British runners seem to have a love/hate relationship with the relay. Whilst there have been occasions in the past decade where dropped batons and fumbled changeovers have scuppered our chances, the 4×100 mens relay team also won a shock gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Now it should be remembered that not one of the British team in that relay quartet made the final of the individual 100 metre sprint, nor indeed did they look like they were going to. Not only that, they faced an American team complete with three finalists in the individual event, including winner Justin Gatlin and former world record holder Maurice Greene. They shouldn't have stood a chance, yet Mark Lewis-Francis held off Greene down the home straight for a memorable win.
With the Games beginning in earnest today, timely new research gives an explanation for why such events occur. It all revolves around the so called Kohler motivation effect, which describes how less capable individuals perform better when performing a task with others as opposed to individually.
The results suggest that poor athletes perform much better when placed into a team environment, whilst fascinatingly, excellent athletes perform worse.
“These studies provide some of the first real-world examples of the Köhler motivation gain effect and a trend towards a social loafing effect within the same group.”
The effect was particularly pronounced amongst female athletes. They performed particularly well when they believed they were an essential part of the team, which should be a telling message to the GB womens cycling team for Sunday's road race, after current champion Nicole Cooke and team leader Lizzie Armistead have had very public disagreements in the past year.
Guys however were more influenced by competitive means. The study found that they performed better when they were compared directly to their rival on the other team. So to take a cricket example, a batsman wants to do better than his opponent batting in the same position as him in the lineup (not good news for English batsmen in the first test against South Africa!)
Co-author Deborah Feltz says coaches should be aware that both motivation gains and losses can occur in the same group and be prepared for those results.
“Key motivation strategies include making individual contributions visible and holding individuals accountable for what they do for the team,” she adds. “Also, coaches need to tailor these strategies to individual athletes to best meet their needs when necessary.
Feltz says the next step is to study performance differences and motivation over the course of an athletic season and include other sports involving both an individual and a team component.