Psychology of the Jersey

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Recently I parted ways with the cycling team that I’ve been a member of since moving to Australia. Most of us have come in and out of various teams throughout our lives and it’s part of playing sports. When I step back and look at it there are some fascinating group dynamics taking place.

The topic for this post came up many months ago when a mate was telling me a story about when he left the police force. Immediately after he removed the uniform he found that the outside friendships he had enjoyed for years had more or less ended. Not only that, but he also described the different factions within the police force and animosity between them. This conversation led onto how the same thing happens in cycling.

An observation I’ve made from being a part of many sporting teams throughout my life is that when a member leaves their team, no matter how strong the friendships were within that team, there is a remarkable change that takes place. Even though the only thing that’s different is the jersey on his back, there is a change of relationship between him and that group. Even though personal relationships outside the team haven’t changed, things are no longer the same at the cafe after the ride, emails cease, invites to rides stop.

If you’ve been a part of the sport even for a little while, you may have noticed this same behaviour with riders drifting between different clubs or teams. Whether it is the social changes that take place when someone moves from CCCC to SKCC, or when a rider changes shop teams, there is a similar psychology taking place.

A recent example is a group of friends who I used to ride with every weekend eventually got ambitious decided to form a team (i.e. they got some kit made, got some sponsors, bikes, etc). Shortly after our Saturday morning rides disbanded, we stopped going to races together, road-trips were no longer the same, etc. They were still all the same people and we always said G’day to each other, but that jersey which half of that group wore completely changed the dynamics of the bunch.

Social Psychology

The social psychology phenomenon taking place is referred to as “in-group” and “out-group” bias.  It’s a simple concept, but one that has very powerful effects on sporting teams (as well as other facets of life). In-group bias is simply the tendency to favour one’s own group. This is not one group in particular, but whichever group you associate with in a particular circumstance. So, for example, when you ride with a bunch who wears the same kit, you are part of that team’s in-group. Supporting a particular professional sporting team is another good example of this that can carry an even larger self-serving meaning to its members (look up “Basking In Reflective Glory“). Or, it can be something on a more primal scale like, the situation between religious groups who have been killing each other for years, because they each perceive their own group as being the “right” and “good” group, while the other group (the out-group) is “bad” and “evil”.

It doesn’t just relate to cycling, it’s a trait of all sporting team dynamics. ‘Belonging’ is an empirically proven human need and cycling teams and clubs are an interesting microcosm of this. Never have I been as acutely aware of this phenomenon as with the sport of cycling. Teams quickly come and go and team-members can be very transient. Put on the same jersey as someone you’ve just met and you’re all of a sudden best mates. It’s worth noting that this behaviour taps into very primitive survival mechanism that has evolved over a millennia.

This phenomenon is summarised by a view of things in which one’s own group is the centre of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it… Each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exalts its own divinities, and looks with contempt on outsiders. Each group thinks its own [ways] the only right one… [leading] a people to exaggerate and intensify everything in their own [ways] which is peculiar and which differentiates them from others” (Sumner, 1906, p. 13).

Raising the stakes

It’s even more apparent when the stakes are high. A classic series of social psychology experiments in the 1940’s and 50’s explains why (they would never get away with this now):

Muzafer Sherif ran three summer camps for boys at Robbers Cove. The experiments went like this. The boys arrived for camp. They didn’t know it was run by a group of social psychologists. They formed friendships with other boys at the camp during a range of fun activities. Then the camp was divided into two separate groups that intentionally split up friendships. Groups were totally isolated from each other. They had separate living quarters, did separate activities, and developed their own new ‘in group’. No reference was made to their former friends, now in the other (or ‘out’) group.

Then the two groups were brought together to participate in competitions where exclusive resources (such as medals for the winners) were promoted. The researchers found high levels of inter group hostility. The hostility continued beyond the competition. Name calling and violence began to occur even when competition was over. It got so bad the experimenters had to call off the rest of the competitions.

To explain this, Sherif developed Realistic Conflict Theory where he argued that if our goals require cooperation, then we’ll behave interdependently, but when a scarce resource is available that is mutually exclusive (only one person or group can possess it) there will often be high levels of competition and even hostility.

So, why is it that when a rider (or any sportsperson) switches sides, that they have an instant group of new team mates ready to bury themselves for him or her, and they have former friends who are now enemies? Because the mutually exclusive goal for which they’re competing makes them friends or enemies, depending on whose side they’re on.

There are many ways to slice this social phenomenon in cycling. It can be between various teams or clubs, mountain bikers and roadies, XC and Downhillers, as well as in many other areas of life where groups form and there is a sense of belonging, especially when competing for a scarce resource such as a win on Sunday morning!

Special thanks to Justin Coulson, PhD and my Tommy P for helping me with this post (read a good post on Group Dynamics in Cycling from a while back).

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