Friday, August 22, 2008

Finding the formula for team chemistry

We've all heard about the importance of chemistry and its impact on winning. You may have seen the story in USA Today earlier this week about the chemistry of the U.S. women's basketball team that's playing in Beijing.

I read a similar story this morning in the Portland paper about the chemistry of the team of high school kids that just won the Babe Ruth World Series.

Chemistry has come up in articles discussing the remarkable success of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, who just won the Gold in women's beach volleyball.

What all of these teams have in common is that they're successful. They're winning (or they've won) -- a lot.

So is the chemistry between players the result of winning or is their success because of their great chemistry? And is it possible to cultivate chemistry?

I did some digging and came across a 2004 article in Collegiate Baseball that addresses these very questions.

The author, Pat Bloom, the head baseball coach at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, writes:

It’s time to define this concept of team chemistry for coaches across the country. We toss it around like it’s this mythical, mystical phenomenon that is neither developed nor learned, but is instead explained as something that "just happens when everyone/everything clicks.

As a matter of fact, a team’s chemistry, or level of cohesion as it is more formally referred, is an ever-changing group of dynamic that comes in a couple of different forms, and can be learned and improved with practice.

Coach Bloom defines "team chemistry" as "a group dynamic that occurs when members of the team work together and make a united effort to accomplish the goals and objectives of the collective whole."

He then breaks chemistry into two parts: (1) Task cohesion and (2) social cohesion.

Task cohesion "refers to a team’s ability to function as a collective unit and perform effectively on the field. If your team has a high level of task cohesion, meaning that they play well together and remain united in the pursuit of the team’s goals, then they are more likely to enjoy success."

Liking each other, simply being friends and enjoying hanging out together, i.e., a team with high social cohesion, "means very little in the way of predicting your team's performance." In other words, just because your team gets along doesn't mean they'll win any games.

In fact, according to Coach Bloom, "it has even been found that teams who are high in social cohesion play worse as a team."

But a team with high task cohesion isn't guaranteed to succeed. However, there's good news for basketball coaches, according to Coach Bloom.

"For team sports like basketball and ice hockey, where players’ movements and verbalizations must be highly interactive and coordinated to achieve success, it has been found that greater levels of task cohesion relate to greater team success."

Coach Bloom answers my earlier question about whether chemistry is the result of winning or the cause of it:

"Higher levels of team (task) chemistry appear to be related to great team success as the season progresses, and as the team becomes more successful, the degree of team chemistry appears to increase as well. So you might say the relationship between team chemistry and team success is circular. As team chemistry improves, so does the team’s record, and as the team’s record improves, it becomes more and more cohesive."

I also came across this excellent article by a management professor at Wright State University in Dayton. According to the author, there are six factors that influence "good team chemistry," including diversity, role taking, constructive norms, leadership, cohesiveness, and common vision. In his words:

"Good team chemistry helps a team achieve its goals, and it results when (a) a team has members who possess the right competencies and (b) they work effectively together to achieve synergies. We most often notice that a team has poor chemistry when the members are talented but fail to work well together to make the most of their abilities. For instance, team members failing to play roles that their teams need someone to play or engaging in unproductive conflict are examples of problems with team chemistry."

He also highlights the importance of team leaders, which I've posted about here previously, claiming that "leaders provide direction, structure activities, share information, encourage participation, promote positive relationships, and support and encourage members."

The author also emphasizes goal-setting and providing a vision for the team:

"To reach the highest levels of performance, team leaders should ensure that members have goals that motivate them. Furthermore, the highest performing teams are driven by a vision of the future to which the team aspires. Team leaders who can articulate a vision for their teams can create passion and inspire exceptional performance. While goals are normally specific and measurable (often expressed numerically), a vision is a vivid picture of something exciting that a team can achieve. The kind of vision that energizes a team is a vivid picture of the future that's ambitious and exciting."

[Speaking of vision, here's the vision University of Washington head football coach Rick Neuheisel laid out for his players the other day.]