Over time, we have seen how winning teams always seem to have a very positive team ethic and culture. While having a positive team culture doesn’t guarantee ultimate success, it is a very good indicator of whether a team will achieve its potential or not. Very often there is only a minimal difference in skill levels between the top few teams in any given competition. As such, the differentiator between being successful and not can be influenced by the level of cohesion among team-mates and team management and the level at which they are prepared to work for each other both on and off the field of play. Team cohesion and work ethic is directly influenced by team culture. ie If there is a strong team culture, a team will work for each other. If there is a poor one, results will fall. This is where engagement with sport psychology can prove very beneficial.
Chelsea pre and post the Dr Eva Carneiro saga (sacked for entering the field of play to tend to Eden Hazard as he lay in pain on the ground injured) is a prime example. As reigning league champions they obviously had a strong team culture but it was compromised by the sacking of the doctor who was held in high esteem by the players. After the sacking the team went into free-fall – Mourinho had lost the dressing room.
The New Zealand All-Black culture is one that is extremely strong presently. It puts the needs of the team above that of all individuals. The challenge is for each individual to leave the jersey in a better place than they found it – to add value to it.
However it wasn’t always this way. Team performance coach Gilbert Enoka went about changing the culture in 2004 – at a time when they struggled to fulfill their potential. The culture change was facilitated by bringing the players to camp – a 3 day conclave where team standards and behaviour expectations were addressed – the result being a transference of positive leadership from the coaches to the players.
Since then, the All Blacks are different to most other teams. Enoka suggests that the difference lies “in the transference of power from the coaches to the leadership group who set and enforce standards among the players. When aberrations occur, a player is answerable to his team-mates rather than the coaches. Ego has to be left at the door; there is a rigidly enforced “no d—head policy” in the squad.
According to Team Manager at the time Brian Lochore, their aim was to create an environment that would stimulate players and make them want to be part of. He came up with 6 words that would epitomise that ethos. The phrase “Better people make better All Blacks” still rings true to this day.
In May 2015, Leicester City struggled to avoid relegation from the premiership. With some smart acquisitions for small money and a sport science support team that was valued and listened to, manager Claudio Ranieri and performance psychologist Ken Way have fostered a culture where players are accountable for their own actions – such delegation has enhanced player autonomy and team unity fostering a positive team culture.
Autonomy wasn’t just handed to the players however as accountability and transparency was facilitated by sport science personnel. After each game, 0n pitch player movements are recorded through a GPS system, which show how far players run, the level of intensity of various runs, acceleration, deceleration, and changes of direction. Players are known to have internal competitions on scores for various aspects of the data.Sprint scores are presented to the whole group and it’s no surprise that Jamie Vardy often tops the poll. Other data is also displayed.
This internal squad competition breeds fun but also a positive motivational climate that becomes the key driver of success. Such levels of data, when used appropriately in a smart way can only help managers. Small five-a-side tables are published and players watch clips of each other’s performances. Such initiatives offer huge transparency where players have no place to hide with the net result being that players are accountable to each other. This empowers the players to make good decisions for themselves. It really helps with the group culture and the fighting spirit notwithstanding the banter generated around the internal competition to mould the players into a happy cohesive group.
As a result of such screening, the backroom staff have a general understanding of exactly where all players are at. It gives them information when they talk to them personally on a regular basis to ensure that players are happy with progress. They speak in fact, not opinion. Such a transparent dynamic puts ownership of player progress with the player, further enhancing a positive motivational climate.
Wales – semi finalists at Euro 2016 had a similar structure with Ian Mitchell as performance psychologist. The group was always priority despite having a world class player like Gareth Bale on the team. Each player was part involved in the forming of the team motto – “Together, Stronger” that became emblazoned across much of the promotional material around the Welsh team. The togetherness of Wales saw an element of self-policing in the squad, a feeling of not wanting to let each other down and of being able to be honest with each other to get the best out of each other. Reaching the semi final for the first time ever ensured that they were getting the most out of themselves.
Within a GAA context, Brian Cody ensures that nobody is bigger than the group and the philosophy enhances the Kilkenny hurlers team ethic. Liam Griffin’s All Ireland hurling champions of 1996 (Wexford) were one of the first hurling teams to utilise a performance psychologist while Derry football team (All Ireland champions 1993) were probably the first GAA team to use one.
More recently, we have seen the success that Jimmy McGuinness had with Donegal and the current success of the Dublin football team. Jim Gavin’s professional aircore background informs is style of leadership where all team panelists are responsible for carrying out their roles to the best of their abilities. On the lower end of the scale, the Fermanagh football team under the guidance of Pete McGrath and performance psychologist Richard Shanahan achieved huge success in reaching the All Ireland quarter final in 2015. Presently, the Clare senior football team 2016 with the utilisation of sport psychology support are racking up the wins having gained promotion and having reached the final 12 of the championship for only the second time in their history.
Success in the majority of examples provided all came from the fostering of a positive team culture – primarily led by team management in conjunction with a performance psychology consultant.
Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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