The Importance of Team Chemistry

Over the years, I have begun to realize the importance of “team chemistry” as being a major component of a successful team.  Over the weekend, I saw an article about William Gallas of Arsenal and the conflicts he has with some of the Arsenal players.  Teammate Samir Nasri, says that there are 4-5 Arsenal players that don’t talk to Gallas.  Kolo Toure, revealed that one of the reasons he moved to Man City last summer was because of problems he had with Gallas.

I found this very interesting because over the last 19 years, I have coached an average of about 3 teams per year…we do this in the U.S.!  And the most successful team I coached, also had the best team chemistry.  I also coached other talented teams that, although did reasonably well, they didn’t reall reach their potential or do as well as their talent level indicated.

I started the 87 Dynamos (girls) when they were U8’s.  By the time they were U10’s, we had nucleus of about 5-7 girls who were not only pretty good players, but they were pretty good athletes, loved playing soccer, and were very competitive in nature.  Of all the teams I have coached, it was the only one that had a strong nucleus of such players that possessed all those attributes.  Other teams were close, but maybe lacking in one area.

Over the years, the 87G Dynamos got used to being successful.  As a coach, I worked hard at creating a culture and environment that made them feel good about their success and got them to understand that it came from their hard work at practice and their dedication.  Fortunately, the nucleus of players loved the team and loved playing soccer and worked their butts off at practice and in games.

So what happened was that whenever a new players joined the team, unless they worked hard like the nucleus of players did, they were the odd ones out.  So to fit in and become an integral part of the team, they had to be as dedicated as the nucleus.  This was great for me as a coach, as it made my job tons easier.  Basically, the nucleus of girls who had been on the team for years were the driving force to be successful and other players either joined in what they were doing if they wanted to be part of the nucleus or just became “fringe” players.

Even though the 87 Dynamos were very talented, looking back, we were successful in many instances not because we were more talented than the opposition…there were some pretty good teams we played from across the nation…but because we were better prepared, in better shape, or outworked them.

On the other hand, 2-3 other teams come to mind that I have coached who have had the same talent level or maybe more talent than the 87 Dynamos that have been nowhere near as successful as the 87 Dynamos.  For certain spells, they played extremely well and up to their talent level, but it never lasted.  In every single one of these teams, there was something lacking.  Either, the nucleus wasn’t as dedicated, or worked as hard or prepared as well.

Here are two simple examples.  When doing conditioning work, I was constantly amazed at the effort of the 87 Dynamos players who used to push themselves to the limit.  Sometimes I used to say to them that we would have an easy session tonight as they had done well over the past week or so, but they would insist on doing the conditioning work as they knew it would help them for upcoming games.  On the other hand, other talented teams I coached, would dog it when doing conditioning work.  The better players would take it easy and therefore, other players would follow suit.  Or players would show up late for practice and slowly make their way from the parking lot to the field even though they were late.

These might seem like small incidents but they really made all the difference between the team being successful, reaching their potential or not being successful and not reaching their potential.

It might not be the case, but it was only a few weeks ago that Arsenal had a chance to win the EPL…they controlled their own destiny.  But they fizzled out and lost some critical games.  I can’t help but wonder if their team chemistry isn’t what it should be with the Gallas situation and whether that played an important role to their poor finish to the season.

8 Comments

  1. JPolito says:

    This is a thoughtful article that certainly resonates with a lot of what I’ve been currently thinking. The tough thing is what to do when you don’t have the chemistry or what if you have a couple solid players who contribute negatively to the chemistry? With good chemistry, teams will play above themselves. With poor chemistry, teams will often play below their potential and rarely if ever excel consistently. I’ve seen the same thing with some teams, where players stay after training and play pick-up amongst themselves. I’ve also seen teams where players are late, appear uninterested, are not willing to push themselves beyond 50% and can’t wait for training to end.

    The tough thing is what to do other than make the difficult cuts or hope the otherwise talented player moves on to another club or team. A player may have a lot of talent but if he/she is unwilling to excel, is unable to contribute to the team chemistry positively, then that player is just keeping the rest of the team down.

    So what can we do to improve team chemistry? or is it simply elusive?

  2. Hugh Clements-Jewery says:

    That is a very good question. A lack of team chemistry is totally destructive. I have seen it before my own eyes. I often find myself pondering on the issue that the most technically skilled players are the least motivated, and the least skilled players are the most motivated. This ultimately leads to a coaching dilemma. How to correct it?
    My approach would be as follows:

    Define the expectations early on (preseason): promote team behavior – promoting the idea that “we do things together as a team”; “we win, lose and draw as a team”; “we support each other on the team”, etc. I created a rule last fall that everyone helps to set up practice and everyone helps to clear up after practice. In other words outline the desired behavior in no uncertain terms.

    Also, define the disciplinary consequences from deviating from the desired behavior. The most motivating factor is playing time, but this could create a coaching dilemma as suggested above (i.e. it might mean playing the least skilled players).

    Praise and promote positive team behavior in front of the team – supporting the team, work ethic, etc.

