Beliefs Do Not Form in a Vacuum

Dr. Matthew Slater (Staffs University) & Dr. Martin Turner (Man Met University)

In REBT theory, there are two predominant ideas about where Irrational Beliefs and Rational Beliefs stem from. One argument, posited by Ellis, is that there is a biological basis for irrationality and rationality. In other words, there is a genetic component to our beliefs. However, another argument is that beliefs are “socialised” into us through interactions with others, and via cultural and societal norms. In other words, we learn our beliefs from those around us. This short blog takes this second idea, and tries to make sense of how irrational beliefs are developed through interactions with significant others, and in particular, the role leaders play in the generation and reinforcement of beliefs.

In sport, especially at a youth level, leaders have a special role. Not only do they set out the technical and tactical development of the team, they also have a responsibility for helping athletes form attitudes and beliefs about sport (and life) – whether they like it or not. For example…a coach may try to motivate his of her athletes by suggesting that there are “must win” games and that failure is “unacceptable” and “a catastrophe”. Both of us (the authors) can relate to this as we have seen it in football often. Over time these seemingly innocuous communications can encourage athletes to adopt rigid, extreme, and illogical attitudes as core beliefs about performance and life. We know that irrational beliefs are a key source of emotional and behavioural disturbance and can contribute to a host of clinical well-being and mental health outcomes. Therefore, the origins of irrational beliefs are an important area of investigation.

Irrational beliefs are a key source of emotional and behavioural disturbance and can contribute to a host of clinical well-being and mental health outcomes.

When we consider the development of irrational beliefs in athletes, it may be fruitful to look at the beliefs of coaches, and the possible transaction of his/her beliefs to the athletes they communicate (verbally and non-verbally) with. A useful framework for understanding the conditions under which these beliefs can be transferred from a leader to followers is the social identity approach to leadership (SIL). SIL proposes that it is the shared connection and emotional attachment between a coach and a team that is the foundation of successful leadership.

The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say ‘I’. And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say ‘I’. They don’t think ‘I’. They think ‘team’. They understand their job to be to make the team function… There is an identification (very often quite unconsciously) with the task and with the group.” – Peter Drucker (1992), Austrian-born American management consultant, educator, and author

In leadership, when an emotional attachment has been established athletes’ thoughts and actions will be guided by their team identity rather than their individual personality. For example, an introverted and passive individual off the sports field may become an assertive and boisterous team member when operating within his team identity on the field of play. On the other hand, if an athlete feels little connection with the coach and does not share a sense of team identity, on the field of play they are likely to operate within the boundaries of their personal identity (e.g., be selfish for personal gain).

You talk about the legacy and what that means… But I think the other thing that was really important was the connection between people−and the greater those connections, the more resilient and the stronger we were, the better we were.” – Sir Graham Henry, two-time New Zealand Rugby Union head coach (in Kerr, 2013, pg. 80)

In sport, as practitioners we often observe that the values defined by some (but not all) coaches promote irrational beliefs and behaviours. From a social identity perspective, athletes are more likely to buy into these beliefs and adopt them as their own, and for the sake of the team, if a shared sense of team identity has been established. In some ways, this is very much the dark side of SIL, where erroneous values and beliefs can be transferred and shared throughout a group as a result of strong emotional connections. Research evidence points to various psychosocial explanations of this, one of which is athletes’ trust in the coach, whilst by thinking and acting in this (sometimes irrational) way athletes are living out and reinforcing the uniqueness of their own team in the real world.

Erroneous values and beliefs can be transferred and shared throughout a group as a result of strong emotional connections

Speaking to this point, research evidence indicates that coaches who represent team values and demonstrate the commonality between themselves and their team are more likely to motivate athlete support and be perceived as effective. Such leaders are known as prototypical of their team’s identity. Thus, the psychological connection between a highly prototypical coach and their team is strengthened. It is perhaps for this reason why professional clubs sometimes prefer ex-players to become coaches (e.g., think of Manchester United finding roles for some of the Class of ‘92). Ex-players becoming coaches is certainly not a problem in itself; such individuals are in some cases, perhaps, better placed to lead. There have been great success stories of this kind, but also sharp failures. It could be argued that players who become coaches understand the sport’s culture because they have been part of their sport’s very fabric. Nevertheless the point is that this may (or may not) be an irrational fabric, a culture fuelled with “must win matches” and “catastrophic defeats” that players carry with them into their coaching careers.

Its only a goal, only a game of football. Its like the last thing in your life…I dont understand this pressure but the guys feel it. I hope I’m not the only person in the stadium who thought ‘this is not the end of the world’. We can work on this.” – Jurgen Klopp

Unknown at present is how athletes take on these values as beliefs over time and whether any transference exists to other contexts (e.g., when the individual is acting within their personal identity or another social identity). The fact is, leaders (and all significant others) can and “should” have a responsibility to instil beliefs in athletes that promote well-being, not just performance. We (the authors) as practitioners have the philosophy of “human first, athlete second” as we know that an athlete who is able to approach life, work, sport, and relationships in a rational and therefore functional manner is able to maintain performance over a long period of time, able to deal with adversity and set-backs during and after their athletic careers.

Leaders (and all significant others) can and “should” have a responsibility to instil beliefs in athletes that promote well-being, not just performance

In sum…

…A strong connection between coaches and athletes is vital and has been shown to inspire trust in the leader, team and individual mobilisation, and improved team performance. However, there may be a dark side to strong leader-follower identification, namely that erroneous and maladaptive irrational beliefs can be transferred from coach to athlete more effectively. This can develop into an irrational team culture, where failure is not accepted, success is demanded, and setbacks are seen as “terrible” and “catastrophic” – all irrational ideas that can actually (and perhaps ironically) undermine success. Coaches have an unrivalled opportunity to instil rational beliefs that can help an athlete fulfil a successful career and enjoy a purposeful life. This opportunity could be underpinned by a rational philosophy of success, failure, and adversity.

Dr. Matthew Slater & Dr. Martin Turner

Recent Posts

Recent Comments

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.