Why trust is crucial in team sports

Dr. Lori Dithurbide discusses her research on trust in group sport psychology

Sports psychology is the study of how psychology influences sports, athletic performance, exercise, and physical activity. Some sports psychologists work with athletes and coaches to improve performance. Ashli Green/Argosy

On March 22, Dr. Lori Dithurbide, a sports psychologist and professor of kinesiology at Dalhousie, gave a seminar on trust between teammates and how that trust impacts performance. This talk was organized by the psychology department.

“My primary research area is the social psychology of sport… I’m really fascinated by how humans interact with each other,” said Dithurbide to begin the seminar, noting that her work in efficacy in team sports had led to her research in trust. The dictionary defines efficacy as “the ability to get a job done satisfactorily.”

“Trust is something that’s been studied at length in counselling psychology, studied at length in organizational psychology and very scarcely in sports,” said Dithurbide.

Dithurbide noted that there are different kinds of trust such as interpersonal trust and task trust. “I can trust my best friend with a secret and she will not tell a soul, but I can’t trust her to be on time. I can’t trust some people with a secret but if I’m on a team with them I can trust that they’re going to do their job, so there are different levels of trust,” she said.

Dithurbide said that for the purpose of her research she defines trust as “the belief or expectation that a teammate will effectively perform a particular action that’s necessary for one’s own and the team’s benefit.”

“I could care less if you can keep a secret or not, I could care less if you’re going to have my back off the field: I need to trust you that you’re going to do your job when we’re playing together,” Dithurbide said.

The example that Dithurbide gave is that if you’re on a team in a sport like hockey or soccer and you’re a defensive player, your level of trust in your goalie can impact how you play. “I was a defenceman and I grew up playing hockey … and I can tell you personally [that] how [much] I trusted that goalie definitely determined how much risk-taking I would take as an athlete on that team,” she said. “If I didn’t trust my goalie in that particular game then I wasn’t pinching, I wasn’t rushing, I was staying back and being really safe.”

Dithurbide also went over a qualitative study she ran involving female volleyball players. The goal was to find a difference between confidence and trust, which were showing up the same statistically. “What we found was that participants stated that trust stemmed from how teammates behaved and performed in critical situations, the effort she puts forth, and her experience. They were able to provide instances where they had high efficacy but low trust, so, therefore, differentiating between the two,” she said.

Dithurbide said she focused on defensive plays in volleyball. “If I’m ready to serve-receive and I don’t trust this person [covering the position beside me] then I’m going to [move over], so that leaves a hole,” she said.

“If I’m the opposing team … I might start serving to this player and I see everybody kind of move over and then there’s a hole there and if I’m smart I’m going right there,” Dithurbide added.

“This affected their backing up behaviours, distraction and frustration levels, and motivation,” Dithurbide said, “so if you think of a team athlete who’s not necessarily doing their job, who’s frustrated, distracted and unmotivated, if they don’t trust their teammates, that can have a significant impact.”

Jordyn Clark, a player for the Mt. A hockey team, agreed with this point: “I find that if you don’t trust a teammate you overcompensate for them. Every person on a team has a role to play and if you don’t trust that somebody else is doing their role you try to compensate for their role and that affects both your game and everybody else’s games because you’re doing more than what you should or have to do.”

At one point in the seminar, Dithurbide posed the question, “How do we typically develop trust in teammates?”

One student answered, “Just experience, I feel like that plays a big factor in it. So if you don’t know someone very well you don’t trust them at the beginning but the more experiences you have that are positive, over time, can help build trust.”

Another student said that team-bonding activities and games can help instill trust.

Clark, when asked about her experience with team-building, told a story of something her previous team did to build trust with one another. “I remember at the school that I was at last year we used to literally make people fall out of the back of a bus and you’d have to trust your teammates to catch you,” she said.

“I just think that it’s important to have trust because if there’s no trust it’s not going to work,” Clark added. “It’s kind of like a relationship: if you don’t trust, it’s very hard on both people in the relationship and it’s just like that on a team. If there isn’t any trust there won’t be any bonding and it’ll just be a long season.”

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