A conceptual analysis of cliques as described by elite level coaches


The emergence of cliques within teams is an important consideration, and as such, is frequently highlighted in the sport literature (e.g., Eys et al., 2009; Fletcher & Hanton, 2003). Following previous research that assessed the nature of cliques through the perceptions of elite athletes (Martin et al., 2014), the current paper expanded this exploration to individuals who are in a unique position to dictate team structure—coaches. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 18 elite level coaches (Mage = 37.67, SD = 6.90; five female coaches) who were asked to reflect on what cliques and subgroups meant to them, the processes related to their emergence within teams, and the resultant outcomes. Participants had an average of 13.83 years experience coaching their respective sports (e.g., rugby, basketball, hockey, soccer, swimming, rowing, triathlon), which ranged from Canadian Interuniversity Sport to Professional, to International competition. Results indicated that the term ‘clique’ was largely construed as describing only negative subgroups, whereas the term ‘subgroup’ was not value-laden. Generally, coaches described the potential for cliques/subgroups to influence team and individual outcomes in positive (e.g., supportive friendships, teammate commitment) and negative ways (e.g., conflict, competition, and stress among team members). In addition, the reflections were integrated to form a conceptual framework, revealing the process whereby subgroups emerge and influence group functioning—a process shaped by preceding elements such as member characteristics (e.g., cohorts, skill level) and behaviours (e.g., discipline, social habits), as well as contextual factors (e.g., team size, sport type). Within this process, it was clear that coaches managed—both proactively and reactively—the emergence of and behaviours exhibited by cliques, often relying on athlete leaders for their identification and for the management of the social environment. These findings will be discussed in terms of their theoretical and practical relevance to sport.