“Football leadership has become a whole lot more complex. The leader who can use his team or staff to bring simplicity out of the complexity will win the day.” Mike Carson in The Manager: Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders
One way of “simplifying the complexity” is to involve every team member and staff in building the team, its standards, and competitive identity and culture while working and committing to a unified game plan. Team building is more about getting everyone on the same page rather than simply team bonding. True team-building strategies aim to do just that – get everyone working towards the same vision in terms of the team’s direction and primary objectives and forging an agreement on the execution standards and everyone’s particular roles and responsibilities. When push comes to shove, a team playing for each other will be a tougher team and better handle the adversity that this great game brings.
Effective Team-Building Processes Framework
- Team motives and preferences for team progress
- Team identity—what the team will be known for by others
- Shared vision via setting short-term, process goals that lead to accomplishing long-term, outcome goals
- Individual and team accountability to preset standards and goals
- Collaborative communication to enhance teamwork and trust
- Team-bonding activities in the off-season, preseason, and during the season (why not!)
One way to maximize a player’s motivation is to match his preferences and motives with your own motives and behaviors. For example, a player whose primary motive is to improve upon his game enough to earn a scholarship at a top school will want demanding technical sessions and thus would prefer a coach who will encourage him to accomplish this goal. If the player’s preferences and motives are matched, he will be more satisfied and motivated to pursue his goals. On the other hand, if the coach does not match the player’s preferences and motives, dissatisfaction and underachievement may result. This dynamic also applies to team motives and preferences. Find out what the team wants to accomplish and their preferences for feedback and attempt to meet these, especially if the team is attempting to match your preferences and goals.
Getting an idea of how the team would like to be perceived by others, such as opponents, fans, or family, is another way of getting the most from your players. Asking the team to clarify their “team identity” can elicit player feedback regarding goals, motives, standards, and how they would like to be seen and known by others. Armed with this information, coaches can hold their team accountable to this ideal team image. Ask each member the following questions: (a) How would you want opponents to view the team? (b) How would you like to be perceived during practices; what would spectators of the practices say about the team? (c) How would you want your team to be perceived by game officials or the media? Use this information to help develop your team identity. Once an identity is established, you see that players are not showing their chosen identity and remind them about it. Also, emphasize when you do see them demonstrating the ideal they have created.
Team and Individual Goals:
Research shows that pursuing goals conveys information to the players about their capabilities and progress, thus enhancing confidence and motivation to continue striving toward excellence. Although the idea is to have players/teams brainstorm goals in the off-season/preseason, it is never too late to gain the advantage of goal setting, even in September. My favorite questions to have players respond to which setup goals include: What do I want to accomplish in the first round of conference? How will others see this improvement? In prep for the 2nd round, what did you accomplish? Then repeat the questions for the 2nd round. Repeat in prep for post-season. Coaches must provide feedback regarding goal progress or improvement tips.
Continually referring back to goals, team identity, and standards is critical to achieving lasting effects. Remember the adage: “Players do what you inspect not what you expect.” Holding players accountable to these goals and standards is a little easier because they helped devise them. One of the better ways of keeping the players accountable to these standards is to have them rate their progress and evaluate what areas need continual improvement, especially in-season. By providing continual evaluation and encouragement, as well as allowing players the opportunity to voice their opinions on important team issues, increases their sense of responsibility, ownership, and commitment to the team’s efforts. Have players rate their progress on each of the goals and standards on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 equals “no progress” and 10 equals a “total change for the better”). Obtaining a team average for each goal and standard can lead to an active discussion about what the team has done well (or not done well) to accomplish the changes, as well as what needs to happen to continue the progress and improvement.
Meeting regularly with players individually and with the team as a whole, coupled with an open line of communication, allows players to voice their opinions in an open forum and gives each team member a say in the team’s workings. Keep in mind players should be allowed to provide feedback and dialogue on team issues only (e.g., standards, goals, rules), not on playing time/status issues, scheduling, practice activities, or game strategy, which is reserved for the coaching staff. Effective team communication and teamwork are often taken for granted. What works with one team does not necessarily work for another. Breakdowns in communication— coach to player, player to player, or player to coach—are often the cause of conflict. Ensuring that all parties are practicing effective communication techniques is essential for optimal teamwork and achievement on the gridiron. Team meetings should be conducted to learn more about communication issues, the consequences of ineffective communication, and ways to improve.
Major topics to discuss include the importance of sending effective messages, as well as receiving messages effectively.
- Sending Effective Verbal Messages = Be direct and specific; Be clear and consistent; Focus on one thing-at-a-time; Be consistent with what is being said and subsequent nonverbal messages; Deliver messages immediately
- Receiving Effective Verbal Messages = Be an active listener (paying attention, giving appropriate feedback, and good nonverbal communication, e.g., eye contact); Be a supportive listener (value the speaker and the message)
For years, coaches from all types of team sports have incorporated team-bonding activities to complement their training sessions before the season. One of the primary goals for these team-bonding activities is to help teammates get to know each other and form bonds, so when the pressure of the season begins, these bonds are tight enough for the team to persevere and thrive. This process is referred to as team cohesion and consists of two interactive components: task cohesion and social cohesion. Task cohesion reflects the team’s ability to work together toward common goals, while social cohesion refers to the closeness between teammates.
The ideal situation is for teams to be strong in both task and social cohesion. A team that likes hanging together off the field and working hard together on the field is in a better position to be successful. Teams that suffer from cliques, personality clashes, poor communication practices, and daily confrontations will struggle with social cohesion. Poor social cohesion can obviously hurt how willing these players are to put in maximal, collective efforts on the field. Team-building intervention programs can help coaches and teams improve upon both components of cohesion. Specifically, taking players through goal-setting, standard-setting, and other brainstorming sessions can get on the “same page” and improve task cohesion. At the same time, team-bonding activities are effective in improving team social cohesion. Sir Alex Ferguson in his book, Leading, mentioned the importance of continual upkeep, which is where team building through the season becomes critical: “Getting an organization into balance doesn’t occur once. It requires perpetual work. I felt I was always re-tuning things. Although, once in a while, we had to do more than just a simple brake adjustment and oil change.” Team building should be revisited throughout the season, especially in September, before conference matches begin. Debrief these 6 areas with your team and staff to ascertain strengths (to maximize) and liabilities (to improve) for a strong, collective effort to ensure everyone stays the course en route to post-season play.
Portions of this article are adapted from Dr. V’s Mental Toughness Training for Soccer and Mental Toughness Training for Football, 2nd Edition (Coaches Choice Publishing).
Albert V. Carron, Kevin S. Spink & Harry Prapavessis, Team building and cohesiveness in the sport and exercise setting: Use of indirect interventions, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, (1997, 9:1) 61-72,
Mike Carson, The Manager: Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders. London: Bloomsbury (2013, p. 122).
Alex Ferguson with Michael Moritz, Leading. New York: Hachette (2015, p. 89).