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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Report on 1st International Conference on Social Identity in Sport (ICSIS) 2017

23.04.2018, by Tina Keil in meeting report

A scientific report by Katrien Fransen, Alex Haslam, and Filip Boen about the first ICSIS conference in Leuven, on July 1st and 2nd, 2017

Participants at ICSIS 2017 surrounded by the banners and the flag where the EASP-logo was displayed as one of the sponsors. This picture was also sent to all participants afterwards as a postcard in total, 3 pictures
Participants at ICSIS 2017 surrounded by the banners and the flag where the EASP-logo was displayed as one of the sponsors. This picture was also sent to all participants afterwards as a postcard

Note: This meeting was not a typical EASP meeting and received only a partial funding from EASP.

The first International Conference on Social Identity in Sport (ICSIS) aimed to bring together leading research experts who study sport and physical activity from a Social Identity Approach (SIA). In recent years, substantial progress has been made in research that uses this SIA to gain a better understanding of concepts such as leadership, support, stress, and performance. However, as opposed to organizational psychology, sport and exercise psychology has not yet taken on board and integrated the messages of SIA, despite the fact that group processes are crucial within the sporting context.

ICSIS was the first conference that united top researchers who are active in the emerging field of social identity in sport and exercise and proved to be an innovate milestone, not the least in terms of attendance. Initially aimed to attract about 20 participants, in the end 65 participants from various parts of the world attended the conference. Also in terms of content many borders were crossed as diverse aspects of sport were viewed through the lens of social identity. Feature talks of 30 minutes were given by seven leading researchers in the field interspersed with short focus talks of 10 minutes on a similar topic.

ICSIS took place on July 1st and 2nd 2017 in Leuven, which is a symbolic place for EASP. In the past, KU Leuven organized two general meetings (in 1969 and 1972) and one summer school (1998). KU Leuven was also actively involved in the establishment of EASP in the person of J.M. Nuttin Jr. He was the academic grandfather and great-grandfather of two of the meeting’s organizers, Filip Boen and Katrien Fransen. These scholars are now affiliated with the Department of Movement Sciences at KU Leuven (Belgium) and joined forces with Alex Haslam from the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland (Australia) to establish ICSIS as a satellite meeting of the general meeting in Granada.

The meeting room of the conference was located in the beautiful Arenberg Castle, situated near the green Faculty of Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences, which constitutes the heart of KU Leuven’s sport practice and research. This location in combination with the option to rent-free bikes provided the participants opportunities to integrate physical activity into their daily conference routine. Moreover, participants were encouraged to give a standing ovation after each lecture in order to interrupt their sedentary behavior (and to increase the speakers’ self-esteem), a norm which was consistently followed throughout the conference. The conference started informally and quite actively on Friday evening June 30th with a guided walking tour through the famous brewery of Stella Artois, training both the muscles of the legs and of the arms. Given that all participants had to wear uniformed yellow safety jackets, this team-building activity succeeded in lifting the group’s cohesion by evoking depersonalization processes even before alcohol rations were distributed.

After a practical and historical introduction by Katrien Fransen and Filip Boen, Alex Haslam opened the conference on Saturday morning July 1st with a talk on why SIA is so relevant to understand group processes in sport and exercise. He stated that when it comes to explaining the positive impact that sport has on health, most academic and lay analyses focus on the role played by medical and physiological factors. However, in his talk Alex explored the potential for sport to impact positively on health by virtue of its capacity to build and sustain a sense of social identification with others that is a basis for connection, support, meaning and control. His presentation emphasized the plausibility of this pathway and presented a number of different forms of evidence suggesting that it is at least as important for health and well-being as medical and biological pathways. Indeed, he argued that social identity processes play a critical — though largely ignored — role in unlocking the health benefits of pathways that are traditionally understood in purely medical terms.

