February 17, 2014

The power of good team culture

Teams that encourage individualism along with a sense of belonging to the larger group are likelier to succeed
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Players are often encouraged to consciously display commitment to the team, but how important is that for the bigger cause? © Getty Images

Does team spirit exist? To its critics it is "an illusion glimpsed only in victory", as the footballer Steve Archibald famously argued. To outright cynics, it is worse than that: a convenient excuse for captains and managers to justify getting rid of good players on spurious grounds.

The problem is partly one of language. Many uses of "team spirit" are misleading, even meaningless. If team spirit is defined as untroubled laughter and bonhomie, then I'm afraid all teams - even the most spirited ones - suffer huge fluctuations in mood and temper. A team, like a family, cannot be elated all the time.

Another flawed use of the phrase congratulates players on their "team-spiritedness" for kindly but showy irrelevances. This is also a mistake. One day soon a football defence will concede a goal at a corner because they are too busy congratulating each other for heading away the last corner - and, in attending to "team spirit", forgetting to do their jobs.

I'm all for encouragement and support, but I am suspicious of the cricketing fad for tapping team-mates on the back when they "stop" a ball trickling along the infield at 3mph, or the now mandatory dressing-room standing ovation and overhead clapping that greets every on-field milestone. All this has little to with the "supported" player and a lot to do with the "supporting" one. Look at me, he is saying, what a good team man I am! It is usually just mannered behaviour. When a dressing-room standing ovation is awarded to even the most routine hundred, it logically follows that a new celebration is required to mark the really special centuries - perhaps a shirts-off, punching-the-air, post-goal pile-up on the balcony? This, however, will only be a temporary solution until it, too, becomes routine.

Nor can team spirit conjure short-term miracles. In that sense of the phrase, team spirit is indeed overrated. Ask any great captain how much team spirit helps when the opposition is 500 for 2 and his bowling attack is on its knees. Answer: not much use at all. As with great captaincy, we expect too much of team spirit. It is not about pulling rabbits out of hats.

But rather than throw out the idea of team spirit, we should take more care to define it properly. Instead of giddiness, it is about respect. In place of superficial and irrelevant kindness, it is about tough love. Rather than a short-term panacea, it is a long-term strategy.

A better term is culture. If we started using "team culture" instead of "team spirit", then a lot of misunderstandings would be avoided.

Good culture does not uphold the silly pretence that elite sportsmen have no self-interest at stake. Within a very strong team culture, it is possible to talk openly about the inevitable transition from one generation to the next

Let me give you an example of bad team culture. In county cricket, players mostly travel around the country in individual cars rather than a single team bus, two or three team-mates in each car. One other piece of background information is that after about ten years playing for one team, county pros are awarded a "benefit year" - an archaic system sponsored by the clubs - that entitles them to raise extra money, over and above their salaries, through private fundraising. It is very time-consuming and tiring - a benefit year is almost like having another job - but it can be lucrative.

One day, I picked up a colleague before the first match of the season. We were both senior players and got on pretty well. "How are you?" I asked, as he got into the car. "To be honest, I could do with an injury so I can miss some cricket and work on my benefit year." If only two of us had been in the car, the comment would have been selfish but harmless. Sitting in the back seat, however, was an 18-year-old who had only played a handful of county matches. So the cynical comment undermined the younger player's healthy excitement about the match and the new season. It sent the message: my own bank balance is more important than the team winning. Sadly, this was the culture the senior player had inherited from his mentors, and they from theirs. The money-first culture was passed on from one generation to the next.

If you don't believe in team culture, try imagining an All Black rugby player saying that comment within earshot of a young player, or envisage a similar scene within Steve Waugh's Australian team. I can't imagine it.

So what does a good culture look like? Sport relies on necessary personal ambition and individualism. But that can exist alongside a sense of tradition and institutional respect. The result is a kind of individualism-plus.

Good culture does not uphold the silly pretence that elite sportsmen have no self-interest at stake. Indeed, within a very strong team culture, it is possible to talk openly - even affectionately - about the inevitable transition from one generation to the next.

