Belonging and Performance: How one affects the other in sports

In August 2013 Darnell Dockett of the Arizona Cardinals – at the time – took the lead on freshman initiation, treating rookies Tyrann Mathieu, Kenny Demens, Padric Scott and Alex Okafor to $7.99 haircuts, courtesy of Dockett himself. In the same year New York Knicks rookie, Chris Copeland, had to carry around a little pink Disney princess backpack for the season.

Chris Copeland showing off his Disney princess backpack during a press conference. Picture courtesy of @seth_rosenthal on Twitter

Newbies or rookies undergo various rites of passage in their first season with their clubs. A lot of times it is off-field stuff like the above mentioned. However, some of those rites of passage extend to the field. For example, certain cricketing teams assign fielding at short-leg to the rookie, or most junior member of the squad. Australia is a good example that has had this tradition within their national team ranks.

For a long time, within the Australian cricket team, fielding at short-leg was the domain of the Test rookie, almost a rite of passage for a new player as the more experienced players opted to field elsewhere. This is because, while there are specialist short-leg fielders like David Boon, Allistair Cook and Marnus Labuschagne, they are quite rare to come by. The position is fraught with danger due to the nature of it’s close proximity to the batsman, as a result when the team doesn’t have a specialist in the side, volunteers for the position are often scarce.

Newbies do not take part in rites of passage because they enjoy it. No. No one enjoys the public humiliation that comes with some of the things that newbies are made to do, and it is not that they enjoy taking on the roles that no one… Click To Tweet

Now, whether these duties or rites of passage that the newbies, rookies, are handed are off or on the field of play, they embrace them and execute them with zeal and aplomb. They do not do so because they enjoy it. No. No one enjoys the public humiliation that comes with some of the things that newbies are made to do, and it is not that they enjoy taking on the roles that no one else seems to want to do.

For instance, some international cricket rookies are exceptional slip fielders, but they have to wait for the senior players to relinquish those positions before they can take them on. In the meantime, they have to field in the less desirable areas. So, they do so to prove themselves as worthy and willing to do whatever the team requires, it is a statement of intent, a declaration that they are committed to the team. Their hope is that, in return, the team will reward them with acceptance and belonging.

The need for belonging

It is not just rookies that have this need for acceptance, this deep need for belonging. Social belonging is a fundamental human need, hardwired into our DNA. Evolutionary scientists have consistently published studies that reveal that for social animals, belonging to a group meant survival, development and safety while being socially excluded was often equivalent to death. The result of this is that social animals, like humans, developed warning and response mechanisms that treated social exclusion as a threat to existence in the same way as do other primitive threats.

According to researchers, Geoff Macdonald and Mark Leary, social exclusion is experienced as painful because reactions to rejection are mediated by aspects of the physical pain system. Geoff Macdonald and Mark Leary explored the subject in a paper titled, “Why does social exclusion hurt? The relationship between social and physical pain.”

The pain of exclusion, which is an emotional pain, is also physically debilitating because it is mediated by the same neurons as those of physical pain. Click To Tweet

Naomi I. Eisenberger,  Matthew D. Lieberman and Kipling D. Williams conducted a study that they titled, “Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion.” For their study, they sought to investigate which parts of the brain were activated when one was being excluded or overlooked. To do this, they used an fMRI scanner.

For their study, they invited participants to take part in a game called Cyberball, which Williams designed following his own experience of being suddenly excluded by two Frisbee players at the park. In Cyberball, the participant plays an online game of catch with two other players.

Peering through goggles, the participants could see their own hand and a ball, plus two cartoon characters – the avatars of fellow participants in another room. With the press of a button, each player could toss the ball to another player while the researchers measured their brain activity through fMRI scans. In the first round of the game, the ball flew back and forth just as you’d expect. However, after a while, the players in the second room started making passes only to each other, completely ignoring the player in the first room. In reality, there were no other players: just a computer programmed to ‘reject’ each participant so that the scientists could see how exclusion – what they called ‘social pain’ – affects the brain.

Compared with volunteers who continue to be included, those who are rejected show increased activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula (dAAC) — two of the regions that show increased activity in response to physical pain, Eisenberger says. As far as your brain is concerned, a broken heart is not so different from a broken arm or leg.

