|Strengthening Team Cohesion|
By: Wade Gilbert
Originally Published in: Coaching Better Every Season
Provided by: Human Kinetics
Cohesion is typically thought of as the degree to which a group feels connected and remains united while pursuing a common purpose or goal. Connection to one another is considered a form of social cohesion, whereas working toward a common goal is considered a form of task cohesion.
One of the most compelling questions asked about cohesion is whether cohesion causes improved performance or whether improved performance increases cohesion. Thankfully, coaches don't have to comb through hundreds of research papers to learn the answer to these questions. Reviews of the research show that cohesion is both a cause and a result of improved athletic performance. Some other findings about cohesion and performance include the following:
An often-cited cohesion study by Paul Turman with college student-athletes, both males and females across a range of sports, sheds light on the types of coaching strategies that either contribute to or detract from team cohesion. Turman found that abusive language and ridicule, particularly public ridicule, were coaching behaviors that greatly reduced team cohesion and trust. On the other hand, any coaching behavior that fostered trust and positive relationships had a strong positive influence on team cohesion. The coaching strategies that contributed most to team cohesion included frequent praise, coach enthusiasm, playful teasing and joking with players, motivational team-oriented speeches, setting team goals, creating team unity councils, and scheduling quality opponents.
Many successful coaches use the concept of a player unity council to build cohesion and trust among a team. In the Turman study football players reported that two senior athletes from each position on the team formed the unity council, which was responsible for bringing team issues to the coaching staff. Player councils are most effective when they hold meetings at frequent and regular intervals as way to be proactive in identifying and resolving team cohesion issues.
Conversely, athletes report a decline in team cohesion and trust when coaches show unequal treatment or favoritism among the team and when coaches embarrass or ridicule athletes in public. Belittling or demeaning an athlete erodes confidence and respect, so this type of coaching behavior is clearly counterproductive.
Treating all athletes the same, however, is a more complicated issue. Legendary American championship college football coach Bo Schembechler's famous mantra was The team, the team, the team. He believed that coaches must apply one standard equally to all players on a team. This equal-treatment standard served his teams well, as he compiled a record of 234-65-8 across his 27 years as a head coach in college football.
Unlike Coach Schembechler, 10-time national collegiate champion basketball coach John Wooden believed that equal treatment is not equitable treatment. Coach Wooden used the standard of fairness to guide his coaching behaviors. He believed that every player deserved to be treated fairly, meaning that each athlete was treated differently depending on how he behaved. Coach Wooden reported that this strategy enhanced team cohesion because athletes knew in advance that they would have to work hard to earn the type of respect, trust, and treatment they desired.
I asked one of Coach Wooden's former athletes, two-time national champion and former professional basketball player Swen Nater, about this apparent contrast between two legendary coaches. Swen, a championship coach in his own right, explained that treating everyone the same is in fact unfair. Swen shared the example of dealing with players who are late to practice. If the coach has one standard for dealing with this issue (e.g., if you are late, you won't start in the next game), that standard is not fair because it does not take into account the history, tendency, work habits, or contributions of the offending athlete.
For example, is it fair to apply the same punishment to two athletes who arrive late to practice if one is a model teammate and first-time offender and the other one has a poor work ethic and shows a general lack of respect for the coach and team rules? What is the correct approach? Which one contributes most to building team cohesion? I believe that the most effective approach is the one that fits with your personal coaching values and philosophy. Regardless of whether the athletes or other coaches agree or disagree with your approach, trust and team cohesion will be enhanced if you are authentic, transparent, and consistent in your coaching behaviors and your treatment of your athletes.
Team meals are a fun and effective way to build team cohesion. For example, high school football coach Bob Ladouceur made Thursday night team meals at his home a pregame ritual throughout his record-setting career. Instead of the traditional approach of bringing athletes together for a prepared meal, coaches can have the athletes prepare the meal as a way to increase the effect of the activity on building team cohesion.
For example, athletes can be given the responsibility of planning the menu and preparing some or all of the team meal. Athletes can be required to plan the meal, generate a grocery list, prepare the meal, and clean up afterward. This type of activity forces team members to assume leadership, designate roles, negotiate and come to consensus on a menu, and learn about each other (food allergies, food preferences, food preparation skills, and so on).
I collaborated on a study in which a version of this team-building strategy was tested with youth soccer and basketball coaches. Coaches took their teams on a shopping trip to the grocery store, where athletes were allowed to select ingredients for the team meal. Before the shopping trip the coach debriefed the athletes about healthy food choices and athlete nutrition. All coaches reported that the team-prepared meal activity resulted in improved team cohesion, bonding, and communication, all with the added benefit of teaching athletes about healthy food choices and nutrition.