By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)

In team sports, “identity” is an important and influential factor to anybody, and everybody associated with the team. Everything from youth sports all the way up to professional teams have athletes, coaches, parents and fans all who proudly associate themselves with the team for a variety of reasons and motivations. Team Identity is an important part of team sports, from sharing victories, defeats, team cheers, colors, mascots, inside jokes and culture all come together to represent who and what the “team” is.

Rather than being the sum of its parts, every athlete, coach, parent and fan associated with the team help make the team greater than the sum of its parts and contribute to its identity. Rather than cogs in a machine, each individual is a bird in the flock. The identity of the team is shaped and influenced by every single element associated with it.  A “team” for all intents and purposes, is a complex adaptive system.


Remember, a “Complex Adaptive System” is defined as a “system” made up of individual parts in which the sum of those parts generates complex and dynamic behaviors that are greater than each individual part. For more information about Complex Adaptive Systems in Sports, check out my articles “Complexities of Coaching” and Chaos in Coaching”

So how is this related to team identity? Well, superficially a “team identity” might just consist of team name, colors and a logo. But who cares about that? Why does this name, these colors or that logo matter? Why would anybody care about that team over any other team? Because each team is more than a name, colors and a logo. The “team” is represented by all the athletes on the field, the coaches who guide the athletes, the physical location of the team, fans who support the team, the history of the team, and even the culture that has emerged within the team such as team chants, rituals and traditions. Take any “team” and think about what makes that team different than any other team.

Identities exist for every team, from youth development teams to professional sports. Some teams have long held identities rooted in history and tradition while others are new and trying to find theirs. What is important to remember for anybody involved with the team, is that, just like the team itself; the identity of the team is constantly changing, growing, evolving and adapting.

Team Identity is reflective of the motivations, goals, values, morals and identities of the individuals who make up the team. So anytime there are new players, coaches, parents or fans who join the team; the identity of the team changes to reflect that. This is a natural function of any complex system, but it is important to consider that the bigger the system, the less influence each individual has on the system as a whole. Thus, for bigger and more well-established teams, any individual athlete alone might not affect as much change within the team identity than if they were part of a smaller, newer team.

While coaches are important leaders for the team and help guide how the team develops. The identity of the team itself is not established from the top down. It is established from the bottom up and rooted in the kind of motivations, values and goals of those who make up the team. Establishing a team identity and understanding what kind of motivations, values and goals the team as a system should have are reflective of those individuals who make up the team.

Considering teams as a complex system means that those teams who are more adaptable and resilient to changes in their environment are going to be more successful in the long term. Shaping a team’s identity as reflective of the individuals within the team is an important role for every team leader by creating a team environment and culture built around the psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness to help motivate each individual.

The principles of Self Determination Theory developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan note that self-motivation and personality integration are subject to a person’s own inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness (Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. 2000). Within the spectrum of motivation types, ranging from amotivation (going through the motions, otherwise unengaged in the task); extrinsic motivation (motivation is subject to some kind of external purpose; including external regulation (obtaining reward/avoiding punishment), introjected regulation (ego boosting, feeling guilty), identified regulation (personal importance), and integrated regulation (congruence with one’s own needs); and intrinsic motivation (motivated purely out of enjoyment, interest and satisfaction).

For a further breakdown on Self Determination Theory, watch Dirk’s episode of “Sport Psych n’ Stuff”


If you examine these motivations as a continuum, from amotivation on the left to intrinsic motivation on the right. The motivations of each member of the team is subject to the fulfillment of their psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness from the “team” itself. That is, the more autonomous, competent and related a member of the team feels with the team as a whole, the more that individual’s identity is reflected in that of the team’s and the more their own motivation tends toward the right side of the continuum. However, if a member of the team feels dependent, incapable and/or disconnected from the team, the more that individual’s identity is disassociated with the team and their own motivation tends toward the left side of the continuum.


Rarely, individuals are purely intrinsically motivated, so it is unrealistic to expect every member of the team to be driven solely through intrinsic factors. Why do we get involved with sports? We love the sport itself, the benefits of exercise, meeting friends, developing new skills, feelings of accomplishment, winning medals, overcoming challenges and countless other reasons. We cannot move forward fueled solely by intrinsic factors, even if we are as passionate as can be, we still seek out other things to fuel that passion.


As much as the team’s identity is shaped by the individuals who are part of the team; a strong and resilient team is built on the strength of each individual’s identity that is shaped by the team itself and the relationships each individual has with each other. Team leaders who foster these psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness by building a team culture of diversity, engagement, connectivity, growth, individual goal setting, self-expression, acceptance, inclusion and team values will find their individual team members tending toward the right side of the continuum and adopting identified and integrated regulation forms of motivation that help drive intrinsic motivation.


In turn, this is what establishes a team identity that every individual associated with the team internalizes in congruency with one’s self. This is influential for building a cohesive and resilient team that is strong, capable and adaptable to new challenges, changing circumstances, recovery from loss and better likelihood for success. The team as a whole is reflective of and greater than the summation of its individual parts.


Tips for Building Team Identity Through Motivation

  • Discuss goal settings, encourage everybody on the team to write down what they want to achieve and help them set short term, midterm and long-term goals.
  • Make a few copies those written goals for each person and for the team leader/ coach and encourage each individual to post it somewhere they will see it every day.
  • Encourage creative solutions to common problems faced by each individual and the team as a whole. Creative solutions also work well for developing new skills, such as coaching athletes to kick a ball and letting them explore different ways to go about it.
  • Building opportunities to be social before, during and after training. Encouraging team bonding through non-task related activities.

For more information about Complex Adaptive Systems in Sports, check out my articles “Complexities of Coaching” and Chaos in Coaching”

Photo Credit: Pride Cheerleading Association

Davids, K. (2015). Athletes and sports teams as complex adaptive system: A review of implications. RICYDE: Revista Internacional de Ciencias Del Deporte, 11(41), 226–244.

Ramos-Villagrasa, P. J., Marques-Quinteiro, P., Navarro, J., & Rico, R. (2018). Teams as Complex Adaptive Systems: Reviewing 17 Years of Research. Small Group Research (Vol. 49).

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.