Sport Leadership

An  athlete  leader  in  sport  is  defined  as  an  individual who holds a formal or informal leadership role  within  a  team  and  influences  other  group members  in  the  pursuit  of  common  objectives. Researchers suggest that approximately one quarter of athletes occupy some form of leadership role within a team, and highlight the potential importance of athlete leadership toward positive group functioning  as  well  as  the  need  for  a  more  thorough  understanding  of  the  topic.  The  following entry  briefly  highlights  the  characteristics,  types, and  functions  of  athlete  leaders,  as  well  as  other important  variables  associated  with  the  presence of these individuals on sport teams.

Characteristics of an Athlete Leader

Research  generally  demonstrates  that  individuals possessing athlete leadership roles within a group have  similar  characteristics.  Maureen  Weiss  and colleagues Molly Moran and Melissa Price revealed that  athlete  leaders  self-report  greater  friendship quality  and  peer  acceptance,  while  Joseph  Bucci, Gordon   Bloom,   Todd   Loughead,   and   Jeffrey Caron  found  that  these  individuals  have  a  stronger  work  ethic,  desire  for  high  performance,  and respect from teammates. The latter researchers also noted that possessing these characteristics leads to positive relationships with both coaches and teammates, helping foster effective levels of communication  within  the  overall  group  structure.  However, despite the importance and prevalence of the social psychological characteristics noted above, the most consistent characteristic of athlete leaders found in previous research pertains to sport-related competence; in other words, athletic ability is positively associated with ratings of athlete leadership.

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Types of Athlete Leadership

To  garner  an  understanding  of  how  athlete  leadership  manifests  itself  in  the  sport  context,  it  is important  to  understand  the  emergence  of  the leadership role, as well as the extent to which leadership behaviors influence group members.

Formal and Informal Athlete Leadership

sport-leadership-psychology-of-sportThe formal athlete leader represents a role that is prescribed by another individual within the group or sport organization, usually a member of the coaching staff. This type of leader is highly visible within the group and is assigned specific responsibilities. A common example of a formal athlete leader in sport  is  the  team  captain.  In  many  instances,  the coach selects the captain of the team and, within certain sports, the occupant of this role may even be  formally  designated  by  such  things  as  a  on the uniform or an armband to wear during competitive matches.

Conversely,  an  informal  athlete  leader  emerges as  a  function  of  (a)  group  interaction,  (b)  distinct group needs, and (c) the personality traits of individual athletes. This type of athlete leader acts in a way that often complements the style of an established  leader  within  the  group  (the  formal  athlete leader).  However,  the  informal  leader  emerges naturally,  without  designation  by  another  group member or the organization. For example, an athlete may assume the role of an emotional leader to help  rally  a  team  around  its  goals.  This  potential informal athlete leader may exist on teams in which the formal leader is more task driven (less expressive in  nature);  however,  in  other  teams  this  informal role may be redundant if the formal leader possesses high interpersonal attraction and engages in socially supportive behaviors.

Team and Peer-Level Athlete Leaders

In addition to the level of formality, athlete-to-athlete  leadership  is  categorized  in  terms  of  the scope  of  influence  held  by  each  individual.  Todd Loughead, James Hardy, and Mark Eys discussed the presence of both team and peer-level leaders. First, a team-level leader is more influential and is identified  as  an  athlete  leader  by  the  majority  of the team (over 50% of the membership). Examples include  veteran  players  who  provide  valuable advice to all members of a group at different times or who are highly vocal (in a productive manner) during team meetings. It is also worthwhile to note that  the  team-level  athlete  leader  likely  emerges through  the  formal  leadership  process  discussed previously.

In  contrast,  peer-level  leaders  represent  those who  are  identified  by  a  lower  percentage  of  the team  (less  than  50%).  Equally  important  in  a team setting, peer-level leaders exert individualized influence on a small number of athletes. An example  of  this  type  of  leader  is  an  individual  within the  team  who  acts  as  a  mentor  to  two  or  three less-experienced teammates. Although other team members may never be influenced by this specific individual,  the  inexperienced  athletes  may  view the mentor as a very important leader.

Functions of Athlete Leadership

Athlete leadership roles are often differentiated by their  specific  functions  within  the  group.  These functions revolve around both internal and external  activities.  Athlete  leaders  who  attend  to  the internal functions focus on the (a) task or (b) social related activities of the group.

  • Internal task   functions.  Task-related   functions represent the behaviors executed by a leader surrounding   a   group’s   instrumental   objectives, such  as  the  performance  of  the  sport  team.  The behaviors oriented toward this function, for example,  influence  group  members  to  perform  to  the best of their abilities and to coordinate effectively with their teammates.
  • Internal social functions. Social-related functions represent the behaviors executed by a leader surrounding  interpersonal  relations  and  optimal team   unity.   An   example   of   an   athlete   leader concerned  with  the  social  activities  of  the  group would be someone who works to resolve conflict or plans events aimed at bonding the members of a team together.
  • External functions.  Athletes  can  also  serve the function of leading their team in external activities.  Todd  Loughead  et  al.  described  the  external athlete leader as one who leads and represents the group outside of the competitive setting. Specifically, an  external  athlete  leader  helps  a  team  cope  and adapt  to  the  surrounding  environment.  As  examples, individuals who represent the team at different community-driven events or speak to the media on behalf of the group undertake external functions.