After that inspiring opening, four short talks focused on the relation between social identity and performance in sport contexts. Matthew Slater (Staffordshire University) presented research that examined the link between the passion displayed by football teams during the singing of national anthems at UEFA Euro 2016 and their performance in the tournaments’ 51 games. His findings indeed suggested that team members’ expression of passion for the collective can be an important predictor of subsequent performance. Philipp Podwalski (Freie Universität Berlin) examined whether skill-related performance data of transferred players in the German Bundesliga differed between games against the former club compared to other games of the season after the transfer. His results showed that transferred players committed a significantly higher mean number of fouls when facing their former club than in games against the other clubs of the league. Will Thomas (University of Sussex) studied how team-level identity (TLI) and individual-level social identification (ILI) predict team and individual performance outcomes. Using a longitudinal multilevel approach, involving 369 members of 45 sports teams across England and Italy, he found that TLI predicted subsequent levels of both perceived and actual team performance in cross-lag analyses. Conversely, ILI did not predict subsequent levels of perceived individual performance. In the final focus talk of this session, Jessica Salvatore (Sweet Briar College, USA) investigated the effectiveness of an intervention to counteract negative stereotype threat among six samples of athletes. Her results showed that performance was consistently much improved, both in statistical and in practical terms, when participants were encouraged to question the validity and legitimacy of a self-relevant stereotype than when they were merely reminded of the stereotype.

The next feature talk was given by Filip Boen (KU Leuven). He argued that existing research on the promotion of health-enhancing physical activity has focused too narrowly on individual-level factors. Moreover, even when social factors have been taken into account, these studies lack an appropriate theoretical framework to explain the results that are obtained. He presented some examples of interventions based on a social identity approach (e.g., based on shared leadership) that can lead to a long-lasting behavioral change in physical activity and eventually better health. The audience was also invited to discuss and reflect on how the social identity approach could be strategically promoted in the fields of exercise psychology and behavioral medicine where it is almost completely ignored at present.

His feature talk was followed by two focus talks on social identity and health. First, Tegan Cruwys (University of Queensland) outlined the Situated Identity Enactment (SIE) model, which specifies how social norms, social identity and social context interact to shape health behavior. Evidence for the model was presented with a focus on physical activity and exercise. Second, Jens Kleinert (German Sport University), despite suffering from heavy low back-pain, managed to entertain the public by presenting three experiments on similarity and behavior in dyads. His findings showed that shared goals seem to be of higher importance for behavioral regulation in coactive dyads than shared personal attributes (i.e. identification). In behavioral dyads however, some important interpersonal mechanisms (e.g., motivational contagion) take place without shared goals.

After the lunch break, Katrien Fransen (KU Leuven) gave a feature talk on sports leaders as identity entrepreneurs. Her research demonstrated that leaders within the team (i.e., athlete leaders) can impact the team effectiveness and the health and well-being of fellow team members by creating a shared sense of ‘we’ and ‘us’ in their teams. In particular, by showing that they believe in ‘our team’, leaders are able not only to make ‘us’ a psychological reality, but also to transform ‘us’ into an effective operational unit. She also presented a newly designed leadership development program: the 5R Shared Leadership Program. This program relies on principles derived from social identity theorizing to help the leaders to develop — that is create, embody, advance, and embed — a collective sense of ‘us’ in their teams.

In the next session, five focus talks further elaborated on the topic of social identity and leadership. First, Niels Mertens (KU Leuven) presented research that tested the effectiveness of implementing a shared leadership structure (i.e., termed Shared Leadership Mapping) in 30 soccer teams active on a national competitive level. This was done using Social Network Analysis to identify the best leaders in the team on four different leadership roles (i.e., task, motivational, social, and external leader). Moreover, this research examined whether an additional leadership development program for the appointed leaders in the team (i.e., the 5R Shared Leadership Program) caused a surplus effect on team effectiveness. Second, Cliff Mallet (University of Queensland) presented a study that explored whether effective leadership in the team can enhance athletes’ health and well-being. The findings, collected among 120 athletes from three top-division Australian football teams, indicated that better health and lower burn-out was associated with (a) being a good athlete leader and (b) having a good athlete leader on the team. Moreover, this relationship was mediated by athletes’ identification with their team.

