Monday, September 29, 2008

How a "secret strategy" helped the U.S. win the Ryder Cup

The Wall Street Journal's John Paul Newport had a really insightful story this weekend about the group-dynamic technique Paul Azinger used to help his U.S. team defeat Europe in the Ryder Cup recently.

There are some good lessons for coaches to take away and apply to their teams.

According to the article, Azinger "deployed a novel, multifaceted team-building strategy that worked to perfection."

Here's an excerpt from the WSJ article describing how Azinger's "secret strategy" worked:

The most radical element of the plan was dividing the 12-man squad into three, four-man subgroups, or pods. Mr. Azinger apparently got this idea several years ago from a documentary about the military's Special Forces and their Ryder Cup-size platoons.

The Navy Seals, for instance, typically operate in 13-man units led by two officers and a chief, and frequently break down into subgroups, depending on the mission.

"Each pod was a force unto itself," Mr. [Olin] Browne said of last week's team. Pod members played all their practice rounds together and were paired only with other pod members in the competition. Even in the Sunday singles matches, the pods went off sequentially, four by four.

Each pod was assigned an assistant captain to tend to players' needs and to keep them relaxed and "on message" -- a key concept in the strategy.

"Working together for the common good is not normally a function for us out on the PGA Tour.
We play as individuals," Mr. Browne said.

"But the pods allowed the players, without any formal training, to feed off each other and help each other and to manage all the different things that come up in a pressure-cooker situation like the Ryder Cup. In the larger 12-man group, some guys with quieter personalities might have been lost in the shuffle. Some of the rookies might have been too intimidated to speak out."

Among the qualities Mr. Azinger considered in making his four captain's picks was a player's behavioral style and his ability to fit into a pod he had in mind. In this, he relied heavily on Dr. [Ron] Braund [who co-authored a book] with Ken Voges in 1995, "Understanding How Others Misunderstand You," [which] identifies different behavioral types and provides insights into understanding and working with each, rather than trying to change them.

Mr. Azinger's overarching vision, Dr. Braund said, was "to create an environment where each player could succeed by being themselves. He didn't try to motivate them by asking them to fulfill his needs, or the team's needs, but by helping them identify and fulfill their own needs. To do that, he had to understand the behavioral style of each player individually and know how to message him in the best way for him. And Paul has a real gift for that."

In assembling the three pods, Mr. Azinger, Dr. Braund and the assistant coaches spent hours discussing various combinations and settled on two consisting of players with generally similar styles and one that was a mixed bag.

The members of one team, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan, were aggressive players and were assigned to assistant captain Raymond Floyd, who shared that style as a player.

A second team, under Dave Stockton, consisted of steady-eddie, unflappable players: Steve Stricker, Stewart Cink, Chad Campbell and Ben Curtis.

Mr. Azinger sometimes referred to the remaining group as his "Southern boys," even though the only veteran in the pod, Jim Furyk, is from Pennsylvania. ("I was trying to be as Southern as I could all week," Mr. Furyk said afterward.)

This pod, under Mr. Browne, included Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes, Kentuckians playing for the home crowd and thus feeling extra pressure, and the week's break-out personality, good old boy Boo Weekley, whom Dr. Braund described as "impervious to pressure."

This group gelled especially well.

"Jim Furyk has struggled as a team player to some extent, because he is such an individual," Dr. Braund said.

"But here he had a role to play. He was a steady rudder and tremendously supportive of the other guys, particularly of Kenny Perry when he got down after hitting his drive into the hazard on the final hole in the first foursomes match. That may be one reason Jim performed so well."

During the competition, Dr. Braund rode in the cart with Mr. Azinger and helped him keep on point with his "messaging" to players.

"Sometimes, the message was no message," Dr. Braund said. "Paul would just drive by, show a smiling face and ask if everything was OK. But that was based on what we'd worked out beforehand." Other times, the words were more specific.

A final part of Mr. Azinger's strategy was to shift the emphasis away from the need for a team victory and more toward his personal commitment to help each player perform at his best.