How a team operates and performs has been a major talking point amongst psychologists for years. Putting together a successful team is a great challenge across all sports for coaches, managers and players. Sir Alex Ferguson has put together numerous teams during his time at Manchester United, many of which have been successful, but is this success down to the players’ ability or is it the environment that they are subjected to over time that breads a successful team?
This month, one of the greatest challenges in sport will be undertaken, the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia. This involves putting together a team of 35 players from four nations who will be together for 7 weeks only. They are required to come together as a team unit and win a 3 test series against Australia. Putting together a team in sport is ordinarily done over time, and attempting to do this in such a short period is extremely challenging. The Lions team is made up of players that were competing against each other only a few weeks ago, but are now tasked with living, working, training and playing together to reach the same goal. According to MacPherson and Howard (2011), in a short term group environment where there is fierce competition for places, there is a heightened chance of conflict as there may be little room for sentiment amongst players. Conflict in a rugby union team is normal, with physical confrontations occurring often on the training ground, but it is how these conflicts are managed that is most important. Conflict can sometimes be seen as a positive outcome as it will make players confront the issues which can help deal with them quickly and effectively.
One area that could ensure that conflict doesn’t overshadow the tour is group norms. According to Forsyth (1999), group norms are the standards that are put in place to regulate the behaviours of members of that particular group. These are extremely important in the Lions environment as every player must adhere to the norms set out collectively by the team. This ensures that player behaviour is standardised and any conflicting behaviours can be identified and dealt with. According to Munroe et al. (1999) group norms are set out around the following areas: competition (game preparation, work ethic, mindset and team behaviour), practice (mindset, practice preparation, team behaviour and work ethic) and social situations (interaction and participation). Discipline was at the forefront of the Lions tour before it had even begun as England hooker Dylan Hartley was suspended for 11 weeks whilst playing for his club for swearing at the referee, thus ruling him out of the tour. This type of behaviour is something that will have been discussed when setting group norms as this type of behaviour would be deemed severely unacceptable.
In order for these group norms to have their desired effect, cohesion within the group is very important. This can be described as a dynamic process that reflects a group’s likelihood of sticking together and remaining united in pursuit of objectives and behaviours (Hoigaard et al., 2006). Jeremy Guscott, who played for the British Lions on 3 tours, was quoted as saying “Lions tours are about bonding together…success depends on whether you come together or split into factions”. This emphasises the importance of cohesion in bringing a team together. This was again cited by former South Africa rugby coach Peter de Villiers, prior to the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa, who said that he would have liked more time with his team as he felt they lacked the game time and cohesion needed to succeed.
There are also barriers to obtaining cohesion in a group environment. One barrier is personal factors which include social background, race and gender. Carron et al. (2005) questions whether a group with more in common are likely to be more cohesive as opposed to one that is diverse with less in common, which may lead to the formation of cliques. Cliques have been known to be very divisive on previous Lions tours, with the 2005 tour to New Zealand being an example, where the group cohesion was very limited and the tour ended in failure. It is a difficult area to tackle as players from the same nation will arguably be more inclined to talk to each other, but these barriers must be broken down in order to succeed. A method that has been used to tackle this on previous tours, which will also be implemented this year, is not allowing members of the same nations to room together, thus getting the group to mix.
To bring a Lions tour together you need coaches and players all working together with group norms and cohesion. The leader of the lions, the captain, is also one of the biggest roles in the team. Welshman Sam Warburton will captain the 2013 Lions to Australia and with this role, is almost guaranteed a place in the test matches against Australia. His leadership on and off the pitch will be extremely important in the success of the tour. Leading by example on the field and encouraging team mates. He will also be in charge of implementing the team tactics that are set out by the coaches. However, there are many senior players in the squad so they will all be important in ensuring that the norms are adhered to and that cohesion is promoted. According to David Hadfield (a New Zealand rugby coach), the coaches have to enlist strong leaders and ensure that they buy into what they are trying to implement. These leaders can then influence others within the group as they are respected amongst their peers. These strong leaders are likely to be senior players and many are captains of their own countries.
Whether the British and Irish Lions are successful on the tour to Australia will come down to many factors including player performance, injuries and luck. However, they can give themselves the best opportunity to succeed by ensuring that the team are all pulling in the same direction and aiming for the same shared goal – winning the test series.
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About Mark Brodie
I am a BASES Probationary Sport and Exercise Scientist focusing on psychology. Founder of Think.Win Sports Psychology Consultancy.