Third, after a short break, Nik Steffens (University of Queensland) provided a quantitative meta-analytical review on the relation between leaders’ effectiveness and their prototypicality of a shared social identity. The results (k = 118, effect sizes = 237, N = 29,871) showed that the extent to which leaders are seen to embody the group that they are leading is moderately strongly related to indicators of their effectiveness. Furthermore, there was evidence of several moderating factors including followers’ social identification, the formality of the role, and whether the prototypicality was conceived as being an ideal - not just an average - group member. Fourth, Jamie Barker (Staffordshire University) investigated the efficacy and effectiveness of a social identity leadership intervention (3R identity leadership) with an elite Paralympic football team in preparation for a major international tournament. He used a quasi-single case research design that included ten data collection points (over 7 months) across pre- and post-intervention phases. His findings revealed that athletes reported increased: (1) individual outcomes (e.g., mobilisation of effort); (2) group-level outcomes (e.g., social identity); and (3) identity-based leadership from staff from pre- to post-intervention. Fifth, Mark Stevens (Bournemouth University) presented a cross-sectional study on the relationships between social identity leadership and health-related outcomes in various sport and exercise settings. Key relationships were observed between individual facets of identity leadership and group identification, satisfaction, and satisfaction with progress under the leader. These outcomes were, in turn, significantly associated with greater levels of exertion and participation. Participation was also significantly associated with self-esteem among exercise group members and life satisfaction among park runners. He concluded that by engaging in identity leadership, sport, exercise, and parkrun leaders may facilitate greater group member effort and participation, and ultimately enhance their health and well-being.

Given that Michael Platow (Australian National University) was ultimately not able to come to ICSIS because of a family bereavement, Alex Haslam took on the task of presenting Michael’s talk on the relation between self-determination theory and self-categorization theory. It was concluded that although empirical evidence suggests clear complementarity between the two theories and a conceptual analysis suggested clear commonalities, there are nevertheless fundamentally different assumptions about the nature of the self that leave a theoretical chasm that is unlikely to be bridged.

In the final feature talk of the first conference day, Kim Peters (University of Queensland) focused on superstars as role models. She described the identity acquisition theory of role modelling that claims that role models are integral to a person’s sense of self — providing an answer to the question of who do I want to be? Drawing on self-categorisation theory, this theory argues that an aspirant’s personal identification with a role occupant as a person he or she wishes to be promotes a more general social identification with the occupant’s role. This increased role identification should spur the behaviours that — in the fullness of time — support role mastery. She discussed implications of this theory for the assumption that we choose role models from the ranks of those who have achieved extraordinary success (e.g., in sports). The first conference day was concluded with a tasty and lively conference diner, during which everyone was invited to switch seats after each course in order to interrupt their sitting and to stimulate interaction between all conference participants.

Despite the late conversations, everyone was present on Sunday July 1st for the feature talk by Pete Coffee (University of Stirling) on the social identity approach as a framework to understand social support and attribution in sport. Pete provided examples on how social identities may influence the social-physical environment, subsequently affecting perceptions of available support and support received, and on how the provision of support can contribute to our understanding of the actor-observer attributional hypothesis. Building on Pete’s introduction, the next four focus talks from Scotland elaborated on social support from a social identity perspective.

