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Ice hockey team celebrating

This blog is the final installment in a series in collaboration with Queen’s University. As an assignment to build knowledge mobilization skills, Dr. Luc Martin, Associate Professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, tasked students in his third year team dynamics course to write a SIRC blog. The top five were submitted to and published by SIRC.

It is 7:30am, and I am tired but satisfied with the workout I just completed. As I head to the locker room, I notice a group of players staying behind for some extra work. I am immediately inspired. This group facilitated a positive team experience because young players, like me, looked up to them and were motivated to work as hard as they did, which ultimately contributed to team success. Their influence alone is a reason to believe that subgroups should exist within a team atmosphere, and that trying to dismantle them without cause is unnecessary.  

The three certainties of life: Death, taxes, and subgroups 

Female coach and youth basketball team

Subgroups are a tight-knit group of individuals with reciprocating relationships that form within a larger group, such as a sport team (Henrich et al., 2000). Within the academic literature, the formation of subgroups in sport was often seen as inherently problematic for team functioning (Martin et al., 2020). However, recent developments reveal that subgroups can provide positive benefits within a team atmosphere, such as improved support, feelings of identity, and norms for productivity (Wagstaff et al., 2017). Further, researchers suggest that their presence is inevitable, which makes interventions to eradicate them a waste of time and resources (Martin et al., 2015). Humans have an innate desire to belong while also experiencing individuality; satisfying both these criteria is difficult in a large group. In that way, subgroups provide us with feelings of acceptance and quality relationships, but in manageably small numbers to enable differentiation and autonomy (Brewer, 2011).  

Sowing the seeds of subgroups 

Sport researchers have identified three precursors to the development of subgroups (Martin et al., 2015, 2016):  

  • Contextual/Situational Factors: These include the sport type and size of the team. For example, subgroups are more likely to form within football teams (offensive and defensive teams) and athletics teams (track vs. field athletes), compared to a curling team. 
  • Athlete Demographics/Characteristics: Athletes seem to be drawn to others who share similar roles and status on a team. For example, the leadership group is likely to form a subgroup because they share similar responsibilities, or incoming and more veteran members seem to group together because of shared experiences and situations. 
  • General Behaviour Tendencies: Athletes with similar interests (e.g., level of commitment, social behaviours) tend to form subgroups. This is natural as people spend time with likeminded individuals who they enjoy being around.  

These precursors influence the grouping behaviours of athletes. As subgroups begin to form, teammates can see the development of hypothetical dividing lines (known as fault lines) that are present in all groups (Lau & Murnighan, 1998).  

Coach approaches to managing subgroups 

Subgroups emerge throughout team sports and across the age spectrum (Eys et al., 2019). Because of this inevitability, research shows coaches sometimes invest a great deal of time implementing strategies for their management (Martin et al., 2016). However, before intervening, coaches should assess whether the subgroups are helping or hindering the dynamics of the group and can utilize proactive avoidance, subgroup identification, and subgroup management when needed.  

Proactive Avoidance: 

  • This involves strategies used during team formation to integrate all members, such as team building activities and intentional membership selection processes. The purpose is to create the least susceptible environment for subgroup issues and to establish a system for players to go through if problems arise.  


  • An important process that coaches have discussed is the need to determine if the subgroups within a team are going to be a problem. Different types of groupings have been termed either subgroups or cliques.  
    • Subgroups represent those “good” groupings that show prosocial behaviours. 
    • Cliques are more debilitating and represent those that promote antisocial and unethical behaviours, exclude/ostracize teammates, and lower self-esteem. 
  • Coaches should establish clear lines of communication between players and staff to assist in subgroup identification and understanding. 


  • Once coaches understand the groups present on a team, they can assess them on a continuum to determine if they help, hinder, or are neutral for team functioning. 

  • A subgroup that is facilitative can be used as an example to create positive training habits. Placing incoming athletes in a group that exhibits great work ethic increases the likelihood of the incoming athlete following suit.

  • In the instance that a subgroup demonstrates debilitative behaviours (i.e., is a clique), coaches should engage in athlete-coach meetings, have purposeful team activities, or remove problematic athletes as a last resort. 

What does all this mean for you? 

It is important to understand that every team atmosphere is different and there is not a “one way fits all” method for managing subgroups. However, coaches must understand that subgroup formation is inevitable, and that the impact on their team will be less about their presence or absence and more about the behaviours that they exhibit. Understanding how they will influence a team requires clear communication channels and athletes describe wanting to be involved in the process of management, rather than feeling as though they are being controlled (Martin et al., 2016; Wagstaff et al., 2017).  

In all facets of life, people will be exposed to and work within groups. Whether it is a sport team, a classroom, or a workplace, there will be people that you identify with and those with whom you do not. Regardless, many of these situations will require you to work across groups to achieve a common goal. For the most part, coaches are advised to focus on task-oriented matters rather than overly concerning themselves with subgroup dynamics. For athletes, after your 7:30am workout, grab a group of likeminded people to get in extra reps and inspire teammates that you do not know are watching. Your team will benefit in the long run.  

About the Author(s)

Curtis Smith is a varsity athlete (football and baseball) completing degree in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. He thoroughly enjoys researching topics about sport psychology and is considering pursuing this field after his degree.  


Brewer, M. B. (2011). Optimal distinctiveness theory: Its history and development. P. AM Van Lange, A. Kruglanski, & ET Higgins, Handbook of theories of social psychology, 2, 81-98. 

Eys, M. A., Bruner, M. W., & Martin, L. J. (2019). The dynamic group environment in sport and exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 42, 40–47. 

Henrich, C. C., Kuperminc, G. P., Sack, A., Blatt, S. J., & Leadbeater, B. J. (2000). Characteristics and homogeneity of early adolescent friendship groups: A comparison of male and female clique and nonclique members. Applied Developmental Science, 4(1), 15-26. 

Lau, D. C., & Murnighan, J. K. (1998). Demographic diversity and faultlines: The compositional dynamics of organizational groups. Academy of Management Review, 23(2), 325-340. 

Martin, L. J., Evans, M. B., & Spink, K. S. (2016). Coach perspectives of “groups within the group”: An analysis of subgroups and cliques in sport. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 5(1), 52. 

Martin, L. J., McGuire, C., Robertson, M., & Saizew, K. (2020). Subgroups in the context of youth sport. In The Power of Groups in Youth Sport (pp. 127-143). Academic Press. 

Martin, L. J., Wilson, J., Evans, M. B., & Spink, K. S. (2015). Cliques in sport: Perceptions of intercollegiate athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 29(1), 82-95. 

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.