Sport and Exercise

The ‘we’ in sport

Two views on ‘The New Psychology of Sport and Exercise: The Social Identity Approach’ edited by S Alexander Haslam, Katrien Fransen and Filip Boen (SAGE).

02 December 2020

Have you ever noticed a change in the way you behave when you are in different social groups? For example, do you act differently when you are playing for a sports team versus when you are at the gym? These are the questions that The New Psychology of Sport and Exercise confronts.  

The book starts by arguing that theory and research has predominantly tried to explain sport and exercise psychology at an individual level, at the expense of understanding how groups impact our psychology. This book aims to bridge this gap, proposing that groups change our sense of who we are and shape our behaviour. The authors posit that a social identity approach provides both a theoretical and applied framework to address existing gaps in the psychological understanding of sport and exercise. This becomes the platform for the claim that this book represents not ‘a’ but ‘the’ New Psychology of Sport and Exercise.  

After introducing social identity theory and outlining the key proposal, the book is split into five sections of Performance, Participation, Physical and Psychological Health, Partisanship, and Politics, which allows it to cover a myriad of important topics. Each chapter outlines the dominant existing approaches to each topic followed by several hypotheses which explain how a social identity framework can be used to explain the topic. The book is highly respectful of the work that’s gone before and is thorough in demonstrating how the Social Identity Approach relates to, builds on, supports or challenges this existing knowledge. Importantly, the authors are not afraid to address the elephant in the room of Self-determination theory. Self-determination theory, which spans both individual and social factors, is debated in the context of the social identity approach. This chapter highlights both the complementary and contrary relationship of the two theories.  

The topics are brought to life via quotes and commentary that ground the work in a relatable tone. This accessibility to sometimes complex scientific material, makes it an easier read than some academically derived books. These quotes are not just there for ‘kerb appeal’, but act as reminder of the way that everyday language around sports and exercise contains references to our social identities. As a simple test, try to have a sport and exercise conversation without the use of ‘we’ or ‘they’ when describing your participation or performance or, better still, do the same when describing your favourite team and their nemesis.

The book leans toward being a recruitment drive for future research with each chapter listing areas for future consideration. It is this contributory yet collaborative tone that sets this book apart from the pack and adds something special to the sport and exercise psychology space. They have presented the Social Identity Approach as the first ‘binge-worthy’ season of many in what could become an episodic gem. However, the message to the research community is clear, don’t just watch, come and join in.  

-       Toby Richards & Dr Sean Figgins, University of Chichester


Given that we broadly spend a third of each weekday (and entire weekends) on leisure, it is surprising that sport and exercise features so little in mainstream social psychology. It is then a treat to have this book, the third major text dedicated to social psychology of sport and exercise in as many decades (see Gordon Russell’s 1993 and David Lavallee and Sophia Jowlett’s 2004 texts).

The New Psychology of Sport and Exercise offers conventional chapters that bring social psychological principles anchored around performance and group dynamics. It also covers marginalised areas such as fandom, sport crowd behaviour, and political influence on sport related identities. In general, the text is premised upon the value of a Social Identity Approach for understanding sport and exercise behaviour. The book asserts that groups – and the sense of self that athletes and spectators derive from them – are fundamental to all sport and exercise behaviours. As such, throughout the text it is argued that ‘we-ness’ has been a peripheral focus of sport and exercise scholars and needs to be brought to the forefront of the research agenda, because it is social identity that makes group behaviour possible, and by extension sport and exercise.

Chapters are constructed around the 5 Ps (participation, performance, psychological and physical health, partisanship, and politics). Each ‘P’ has its own core hypothesis, supported by the context principle, the influence principle, and the emergence principle, providing the clearest framework to date on how best to utilise social identity approaches to sport and exercise. The book opens up a communication channel for scholars trained in sport and exercise and social psychologists to develop unique collaborations to further test social identity approaches, in as real-world a context as one could get.

The text starts strongly with the most well-known utilisation of social identity approaches to topics such as leadership and motivation, transposed and contextualised to sporting contexts. This sits alongside treatments of topics where social identity’s application is less known, but no less convincing – most notably communication, youth development and career progression.

While there are examples from a variety of sports through the text, there is an over reliance on team sport, in particular football, relegating exercise behaviour to the periphery. By focussing on football, principles of context and multiple social identities (e.g., the role of gender, age, ethnicity, class) influencing behaviour in sporting contexts appear abandoned, with little consideration of the way differing sport and exercise cultures emerge and exist as products of different broader societal identities. 

Broadly the book offers the clearest framework to date on how best to utilise social identity approaches to sport and exercise. But an opportunity is missed to consider how sport and exercise is also a performance of broader society. Sport and exercise are, for example, held up as a progressive global institutions and activities and bastion for the promotion of positive and egalitarian attitudes (e.g., stamping out racism and homophobia). But sport is ultimately a space for competition and dominance. And so, we must conclude that it is also a context in which broader societal struggles are reinforced, too, that social identity processes can be damaging to groups (e.g., reinforcing racism and stigma towards those living with disabilities), and by proxy, society too. 

- Dr Gareth Hall, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Aberystwyth University