Here is a story about three similar players - now aged 43, 34 and 29 - who had overlapping careers at the same football club. Twenty-five years ago, a midfield player emerged who ran the game with his precise, attacking passing. Fifteen years ago, a junior came along who was even better - and the two men played alongside each other, sharing insights and tactical wisdom. Five years after that, a third playmaker, a tiny teenager, pitched up to train with the team. The oldest midfielder watched the new boy. "You've seen that?" he said to the middle "brother". "You'll push me towards the exit, but that guy will send us both into retirement!"

Only, he didn't, not completely. The older player turned to coaching, where he harnessed the brilliance of the other two. The team? Barcelona. Their names? Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.

The culture of Barcelona begins at La Masia, their youth academy. When the football writer Simon Kuper visited La Masia, the director explained how it remained home to the players even when they were superstars: "Messi and Iniesta drop by to eat. They come to us with their problems, as they would to their mother and father. We know their glories, we know their miseries."

In sport, business or education, culture is always central to long-term institutional excellence. But it is subtle and often scarcely visible: a sense of belonging, trust and continuity; knowledge being shared and challenged; competitiveness developing alongside mutual respect; the reinforcement of fun as well as toughness.

Good culture in a school does not mean that every pupil is deliriously happy every minute of the day. But it does mean that bullying is rare and respect develops across different activities. Good culture is always partly self-regulating. In the 18th century, the precursors of the London Stock Exchange were the informal exchanges in coffee shops. They developed their own systems of rules and enforcement. Those who didn't settle their accounts were "named and shamed" by their peers and labelled "lame duck". It is the same with teams. In a strong team culture, senior players should feel empowered to challenge colleagues who are undermining the group ethic.

Here is the difficult part. Culture is hard to build, easy to undermine. It often begins with difficult, unpopular decisions. The power of good culture will often be mocked. But it is real, all right. That's how Barcelona develop so many of their own stars, and how the All Blacks - despite New Zealand's tiny talent pool - always stay at the top.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Kittu_on_cricket on February 21, 2014, 6:41 GMT

    @stieprox. Then u havnt seen cricket at all & an austrailian. Com on mate, seriously? Ask Adam Gilchrist, if u consider him a great player ofcourse. Otherwise just forget abt it.

  • on February 18, 2014, 7:05 GMT

    A very good, sensible article, as always, by Ed Smith. I agree, a team doesn't require the so called "Team Spirit" to win matches. They just need to have respect for each other and perform their specified job in the team, to make the team successful.

  • Rally_Windies on February 18, 2014, 6:06 GMT

    Well this is a "dependent" on the quality of the players !

    2 players of equal or similar quality, ok we will go for either the better behaved or the younger one, who cna grow more....

    But... Dropping Jerome Taylor, Chanderpaul, Lendel Simmons , Gayle and Rhamdin for "attitude" ...

    and replacing them with the "well behaved" Sammy, Powell, Braithwaite, Edwards and Best and Devon Thomas !

    Yeah... that is not very good management, picking an "easy to manage" team that will lose every game ....

    A good manager should be able to "manage " the best team .....

    A bad manger..... picks patsies ! and downgrades the quality of the team , just cuz he wants "yes men" around him ....

  • heathrf1974 on February 17, 2014, 22:01 GMT

    A classic example on the effects good and bad team culture is the recent ashes series. If the Indian team can harness their culture into a strong one (similar to under Kirsten) they can then threaten to be no. 1.

  • on February 17, 2014, 13:50 GMT

    It stems from the best sort of pride, that is, pride in something bigger than even the current team.

    The All Blacks represent the spirit of New Zealand; Barcelona the spirit of Catalonia.

    It's harder to generate that in a world of fleeting allegiance and money chasing.

  • steve48 on February 17, 2014, 12:25 GMT

    I think only you should be allowed to write serious articles on cricinfo, mr.Smith! Nearest anyone has come to convincing me it was right to sack KP. However, only if your justification of a new team culture is going to be seriously attempted does the decision hold any merit. Even then, I am not convinced entirely in the KP saga, which I realise is not the sole focus of your article, although perhaps the inspiration? 2 things; an England international has not the same excuse of being impressionable as an 18 year old county rookie, and team culture did not stop Barcelona getting thrashed out of sight by Bayern Munich! England seem to be too rigid to allow any individual expression, whether we are discussing micro management, IPL or indeed standing behind a captain who seemed out of his depth as forcefully as they have. What do the players who think Cook is a poor tactician do now? Risk being outed by an agent provocateur for comments at a private meeting? Great article!

