The impact of identity leadership on team functioning and well-being in team sport: Is psychological safety the missing link?

Katrien Fransen, Desmond McEwan, Mustafa Sarkar

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The purpose of this study was to investigate the role of psychological safety in explaining the impact of identity leadership on team performance and athlete well-being. Adopting a cross-sectional survey design, 289 handball players rated the identity leadership skills of their coach, their captain, and the informal leaders in the team, as well as various performance- and well-being-related measures. Structural equation modelling (controlling for the nested structure of our data) revealed that by demonstrating identity leadership, coaches, captains, and in particular informal athlete leaders, all had a unique contribution in strengthening their team members’ identification with their team. By this shared sense of ‘us’, athletes felt psychologically safe in their team to speak up, provide input, and take risks. In line with our hypotheses, this sense of psychological safety acted as a mediator between identity leadership and two subsequent pathways: (1) a team-oriented pathway in which psychological safety inspired good teamwork, which fostered team resilience and, in turn, enhanced athletes’ satisfaction with their team’s performance; and (2) an individual-oriented pathway wherein psychological safety buffered against athletes’ burnout, thereby enhancing their health. In addition to these pathways mediated by psychological safety, the informal leaders directly influenced the performance pathway (with total effect sizes being 10 times larger than those of coaches and team captains), whereas coaches had a direct influence on the health pathway (with total effect sizes being three times larger than those of informal leaders and captains). Given the often-underestimated importance of the informal leaders, sport teams can be recommended to adopt a structure of shared leadership in which team members are encouraged to engage in identity leadership. In conclusion, we found that by nurturing a shared sense of ‘we’ and ‘us’ within the team, leaders are able to foster a psychologically safe environment, which in turn paves the way for an optimal team functioning and a healthier team.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101763
JournalPsychology of Sport and Exercise
Early online date23 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2020


  • Psychological safety
  • Teamwork
  • Well-being
  • Performance
  • Athlete leadership
  • Peer leadership
  • Social identity
  • Shared leadership


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