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Attachment theory: have we been missing a vital contributor to elite performance?

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

Attachment theory is a psychological framework that examines the importance of close emotional bonds between individuals. It was first introduced by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who believed that secure attachment bonds formed in early childhood are critical for healthy emotional development throughout life. Since then, attachment theory has become a fundamental concept in developmental psychology and has been applied to various fields, including education, health care, and workplace performance. It is widely credited as being among the most important contributions to understanding human psychology. Distinguished Canadian psychologist, Susan Johnson, even called Bowlby’s attachment theory the single best set of ideas anyone has ever had. Incredibly, it has yet to break through in any practical sense in the world of talent and elite sport, despite enormous potential implications.


Photo courtesy of Andrea Proske, pictured right, taken after winning gold in the women's 8 rowing at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics


Attachment theory suggests that individuals develop internal working models of relationships based on early attachment experiences with caregivers and early authority figures. These working models influence individuals' emotional regulation, behavior, and social interaction throughout their lifespan. Secure attachment bonds formed in early childhood provide a foundation for individuals to explore the world and develop meaningful relationships. On the other hand, insecure attachment styles, such as avoidant or anxious attachment, can lead to negative outcomes such as emotional dysregulation, difficulty trusting others, and poor performance in various domains.


I recently spoke to legendary Australian educator and top-class cricket coach, John Hendry, who for 40 odd years has put attachment theory at the centre of his approach to connecting with his students and coaches. According to John, those with a secure attachment style have a multitude of key advantages when it comes to performance excellence compared to those with insecure attachment styles. When you look at some of the key differences between secure and insecure attachment styles, it’s not hard to see why that might be the case. (Fyi, roughly 60% of people have a secure attachment style versus 40% who have an insecure attachment style).


Trust: People with secure attachment styles are comfortable with intimacy and are able to trust others. In contrast, people with insecure attachment styles may have difficulty trusting others or may become overly dependent on others for validation and support.


Emotion Regulation: People with secure attachment styles have better emotional regulation and are able to manage their emotions more effectively. In contrast, people with insecure attachment styles may struggle with emotional regulation and may become overwhelmed by their emotions.


Autonomy: People with secure attachment styles are able to maintain their independence while also forming close relationships. In contrast, people with insecure attachment styles may have difficulty balancing independence and dependence in relationships.


Self-Esteem: People with secure attachment styles tend to have higher self-esteem and feel more confident in their relationships. In contrast, people with insecure attachment styles may struggle with self-esteem and may doubt their own worth.


Relationship Satisfaction: People with secure attachment styles tend to have more satisfying and stable relationships. In contrast, people with insecure attachment styles may experience more conflict, instability, and dissatisfaction in their relationships.


Reading this list a few things immediately jump out as directly relatable to a performance sport context. Emotional regulation is an essential mental skill for elite performers, so that’s a big plus for those with secure attachment. Secondly, it is a well-know axiom that it takes a village to raise a high performance athlete, and so the ability of the athlete to relate well to a wide range of people – coaches, officials, volunteers, teammates – is a significant contributor to them following a successful path. Secure athletes, we can see, are more likely to build trusting, balanced relationships which they then experience as more satisfying and stable. Given the inevitably long and bumpy road that any athlete must travel, those that are able to form quality relationships at each stage are going to be more resilient, bounce back quicker, and therefore stick around longer, will learn and grow faster, and will generally have a far more enjoyable experience as they go.


So, a securely attached athlete will learn faster, be more resilient and enjoy themselves more. A pretty potent combination right there.


Indeed, research on the impact of attachment theory on workplace performance has shown that attachment styles can have a significant influence on employees' behavior, job satisfaction, and overall performance. One study found that employees with secure attachment styles tend to be more resilient to stress and exhibit higher job satisfaction compared to those with insecure attachment styles. Moreover, secure attachment styles are associated with higher levels of creativity, innovation, and job performance.

Now let’s take a look at the traits related to insecure attachment. Firstly a brief overview of the three types of insecure attachment.


Anxious attachment: People with this attachment type tend to be preoccupied with thoughts and worries about their relationships. They are anxious and insecure and are highly sensitive to feeling undervalued.


Avoidant attachment: Avoidant attached people tend to prioritise independence and self-reliance over closeness and intimacy. They may be uncomfortable with vulnerability and emotional expression and so can come across as distant, uninterested or dismissive.


Disorganised attachment: This attachment type is characterised by inconsistent and confusing behaviours with regard to relationships. Disorganised attached people can have trouble regulating their emotions and behaviour and often struggle with social and emotional functioning throughout life.


Consider the sheer range of disadvantages being insecure attached poses for participants in competitive sport. Anxious and mistrusting, of others and of themselves; staying distant, avoiding closeness and in times of stress preferring to drop out rather than draw on support; volatile and confusing emotional and social experiences. It certainly doesn’t paint a picture of someone who is likely to thrive in the high pressure, challenging and often intensely intimate setting of elite sport.


