Cliques in sports


This week when I interviewed athlete Morgan Flynn for my YouTube channel asking her what she sees as a significant source of conflict in sport she didn’t miss a beat… Cliques. I took a deep breath because I knew she hit the nail on the head. This is probably the number one concern I hear from teams that I work with in managing conflict. Cliques in sport is a complicated issue with no quick fixes or easy answers.

Sport provides an opportunity for athletes to form social connections. Being on a team or in a club allows for time together at practices, dinners and even experiencing travel. This leads to friendships that can last a lifetime. The time is intense as it involves the stress of competition and prolonged periods of togetherness. For some athletes, more time is spent with teammates than with family!

A downside for many teams is poor interpersonal relationships that involve exclusion and cliques are formed. There’s a lot at stake when this starts. Cliques can lead to the social isolation of team members. There’s talking/texting behind backs, eye rolling and in its worst manifestation bullying which is systematic tormenting and intimidation. For some athletes, cliques have such a negative impact on their emotional well-being that they leave the sport altogether.


It’s not surprising that cliques exist - particularly for girls. There continues to be a societal expectation that girls be ‘nice’, tolerant and avoid direct communication to address problems. They’re brought up to not rock the boat for fear of being disliked. This prescription denies girls an outlet for managing conflict when it comes up. They end up skirting issues and talking about negative feelings indirectly with others. Eventually, they become competitive for relationships and exclusion ensues.

What can be done? In her interview this week for our YouTube channel, elite soccer player Morgan does a fantastic job of describing steps that her soccer team have taken to resolve issues with cliques interfering with the team’s performance. She talks about how her team now have alignment on their goal of winning Provincials. Morgan describes good cliques which are made up of friends who carpool or attend the same school and unhealthy cliques who use exclusion which causes significant challenges. Link to full interview here.

A few practical tips for athletes and coaches:

1.     Acknowledge how important social relationships are, particularly to girls.

Athletes Be kind to yourself then be kind to others. This sounds simple but often we second guess our own feelings. If you feel excluded, accept that you feel this way and work to resolve it. Talk to someone: a friend, your sibling, a coach. 

Coaches Acknowledge that when your players are upset about relationship issues they need to be addressed. Remember that girls need to feel good to play well. Girls feel good in the context of sound social relationships. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away

2.     Hone in on communication. 

Athletes Use direct communication with teammates – avoid texting when there’s an issue. Address problems shortly after they arise but not in the moment. Waiting for a day can help give you time to process.

Coaches Hold regular team meetings and normalize conversations about problems that have come up. This will give your athletes an opportunity to practice conversing face to face and make the off-line complaining redundant. It also normalizes conflict and gives your team an outlet to manage it which will make them more cohesive in the long run.

 3.     Keep the bigger picture front and centre.

Athletes You’re on a sports team to develop skills, compete and enjoy success. Keep your eye on this prize. A team is only as strong as its weakest member and if all members are included and valued there’s no stopping you. 

Coaches Develop team goals and have regular conversations to review how you’re progressing. Remind your team that no individual member or group is more important than the team. A shared mission can bring unity. 

Ultimately cliques are about competition. The more a team can move from focusing on the individual to the collective the greater the likelihood of managing cliques. The key to accomplishing this, of course, is effective communication.

I love to talk about this stuff so please feel free to give me a call or shoot me an e-mail anytime!

I’d also love to share your thoughts with our community. Comment below. What’s worked for you? What have been your frustrations?

Nadia KybaComment