Words by TYF Program Psychologist Luke Jankie
The age-old question: Who wins in a battle between a team of champions and a champion team? While the conversation has gone on for as long as sports have been played, popular opinion typically favors the champion team. It is no secret that that strong teams lean on strong relationships between coaches, players and fans – but why is that more effective than an elite individual operating alone? Looking to psychology theory and some modern day examples of successful sporting franchises, we’re tackling the issue!
To better understand the significance of connection in sport, we turn to the success of the NBA franchise the Chicago Bulls during the 1990s. Illustrated in the gripping Netflix documentary ‘The Last Dance’, the journey of the Bulls side led by Michael Jordan was not withstanding challenges. On paper, managing a roster boasting the talents and personalities of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman would have been no small feat. Yet as we’ve come to learn, finding a way to accept and flexibly manage the competing needs of these people, afforded them the opportunity to truly find their feet as both individuals and teammates within the organisation – which was ultimately key to the team’s success.
On a personal level, the Bulls had a focus on understanding individual personalities as a means of getting the best out of their players. A prime example of this was when then-coach Phill Jackson allowed rebounding forward Dennis Rodman to take a leave of absence during the middle of a season to vacation in Las Vegas. Despite being an unusual request, Jackson did not question Rodman’s commitment to the team or his role, rather instead opting to demonstrate his unique understanding and trust in his player – recognizing that an increased workload that has season had genuinely fatigued his star forward. Despite the colorful outbursts and unorthodox systems at the Bulls, the strong relationships created within team allowed players and coaches to feel comfortable in their abilities, secure in their self-expression, and safe in the management of their challenges – which ultimately allowed players to flourish in their different roles.
The Chicago Bulls emphasis on maximizing individuals within a team unit was also reflected in their famous offensive strategy the ‘Triangle Offence’ originally designed by Tex Winter and Sam Barry. Namely, this style of play encouraged constant movement (on and off the ball), spacing between players and versatility in playmaking. With no pre-set execution on any given play, successful outcomes depended on team chemistry, synergy and a trust in individuals to execute their skills whenever the opportunity called on them to do so. While certainly not a guaranteed recipe for success, this offence strategy that enabled players to showcase their individual talents within the team structure undoubtedly helped Coach Phill Jackson work his way to 11 championships across his tenure with the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers.
Bringing the debate closer to home, we can see a similar trend taking shape in our very own backyard with the 2017 Richmond Tigers premiership team. In 2017 Coach Damien Hardwick elected to move beyond the footy fundamentals and basic skills training, creating a culture shift by way of placing an emphasis on emotional and social wellbeing. Through a series of different exercises, the Richmond staff facilitated a process of achieving a greater sense of sharing, understanding and acceptance amongst the playing group.
In an excerpt from an interview with former Richmond defender and current Gold Coast Suns player Brandon Ellis, he described a newfound sense of love amongst the players and the capacity to “stay positive…stick tight…[not] let anything in the cracks, or anyone inside [their] heads” as a result on the culture shift. Richmond Head of Coaching Tim Livingstone mirrored a similar sentiment, indicating that connection was imperative to success given that “if you’ve got to put your arse on the line for your mate, and take a hit on the field, you’re more likely to do it if you have some care for what’s he’s been through”.
But, it’s not just at Richmond that we’ve seen a strong emphasis on relationships in football – it’s being embraced league wide. In an interview recently conducted with former GWS and Carlton player Dylan Buckley, he described to the TYF team that in being acknowledged and appreciated as a unique individual, he was able to find purpose outside of football, which ultimately made him a happier and better-rounded person. According to Dylan, the coach was one of the most important players in that process, given that even “the littlest thing a coach could say to a player could change their day”.
While we know the stories of success, the question still goes begging – why are relationships actually so important to success? When it comes to the champion team, the foundation of success is often underpinned by the way teammates interact, work together, and connect. When considering these key processes, modern psychology often looks to the idea of ‘attachment’ – which refers to an emotional connection between two people. And what we know about attachment is that those who have positive connections with others are often more likely to feel comfortable exploring and developing in the world, given that they feel secure in knowing that they have a safe base (the other person) to fall back on for support, guidance and reassurance in challenging times.
Theory suggests that in order to form constructive attachments, caregivers need to demonstrate responsivity, consistency and sensitivity to the needs of those around them. In doing this, caregivers help establish a sense of safety, security and ultimately protection – which in turn allows for greater development of skills. On the flipside, when there are no effective attachments present, we find that people tend to be more resistant to exploring the world and trying new things – displaying more of an avoidance to ‘learning by doing’ and trial and error, which can in turn hold back their growth and development.
So to conclude – in a battle between a champion team and a team of champions – TYF is going with the champion team! Building a list that has talent is important, but harnessing that talent, encouraging development and establishing genuine connections will ultimately position the players to get the best out of themselves as individuals and as a group.
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