    Admonish negative behavior (including body language) in private, and stick to the disciplinary plan.

    Speak to individuals in team captaincy/team leadership roles one on one to define what is expected of them personally.

    Have one or several team meals together if possible.

    Develop a buddy system where team members are paired up and look out for each other.

    There are other examples, I am sure. My main problem is where you have a lack of leadership on the team. My high school team has a large number of seniors on it that think they are God’s gift to soccer (which they most certainly are not), and that they have the right as seniors to do what they like and expect the underlings to clean up after them. There is no leadership from the players, and I’m going to think long and hard about how to correct that. I think having good leaders goes a long way toward creating team chemistry. A good leader is not necessarily your best player.

  3. JPolito says:

    I’ve thought about this some more and agree with Hugh’s response above. Leadership is definitely vital. Ideally one of your players will be a great and effective leader. Often you have a de facto leader who may not be ideal. Ultimately, it is the coach’s responsibility to ensure leadership of the team. The challenge is that teams that have the right chemistry, the right team leadership, the right internal drive, motivate themselves. The teams that don’t rely more on the coach to drive them on.

    So some of my observations and approaches for positive team chemistry…

    Take your time to chose a team captain that fosters positivism, has a high personal standard, brings other players up, exhibits good sportsmanship and is a true competitor. These qualities are in addition to the usual team captain characteristics.

    Be careful with cliques. On one hand you want players to have fun with their friends and have some socialization, but at the same time, you don’t want exclusive cliques to form because that will harm team chemistry. Usually this can be managed by juggling the training groups so that the same players don’t always train with each other.

    With positive and problem behavior, you can call it out for boys directly, either publicly or privately. For girls, I think using a note or private talk works best, for recognizing their positive contributions and also for highlighting their problem areas. Anson Dorrance likes using notes with his women teams. The important point here that players need to know what is acceptable behavior and performance and what isn’t…what is good and helps the team, and what is detrimental.

    Ultimately, the coach is the boss and must ensure compliance. Again Hugh was right to bring up playing time as a motivational factor and a good example of this, is Mourinho with Balotelli. Here is a promising, “star” player, but Mourinho made him sit on the bench until (presumably) Balotelli learned his lesson. This is a tough decision, but at the heart of your decision, your assumption should be that the team will perform better (not necessarily in the immediate term) without the negative influence (player). This also demonstrates to the team what behaviors are rewarded. Sometimes you may have special cases, where a player is not necessarily negative but doesn’t have the positive behaviors you are trying to instill. For instance, look at Tevez who is notoriously lazy in training. I would say here, that the player gets judged on his performance, but doesn’t get any extra “points” for (say) hard work in training. Another player may really train hard, and cause other players to train harder, but perhaps is not the star player – this player will get extra “points” for their behavior and then you have to balance the relative “points” with the star player.

    I think you really need to tend to the chemistry little by little as much as you can. Don’t wait until it becomes a problem. Nip problems in the bud as soon as possible and reward positive behaviors as soon as possible.

  4. Andy says:

    great article and very relevant to my eldest sons situation. He joined a new team this year, having moved to a new part of the county. He joined a team that had a couple of other new players joined. In total it has 4 players who where captains last season. Obviously only one this season.

    the team chemistry is a missing link in this team. The captain doesnt show leadership and my son along with one or two others over the course of the season have lowered their performance levels, rather than still being a captain on the pitch without the armband.

    He is only 12, but I will defiantely be showing him this article – it may just be the spark to light the fire.

  5. Mike Saif says:

    Thinking back, I don’t think I have ever really been able to turn around situation where a team had bad chemistry. I have seen slight improvements, but it is only when getting rid of the problem players, has chemistry improved to be “normal”.

    In my post, I was referring to a team with exceptional chemistry. I have never been able to get a team from “normal” up to “exceptional”. In fact, over the years, I basically coached with the same philosophy and handled players in the same manner. I attempted to create a culture that allowed motivated players to succeed. In the example of the 87 Dynamos, there were enough like-minded players who wanted to succeed that they bought into the culture I was creating.

    If players don’t buy into it, then I don’t think there is much you can do.

  6. Bruce Story says:

    I think chemistry can potentially make or break a team. I am currently assistant coaching a U-10 boys team. This team has only been together since last December and it has been a fun group to work with. All of the players get along with each other and they are good about helping each other out. There is very little, if any, finger-pointing or blaming others for mistakes or losses. These have helped create a successful environment even if there has been losses. The players always come to practices with good attitudes and are ready to train.

    I have coached teams in the past where the above situation was the opposite. Overall it did not create a consistently fun environment and successful practices were inconsistent. Not all of the players got along with each other and I was usually having to have talks with individual players as well as the team about the importance of working together and supporting each other.

    In neither case did I encounter the situation where new players were added. I am quie certain that it would have most likely been more successful with the U-10 boys team that I am currently working with.

  7. Footy player William Gallas probably doesn’t need defending notwithstanding what some might say – his football continues to speak for itself. He rocks!