All for One

Improving your team chemistry can make the difference between a promising season and a championship. The recipe for creating effective teamwork starts at the top, as coaches provide ways for their athletes to find common ground and work toward collective goals.

By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at: rja@MomentumMedia.com.

Coaching Management, 14.3, March 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1403/allforone.htm

“Can’t we all just get along?”

That’s what University of Minnesota Head Men’s Coach Dan Monson might have been thinking as he watched his talented team flounder through the 2003-04 season, finishing 10th in the Big Ten. Despite having a future NBA lottery pick manning the post, with veteran players surrounding him, the Golden Gophers could not parlay their superior talent into a winning record.

The cause of their dysfunction, says Monson, was team chemistry that was more combustible than compatible. The players didn’t trust one another—a fact that was perfectly obvious whenever they stepped onto the basketball court.

Fast forward to 2004-05. From the first day of preseason, Monson set out to change the team’s collective mindset, challenging players to focus on team-oriented goals and work on their interpersonal relationships both on and off the court. His strategy worked: Despite losing their leading scorer and rebounder to the NBA, the Gophers experienced one of the biggest turnarounds in college basketball, finishing 21-11 and making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1999.

“We improved defensively and we improved our shot selection, but nothing improved more than our team chemistry,” says Monson. “That’s what made the big difference.”

Most coaches realize that team chemistry is what separates a promising team from a great one. While having a roster of best friends is every coach’s dream, the reality is that players are periodically going to disagree, argue, and not get along.

The trick is to minimize those episodes by providing an environment where teammates can find common ground. By learning to defuse conflicts and encourage teammates to work toward collective goals, coaches can find the missing ingredient to team harmony.

Start at the Top
Effective teamwork starts at the top. Before examining their players, coaches need to take a look at their own commitment to team chemistry. That was the case for Monson, who left a successful program at Gonzaga University to take the reins at Minnesota, which was in the final stages of an NCAA-ordered probationary period resulting from a series of academic scandals.

Despite recruiting talented players during Monson’s early days, Minnesota continued to lose. After taking a long look in the mirror, Monson decided the problem was a lack of team chemistry, and realized that change needed to start with him.

“Like any other relationship, you get out of it what you put into it,” says Monson. “As head coach, I realized that I had to consciously put more effort into strengthening my connections with the athletes. So I started meeting with each player for a few minutes every week, just to make sure we touched base about things other than basketball. We talked about their academics, or what’s going on at home, or anything else they wanted to talk about. It gave us a chance to be with each other off the court.

“Until you lose team chemistry, you don’t realize how important it is,” continues Monson. “And that work has got to start with the head coach. It’s your program, and like shot selection and defense, building chemistry is something you have to put time into.”

At Oregon State University, Head Men’s Coach Jay John agrees. “The most important thing is to spend time with your athletes and show you care about them,” he says. “Before they’re going to listen to what you say, you have to make that commitment to them as individuals. When players respect and trust their coach, they are more apt to respect and trust each other.”

John also recommends spending time together in social settings. Team dinners at the coach’s house, community service projects, and sightseeing excursions on road trips are good places to start.

One particularly effective way to unite players, says John, is to put them in situations where they can work with children, either as basketball teachers or as volunteers in a school-sponsored reading program. “You’ve got to make time for your athletes to relax, laugh, and have a good time together,” says John. “That will probably take you 80 percent of the way toward effective team chemistry. As for the rest, well, you have to work on that when adversity kicks in.”

Handling Adversity
Winning typically breeds good team chemistry, and vice versa. But at some point, every program has to deal with adversity, and coaches need to handle those challenges while keeping their athletes together.

“2004 was a good example for us,” says Rick Crotts, Head Boys’ Coach at Glenvar (Va.) High School, whose team overcame a slow start to reach the quarterfinals of the Virginia State Boys’ Basketball Championships. “We had a lot of inexperienced kids coming in and we went through some tough times at the beginning of the season.”

Early on, Crotts’s team had problems with role definition and acceptance, which is typical of a group of athletes who haven’t spent much time playing together. As a result, teammates grew frustrated with one another and relationships became strained. To overcome the bad feelings, Crotts had each player take a validation survey. He gathered his athletes into a room and had each tape a piece of paper to his back. Then, Crotts instructed his players to think of something positive to write about each of their teammates.

“They walked around the room, sharing what they appreciated about one another and writing down each other’s strengths,” says Crotts. “That built up everyone’s confidence because by the end, each athlete had 11 different compliments.” Most hung the notes in their lockers, while others taped them up at home.

Crotts also rewards athletes who work to promote team chemistry. Chosen by the athletes, the “Glue Award”— a giant Elmer’s bottle—goes to the individual doing the best job of holding the team together.

“At the beginning of the season, I’ll have them vote on it every week,” says Crotts, who got the idea after reading Championship Team Building, by Jeff Janssen. “Then as we get into the season, I’ll do it again if I think we need a jolt. It always gets guys fired up—I get chills just talking about it.”

