This morning I heard an interview on a radio sports talk show, and someone mentioned Phil Jackson, who has won 11 NBA championships as a head coach.
Critics have said they could have won as many coaching the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaq, but no one believes them – or should. Having great players doesn’t guarantee championships. In fact, they can make a coach’s life even tougher.
The point of the radio conversation was that this year’s Lakers team lacks the chemistry of the championship squads. Whether true or not, it got my thinking about the nature of “team chemistry,” a term sports fans hear often, though defining it in specific terms isn’t easy. It’s usually used when a talented team isn’t winning or when a not-so-talented team isn’t losing.
If we can assume that the phenomenon of chemistry truly exists, a new question arises – does winning create team chemistry or does team chemistry create winning? And then the next question: given the vague nature of the term, how can coaches go about creating it?
A lot of coaches, myself included, tend to say they’re not exactly sure what it is but they know it when they see it. The team intensely shares a common goal, and all members are focused on achieving it.
Though some players are more talented than others, everyone contributes and plays selflessly. Your best shooter doesn’t think twice about giving up a shot to pass to a less talented teammate who is cutting to the basket for an easier shot.
The team attitude is one of equality, of us-against-the-world, of we’re-all-in-this-together and everyone is giving maximum effort.
When the team wins, they all feel like they played a role and no on feels they were the star. Conversely, when the team loses there’s no finger-pointing or breaking into cliques or placing blame. Instead, it’s a shared experience and everyone remains committed to the team.
So how does a coach create that sense of unity? This article from sportpsychologytoday.com offers a couple of tips on the subject, one mentioning off-the-field activities. If possible, try to arrange a team activity or two during the season (rather than just at the end of it).
A picnic with all the players and their families doesn’t cost much if everyone brings food and drinks to share, and the event let’s the players have fun with each other outside the context of playing a game. The players will feel that much closer when they get back on the field.
It also helps to talk about the importance of team, of determining as a group the goals for the season and reiterating those shared goals throughout your time together.
As the coach, you need to set the example. Every player needs to be treated equally, from the top star to the most inept member of the squad. No undermining behavior will be tolerated, and players will treat each other with respect.
Share everything – laughs and tears, highs and lows. The team will begin to take on a character of its own, and you can build on that foundation, always emphasizing the group dynamic.
Now, the level of “chemistry” you ultimately achieve depends, in part, on the kids and their ability to assimilate and demonstrate the message.
Sometimes the biggest challenge is breaking through the relationships that exist before the season – ones carried over from school, for example, if the players attend the same one. The pecking order might be too.
Teams also often include players from two grades, creating the challenge of getting the older ones to fully accept equality with the younger ones. On the other hand, if the pre-existing relationships are positive, you already have a head start.
What is your experience with team chemistry? What tips can you offer to us about how to nurture it?