First, Chris Hartley (University of Stirling) used a sample of 275 competitive athletes to show significant main effects for perceived support upon burnout, and for received support upon burnout. These main effects were fully mediated by satisfaction with perceived support and satisfaction with received support, respectively. Second, Melanie McInnes (University of Stirling) presented three experimental studies that examined the main and interactive effects of spatial centrality and social identity on the personal provision of social support, the perceived availability of social support, and on the receipt of social support. For example, she demonstrated that participants who were more spatially peripheral within the group were protected from perceiving low levels of availability of support when they reported higher levels of social identity. Third, Simon Kawycz (Liverpool Hope University and University of Stirling) explored the effects of social identity on observer explanations towards actors’ behaviours in a helping behaviour scenario and a sport performance scenario. His results suggested that the traditional observer bias is conditioned by social identity: observers offer causal explanations that include ‘protecting’ in-group actors displaying non-helping behaviours and ‘explaining away’ credit for out-group actors displaying successful behaviours. Fourth, Ross Murray (University of Stirling) explored how social identity moderates relationships between team-referent attributional divergence and interpersonal outcomes in motor tasks. He concluded that similar reasons for failure (i.e., low attributional divergence) amongst partners is only associated with higher levels of cohesion when partners also share high levels of identity. Under conditions of low levels of shared identity, effects of low and high attributional divergence upon cohesion are indistinguishable.

After a short break, three additional focus talks tackled the relation between social support and social identity. Jamie Gillman (Staffordshire University) presented an experiment that tested the effect of social identification and social support on cardiovascular (CV) reactivity on a person’s approach to an acute stress task. His results supported initial observations that those in the stranger (out-group) condition provide less support than those in the friend condition and that this effected participants’ CV reactivity (vs. resting). Mark Bruner (Nipissing University, Canada) examined the role of social identity on peer-nominated friendships by surveying 81 adolescent athletes from five competitive youth sport teams (two football, three ice hockey). Regression results revealed that ingroup ties were a significant predictor of peer mean friendship. His findings indicate how social identities can provide a potential mechanism to foster friendships in youth sport teams. Silke Dankers (University of Copenhagen and Groningen) investigated how the cultural composition of youth football teams relates to societal majority and minority players’ psychologically experienced integration within their team. Based on a cross-sectional questionnaire data from 245 male youth players in 23 Dutch soccer teams, she concluded that players with a numerical minority status on the team experienced significantly less inclusion compared to players with majority status. This experience appeared stronger if minority status in the team was combined with minority status in society.

The morning sessions of the second conference day were concluded with two focus talks on sports fan behavior. Filip Boen (KU Leuven) presented a survey study including 1333 fans of his favourite soccer team who reacted to the forced merger after bankruptcy. Significant predictors of fans’ post-merger identification included their level of pre-merger identification, the perceived current success of the merger club and the perception of continuity of their former club, stressing the relevance of a social-psychological approach to merger in sports. Matteo Saccaro (Catholic University of Milan) approached 120 parents just before a soccer match in which their child was playing. He found that a positive identification with the family, buffered the effects of team identification: team identification was significantly associated with aggressive behaviors but only for parents low in family identification.

In his feature talk after the lunch break, Tim Rees (Bournemouth University) situated the current ‘state of play’ of social identity in sport and offered suggestions for future research. He also made a case for boldness and clarity in pushing back against the prevailing individual focus of much high-profile research and application in sport. Even without using Powerpoint, he was able to make a powerful point.