Players of all abilities have won the bottle, says Crotts, and his team has become increasingly conscious of what the award truly means. “At first, the voting was for one or two guys, but now it’s spread out,” he says. “Everybody works to hold the team together, and even the least talented players want to have something to do with it. It’s just been great for us.”

No matter how well a group of players get along, even the tightest teams experience some sort of conflict and adversity during the course of a season. Whether it’s arguments over shot selection or unhappiness about playing time, how a coach and his or her players handle these rough patches can often be the difference between harmony and team dysfunction.

“The big thing is to catch problems early,” says Jeff Janssen, who in addition to being an author of team-building and leadership books, also helped design leadership development programs for the athletic departments at the University of North Carolina and Stanford University. “Team captains are your smoke detectors for this, and establishing good communication with your captains can keep a small issue from becoming a major distraction.”

When problems arise, Janssen’s advice is simple: Tackle them head-on. “The biggest thing with conflict situations is being honest and straightforward with kids,” he says. “As the coach, you need to have a one-on-one conversation where you say, ‘You are a powerful influence on this team, and I’d like you to be a positive leader. If you continue to be a negative force, I’ll have no choice but to excuse you from the team.’

“Too often coaches gamble on a very talented player who has a lot of baggage,” Janssen continues. “Sometimes, keeping that type of kid around does more harm than good, because they destroy the team’s chemistry.”

Roll With It
Getting players to accept a supporting or diminished role is often one of a coach’s biggest challenges. This is especially true when dealing with upperclassmen who are asked to give up playing time to younger, more talented athletes.

To help a player accept his or her role and build teamwork at the same time, Janssen suggests talking about roles as a team. For example, during a preseason meeting, Janssen will ask each player to name two things the team needs from each teammate in order to succeed.

“A reserve might hear, ‘We’re going to need you to play great defense for four or five minutes in a game and push the starters in practice,’” says Janssen. “Even if the athlete isn’t playing a lot, that lets the athlete know that he or she plays an important part in the success of the team. It’s a neat way to help kids clarify their roles by hearing what their teammates expect from them.”

Another tool that can aid in the acceptance process is a buddy system. “If you’ve got a very talented group of younger players coming up, it’s good to help them build relationships with the older players before roles are determined,” says Janssen. “Developing a bond with the athlete who may one day take your place on the court makes a smoother transition.”

To facilitate that process, says Janssen, coaches can create a formal buddy system, or if they have a strong leadership group, can empower those experienced players to draw up a plan. “Rotate buddies every week or two, so that each young player has multiple opportunities to bond with his teammates,” he says. “It’s a good way for players to interact with kids they might not normally connect with because of differences in position, cultural background, race, or age.”

For college players, the buddy system can be used to determine rooming assignments on road trips. At every level, coaches should encourage buddies to stretch together and spend five or 10 minutes before the first practice of every week talking about how they can challenge each other to improve. “They should say things like, ‘Before I leave practice every day, I want you to challenge me to make five free throws in a row,’” says Janssen. “Hopefully, that buddy will be there rebounding and holding him accountable.”

Setting The Tone
Getting off on the right foot is another key to building trust and relationships. At Minnesota, following the team’s disappointing 2003-04 campaign, Monson decided to change things at the beginning of the 2004-05 season.

While many college programs were opening their seasons with “Midnight Madness” celebrations packed with rowdy fans, the Gophers were tucked away for the weekend at an isolated junior college gym, practicing in front of only Monson and his assistant coaches. “I wanted enough time to explain how we were going to change our mindset,” says Monson. “Having the local media at every practice and having the players’ girlfriends waiting for them afterward would have made that impossible. So I took them out of town for a weekend-long mini-training camp, practicing twice a day.”

By having the players share meals and spend the weekend socializing together, Monson and his staff helped forge a team identity. “To change our mindset, we had to emphasize what we could do as a sum instead of just being talented parts,” says Monson. “We learned that building relationships on a basketball team takes work. You can’t just see each other at practice and expect everything to come together. By going on a retreat, we’re not just working on our man-to-man defense, we’re working on the off-court relationships that make us a family.”

While not every coach can afford to go on a weekend retreat, most can find the time and resources in-house to produce similar results. Janssen recommends that coaches meet with players before the first practice to identify common goals that every player can help the team meet.

“To set effective team goals, I tell coaches to divide their athletes into three different groups, with both older and younger kids in each group,” says Janssen. “Then, they ask each group, ‘What do you think our team can achieve if we really put things together?’ That gets the kids involved in what kind of season they have. And 95 percent of the time, what the groups say is similar to what the coach already believes.”

At the beginning of each season, Crotts’s team lists its goals on a piece of parchment, which each athlete then signs. The signed paper is then framed and hung in the team room for everyone to see on a daily basis.

