May 1, 2014

What's behind team spirit?

It comes down to how our relationships need to work in any form of life and this has to do with the ability to love, to talk, to listen and to commit. In short, to relate

New Zealand gelled as a team in the 1992 World Cup but splintered thereafter © Getty Images

Teamwork, team spirit, team culture, team dynamics - all buzzwords that point to the same thing. Yet in truth it is the team "functionability" that must work if success is to be achieved and a legacy created. Sports teams are no different to business teams, except sport is played out in public and each individual player is under scrutiny, as much as the team's performance is.

In reality, most teams fail, if winning a championship or event or being ranked No. 1 is the measure they are judged by. Those few fortunate enough to hold the trophy aloft, let alone do it often and frequently, like the once all-conquering Manchester United, or the Australian cricket team of yesteryear, they are the ones that come together as one. As d'Artagnan famously said, "All for one and one for all."

There are thousands of opinions, hundreds of books, case studies and manuals on the subject worldwide. There are many ways to skin a cat. Yet really, when all is said and done, it is the simple methods of how people function best in everyday life that need to be executed in a sporting team environment. It comes down to how our relationships work in any form of life, and this points always to the ability to love, to talk, to listen and to commit. In short, to relate.

In my years of experiencing the good and the bad in relationships and teams, studying others, reading lots, and hearing grand and sad stories in all kinds of endeavour, the one thing that stands out more than anything is building and maintaining trust.

Trust stems from a willingness to openly share anything and everything. It is about not being afraid to show vulnerability, admitting mistakes and weaknesses, and generally and genuinely sharing the truth outwardly and honestly among the group. Trust rules the lot.

When it is not built, or is broken, then the essence of the team's functionality is lost. Great leaders and captains have been able to rely on this trust, once established, as the cornerstone to team success.

Australia have always had the ability to work together even if one or two of the personalities clashed

Ian Chappell, the great Australian captain, would easily speak his mind, using his open-door policy style, by buying his team-mates a beer and sitting them down at the bar, loosening them up a little and getting a natural flow of conversation bedded in. He was famous for building that trust within his all-conquering team of the '70s by simply using straight honest talking and listening. In this he helped create the environment to challenge and debate with each other.

This is incredibly healthy, the key being that the trust generated leads to open challenging discussions and passionate debate based on respect. It doesn't mean you have to hold hands when doing so, just simply to speak your truth "out in the open", be heard, and take time to listen in turn. The worst thing is to speak your truth behind the backs of the team, in particular to the media and opposition. This kills trust, and it kills the desire to continue to share. Once trust and openness are broken, there is no chance going forward.

If the first two are working well, it will go a long way to solving any commitment issues. Committing or buying into the team's work is about the desire to go to great lengths to perform your specialist role for your team's benefit. When team members are allowed to share the truth, there is a natural tendency to buy in to committing wholeheartedly to the decisions made by the team's leaders.

Without commitment there is no accountability. When all are in, it becomes easier to call team members on actions and behaviours that will assist the team cause. When accountability becomes understood, then so too is the need to focus attention to the goals and results of the team. Accountability removes the individual needs, like personal recognition and ego, from the equation.

Australia had a great handle on this with their dominance through most of the 1990s and much of the following decade. They have always had that ability to work together even if one or two of the personalities clashed. This was the open positive conflict working well. West Indies, under Clive Lloyd, showed a real theme to their togetherness, small nations becoming one, and they displayed a spirit unrivalled for 15 long years.

Through the '80s, New Zealand had a mixture of good and bad, but mainly positive functionality. Sometimes there was a lack of attention to team results and accountability, but overall there was an enduring trust, openness and commitment.

In my term as a Test captain, I didn't allow for enough open debate and sharing, and so we had little trust to start with, and the rest of the dysfunctions followed. My failure was in not generating enough open conflict to ensure everyone had a say, bought in, and truly committed. However, it did come slowly, so by the time of the 1992 World Cup, we had nearly all five functions working smoothly.

Sadly, rather than building on that success, we splintered dramatically, the catalyst being the bomb blast outside our hotel in Colombo in late 1992, an incident that split the team in two when six players and the coach, with families at home, left the tour. From then, as a team, we were damaged goods. Administrators got involved, wrongly, and developed hideous resentment. Over just a few months all the trust we had garnered started to evaporate.

