Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Team Chemistry

Coaches talk about it; media obsesses about it; quantoids deny it. Team culture and "chemistry" can matter profoundly to the quality of performance of a team. I've been thinking about this as I watch my Mariner's make two very interesting decisions that will affect the chemistry of the team. They retained Ken Griffey, Jr., despite his athletic limitations, because of his importance to mentoring younger players and building a mature yet loose commitment to winning. At the same time they traded for Milton Bradley a  talented and troubled player notorious for disrupting club houses. Alot is riding upon the Mariner's ability to create a culture where Griffey's ideals and norms dominate and Bradley has a chance to fit in and flourish.

Chemistry and culture matter in sports because as social psychology regularly proves human beings change in relation to the norms of the group they inhabit. Much as I believe in the value and centrality of human integrity, most persons rise or sink to the norms, emotional affect and practices of people they live around. The reasons range from social effect of contagion where one person's emotions can alter people around them to the neurobiological impact of mirror neurons where the emotions nearby people imprint us to the well documented phenomena that most people find their self-esteem influenced by attitude of peers. This makes establishing  internalized and peer enforced expectations of treatment and performance central to enhancing the aggregate performance of players.

"Chemistry" presents a good metaphor because it suggests that players react to each other. Chemistry depends upon relations and reactions can, break or diffuse bonds among team members. Reactions can explode, go passive or create dynamic equilibriums. Reactions can disrupt and disorganize a system or bring it coherence and new levels. Relations altered by chemistry can form strong or negative bond, push people apart or bring them together into coherent entities. We've all experienced teams that fall apart with players recriminating and blaming each other; teams that  lose heart, go inert and players "go through the motions." We've also experienced teams where players challenge each other to perform to their highest levels; where struggling or injured players  get help and support from each other; where team bonds and relations help players accept roles and perform with competence while supporting and rooting for their starting teammates even as they compete with them.

I think chemistry integrates several aspects of a team culture. First, individuals understand and accept the need to subordinate their own ego demands to the concept of winning together as a team. This acceptance means that they are willing to learn from coaches and from each other, not always the case with experienced professionals. At its rawest level, this requires players to accept when they do not start or get the position they wish, but to still believe they can compete and be ready to contribute. These relations prevail upon players to react to each other as professionals and set aside personal likes and dislikes.

Second players agree to compete hard to develop their skills, but do so in ways to complement what the teams needs to win. This may involve learning to bunt or push a runner over or in other sports block a new way or pass an extra pass to get a teammate an open shot.  Players devote time to expand their competence to enable other team members to flourish, not just to get their maximum statistics or rewards. Chemistry means players understand one aspect of their contributions is to help each other and complement each other, not exist in splendid statistical isolation.

Third, players push and support each other to excel. They compete and cooperate, one of the great paradoxes of team membership. When one player struggles, this poses a chance for another to excel and perhaps replace a player. But it also invites players to support each other to overcome the struggles, to return from an injury or a slump. This paradox flows through sport and life and takes a delicated but vital balance that teammates provide for each other. It helps players feel supported, wanted and "at home" on a team.

Lastly good chemistry builds resilience into a team. No plan survives contact with reality. The best put together teams encounter injuries, accidents, off field distractions and tragedies. They go through slumps and sometimes fall apart or have "one of those days" where nothing goes right. Emotional resilience involves the capacity for members of a team to sustain each other through the insults of time and season. It means that players do not go rogue or solo or give up under the stress of losing or injury. This resilience enables players to still believe in themselves and their talents and to bounce back from setbacks. This resilience depends heavily upon the leadership and example of emotional leaders and experienced players or coaches who have lived through it and can offer the hope that this will end.

When chemistry works the belief system and emotional relations are internalized and embedded in daily relations. Players lose their self-consciousness and "flow" in their actions and relations. These unself-conscious attitudes enable them to play loose and enjoy the "play" of their sport. The loose play helps them play up to their potential and provides the matrix for resilience and support and satisfaction at their work.

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