  • TATTUs on February 17, 2014, 11:47 GMT

    Whats a routine test 100? How many have you scored? C'mon mate. have some respect for the game.

  • VB_Says on February 17, 2014, 10:44 GMT

    Awesome piece by ED Smith. It is most relevant in team sport where competitiveness is not only with opposition, but also within. Rightly said "Culture is hard to build, easy to undermine". The process is top-down, where the seniors much have embraced it all through their careers. Good culture also enables similar talents to co-exist and grow.

  • Mike_Tyson on February 17, 2014, 10:15 GMT

    @Stieprox - You obviously didn't see very many then..

  • 2929paul on February 17, 2014, 10:13 GMT

    A good team culture is one built around the understanding that individual performances are respected and applauded but not in themselves as important as the team's results. Averages are not the be all and end all and you are not constantly playing for your place by selfishly battling for the one big innings that will keep you in the team. This is the culture that Strauss wanted in his England team.

    Steve Waugh seemed to me to engender and personify that more than any other captain I've seen. He had many different and difficult personalities in his team but his own demeanour when reaching personal milestones set the tone for the way the team should approach individual targets within the context of the game. It was a winning culture not an artificial team spirit, which can be as strong in losing teams as in winning teams, which was prevalent in his time.

  • Kittu_on_cricket on February 21, 2014, 6:41 GMT

    @stieprox. Then u havnt seen cricket at all & an austrailian. Com on mate, seriously? Ask Adam Gilchrist, if u consider him a great player ofcourse. Otherwise just forget abt it.

  • on February 18, 2014, 7:05 GMT

    A very good, sensible article, as always, by Ed Smith. I agree, a team doesn't require the so called "Team Spirit" to win matches. They just need to have respect for each other and perform their specified job in the team, to make the team successful.

  • Rally_Windies on February 18, 2014, 6:06 GMT

    Well this is a "dependent" on the quality of the players !

    2 players of equal or similar quality, ok we will go for either the better behaved or the younger one, who cna grow more....

    But... Dropping Jerome Taylor, Chanderpaul, Lendel Simmons , Gayle and Rhamdin for "attitude" ...

    and replacing them with the "well behaved" Sammy, Powell, Braithwaite, Edwards and Best and Devon Thomas !

    Yeah... that is not very good management, picking an "easy to manage" team that will lose every game ....

    A good manager should be able to "manage " the best team .....

    A bad manger..... picks patsies ! and downgrades the quality of the team , just cuz he wants "yes men" around him ....

  • heathrf1974 on February 17, 2014, 22:01 GMT

    A classic example on the effects good and bad team culture is the recent ashes series. If the Indian team can harness their culture into a strong one (similar to under Kirsten) they can then threaten to be no. 1.

  • on February 17, 2014, 13:50 GMT

    It stems from the best sort of pride, that is, pride in something bigger than even the current team.

    The All Blacks represent the spirit of New Zealand; Barcelona the spirit of Catalonia.

    It's harder to generate that in a world of fleeting allegiance and money chasing.

  • steve48 on February 17, 2014, 12:25 GMT

    I think only you should be allowed to write serious articles on cricinfo, mr.Smith! Nearest anyone has come to convincing me it was right to sack KP. However, only if your justification of a new team culture is going to be seriously attempted does the decision hold any merit. Even then, I am not convinced entirely in the KP saga, which I realise is not the sole focus of your article, although perhaps the inspiration? 2 things; an England international has not the same excuse of being impressionable as an 18 year old county rookie, and team culture did not stop Barcelona getting thrashed out of sight by Bayern Munich! England seem to be too rigid to allow any individual expression, whether we are discussing micro management, IPL or indeed standing behind a captain who seemed out of his depth as forcefully as they have. What do the players who think Cook is a poor tactician do now? Risk being outed by an agent provocateur for comments at a private meeting? Great article!

  • TATTUs on February 17, 2014, 11:47 GMT

    Whats a routine test 100? How many have you scored? C'mon mate. have some respect for the game.

  • VB_Says on February 17, 2014, 10:44 GMT

    Awesome piece by ED Smith. It is most relevant in team sport where competitiveness is not only with opposition, but also within. Rightly said "Culture is hard to build, easy to undermine". The process is top-down, where the seniors much have embraced it all through their careers. Good culture also enables similar talents to co-exist and grow.