It is important to note that the various functions of  an  athlete  leadership  role,  although  distinct from one another, are not necessarily performed by different people. One individual may have the ability to occupy a leadership role that is solely task related, whereas another individual may occupy a leadership role that executes all three functions.

Correlates of Athlete Leadership

Interesting insights have been yielded with respect to the presence of athlete leadership in sport. The following  sections  briefly  highlight  both  individual  (satisfaction)  and  team  level  (group  cohesion and collective efficacy) correlates of athlete leader behavior.

Athlete Satisfaction

Following   research   that   linked   leadership behaviors  of  the  coach  with  athlete  satisfaction, Mark Eys, Todd Loughead, and James Hardy demonstrated  that  athletes  who  perceived  a  balanced dispersion of athlete leaders across the aforementioned  functions  (approximately  equal  number of  leaders  focusing  on  task,  social,  and  external objectives) had higher satisfaction with their sport experiences. Specifically, these athletes were more satisfied  with  team  performance  and  the  degree of  integration  of  team  members  than  those  who perceived a relative imbalance with respect to the focus  of  athlete  leaders  on  their  team,  as  with  a high  number  of  task  leaders  but  low  numbers  of social and external leaders.

Group Cohesion

Athlete leadership is also related to the perceptions of cohesion experienced by group members. Two  studies  provide  different  perspectives  on  the relationship  between  these  variables.  First,  Price and  Weiss  found  that  adolescent  female  soccer players  who  self-reported  higher  leadership  abilities  with  respect  to  instrumental  and  prosocial behaviors  perceived  greater  task  and  social  cohesion on their teams. Furthermore, those who were rated higher by their teammates in the same leadership abilities perceived greater social cohesion.

In  a  second  study,  Hardy,  Eys,  and  Loughead were interested in the links between the percentage of athlete leaders on sport teams (i.e., dispersion) and  group  members’  perceptions  of  cohesion. Their  findings  indicated  that  the  dispersion  of leaders  focused  on  task  functions  was  negatively related  to  perceptions  of  task  cohesion.  In  other words, a more constrained number of task-focused leaders   was   associated   with   increased   group unity.  Furthermore,  these  researchers  found  that intrateam  communication  mediated  this  relationship. The interpretation of these results was that a lower number of task leaders leads to better quality communication in terms of consistency, clarity, and overall effectiveness that, in turn, is associated with more positive perceptions of task cohesion.

Collective Efficacy

Finally, athlete leadership is linked to members’ beliefs  regarding  the  group’s  ability  to  carry  out required  tasks,  as  well  as  its  general  ability  to perform at a high level. Price and Weiss revealed that  the  self-reported  instrumental  and  prosocial leadership  behaviors  of  athletes  were  positively related  to  their  indications  of  efficacy  related  to the  team’s  ability,  unity,  effort,  preparation,  and persistence.


Overall, athlete leadership represents an important aspect of group functioning. This entry has briefly highlighted the characteristics, types, and functions of  athlete  leadership.  Future  research,  however, must  continue  to  build  upon  the  current  breadth of  knowledge  regarding  the  influence  of  athlete leaders within sport. In doing so, sport psychology researchers  can  continue  moving  toward  unearthing  different  individual  and  group  level  variables that  are  related  to  both  effective  and  ineffective cases  of  athlete  leadership.  Furthermore,  another future step can involve translating this knowledge into the group exercise setting to test similar relationships  to  those  found  in  sport  like  individual satisfaction  and  group  cohesion  and  determine  if exerciser-to-exerciser  leadership  influences  important outcomes such as physical activity adherence.


  1. Bucci, J., Bloom, G. A., Loughead, T. M., & Caron, J. G. (2012). Ice hockey coaches’ perceptions of athlete leadership. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24, 243–259.
  2. Eys, M., Loughead, T. M., & Hardy, J. (2007). Athlete leadership dispersion and satisfaction in interactive sport teams. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 8, 281–296
  3. Hardy, J., Eys, M., & Loughead, T. M. (2008). Does communication mediate the athlete leadership to cohesion relationship? International Journal of Sport Psychology, 39, 329–345.
  4. Loughead, T. M., Hardy, J., & Eys, M. (2006). The nature of athlete leadership. Journal of Sport Behavior,29, 142–158.
  5. Moran, M. M., & Weiss, M. R. (2006). Peer leadership in sport: Links with friendship, peer acceptance, psychological characteristics, and athletic ability. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 18, 97–113.
  6. Price, M. S., & Weiss, M. R. (2011). Peer leadership in sport: Relationships among personal characteristics, leader behaviors, and team outcomes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 23, 49–64.

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