Monday, January 11, 2010

Team Chemistry II

Team chemistry exists in the relations among players and between players and coaches. It depends upon mutual understanding of the common expectations of how players treat each other, how they relate to their own skill and position and how they relate to wins and losses.

Chemistry like culture does not happen by accident. Actually it will emerge by accident if no one is working to create one. Every team develops a culture, the question is whether the leaders have a vision of what the culture should be and work to create and sustain it.

Cultures work best when they are hidden and literally become "the way we do things around here." Culture and chemistry become "taken for granted." This enables the loose and fun behavior that permits players to excel and "flow" with their performance. They create bonds of trust, expectation and relations that endure under stress. On the dark side, a culture can encourage a one for one attitude or players driving for their own gratification or next contract also can be taken for granted. Whatever bonds that exist are brittle and break quickly under stress.

Chemistry works best when the players exhibit and enforce it through peer pressure. The kangaroo courts many teams have with fines and performance reviews can be meaningless, ordeals or ways to build comraderie and expectations. Culture and chemistry manifest in daily rituals from how people practice to how they celebrate or welcome back to the bench a successful or failed player. These rituals embody and reinforce the expectations of how to treat each other. This is one way players like Griffey excel in building and sustaining chemistry whether they manage the courts or set the tone for how players are greeted when they come to the bench. Chemistry depends heavily upon key players who emanate contagion. If strong personalities do not dominate the emotional tenor and expectations, other lesser or more selfish personalities will fill the void. It is much easier to complain, blame and be egoistic when under stress than to keep pushing ahd helping and setting high examples even when it does not seem to be paying off.

I mentioned chemistry and resilience of team bonds in the first entry on team chemistry. The point of the game here is that stress and adversity reveal the true culture and chemistry. Stress or adversity serve as catalysts that can break bonds and fragment teams. One of my mentors always emphasizes that you earn trust and confidence from your teammates. Being a teammate must be learned, it involves a separate role and identity that reinforces and focuses talent and energy. Facing adversity teammates support and reinforce each others best selves. You can build a winner with a fractured chemistry or lackadaisical culture. Winning overcomes a lot of selfishness; but when things fall apart, a winning but selfish culture fractures and fails to recover under pounding of adversity. Winners are one thing; champions are another. Championship teams absolutely depend upon strong and positive team chemistry and culture.

Beyond the informal and daily need for peers and team leaders, the coaches and
general managers must lead to create a culture. The leaders must have a vision of the belief system and norms of performance they expect. This is critical. General managers and coaches must demonstrate  this in whom they hire and draft. Coaches must act upon this in their hiring and above all in their firing, benching or trading. Sparky Anderson's famous "my way or the highway" summarizes it all.

For the Mariner's last year the watershed moment was actually when they traded Yuniesky Betancourt, their talented shortstop, who demonstrated for three years an utter unwillingness to learn, adapt or play in a way to enhanced the team.

Coaches and leaders must set boundaries; if they preach a set of values and expectations but do not act upon them, they are toast. The culture and expectations become meaningless jokes. When a coach "loses a team," this is what happens. They no longer listen or believe him. He cannot motivate them and they will not sacrifice their own interests to increase team success. Partially this occurs if players do what the coach asks and the team fails; but  as often, players see the coach will not make the hard decisions to bench or send down or set boundaries for prima donnas or underperformers.  Without high expectations of fair and consistent treatment in light of announced expectations, it all falls apart. Coaches must set boundaries and challenge players with real consequences good and bad for living up to or failing team norms. If coaches don't, chemistry blows up and performance implodes.

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