  • Mike_Tyson on February 17, 2014, 10:15 GMT

    @Stieprox - You obviously didn't see very many then..

  • 2929paul on February 17, 2014, 10:13 GMT

    A good team culture is one built around the understanding that individual performances are respected and applauded but not in themselves as important as the team's results. Averages are not the be all and end all and you are not constantly playing for your place by selfishly battling for the one big innings that will keep you in the team. This is the culture that Strauss wanted in his England team.

    Steve Waugh seemed to me to engender and personify that more than any other captain I've seen. He had many different and difficult personalities in his team but his own demeanour when reaching personal milestones set the tone for the way the team should approach individual targets within the context of the game. It was a winning culture not an artificial team spirit, which can be as strong in losing teams as in winning teams, which was prevalent in his time.

  • Stieprox on February 17, 2014, 9:27 GMT

    tendulkar was most selfish cricketer i ever saw

  • Mike_Tyson on February 17, 2014, 8:31 GMT

    @Selfishkar - I didn't realise Tendulkar played in the Indian team on his own, must have been a great workload to batting, bowling, fielding and wicketkeeping all on is own, no surprise Ind lost their last ODI when he got a 100...

  • on February 17, 2014, 7:25 GMT

    @Selfishkar. What were his other ten team members doing.

  • ygkd on February 17, 2014, 7:15 GMT

    Good team culture is less obvious than a bad one. Bad ones can grow till they stand out like a sore thumb. Bad ones don't tell a player, especially a young one, why they're on the outer. They assess a young pace bowler by tape measure and radar and a young keeper or spinner by how many boundaries he hits. They clap good fortune as if it is fate and downplay hard work (to be called a journeyman is the biggest insult in the game). They have an old boy's club and they are found in it often. They may still have success, but not as much as they otherwise might and when things do go wrong, tellingly, they have few answers. That is why it is hard to judge careers and eras before they're over. From the outside, you can't see the inner workings. All you see is the public face and for a while that may not be much of a guide.

  • Selfishkar on February 17, 2014, 6:09 GMT

    Indian cricket has always been about selfish individuals. Prime example is Tendulkar who's last 100s in test and ODI resulted in loss for team India.

  • on February 17, 2014, 6:03 GMT

    The pavilion applauding a hundred is not an enforced custom. It is a sign that the team appreciates what the player has done for it. Similarly, the chest bumping or high fives that follow a player clearing a cross resulting in a corner, is to give the team a temporary lift which might be under pressure from a barrage of opposition's attacks. I agree with you when you say that team culture is the real thing. But, as you said so yourself, it takes a long time to build. Team 'spirit' on the other hand is an attempt on the part of the players to ignite a spark to raise the intensity or keep the same level of intensity going. While team culture would create great teams, team spirit would help a team lift itself to perform over and above what the team culture enables it to do.

  • jackiethepen on February 17, 2014, 3:55 GMT

    What's a routine hundred? Presumably you are not talking about Test cricket? You want to change the phrase team spirit to team culture and you call yourself a wordsmith? The word culture doesn't mean the same thing at all. It's become loosely bandied about as jargon. The word spirit does suggest something to do with having higher values than just selfish ones. Your example of the man only interested in money is not reflecting team spirit, rather the lack of it. There should be a balance between selfishness and selflessness in any team especially cricket which has individual targets. The idea promoted by Michael Atherton that batsman should not care about centuries takes all the romance out of the game. All watching fans very much enjoy the tradition of clapping a century, whether for a batsman from the home team or opposition. And why shouldn't mates on the balcony welcome the achievement? They know what it is like to be in the nervous nineties.

  • on February 17, 2014, 3:44 GMT

    All this fancy mumbo jumbo. Some players are just nusances. No big words for that.

  • MrKricket on February 17, 2014, 3:18 GMT

    How much is the culture inspired by the coach these days? Look at the Mickey Arthur effect vs the Darren Lehmann effect. Bob Simpson and Geoff Marsh had seemingly harmonious camps and were reasonably successful. John Buchanan seemed more in the Mickey Arthur school but coached the most successful Aus team despite Shane Warne not liking it one bit.

