Togetherness Wins Championships: Practical Ways to Foster Team Cohesion

Matt Long, M.A., M.Ed. and Stephen Walker, Ph.D.

Interviewer: “What wins championships?”

Kobe Bryant: “Togetherness.  Finding a way to play that maximizes each other’s talents.  It’s not about speed, it’s not about athleticism.”

            Kobe Bryant knows a little bit about winning championships.  With five NBA titles under his belt and two Olympic gold medals as well, Bryant has seen the pinnacle of his profession enough to understand what it takes to get there.  And in a recent interview in the midst of a surprisingly difficult season thus far, he summed it up with one word: “togetherness.”  I would imagine that if we could sit down and pick the brains of champions across any sport, we would find similar answers to the question, “what wins championships?”

So if it can be summed up in one word it should be easy to achieve then, right?  Not so fast.  Anyone who has been part of a team or even a group or organization can attest to the difficulty of getting everyone on the same page, with one purpose.  Togetherness on a team can be an elusive and mysterious goal, with common obstacles such as cliques, differing levels of commitment, and dissatisfaction with individual roles.  For those in leadership roles a lack of team cohesion can often become a source of frustration.

There is plenty of research out there, in disciplines from applied sport psychology to business and industry, showing that team or group cohesion is central to predicting the degree of success over time.  (For a great listen on this subject as it applies to hockey, please check out Dr. Stephen Walker’s interview with Dr. Larry Lauer.)  This article offers up four practical steps for coaches to build team cohesion:

1)   Know your Team

Every group of people has a combination of personalities.  Some are serious, some are funny, some are skilled, others have raw talent yet to be developed.  Create enough time with your players to have a good grasp of their backgrounds, significant experiences that brought them to you, know enough about their family to have a good grasp of “how” they were motivated, what guidelines they adhered to, what penalties or rewards really had an impact on them.  Much of this information is superfluous when it comes to planning your season, but it can be critical when you hit the bumps in the road.  How do you bring out the best in each of your players, is THE most important question?  What information you use on HOW to set up combinations to create optimal chemistry amongst your starters, or, how your rotations work as you substitute or establish lines or special teams just might be key.  These little things you learn about the personalities that make up your team can and will help you win.

2)   Be democratic in your decision-making

Members of any successful team need to share in a sense of ownership, and this can be achieved through bringing them in on some of the decisions you make as a coach.  Of course, like any good objective, this can be taken too far.  I am not advocating for team-wide votes on every decision from who starts to where the team’s funding goes.  The goal here is to give your players the feeling that you take their feedback seriously and use it to inform your decision-making.  As a basketball coach, at halftime I tried to make a habit of getting feedback from my players as to what the opponent was doing and how they thought our game plan was working.  Build this into the fabric of your team culture and you increase the players’ sense of ownership and buy-in

3)   Develop leadership qualities in your seniors and captains

In any team it won’t take long for leaders to emerge.  These are the athletes who lead vocally and/or by example, are voted to be team captains, and in general set the course for the team.  The more you can cultivate qualities such as encouragement of others, setting the tone for work ethic, mentoring younger or less experienced teammates, and calling out off-task behavior, the more cohesive the team will become (and, as stated before, more successful as well).  Coach Mike Krzyzewski instituted a “buddy system” at Duke University where upper classmen are each assigned an incoming freshman to mentor and guide in the ways of becoming a Duke Blue Devil.  He even takes it a step further and disallows the use of cars by freshmen so that they are constantly in need of rides from their elder teammates, helping to create a family feel to the program.  If there is disunity within your team, often the people best equipped and positioned to remedy it are your leaders.  Make a point to develop positive leadership qualities in your seniors and captains, and you will build cohesion in your team.

4)   Perfect the use of team building

Team building has been used for the improvement of role understanding, communication, leadership, enjoyment, performance, and of course, cohesion.  If done correctly, it can be a great addition to your preseason program.  One of the most effective team building activities is goal setting.  This is a place where the first two steps can be utilized as well.  If you as coach (or a sport psychology consultant) can facilitate a team goal setting session where specific, measurable, adjustable, realistic, and time-based (SMART) goals are set, and everyone on the team feels their voice has been heard, then you have laid the groundwork for a cohesive team.

Team Goals must “supercede” individual goals – and there is absolutely no feeling that surpasses what you experience when you achieve goals as a team. – Harry Sheahy

There are of course a huge number of other team building activities and resources as well, so I will just give you some basic guidelines to think about when deciding how to proceed (for a more detailed look, see Carron & Spink’s conceptual model, 1993):

  • Be mindful of the team environment you are creating – teams are defined by their distinctiveness (what makes them unique from other teams, i.e. creating team shirts, slogans, mantras, etc.) and proximity (what can you do to encourage interaction?  i.e. Coach K’s buddy system, or having them eat lunch together one day a week)
  • Be mindful of your team structure, and how it is contributing to cohesion.  Does every player know what their role is? and Has every player understood and accepted their role on the team?
  • Know when you need to have meetings with your players.  These might be team-wide, or with certain combinations of players, as well as individuals.  It is a wise thing to have individual meetings with each team member right before the season, in the middle of that season, and to debrief the lessons learned at the end of the season.  These meetings should be relatively short, well-structured, and you should be receptive to questions and to think about the observations each player makes about their status and/or progress thus far. Individual player meetings help clarify roles, values, priorities and goals – while also creating frequent and valuable opportunities for feedback, suggestions, and recommendations to improve the process.
  • If you don’t have team norms, facilitate their creation with your team.  Here is another opportunity to be democratic in your decision-making.  Having agreed-upon guidelines for practices, games, and outside of the sport will unify the team and create a set of expectations which can be referred back to throughout the season.

As stated earlier, team cohesion can be an elusive achievement.  Yet any athlete will tell you that success is nearly impossible without it.  These three practical steps will help you foster togetherness and, as Kobe Bryant suggested, find a way to play that maximizes each other’s talents.

Carron, A. V., & Eys, M. A. (2012). Group dynamics in sport (4th ed.), Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Carron, A. V., & Spink, K. S. (1993). Team building in an exercise setting. The Sport Psychologist, 7, 8–18.

Vealey, R.S. (2005). Coaching for the inner edge. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

There are plenty of team building videos available on YouTube if you’re willing to spend some time looking.  Here is a great example of one, with Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber sharing a few ideas on activities: