Team Unity and Culture

If you are part of a team (sporting or otherwise) and you’re not actively trying to improve the unity of the group then you’re missing a trick.

Team Unity
Team Unity – The U in Metuf (Mental Toughness Training)

In the world of team sport, we often talk about team unity as playing a vital role in success. But how important is unity to sporting success and how do we go about developing it?

Creating a Winning Culture 

Coaches often talk about creating a “Winning Culture” as the key to success in team sports. When we talk about a winning culture, we’re usually referring to a team environment that fosters the best outcomes (that is, “winning”). But if we were to pull apart the training environment of a team with consistent success what would this look like? You would likely see a group of individuals with shared values (despite varying individual values), working towards a common goal and supporting each other to flourish in their own individual roles. Teams that are well known for establishing a winning culture place an emphasis on characteristics such as work ethic, honesty, ability to take on feedback and having a positive influence on the people around them, and through these factors a sense of unity is easily established. Without unity, it is arguable that a team limits their opportunity to get the results they want, as the nature of the team sport ultimately requires individuals to work together towards a common goal. 

Process Goals In Team Settings

In an effort to develop team unity, it is important firstly to separate outcome-based goals from process-based goals. Sure, working towards establishing a ‘winning culture’ sounds good and might motivate players (initially), but placing such a large focus on results doesn’t guide anyone on the team to work on the processes that contribute to those results. With every outcome goal, there need to be process goals to complement it. Of course, it’s only normal to think about what outcomes we want out of the season, but we want to place a larger amount of focus on how we plan to give ourselves the best chance of getting those results. 

Because how many factors contribute to the end result of a game? You’ve got your team, the other team, the officials, the spectators, the weather – all of these factors in some way contribute to the end result of a game. Let’s say 40% of the outcome is determined by your team, 40% the other team, 10% the officials, 7% the weather and 3% the spectator’s presence. Winning is therefore something we have less than 50% influence or control over. So why spend so much time focusing your efforts on it? 

Processes (the things we do to get those results) on the other hand are something we have a lot of influence over and are the things we should be encouraging team members to focus their efforts on. Players who are asked to work towards these kinds of goals often leave training feeling empowered because they’re focusing their efforts on things that are within their individual reach. Some process goals you might want to set for your team to increase your chances of getting that win, might include communicating in a compassionate way, showing support for team members through verbal (spoken words) or physical (handshake, pat on the back) signs of support, and being authentic, genuine and respectful in your interactions with others (through tone of voice, choice of words, body language and eye contact). These communication process goals are one way of increasing the chances your team will get the outcome they want. 

Having a Shared Vision

Integral to team sport success is having a shared vision. This is often outlined by the leader (e.g. coach) and should include the details of his or her expectations, and the role each individual on the team will play. The perspectives of each member around what they value in a team setting should also be heard, including what they’d like others around them to be doing to promote their best performance. You as the coach might want to ask some questions to initiate a discussion around what attributes are to be brought to training to help produce the best results for the team. For example, “What do you want to accomplish this season, and what will it take for us to get there?”, or “What would you like others to be saying about us at the end of the season?”. 

It will be important for you to lead this conversation to ensure the brainstormed goals are both attainable and within your team’s influence (or control). That is, they are process-focused. Winning might pop up in the conversation which is fair enough, considering sport is often result-based, but exploring what exactly this might look like could prompt some discussion around what attributes are to be brought to training by each team member to help achieve this outcome. For example, “To give ourselves the best chance of winning we will need to have effective communication; what does this look like?”, or “To give ourselves the best chance of winning we will need to create a positive environment at training so individuals can push themselves; how can we do this?”.

Understanding Your Role

The trickiest thing about working in a team setting is that you basically have a group of individuals with different experiences and roles trying to work together towards a common goal. In a team setting it is vital each member of the team understands their own ability, role, the expectations and limits of their role and that of the others around them. Team members need to be able to make judgements around when to rely on others and when to step up and perform, and without an understanding of these fundamentals you’ll have multiple individuals trying to perform the same role on the field or worse, no one jumping in to do anything at all. 

It is also important for individual players to separate the team outcome from their individual roles to evaluate their own performance. For the team to progress individual players need to progress, so it is important for players to recognise any progress they have made, examine how they contributed to the team outcome and highlight areas that need to be improved on an individual level. For example, how was your footwork, passing and communication regardless of the fact that we won/lost the game? The team outcome is not a reliable indicator of their individual performance, so it is important for individuals to reflect on their own performance keeping in mind that there are many things outside of their influence that may have contributed to the outcome of the game.

Culture, Atmosphere and Communication

For team unity to flourish it is well known that the team atmosphere needs to be a positive and cohesive one. A positive and cohesive team culture is made up of a whole range of factors, including player attitudes, team motivation, ensuring every team member feels valued and empowered, and most importantly team identity. Team identity refers to the distinct characteristics of the team the make it unique, and it flourishes when each team member takes pride in their membership in the group. Individuals also need to place the values of their team above their own individual values in working towards that common goal to establish a sense of cohesiveness. 

Effective communication is also a huge part of establishing that positive team atmosphere. Open communication needs to be able to occur without fear of disrupting the relationship between coaches and players or the players themselves. One way individuals can provide feedback in a group setting without damaging those important relationships is through solution-focused feedback, as opposed to problem-focused feedback. Solution-based feedback involves highlighting what individuals could be doing instead, or should start doing differently. Problem-centred feedback on the other hand is where the problem is highlighted, and individuals are told not to do those things again. Pointing out what players have done wrong and asking them not to do it again might seem helpful, but in actual fact, this can lead to a lot of overthinking on their end around NOT making the same mistake. Keeping the feedback solution-focused helps guide their thinking towards how they can do that skill better, which indirectly prevents them from making the same error again. Helping players solve the problem rather than just highlighting the problem is one way of making them feel supported in their development, and this kind of feedback should extend to between-players to foster an environment of camaraderie and ensure team members feel supported by each other.

Respect 

Finally, it is important to distinguish liking our team members from respecting them. In the sport and performance domain, respect plays a huge role in fostering an environment where team unity can flourish. Individuals might differ in their approach to the work and what they value, but agreeing with or liking the approaches and values of everyone we work with isn’t necessarily required for unity to thrive. Respecting them, however, is.

Respect is defined as demonstrating a high regard for someone or their ideas regardless of their differences and in order to create an environment where individuals push themselves beyond their limits each day they need to feel valued and respected by others around them. We can choose to communicate with others whose ideas we don’t like with complete disregard, or we can choose to show our appreciation for the strengths in those ideas and offer alternative ones. The team environment needs to foster non-judgement to allow individuals to take risks and step outside their comfort zones on an individual level as they work towards that common goal.

Forget About Winning To Build A Winning Culture

The take-home message from this piece is that in order to establish a winning culture, we should forget about winning altogether. Rather the focus should be on establishing supportive environments for team members where they feel valued and empowered to achieve their individual best for the good of the team, and the goal of their work should be more centred around the journey rather than the destination. That is, focusing on the here and now, what we can be working on that is within our influence to give ourselves the best chance of success later on, rather than working with success at the forefront of our minds. In the performance world, we often see the best results achieved by those who don’t focus on results at all. 

References

Yukelson, D. (1997). Principles of effective team building interventions in sport: A direct services approach at Penn State University. Journal of applied sport psychology, 9(1), 73-96.

Author: Madalyn Incognito

Madalyn spent most of her teenage years training and competing at the national level in swimming. After committing to the sport at the age of 12, she spent the next few years competing all around the country in her main events, which included 50m/100m/200m freestyle, 100m backstroke and 100m/200m butterfly. She has also been heavily involved in the Martial Arts sphere from a young age, training, competing and teaching various styles including Karate and Han Mu Do, as well as Muay Thai which she currently practises. Madalyn is passionate about improving sporting performance through psychological practice and research and she was ultimately motivated to pursue a career in performance psychology as a result of her own experiences growing up as an athlete, where her eyes were opened to the ways in which one’s mental state can impact on their performance, and how psychology can be utilised to improve performance across a range of competitive settings. Madalyn’s first-hand experience inside the pressure cooker of High-Performance Sport combined with ongoing learning and practice as a provisionally registered psychologist means that she was the obvious choice to join the Condor Performance team at the start of 2021.