degree to which the group is united around task objectives (GI-T); (2) group integration–social, the degree to which the group is united around social objectives (GI-S); (3) individual attractions to the group–task, group members’ personal perceptions about their involvement with task aspects of the group (ATG-T); and (4) individual attractions to the group–social, group members’ personal perceptions about their involvement with social aspects of the group (ATG-S).
It should be noted that recent research has highlighted that the above conceptual model is most relevant to an adult population. Studies conducted with younger sport participants provided evidence that these individuals do not distinguish between group integration and individual attractions to the group perspectives. As a result, it has been suggested that researchers differentiate cohesion perceptions of children and youth based only on the general objectives of the group, that is, task versus social cohesion. This is reflected in the measures that have been developed in recent years, which are summarized in the subsequent section.
A number of assessment tools exist that capture perceptions of cohesion held by a variety of different groups. The most recent versions are presented:
- Group Environment Questionnaire (GEQ). Developed in 1985 by Carron and colleagues, the GEQ directly corresponds with the four dimension conceptual model outlined earlier.
- The Youth Sport Environment Questionnaire (YSEQ). Early cohesion studies periodically assessed cohesion perceptions held by youth sport participants via the GEQ. However, researchers noted that some of the psychometric properties of the GEQ were questionable when used with this population. Others postulated that the advanced level of readability, use of negative phrasing for some items, and decreased applicability of the conceptual model may partially explain the experienced difficulties. As a result, Mark Eys, Todd Loughead, Bert Carron, and Steven Bray developed the YSEQ in 2009 specifically to assess youth (approximately 13–17 years of age) perceptions of cohesion.
- The Child Sport Cohesion Questionnaire (CSCQ). Further extending the ability to assess sport participants’ perceptions of cohesion, Luc Martin and colleagues developed an assessment tool relevant to children 9–12 years of age.
- Questionnaire sur l’Ambiance du Groupe (QAG). The Group Environment Questionnaire has been translated into several languages. The work conducted by Jean-Philippe Heuzé and Paul Fontayne in 2002 highlighted the difficulties in translating the meaning of specific questions across cultures and languages, but also reinforced the salience of the four dimension conceptual model of cohesion for adult populations.
- The Physical Activity Group Environment Questionnaire (PAGEQ). With the intention of gauging exercisers’ perceptions of group cohesion within physical activity contexts, Paul Estabrooks and Bert Carron developed the PAGEQ. Its structure is similar to the GEQ in terms of dimensionality and response options.
The availability of assessment tools and interest in group dynamics has yielded a number of insights pertaining to the antecedents and consequences of cohesion. The following sections briefly highlight two major correlates of interest, performance and adherence, and list a number of individual and group variables that have been linked with cohesion.
Performance. The cohesion–performance relationship has been a major research interest for the field. Substantial evidence exists that this relationship is positive and bidirectional, that is, greater cohesion leads to better performance and better performance leads to greater cohesion. Furthermore, this relationship exists at all competitive levels, from recreational to competitive levels, and across sport types (e.g., interdependent versus independent sports). Finally, of all the moderators examined, only gender appears to moderate this relationship. Specifically, the positive cohesion– performance link is stronger for female athletes.
Adherence. Another major variable of interest is the adherence of sport and exercise group members. The sport studies that have been conducted suggest that members of highly cohesive teams drop out less during the competitive season, show up to games and practices on time, expend more effort, and indicate stronger intentions to return to their team the following season. Furthermore, athletes’ actual return to their sport team the following year has been predicted by their perceptions of group cohesion in the previous season. Similar findings have been demonstrated in exercise contexts, in that those individuals who participate in a cohesive group environment are more likely to adhere to their exercise regimens and accrue positive outcomes.
Individual variables. Perceptions of greater group cohesion tend to have positive associations with important variables at the individual level. As examples, cohesion is positively associated with athletes’ sport satisfaction and negatively associated with perceptions of state anxiety and depression.
Group variables. In addition to team performance, stronger perceptions of cohesion relate to other group-oriented concepts, such as improved role involvement like greater role clarity, normative expectations, and collective efficacy, as well as lower levels of group conflict.
Potential Downsides of Cohesion
While the presentation of group cohesion highlights the many positive associations that cohesion has with important sport and exercise variables, it is also critical to consider whether high cohesion creates challenges for groups. It is possible for highly cohesive groups to be more likely to have issues with groupthink (tendency for a group to apply normative pressures on its members within decision-making processes), deindividuation (loss of personal identity and self-awareness), and social loafing. In 2005, James Hardy and colleagues explored whether athletes perceived downsides of highly cohesive sport teams; their findings indicated that over half of the athletes identified specific issues on this topic. For example, a number of participants noted that high social cohesion among team members may challenge their ability to focus and commit to task goals.
- Carron, A. V., Colman, M. M., Wheeler, J., & Stevens, D. (2002). Cohesion and performance in sport: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 24, 168–188.
- Carron, A. V., Widmeyer, W. N., & Brawley, L. R. (1985). The development of an instrument to assess cohesion in sport teams: The Group Environment Questionnaire. Journal of Sport Psychology, 7, 244–266.
- Eys, M. A., Loughead, T. M., Bray, S. R., & Carron, A.V. (2009). Development of a cohesion questionnaire for youth: The Youth Sport Environment Questionnaire. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31, 390–408.
- Hardy, J., Eys, M. A., & Carron, A. V. (2005). Exploring the potential disadvantages of high team cohesion. Small Group Research, 36, 166–187.
- Martin, L. J., Carron, A. V., Eys, M. A., & Loughead, T. M. (2012). Development of a cohesion questionnaire for children’s sport teams. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 16, 68–79.
- Senecal, J., Loughead, T. M., & Bloom, G. (2008). A season-long team-building intervention: Examining the effect of team goal setting on cohesion. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 30, 186–199.
- Spink, K. S., Wilson, K. S., & Odnokon, P. (2010). Examining the relationship between cohesion and return to team in elite athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11, 6–11.