And again, research shows that employees with insecure attachment styles may experience difficulties in the workplace, such as difficulty in building trust with colleagues, high levels of stress, and lower job satisfaction.


Knowing all this, wouldn’t we expect to find more securely attached people in high performance contexts and in leadership positions? Well the research suggests that is in fact the case. Studies have found that leaders with secure attachment styles tend to be more effective communicators, build better relationships with subordinates, and have higher levels of job satisfaction compared to those with insecure attachment styles. Additionally, individuals with secure attachment styles may be more likely to take risks, be innovative, and be resilient in the face of setbacks, which can be important qualities for success in high-performance contexts.


Now, this has built a pretty damning picture of 40% of the population, but of course we haven’t yet gotten to the crux of the matter. The fact is that a person’s attachment style can change, dependent on context and over time. This is the crucial stuff that we need to be more aware of in the world of talent and elite sport. John Hendry points out that-

Sport begins at grass roots level and it is there that attachment theory must be fully understood and addressed proactively. Many insecure athletes are talented but most are lost to the sport of their choice, most are not resilient and most erode team performance and become disconnected.”

It seems clear that it would help to get an idea of the various attachment styles of the athletes in our team, so we can better know how to support them. As we move up the chain towards the elite end, there is likely to be a smaller number of those with insecure attachment than in the general population, but if we do our job better at the lower levels, that doesn’t have to remain true, indefinitely. But most importantly we must recognise the profound benefits of creating supportive, psychologically safe environments, because that will bring out the best in everyone, and especially those insecurely attached members of the team. Developing close, supportive relationships with others can allow insecurely attached people to experience secure attachment, and even help them build more positive working models of relationships over time. This points to the significant effect that a coach can have in being a supportive figure in their athlete’s lives. The importance of the coach-athlete relationship has risen to prominence largely through the sterling work of Sophia Jowett, who has, in fact, looked deeply at attachment theory in this context. Jowett and her colleagues found that attachment styles can help us to understand the dynamics and strength of bond between an athlete and their coach and that it can also be of practical use around relationships in sport more generally.

It also points squarely towards a topic that I have been evangelising about for over a decade now – mentoring. A mentor offers precisely that supportive, non-judgmental presence that can be just that safe harbour of attachment for someone who desperately needs it. In our mentoring programme at The True Athlete Project – while we don’t ask about attachment styles – we often see just this sense of relief in mentees when meeting their mentors as they realise that there is a different way to be in relationship with someone. It especially helps that mentors tend to be neutral figures, without any skin in the game, and are volunteering their time to listen and be there for their mentee in any way they need. It is such a profound dynamic, the one between mentor and mentee, that we regularly hear of both party’s lives being transformed through the year they spend on our programme.


To wrap things up then. While there are other key aspects unrelated to attachment that matter to success in performance sport – such as talent, values, personality and situational context – it feels like we might have been blind to this highly significant contributor/barrier to people achieving their potential and performing in sport. Attachment theory is well known and understood in other spheres such as education and in social care, but nowhere near the conversation in elite sport. This means that we might be missing some useful knowledge that would help us work with and support the people in our sporting environments, from athletes to coaches, staff and even senior leaders. Could an insecure attachment style of leaders be at the heart of some of the inhumane methods coming to light in toxic high performance cultures across the globe? And finally, this understanding of attachment theory shines an even brighter light on the essential nature of cultivating human-centred, holistic and compassionate sporting environments – as if there wasn’t enough supporting argument for that already. When we know more about an individual’s belief system, we are better placed to help them thrive. To treat people individually, seeing each person as their own, is a compassionate act. And it feels like a recognition of the significance of attachment theory may have been a missing piece of the compassion puzzle too.


“Life is best organised as a series of daring ventures from a secure base.”

John Bowlby




References:


Davis, L., Jowett, S., & Lafrenière, M. K. (2013). An Attachment Theory Perspective in the Examination of Relational Processes Associated With Coach-Athlete Dyads, Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35(2), 156-167. Retrieved Mar 7, 2023, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jsep/35/2/article-p156.xml


Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., & Pereg, D. (2003). Attachment theory and affect regulation: The dynamics, development, and cognitive consequences of attachment-related strategies. Motivation and Emotion, 27(2), 77-102.


O'Reilly, J., Robinson, S. L., Berdahl, J. L., & Banki, S. (2014). Is negative attention better than no attention? The comparative effects of ostracism and harassment at work. Organization Science, 25(1), 178-196.


Riggs, S. A., & Riggs, D. S. (2011). Attachment and leadership: A review of the literature. The Journal of Leadership Studies, 5(2), 98-110.


Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2012). An attachment perspective on leadership: Theoretical, empirical, and practical considerations. European Psychologist, 17(1), 4-16.


Chandler, J. J., & Bieschke, K. J. (2013). The impact of attachment style on leadership emergence and effectiveness. Journal of Leadership Education, 12(4), 78-92.


Porter, C. O., McLaughlin, M. E., & Howell, J. M. (2018). Attachment style and leadership: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(9), 1083-1104.

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