Coaching 101: Maximizing Your Team’s Talent by Addressing Team Chemistry

Coaches at all levels of sport are challenged to get the most from their team.  Some teams look great “on paper,” but still present challenges around getting players to play up to their potential.  In other cases, however, the coach is faced with the task of helping average athletes maximize their collective abilities through the coach’s leadership, guidance, and support.  Regardless of the scenario a coach experiences, getting the most from a team requires a basic understanding of team dynamics as they apply to team success.

Defining terms

Three terms regularly used by coaches when talking about team dynamics are team chemistry, team cohesion, and team climate.  All three descriptors are used when examining aspects pertaining to team members and their interpersonal relationships on the team, and while similar in some ways, they do have their distinct qualities independent of one another.

  • Team chemistry.  When examining the chemistry of a team we are specifically talking about player personalities and how well they gel together.  Since we are talking about human beings here, there is no “one stop shop” way of developing, or even understanding, team chemistry; yet most coaches and athletes know right away when the team seems to flow together, versus other team situations that had various team problems that disrupted chemistry (i.e. too many alpha-dog leaders; not enough leaders; no accountability on the team; not enough players committed to the team; etc).  Does every one of your players know his role – and embrace it?
  • Team cohesion.  Team cohesion pertains to the degree in which team members feel comfortable working together as a team unit.  While it is ideal to have all players pulling in the same direction, the idea of having all team members always get along without any confrontations might actually hold teams back from maximal production.  The term groupthink is applicable in teams that rarely confront each other and instead sit back and let one or two team members run the team.  Cohesion is actually really high on teams like this, but the cohesion becomes counterproductive because players tend to feel like their voices don’t matter — and they don’t ever speak up as a result.
  • Team climate.  The climate of a team is the overall general feel around the locker room.  Are players relaxed and having fun?  Or is there a lot of tension and distress?  Is the feel around the team one of success, or do players look like they would rather be anywhere else but in your locker room?  In an ideal situation the team climate should be positive, upbeat, optimistic, and resilient to distress.

Pulling it all together

Coaches need to look at what players are suited to specific positions on the team, and more importantly that those players completely buy-in to their role/position.  Team chemistry increases as players invest in their role/position, and support other team members in their respective roles/positions.  In situations where team chemistry is strong, focus, motivation, and resiliency improve as a result — leading to the best possible chances of maximizing overall team productivity.

Team cohesion is interesting in that experienced coaches know that the polar ends of the continuum of cohesion are bad places to be stuck.  For example, an overly-cohesive team will rarely call out players when it’s clear certain players should be called out; and in teams with little cohesion, ongoing in-fighting almost always disrupts focus, motivation, and resiliency.  Great coaches know that balancing these opposite ends of the spectrum is the ideal spot — the task is finding exactly where that spot is throughout the season and then replicating conditions in order to create a strong team climate.

Team climate depends on players, but is also moderated by direct efforts the coach makes.  For example, does your team recognize players regularly?  Do you have previous stars portrayed on your walls and around the locker room?  Do you keep former players involved with the program, and do you have any alumni events to connect current players with those of the past?  These are just a few examples of how team climate is often directly impacted by coach efforts.

Final thoughts

Successful teams are built on more than just having talented players.  In fact, many “great teams on paper” have failed terribly, and other seemingly less talented teams have been strengthened dramatically by strengthening team dynamics.  It is for these reasons that it behooves coaches to learn as much as they can about the psychology of team building, and regularly prioritize efforts to improve team chemistry, cohesion, and climate.

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