By February 1993, factions were everywhere and our team dynamic was dead. The coach, Wally Lees was sacked for very little reason. Mark Greatbatch was inexplicably replaced as vice-captain, and therefore I lost my trusted lieutenant, and before long, after just one more Test in charge, my tenure as skipper was over too. The team spirit suffered.

My last seven Tests, as a mere batsman not knowing how to retire, were the saddest of all that I played, as I watched a team pretend it existed. There wasn't one ounce of trust. That positive team dynamic never rose again for New Zealand until Stephen Fleming began his own team-building with a young bunch of mates and an experienced and inspirational management, from 1998 to 2003.

The point is, anything can disrupt the dynamic, and so it's vital that whatever happens, or whoever comes into the group, the five functions must be quickly and often referred to: Motivation for maintaining the flow of attention to results; accountability; commitment; open, honest and respectful conflict; and sharing truths - these make the lifeblood of a team's fulfilment and longevity.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Tim on May 1, 2014, 22:55 GMT

    To suggest that Andy Flower didnt owe a huge part of his success to probably the best group of English players they have had collectively in a team for decades, possibly ever, is a bit naive (Cook, KP, Bell, Trott, Broad and Anderson would all be amongst the best 20 England players ever). When Andy Flower spent time with South Australia they were bad, Zimbabwe didnt win too many matches ever and England lost two series in whitewashes with him as coach. His method may have worked in a less egalitarian age of cricket, but not now.

  • Nadeem on May 1, 2014, 20:36 GMT

    You need a right leader as captain to create team spirit. Martin crows team lost to great great leader Imran Khan in 92 WC. But it took Imran 6 years to create that team spirit. Imran was really the best cricketer at that time and deserving captain and leader so to achieve amazing spirit in a team one has to select the leader/captain on merit. Not like Misbah/Waqar who are never able to create that spirit in ODI teams because they had better players than them in the team like Afridi/Wasim respectively. MERIT creates SPIRIT

  • Steve on May 1, 2014, 17:40 GMT

    Mr. Crowe, is this article an attempt to justify your previous post about KP and the demise of the England cricket team? If so, pretty good, but in our lack of knowledge about what has really gone wrong, do you not first question the origins of particular breakdowns of trust, communication and support? All intense relationships have underlying complexities outsiders are unaware of, yet we judge the final act. Can't fault this article, but for me doesn't cover up for writing the last one!

  • Dummy4 on May 1, 2014, 15:27 GMT

    Agree cloudness-they wanted a frank discussion in the changeroom. That is exactly what they got from KP and it turns out they didn't like it one little bit because he was 'too outspoken' I mean seriously! Headmaster -schoolboy springs to mind.

  • Arvin on May 1, 2014, 15:25 GMT

    Besides, I that Matin has pointed out I think there is some thing more basic which starts the process of trust. From my experience, mostly playing at the club level, I think the most essential part of the team spirit is to enjoy the success of each others.

    Once you can enjoy others' success your criticism and suggestions become valuable to other and things like commitment and accountability naturally follow.

  • Vinish on May 1, 2014, 10:29 GMT

    Another word that can really make or break team spirit is 'selflessness'. When a player commits to the team selflessly, it shows in the team on the field. It shows not only in victories, but also in close defeats. All disintegration and conflicts stem from the 'absence of selflessness', the very cornerstone of a team game!

  • Dummy4 on May 1, 2014, 9:22 GMT

    Andy Flower was a hugely successful captain and leader in both international, and then county cricket, and then brought a period of great success as coach. to suggest he was simply an overcontrolling "headmaster" based on the recent failure of the side is at best naive.

  • Dummy4 on May 1, 2014, 9:09 GMT

    Wow, respect to Martin Crowe.

  • David on May 1, 2014, 7:49 GMT

    Very true. This is why any captain/coach has to show authority as well as a natural approachability - many are able to do one but not the other. 12 months ago, Australia had a regime in which there was little open communication. And the ECB and Flower have to ask themselves if there is any way the KP incident would have happened in a set-up where there was open and honest communication among the players and coaching staff? Unfortunately, the English tendency is still towards headmaster type coaches who show only a dim awareness of what creates team spirit.

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