During my early years as a young coach, I often was asked to explain the reasons for my success. My initial response was to summarize my understanding of the technical and tactical aspects of the game. Like most other coaches just starting out, I believed that my team would win or lose depending on how precisely I trained my players to execute the fundamentals of the game. I also believed that a thorough knowledge of the game’s systems of play would serve as the other pillar on which I would build my foundation for a winning formula.
Here is what I learned: Both of these items are necessary but they are not sufficient.
As I entered the second half of my career, I began to understand that the cultivation of solid mental habits—in particular, the establishment of mutual team trust—is at the heart of building a championship team. In fact, I believe that the configuration of a team’s mentality (call it chemistry if you like) is more important than skill development and team tactics as a team prepares for competition.
You need both. But never underestimate the power of mutual team trust when it’s time to compete. Here is an excerpt from chapter 8, Strengthening Team Trust, from my book Thinking Volleyball (Human Kinetics, 2014).
I conducted a series of meetings with the team. I asked a consultant to sit in. He was a proven facilitator who specialized in values clarification and had a good track record helping groups resolve conflicts and move forward. He guided us through some complex and sometimes difficult discussions. This is what we learned.
If we do not wish to remain the same, we must do things differently. The world of elite athletics creates a stressful environment, requiring that players and coaches operate in a stressful range of human interaction. It requires that all participants develop advanced communication and conflict resolution skills. It requires the development of relationships strong enough to survive the stress.
The absence of conflict does not mean that a team is doing well. The depth of conflict usually is parallel with the depth of the relationships within the group. If we don’t have the ability to deal with conflict, we won’t be able to deal with the stresses of the season.
All teams face the following challenges. When little things go wrong, the offended party takes a little step away from the group. When this response is repeated often enough, the players pull apart from each other. Dealing with each of the little things is a quality of groups that achieve long-range success.
Impulse control (frustration management) is the single most powerful quality for succeeding in a group. Learn how to manage yourself in the present and deal with the issue after the impulses have lessened.
The rule of reciprocity must be in place. This rule states that if you want to be critical of others, you must be willing to take criticism from others.
In our case we had a dilemma. Everyone wanted the team to be energetic on the court, but only two players had been providing it on a consistent basis. Should their teammates trust that these two would never be sick or injured, never fatigued, and never in a bad mood, and therefore rely on them to supply energy at all times? Or should we work on developing additional energy-providers from among others on the team, even though they might not be naturals for this role?
The reality of this dilemma was driven home during a brief exercise at one of the meetings. The facilitator asked the players, on the count of three, to point to the person who supplied the most energy and initiated the most communication on the court. On the count of three, every finger pointed in the direction of one player. The same occurred when they were asked to point to the player who was second in line as a supplier of energy and communication. Again, all fingers pointed at one player.
Then he asked the players to point to the person with the third best skills in this area. Not one player raised a finger to point to anyone. In this one moment, several things became clear. The top two energy-providers quite obviously stood out from the others, and it was just as obvious that there were no other energy-providers.
For our team, this was a defining moment. They realized immediately that a solution was needed. They could no longer rely on mere chance. What if one or both of their energy titans were to become unavailable? Others would have to step up. From that day forward, other players made a conscious effort to help out. None of them became nonstop talking machines, but their efforts were enough to render the issue sufficiently benign and allow the team to complete a highly successful season.
As I look back at this episode, it is clear to me that all of us had benefitted from our earlier work together with the concept of trust. They were learning to trust each other when taking on issues. They were freeing themselves of the fear of retaliation that often accompanies such intimate discussions. We were able to arrive at a full awareness of both the problem and a solution without having to waste time tiptoeing around the issue. We trusted each other to refrain from unfairly exposing each other to ridicule. We trusted each other to leave individual agendas behind and to contribute to the dialogue in an open and unselfish fashion. All of this was possible only because sufficient levels of trust were in place.
Trust is one of those words found embedded in just about every book written about athletes and sport. “You have to trust yourself” and “You have to trust each other” are axioms that are repeated to athletes from an early age. Trust stands alongside loyalty, sacrifice, commitment, and accountability as words meant to describe the attributes necessary for a team to achieve chemistry, another word that shows up frequently. When I am asked to reveal the secret to my past success, I could answer that I was an exceptional skill trainer, a tactical genius, a thorough game planner, and a great motivational speaker, but I don’t. Instead, I tell them the truth: I spent most of my time trying to get people to learn how to trust. All of the other elements are important, but trust is the one variable without which the entire program-building effort would collapse.
Yes, you heard me correctly. I am saying that the most important variable in building a program, whether you are coaching men or women, is the cultivation of teamwide trust. No matter how skilled your players, and no matter how sophisticated your system of play, if your team cannot function according to the principles of trust, you are going to experience failure.
When talking with other coaches about this subject, I often lead with the following question. What kind of team would you rather not play against: A team of fearless, unheralded, marginally gifted athletes who play with relentless determination, confidence, and pride, or a team of thoroughbred athletes who can physically dominate an opponent, but who are undermined by moments of inconsistency?
Nearly all coaches choose the first option. No one wants to play against the army of dedicated, nothing-to-lose attitudes that the first team brings to the court. The coaches would rather take their chances against the greyhounds who have trouble generating the gritty style of play seen in the first team. My unofficial poll on the topic would reveal a 10:1 ratio against playing the first group. When I ask why, coaches all respond with something like this. Those scrappy ball-control teams are very difficult to play against. If you have a vulnerability, they will find and exploit it. If you are not prepared to match their commitment to defense, they will intimidate you and force you into mental lapses. If you fall behind to this team early in the match, you will quickly find out all you need to know about the importance of team trust.