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Building a Sports Team

By Paul Schienberg, PhD

When children are born, they are usually thrust into a group called a family. Over the past forty years, the stability of this unit has proven to be more and more unreliable. By the time children reach their eighteenth birthday, the family, as originally constituted, no longer exists. Children often belong to more than one family, each with its own membership, personalities, norms, objectives, rules, punishments, culture, etc. Roles change and diversify. It is much easier to take apart a family than it is to create a new one that functions well. New people labeled as step-fathers, step-mothers, step-siblings, etc. arrive, stay for a while, and then may leave. It is this population that comes to a sports organization and tries to create a successful team. Sports teams and its athletes face many of the same problems as families and its members do. This article will focus on developing an understanding of what defines a group and a sports team. The information should be helpful to teammates and coaches alike.

The Definition Of A Sports Team

Starting with the basics, an efficient and effective sports team is a collection of two or more athletes who have a common identity, set of goals, objectives and fate. Its members show structured patterns of interaction and styles of communicating. They view the structure of the team in the same ways. There is a mutual reliance upon one another to be connected personally and perform their skills. In other words, the team is a source of mutual benefit for the members. The athletes of a team need to be attracted to each other and think of themselves as a part of a “we” that differentiates them from “they.”

Illustration Of A Sports Team:
A Basketball Team

The Los Angeles Lakers basketball team has a collective identity in that individual players, teammates and non-team members all view the group as distinguishable from other teams. The Lakers practice blocking out the opponents for offensive rebounds (short-term goal and instrumental interdependence) with the intention of winning a championship (long-term goal). The Lakers have a unique playbook that the new players have to learn before they can play. Each play has a distinct name and signal only other members of the team know (structure patterns of interactions and communications). If one Laker on the court brakes the rules of the game, the entire team suffers (common fate). In reaching the playoffs and ultimately winning the championship, the Lakers build a stronger sense of themselves as a group.

Factors In Developing
A Team Concept And Cohesiveness

SITUATIONAL FACTORS. Players in Close Proximity to each other will tend to bond together. Team locker rooms, residences, and shared means of transportation increase the frequency of interaction. A team becomes more Distinctive when it has an identifiable uniform, mottoes, initiation rites and privileges, and special sacrifices. Even though the actual season lasts a few months, a team that Practices All Year will become more united. Coaches should emphasize the History and Traditions of the organization or team (Boston Celtics, New York Yankees). The Size of a team has significant impact on unity. Task cohesiveness decreased with increase in size.

PERSONAL FACTORS. Similarity in commitments, ability, attitudes and goals are all positively associated with team unity. However, the most important factor in the development and maintenance of cohesiveness is individual Satisfaction. Recognition from others (parents, teammates, coaches and the public), improvement of Skills, Affiliation, and quality of the Competition are components of this factor.

LEADERSHIP FACTORS. Ironically, in the case of mutiny, cohesion among the teammates is at its highest, but the coach/players relationships are in the toilet. A common enemy is one of the most powerful forces that can bring people together. This is as true in family life, war, disease, racial and religious intolerance, as it is in sports. Another way in which high cohesiveness may backfire is when a new coach is brought in. One of the effects of high cohesion is that there is an over estimation of members’ contribution to success. Non-members are considered to be irrelevant to achieving team goals.

This is likely when a popular and successful coach has been replaced. It is one of the main reasons why successful football, basketball and baseball teams tend to hire assistants as head coaches. They are part of the organization’s history already. Sometimes outside hiring results in the need to replace talented players who have been with the team for a long time.

Compatibility between teammates and the coach is a vital factor in team cohesiveness. Lastly, the more the coach allows his players to participate in decision-making, the greater the team will become united.

TEAM FACTORS. When you put the same people in a close geographic location over a significant period of time, a group is formed that has five significant components (roles, norms, stability, goals and rewards and communication). These parts become contributors to the success or failure of a group in meeting goals. This is as true for a sports team as another other type of group.

The National Hockey League’s organization and rules explicitly set out the team’s Formal Roles (the coach, team captain, team manager, left wing, center, and goalie). Specific players with particular abilities are hired and trained to fulfill the requirements of those roles by the hockey teams.

As a result of on-going interactions that take place among team members, Informal Roles evolve (team leader, enforcer, team clown, etc). If, for a period of time, someone who has played even an informal role, leaves the team, the management may have to hire a new player to fill the informal role. A team’s effectiveness is high when the players’ understand their roles (Role Clarity), accept their roles (Role Acceptance) and try to perform the roles to the best of their ability (Role Performance).

A coach can improve role clarity, acceptance and performance by making the behavior requirements explicit, minimize the status difference between roles, and create an effective goal-setting program. The impact of an effective goal-setting program is to direct the player’s attention and behavior, provide motivation to develop strategies for goal achievement, increase interest and prolong activity.

The presence of Norms is also associated with increased cohesiveness. Norms signal a team’s feelings about behaviors that are acceptable. When a new member comes to a team, it is the manager/player interaction norms that are confronted first. As cohesion increases so does conformity to the group’s standards of behavior. If a player ignores norms, sanctions must be imposed. This is true even when a player performs above the standard expected.

The team’s productivity norm is a key factor in the relationship between cohesion and productivity. When cohesion is low and there is a high norm for productivity, that team will outperform teams with a low norm. If team cohesion is high and norm for productivity is low, the performance level will be low. And finally, if a team’s cohesion is high and the norm for productivity is high, performance will be high.

A norm that has been established on a team will last for at least four generations after the original players have left. This is an indication of the stability of a team’s norms. A problem exists when a manager takes over a team that has developed negative norms. Examples of such norms include abusive behavior toward officials or other team members, a lack of commitment to team practices, and a focus on individual verse team goals. In such cases, the manager would have to enlist the formal and informal leaders to create a positive norm. Should these leaders not cooperate, the organization might need to replace personnel.

The modern day sports world offers much recognition and rewards to individual players. It makes the coach’s job of creating team unity more difficult. By emphasizing the group’s goals and objectives over a single player’s, the manager will create greater group cohesion.

As a team reaches higher levels of cohesion, communication also increases. On the other side of the same coin, the more task and social communications occur, the greater the sense of team cohesion is produced. The manager can improve coach/athlete communications and team harmony in the following ways: 1) provide opportunities for athlete input; 2) build mutual respect; 3) create realistic team, individual and sub-unit goals; 4) specify objectives, strategy, operating procedures or means to achieve goals; 5) emphasize the importance of all roles in achieving team goals; 6) acknowledge outstanding performance of a role by a player; 7) handle personnel conflicts in regular team meetings; 8) maintain on-going communications with team leaders; 9) before negative criticism is given, focus on positives; 10) create an easier schedule, if possible, at the beginning of the season; 11) provide stability of personnel.

In summary, the more players and coaches alike understand the factors that contribute to cohesiveness, the greater the likelihood of success. No team is perfect and the way organizations stay successful is through its appreciation of the development of a team concept, and the willingness to do what is necessary to maintain it. Personnel who show a lack of interest in these components will create a team history of failure and disappointment. Future articles will address this issue in more specificity. Research is teaching us more about what makes groups successful and we will pass it on to you.

We would like to mention the following as important resources for this article:

Carron, A. (2001) The Sport Team as an Effective Group. In Applied Sports Psychology (J.M. Williams, ed.). Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Miller, B. (1997) Developing Team Cohesion and Empowering Individuals. In Sports Psychology in Performance (R.J. Butler, ed.) Oxford: Reed Educational and Professional Publishing, LTD.