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The importance of knowing your role in sports

The importance of knowing your role in sports

3 min read
  • Leadership & teamwork
  • Sport psychology

There is an old adage that say that one needs to learn their instrument before they join the orchestra. Likewise, in every sports team, a group of people will look to work together to achieve a shared goal.

But to be more effective in pursuit of this goal, each athlete on the team needs to be assigned their own specific smaller role. And when put together, these roles allow the team to fulfil its potential. So, what impact does a lack of role clarity have on team performances?

Each player has a role

Each athlete within a team will often have both formal and informal roles. Formal roles are those which are prescribed (often by a coach), and informal roles occur naturally and develop over time.

Research has identified four dimensions which can be used to assess the extent to which an athlete understands their role. Athletes need to:

  1. Know the scope of their responsibilities;
  2. Know the behaviour associated with their role;
  3. Know how their role performance is being evaluated;
  4. Understand the consequences associated with a failure to fulfil the role’s responsibilities.

The benefits of knowing your role

Increases confidence

If an athlete does not understand their role or believes that their tasks will not influence the outcome, it can lead to a lack of sense of purpose. This can reduce their confidence.

One study found that athletes who did not fully understand their responsibilities within the team, how their performance would be evaluated or the consequences of underperformance were more likely to experience low levels of belief in their ability to execute their skills.

Lowers anxiety

Research has demonstrated that, when athletes don’t have a clear understanding of their role, they may have lower expectations and increased anxiety before competition. A lack of role clarity also increases the feelings butterflies and high heart rate (both of which are often associated with anxiety).

Whilst anxiety before a competition is natural and can heighten performance, when it exceeds a certain level it becomes detrimental and can lead to worse performance.

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How can a coach improve role clarity?

There are three strategies that a coach can implement to help improve role clarity within their team.

The first one involves how they communicate with their athletes. A lack of clarity often stems from poor communication or indeed a complete lack of it. If coaches can clearly articulate their expectations and break them down into clearly defined roles and behaviours, then they will help athletes improve their understanding of what is needed. Given that uncertainty is a big cause of stress, this will help athletes improve both confidence and motivation to perform.

The second strategy that coaches can implement is to develop a culture that helps athletes be open to feedback. Often, this is done by reducing their fear of failure; if athletes have a high fear of failure, it can lead to them covering up their mistakes or not taking the necessary risks required to succeed. This can be done through pro-active feedback and encouraging open dialogue.

Third and finally, players need to have the technical ability and confidence to execute the behaviours needed for their role. Knowing is not enough. It is the doing that matters. This means that coaches should not only work on making their players more confident, but also on making them more competent.

Final thoughts

It is essential that athletes understand their role within a team as without this they can lack a sense of purpose, which has a detrimental effect on their confidence. More worryingly, a lack of role clarity can have a negative effect on well-being such that it causes increases in anxiety. Role clarity can be easily improved if athletes and coaches develop good communication skills. Ambiguity and miscommunication often breed doubt and frustrations. By working on the ‘soft skills’, then all the hard work in training and preparation will pay off.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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