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 necessarily guarantee success in the sense of winning silverware, it generally ensures that a team gets the most out of itself.
Very often, there is only a minimal difference in skill and or fitness levels between the top few teams in any given competition. As such, the differentiator between being successful and not is often influenced by the level of selfless work-rate that individual members of a team are prepared to take on during the course of a game.
Typically, this selfless work-ethic is directly influenced by the level of team cohesion among team-mates; and team cohesion and work ethic is directly influenced by team culture. As such, the culture that a team management sets around a team is critical to producing an environment where the players are willing to forego individual ego and work hard in the best interests of the group.
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 one area where engagement with performance psychology support can prove beneficial. One standout example is the level of social cohesion at Chelsea FC pre and post the Mourinho - Doctor saga (where Dr Eva Carneiro was sacked for entering the field of play to tend to Eden Hazard as he lay in pain on the ground injured).
In the previous season, they displayed a significantly strong team ethic and culture in becoming league champions and all seemed rosy in the garden. However, the team cohesion and unity was both tested and compromised by the sacking of the doctor who was held in high esteem by the players. After her sacking, the team went into free-fall. Mourinho had lost the dressing room and eventually lost his job!
Performance psychology support can strategically create a positive team environment, where individuals are given ownership and autonomy over their own goals and standards enhancing social and team cohesion. In fact studies (Locke & Latham, 2006) have shown that where athletes are involved in the creation and development of their own goals, standards and team culture, that up to a 16% increase in performance effort levels may be obtained. In essence, it increases the level to which players are prepared to work for each other both on and off the field of play.
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 by players facilitated by performance psychology experts – 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 and where peer pressure was of a positive variety - challenging players to be the best that they could be. They 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 Premier League. With some smart acquisitions under the advice of Steve Walsh (who since departed to Everton FC) and a sport science support team that was valued and listened to, performance psychologist Ken Way helped foster a culture where players got the most out of themselves. The manner of message delivery and engagement from the sport science team left the players feeling empowered and motivated where a level of accountability and transparency was facilitated.
After each game, on pitch player movements were recorded through a GPS system, showing various metrics including distance, the level of intensity of various runs, acceleration, deceleration, and changes of direction. Players were known to have internal competitions on scores for various aspects of the data. When sprint scores were presented to the whole group and it was no surprise that Jamie Vardy topped the poll but others were trying to beat him.
Small five-a-side tables were published and players watched clips of each other’s performances. Such initiatives offered a transparency where players had no place to hide. The result was an honesty where players became accountable to each other. Such internal squad competition incorporated a sense of fun and challenge but also a positive motivational climate that becomes the key driver of success. Such levels of data, when used and delivered appropriately in a smart way can only enhance player motivation. It challenged the players to take ownership and autonomy over their own development.
It challenged and empowered the players to make good decisions for themselves and helped foster a positive group culture and fighting spirit notwithstanding the banter generated around the internal competition to mould the players into a happy cohesive group - incorporating best practice from a psychological perspective as we know from Locke and Latham's 2006 research.
While using such objective screening, the backroom staff had a general understanding of exactly where all players were at. It gave coaching staff valid information for when they spoke to players and offered opportunities to speak in tangible fact, not opinion. This transparent dynamic forced an honesty among the players and offered ownership of player development with the player, further enhancing a positive motivational climate.
Significantly, Leicester City ceased their engagement of Ken Way's performance psychology services early the following season and we saw how their performance levels dropped as Claudio Ranieri was relieved of his job and some of their more prominent players moved on to newer pastures.
Wales - semi finalists at Euro 2016 had a similar structure with Dr 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 unity of the Wales team that Summer was supported by an element of self-policing within the squad - a feeling of not wanting to let each other down. It forced them 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.
It is no surprise that Dr Mitchell was in high demand subsequently with the English FA appointing him to join Dr Pippa Grange and work with the English FA in a performance psychology capacity. We have seen since through the most recent world cup 2018 and underage world cups (where England were successful) the impact that creating the right type of culture around a team has. Gareth Southgate's team became a team that won the hearts of the people both in England and beyond for the first time in a long time on their journey towards the world cup semi-final!
Within a GAA context, Micheal Donoghue employed the services of two performance psychologists behind the successful Galway hurling team in 2018. The Limerick senior hurling team also employed performance psychology support in 2018 when they surprisingly won their first senior hurling All-Ireland since 1973!
The success that Jimmy McGuinness had with Donegal is also noted with McGuinness having a background in performance psychology while the Dublin senior football team is another noted example. Jim Gavin's professional air-core background informs his style of leadership where all team panelists are responsible for carrying out their roles to the best of their abilities while he also avails of performance psychology support for his team as they seek to become the greatest Gaelic football team of all time.
On a lower level but with equally significant levels of improvement over a short period of time, the #CarlowRising (Carlow GAA successes of recent times) was supported with use of performance psychology support in both hurling and football while the double All-Ireland winning Cuala club hurling team have also engaged with performance psychology services in creating that winning mentality.
In a professional sports setting, this may be augmented by a manager creating positive engagement around the working environment by engaging positively with ALL members of staff - beyond the immediate team support staff. Simple acknowledgement of the roles of everyone creates a harmonious working environment where a positive motivational climate develops and players feed off such positivity and "can do" approach!
In fact, out of respect, when Alex Ferguson was Manchester United manager, he ensured that ALL players addressed catering and cleaning staff by their first names. He made it his business to ensure he knew the names of cleaning and catering staff's spouses and what was going on in their lives! Incidentally, Pep Guadiola is no stranger to this either and stressed the importance of the team effort to his staff in a heartfelt thank you after he led his Manchester City team to the Premier League title in 2018
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 performance psychology support, creating a high performance culture in conjunction with the players.
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Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited performance psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport