What trainers need to know about group dynamics and the hidden curriculum

There are many scenes in the movie Miracle that are about the 1980 US Olympic ice hockey team, a group of underdogs who defeated the then Soviet powerhouse and then took home the gold that gave me goosebumps. This includes one where the team met relatively recently. During a training session, head coach Herb Brooks asks the players over and over again, “Who are you playing for?” Each player in turn responds with their own alma mater, which means that the new team is forced to run sprint after sprint on the ice until it is completely exhausted.

It was not until the future team captain Mike Eruzione finally replied: “I’m playing for the United States of America!” That Brooks would finish the sprints. With that statement, Eruzione provided the evidence Brooks had been looking for that players were beginning to identify themselves as part of a defined group, that they were prioritizing their new group membership more than their individual story. (At this point, they probably didn’t prioritize sprints over anything else, but they got the message.)

Athletes of all stripes are called upon to be part of a group, regardless of whether they play a team sport or compete individually. Ideally, they identify with the group and show a sense of belonging and loyalty so that the group itself develops an identity alongside the identity of the athletes as part of this. Cultivating this group identity can go a long way in developing the trust and relationship necessary for effective exercise and performance in both individual and team sports. This means it is up to coaches and athletes to understand the implications of these dynamics and make sure they are positive.

While trainers and teammates communicate openly with each other and work towards stated, ostensibly common goals, the experience of working and learning with a group can also bring about a phenomenon that educators refer to as a “hidden curriculum”. This refers to the lessons, thought habits, and accepted behaviors that each member of a group – class, cohort, team – indirectly absorbs through observation or other tacit methods. In other words, a group’s stated goals can only be part of what a teammate learns and accepts as appropriate. For example, a new team member could hear the locker room conversations among more experienced teammates and guess certain things about what it takes to get along and belong with each other.

If the hidden curriculum reinforces the team’s overt goals, it could be a good thing. On the other hand, disruption can arise if the hidden curriculum undermines or interferes with those goals. As coaches, we need to be aware of the existence of these more covert dynamics and the impact they can have on our coaching and the behavior and mindset of our athletes.

In order to get to grips with the hidden curriculum that may be at work in your own training situation and its implications for the cohesion of your group, consider the following when observing interpersonal dynamics and interactions:

  • Who are the de facto leaders in the group – who influences the behavior of others? Are these the people you named to be the leaders? If not, should you step in to ensure consistent messages?
  • Which messages ARE communicated both openly and covertly? Do the hidden messages coincide with the open messages or do they undermine them?
  • How does your own behavior play into the dynamics of the group? Do you convey your own expectations clearly and do you meet them yourself?

As you begin to pay attention to the dynamics of a group and the hidden curriculum that may be at play, you may find ways to ensure the consistency of messages and expectations. Here are a few steps you can take to encourage group cohesion:

  • Hold regular meetings with team captains and other de facto leaders to make sure they understand expectations and to catch up on any issues that may need attention. Ask for their contribution to effective intervention options – they will have an understanding of the players that compliments your own perspective.
  • Group athletes for training and workouts and swap the combinations regularly so that the same people are not always working together.
  • Pair new members with a more experienced teammate for easier team orientation.

Group dynamics and the hidden curriculum can greatly influence the effectiveness of a team. With a little awareness and a few simple steps, coaches can increase the likelihood that these influences will be positive.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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