    It's got to be a combo of the coach and captain. Clarke seems to have regained control now Boof is coach. Flower and Cook seemed destined to split the team. Strauss was a better captain than he is given credit for I think.

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  • MrKricket on February 17, 2014, 3:18 GMT

    How much is the culture inspired by the coach these days? Look at the Mickey Arthur effect vs the Darren Lehmann effect. Bob Simpson and Geoff Marsh had seemingly harmonious camps and were reasonably successful. John Buchanan seemed more in the Mickey Arthur school but coached the most successful Aus team despite Shane Warne not liking it one bit.

    It's got to be a combo of the coach and captain. Clarke seems to have regained control now Boof is coach. Flower and Cook seemed destined to split the team. Strauss was a better captain than he is given credit for I think.

  • on February 17, 2014, 3:44 GMT

    All this fancy mumbo jumbo. Some players are just nusances. No big words for that.

  • jackiethepen on February 17, 2014, 3:55 GMT

    What's a routine hundred? Presumably you are not talking about Test cricket? You want to change the phrase team spirit to team culture and you call yourself a wordsmith? The word culture doesn't mean the same thing at all. It's become loosely bandied about as jargon. The word spirit does suggest something to do with having higher values than just selfish ones. Your example of the man only interested in money is not reflecting team spirit, rather the lack of it. There should be a balance between selfishness and selflessness in any team especially cricket which has individual targets. The idea promoted by Michael Atherton that batsman should not care about centuries takes all the romance out of the game. All watching fans very much enjoy the tradition of clapping a century, whether for a batsman from the home team or opposition. And why shouldn't mates on the balcony welcome the achievement? They know what it is like to be in the nervous nineties.

  • on February 17, 2014, 6:03 GMT

    The pavilion applauding a hundred is not an enforced custom. It is a sign that the team appreciates what the player has done for it. Similarly, the chest bumping or high fives that follow a player clearing a cross resulting in a corner, is to give the team a temporary lift which might be under pressure from a barrage of opposition's attacks. I agree with you when you say that team culture is the real thing. But, as you said so yourself, it takes a long time to build. Team 'spirit' on the other hand is an attempt on the part of the players to ignite a spark to raise the intensity or keep the same level of intensity going. While team culture would create great teams, team spirit would help a team lift itself to perform over and above what the team culture enables it to do.

  • Selfishkar on February 17, 2014, 6:09 GMT

    Indian cricket has always been about selfish individuals. Prime example is Tendulkar who's last 100s in test and ODI resulted in loss for team India.

  • ygkd on February 17, 2014, 7:15 GMT

    Good team culture is less obvious than a bad one. Bad ones can grow till they stand out like a sore thumb. Bad ones don't tell a player, especially a young one, why they're on the outer. They assess a young pace bowler by tape measure and radar and a young keeper or spinner by how many boundaries he hits. They clap good fortune as if it is fate and downplay hard work (to be called a journeyman is the biggest insult in the game). They have an old boy's club and they are found in it often. They may still have success, but not as much as they otherwise might and when things do go wrong, tellingly, they have few answers. That is why it is hard to judge careers and eras before they're over. From the outside, you can't see the inner workings. All you see is the public face and for a while that may not be much of a guide.

  • on February 17, 2014, 7:25 GMT

    @Selfishkar. What were his other ten team members doing.

  • Mike_Tyson on February 17, 2014, 8:31 GMT

    @Selfishkar - I didn't realise Tendulkar played in the Indian team on his own, must have been a great workload to batting, bowling, fielding and wicketkeeping all on is own, no surprise Ind lost their last ODI when he got a 100...

  • Stieprox on February 17, 2014, 9:27 GMT

    tendulkar was most selfish cricketer i ever saw

  • 2929paul on February 17, 2014, 10:13 GMT

    A good team culture is one built around the understanding that individual performances are respected and applauded but not in themselves as important as the team's results. Averages are not the be all and end all and you are not constantly playing for your place by selfishly battling for the one big innings that will keep you in the team. This is the culture that Strauss wanted in his England team.

    Steve Waugh seemed to me to engender and personify that more than any other captain I've seen. He had many different and difficult personalities in his team but his own demeanour when reaching personal milestones set the tone for the way the team should approach individual targets within the context of the game. It was a winning culture not an artificial team spirit, which can be as strong in losing teams as in winning teams, which was prevalent in his time.