I-O Psychology Students Explore Athletic Team Dynamics

Dynamic and well-balanced teams lead to thriving businesses, and in industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology, students learn to analyze and evaluate teams to increase their productivity. TU Associate Professor of Psychology Anupama Narayan challenged her class to assess two division-one TU sports teams: women’s rowing and women’s soccer. “We look at things like individual differences, team cohesion, communication, interaction with their coaches and each other and personality traits to see if we can recommend solutions that help improve their team functioning,” IO-Psychology doctoral student Chase Winterberg explained.

Exploring team operations is complex because both individual and group traits need to be studied. Plus, the psychology class was divided into two groups to study the sports teams, which allowed students to work in the very environment they were analyzing.

IO-Psychology doctoral student Bret Arnold said, “If you are trying to measure something like cohesion or conflict, that’s not something that any one person can have, but it is a characteristic of the team. In order to understand what leads to cohesion or conflict, you can look at the individual level behaviors and their interactions with each other to see how the cohesion or conflict is emerging on a team level.”

Before sunrise, psychology students would meet the rowing team at the lake to observe their practice, and for the soccer team, Winterberg and his group attended both games and practices. From the team’s movements on the boat or field to motivating factors that make them get out of bed at 4:30 a.m., the psychology student groups delved into every aspect of the teams.

“Working with the women’s soccer team is really helpful because in class with Dr. Narayan we learn about the science, theories and models. It can be abstract,” Winterberg said. “The collaboration with the women’s soccer team allowed us to apply it in practice.”

Arnold’s expertise is examining cross-cultural psychology within a group setting. “It’s about understanding how different cultural values come into play at work,” he said. But the big question is how someone measures the intangible. “One of the challenges in I-O psychology is trying to measure the things that cannot be seen. A big part of our science is developing the tools to do that and understanding what is contributing to things like burnout that are hard to capture and measure,” Arnold said.

At the end of the semester, the psychology teams presented to the rowing and soccer teams their findings and recommendations.  “We’ve been really impressed by how often you guys were at practice,” Assistant Coach Michelle Goodwin said. “The level of commitment was impressive and appreciated on our end because this is useful information.”

Studying and understanding team performance is essential in the business world, and with organizations trying to solve more complex problems, people must be able to work together. “What are the obstacles they are creating by the nature of their dynamics?” Arnold asked. “Being able to address it can save organizations a lot of money, save team workers a lot of headaches and help people accomplish what they need to do to do well in their jobs.”

Interested in the psychology of groups? Check out TU’s I-O Psychology program.