“Goal-setting can be tough,” says Crotts. “You have to be really careful about guiding your athletes through the process instead of just telling them what you think. They have to give feedback and really believe in each other.”

While goals are important components of the chemistry equation, if they aren’t revisited on a regular basis, they aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. After establishing common goals, both coaches and players need to continually evaluate whether they’re committed to reaching those goals. If they’re not, changes need to be made.

And once his team’s goals are in place, Crotts constantly refers back to them. “I ask athletes, ‘Are you achieving this goal right now by doing what you’re doing? Are you giving 100 percent effort in every drill? Is the guy next to you giving 100 percent?’ By asking those questions, each player becomes accountable for the actions of his teammates, and they hold each other to a higher standard. And that’s what you want.”

Wristbands & Books
At Minnesota, Monson has his players wear their commitment to team principles on their sleeves. At the beginning of the season, he gives each player a wristband inscribed with the word “MINDSET.” Based on the design of Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG wristbands, Minnesota’s style is more function than fashion. Monson uses the acronym as shorthand for his team ideals:

• M is for Minnesota—Minnesota is bigger than any person.
• I is for Indivisible—stay together as a team.
• N is for Not about me—avoid self-centered thoughts.
• D is for Discipline.
• S is for Serve the program—represent it well on and off the court.
• E is for Excellence.
• T is for Thankfulness.

Monson expects every member of the team to wear the wristbands, and if a player is caught without one or doesn’t remember what a letter stands for, the entire team is punished with an early morning run. “There’s not a day that goes by where we don’t refer to it,” says Monson. “For example, before one exhibition game this preseason, we told the team to emphasize the D in MINDSET. And they knew that meant they had to play disciplined.

“During a timeout, I might say, ‘We’re violating the I in MINDSET,’” he adds. “Or when Nike sends us an order of shoes, I’ll ask the team, ‘What letter do we need to address today in our MINDSET?’ And the kids will say, ‘T for thankfulness.’ We need to be thankful for where we are and what we’ve got.’”

Andy Landers, Head Women’s Coach at the University of Georgia, underlines his message about teamwork with the written word. During off-seasons in Athens, Landers gives his athletes reading assignments to reinforce the value of leadership and team unity. This past summer, Landers used John C. Maxwell’s The 17 Essentials of Being a Good Teammate as a textbook, meeting with his team four days a week to read one chapter each day.

To get them started, Landers had the team pre-read each chapter the night before the discussion and take notes on the things they found most meaningful. He also asked them to cite examples in their own experience that reflected the lesson. The voluntary sessions generally lasted 30 to 40 minutes, and Landers made sure everyone actively participated in the discussion.

“Some days I led, and some days I’d tell a player, ‘Tomorrow you lead the chapter,’” says Landers. “Everybody took a turn leading the discussion, and sometimes I assigned two people to lead a chapter together. Breaking down the text made people think, but more importantly, it helped us bring those ideas onto the court and work on setting an example for one another.”

Landers has used all types of reading material to get his players thinking and talking about teamwork. One year he had his team read the best-selling book, Who Moved My Cheese, Spencer Johnson’s parable about living with change. “On the first few days, players often grumble, but by the fourth day they arrive early and are waiting for me to start,” says Landers. “Then we get halfway through the book and they want to analyze two chapters a day.”

For coaches, the keys to building enthusiasm for projects like these is to demonstrate a commitment to using the lessons to build team chemistry. “Only when they start to dissect information and apply it back to the team do they realize how much it can help,” says Landers. “Once they saw that I was sincere about the lessons, they started liking both the books and the message.”

Recognizing Effort
Building team chemistry isn’t a coach’s easiest job. And no matter how hard you work at it, there are no guarantees that it will ever pay dividends. So if you find yourself working with a group of athletes that has gelled, it’s important to publicly acknowledge the part that plays in their success.

Landers, who has seen his share of ups and downs regarding team chemistry, makes sure his athletes know how much he appreciates their efforts. “After one practice early this season, I thanked my team for some of the changes that occurred since last year,” he says. “They worked hard to embrace our core value system, which was simply to be appreciative, respectful, honest, and trustworthy. And it showed.”


Sidebar: SHARING MEALS
Some coaches foster team chemistry by hosting a team dinner at home. Andy Landers, Head Women’s Coach at the University of Georgia, threw a twist into this age-old practice: Instead of providing the meal, he asked his athletes to create the menu, buy groceries, and prepare the dinner themselves.

“One year over winter break, we divided the team into four groups and had a different group prepare dinner each night at my house,” says Landers. “It became a competition to see who could create the best meal, and within each group people had to orchestrate who would do what. They had to communicate and follow each other’s directions in order to earn their teammates’ approval.

“They loved it,” he continues. “It was one of the strongest team building exercises we’ve done.”

For more information about Jeff Janssen’s team-building exercises, including a free download of his evaluation form for coaches and athletes, see: www.jeffjanssen.com.