The following four focus talks spoke to the antecedents of social identity. Svenja Wolff (University of Amsterdam) drew upon uncertainty-identity theory to predict that athletes would identify more with their team in a precompetitive as compared to a practice situation. In addition, this effect would be stronger if athletes, innately, were more intolerant of uncertainty. Surveying 389 members of 28 men's and women's competitive soccer teams she found no support for these hypotheses. However, athletes' appraisal of competition importance consistently predicted their precompetitive team-identification indicating the malleability and potential functionality of team-identification in a competitive context. Will Thomas (University of Sussex) investigated identity processes among 369 members of 45 sports teams from England and Italy in a longitudinal study over 6 months with four time points. Multilevel change modelling and cross-lagged analyses showed that group identification was predicted by satisfaction of the following eight motives: satisfaction with four personal identity motives (individuals’ personal feelings of self-esteem, distinctiveness, meaning, and efficacy derived from team membership), satisfaction with three social identity motives (individuals’ feelings that the team identity carries a sense of belonging, meaning, and continuity) and satisfaction with collective identity motive (a shared belief in group distinctiveness) significantly predicted group identification. Lisa O’Halloran (Coventry University) used descriptive phenomenology to identify perceived ‘critical moments’ during the career of youth Premier League academy footballers. Her results revealed that the critical moments that emerged included the participants’ experience of career-threatening injury, securing their next contract, and deselection. She concluded that anxiety is caused during ‘critical moments’ because the athlete’s identity or structure of meaning ̶ the core of their existence̶ ̶ is being challenged. Finally, Sindhuja Sankaran (University of Warsaw) presented her research that aimed to distinguish between two athlete groups; those who perform better in training than competition (Training Champions – TC) versus those who perform better in competitions than training (Competition Champions – CC). She argued that this consistent failure or success in competitions for TC and CC respectively would become a part of their ‘sporting’ identity. The results suggested that TC tend to be more tuned to negative information and CC more tuned to positive information. She concluded the reinforced state of failure versus success experience amongst TC and CC indeed shaped their identity leading to engagement in maladaptive versus adaptive processing.

The cherry on the pie was offered by Steve Reicher (University of St. Andrews), who closed the conference with an inspiring overview of the discussions and provided avenues for future research based on the presentations. Those who were present will never forget Steve’s uplifting plea to unlock the power of ‘us’. He stressed 4 crucial P’s that the social identity approach to sports should focus on to unlock this power: Participation (e.g., how do we design sporting institutions so that everyone is welcome and feels he/she belongs there?), Performance (e.g., winning is more than physiology or individual psychology, but to some extent these systemic factors can also be understood through the lens of group psychology), Partisanship (e.g., fandom may be part of contributing to the health benefits of sports), and Political groups (e.g., we should engage more with the world to get people to listen, by interacting with networks, based on a pamphlet). The conference was closed with a reception in the castle and with sun breaking through the clouds after two days of rain, providing a spectacular view over the Arenberg domain from the balcony, suggesting a bright future for this new network.

In conclusion, ICSIS turned out to be a milestone. The high attendance as well as the high quality of the talks testified to the need to continue this type of meeting. At the end of the conference, it was decided that ICSIS will be organized bi-annually, which means that the next meeting is scheduled for the summer of 2019. By this time, the organizers of this first conference, Alex Haslam, Katrien Fransen and Filip Boen, plan to compile an edited book on ‘Sport and Exercise Psychology: A Social Identity Approach’. This book will be published in cooperation with Sage and will give an overview of how the Social Identity Approach can explain a range of sport-relevant processes. The main contributors of this book will be participants of the ICSIS conference, and all approached participants have already agreed to contribute. The royalties of the book will feed back into the organization of the next conference. These initiatives show that ICSIS 2017 has fully succeeded in bringing together researchers both from social psychology and sport & exercise psychology and has facilitated future interactions.

Although most participants were sports scientists rather than social psychologists, we are convinced for multiple reasons that this conference has paved the way to a stronger link between ICSIS and EASP in the future, and that many of the attendees will now join EASP as a result of their positive experience at ICSIS. We therefore believe that ICSIS has bridged a gap between sport scientists and social psychologist and that EASP has become known to many sport scientists. As a result, there are plans to submit symposia for the next general meeting of the EASP in which sport specific phenomena will be viewed from the lens of social psychological theories, in particular SIA.

With this report of our ICSIS conference, we hope that we were able to give some insight into the high quality of all presentations, to capture the enthusiasm of all participants, and to highlight the conference’s function as an inspiring start of a long-term succession of ICSIS conferences in the future. Accordingly, we would like to express our sincere gratitude to EASP for the funding it has given us to make all this possible. We hope that the next edition in 2019 can build on the success of the first edition!