During Cyberball, the participants were being ignored by people they didn’t know and couldn’t even see, but it was enough to trigger an ancient pain response designed to keep us alive. Now imagine the pain one would feel if they were excluded by people on whom they are supposed to depend on and with whom one has to work with.

For instance, no one could miss the pain in the voice of Proteas legend, Makhaya Ntini, when he spoke of how difficult it was for him when he played for the national team. Makhaya Ntini felt isolated, abandoned by his teammates, “I was forever lonely at the time. Nobody knocked on my door to go for dinner. Teammates used to make plans right in front of me, skipping me out. When walking into the breakfast room, nobody came to sit with me.”

A distraught Ntini mused, “We wear the same uniform and sing the same national anthem, but I had to overcome (the isolation).”

Despite it being a successful and celebrated international career, for Makhaya Ntini, it was also one of the most painful periods in his life because of the exclusion he felt. Click To Tweet

Belonging and performance

Members of high performing teams all report that there is a strong sense of belonging within their dressingroom, even where there is intense competition for limited spots. Click To Tweet

High-performing athletes all share a sense of belonging. For successful team players, this means feeling part of the team and knowing they play a valuable role.

Roy Baumeister is a social scientist who has spent 30 years studying self-esteem, decision making, sexuality, free will and belonging. In one of his studies, “Responding to Major Threats to Self-Esteem: A Preliminary, Narrative Study of Ego-Shock” he found that people who felt rejected were unwilling to help others and showed much less empathy. It seemed that their emotions had shut down, they had become numb. When Baumeister asked participants to write about a major blow to their self-worth and describe their immediate reaction. Peer rejection was, by far, most frequently recounted.

Looked at in the context of sports and teams, this makes them less ideal teammates. They become less helpful, are less prone to offer others assistance and have a significant chance to turn into bad apples.

Team members who lack feelings of inclusion, acceptance and belonging make less than ideal teammates. Feelings of exclusion make them less helpful, are less prone to offer others assistance and have a significant chance to turn into bad… Click To Tweet

In 2019, Microsoft announced a project it calls The Art of Teamwork. For the project, the company studied dozens of teams from diverse industries along with the latest research on what makes teams successful in today’s workplace. One of their core findings was the great importance of belonging and a collective identity. They found that the best teams have forged a great sense of belonging for each member. This is because when team members feel as if they belong, they feel that they are valued within the team and have an important role to play. This increases motivation, commitment and self-efficacy.

Also, when teams have environments like this, it lends members feelings of security, and therefore be more accepting and supportive of their teammates when they are dropped for any variety of reasons. Not only that, but they are more willing and accepting of feedback, even when it is negative and will not feel attacked or be on the defensive when it is given. Environments that promote feelings of belonging encourage connection, collaboration and collective ownership, nurturing a psychologically safe environment. And with this comes accountability and trust, a vital component for cohesion.

When team members feel as if they belong, they feel that they are valued within the team and have an important role to play. This increases motivation, commitment and self-efficacy. Click To Tweet

Regardless of individual skill, it is only through effective teamwork that teams can produce outcomes greater than the sum of individual members’ contributions. Teams that work well together do not only meet expectations, but they perform better than their expected returns. Teams led by coaches like Gregg Popovich consistently do far better than what everyone expects because of how they foster belonging. Also, players who feel a strong sense of belonging perform above expectation. On the other hand, players with diminished feelings of belonging only perform as expected or below expectation. A lot of times, players who do not feel a sense of belonging often report low levels of motivation and are more likely to just go through the motions to fulfil contracts.

William E. Thomas, Rupert Brown and their colleagues wrote a paper on the social identity theory titled “Social Identification in Sports Teams: The Role of Personal, Social and Collective Identity Motives.” In it, they highlighted that teams that enjoy success do so because they have cultures and traditions that create a sense of tradition, purpose and belonging that goes beyond them as individuals – they have a team identity.

A close look at such teams has a common thread in their behaviour. Their behaviour is full of belonging cues. Belonging cues are behaviours that create safe connections in groups. They include, among others, proximity, eye contact, energy, mimicry, turn-taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch, consistency of emphasis, and whether everyone talks to everyone else in the group. Like any language, belonging cues can’t be reduced to an isolated moment but rather consist of a steady pulse of interactions within a social relationship.