Sunday, 30 January 2011

Team Ethic

Today I saw a marvellous team with spirit and determination. What really impressed wasn't the result, but the commitment to playing football the right way. Inter came back from two down to win 3-2. Fulham demolished Tottenham 4-0 in the FA Cup. I'm talking about neither, but in fact my university women's side.

The gap between the top two leagues is great and so my side - promoted last year - have struggled this year. We are a seconds team so often find ourselves losing our better players when the 1sts are short. We have lost every single league game. Today was no exception going down 1-0.

But results are not everything. We were destined to have a tough season and so it has proved. As a coach you learn that an attachment to the result and only the result is counter productive as it can hide deeper issues or disguise things that are genuinely going well. Football is a low scoring game and as such hinges on moments. You can play well for 85 minutes and lose 3-0.

Let's set today in context. At the start of the season I bombarded the team with meticulous information about the way they were to play. This alienated me from the side. They had never encountered such depth of analysis, preparation or such complex expectations. Even the formation - a 4-2-3-1 - was baffling. A switch back to the 4-4-2 they were used to has not yielded better results but has handed back over the system to the players. They feel comfortable with it. And when a team has limited time to train together, feeling comfortable with the playing style is more important than having the best formation of all time everrrr. In any event the side now plays like a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 diamond anyway. What is important is the movement of the players rather than starting positions.

An even more profound lesson was learnt too. Culture shock is detrimental to empathy and performance. Empathy is important because without it players will not run to help each other out. Football is a highly social game - a team sport - and so players must feel a strong emotional connection with each other if they are to run through the pain of heavy legs filled with lactic acid and a heaving chest, to help each other out. To avoid destroying empathy through a culture shock, it is important to understand a number of things. Firstly, what the regime before was like. If you fail to understand how things were done you will find a lot of resistance in implementing your own ideas. Secondly, you must understand what motivates your players to play the game. As a coach it's easy to assume they have an intrinsic love of the game, of problem solving, and of becoming better footballers. This isn't always true. My team do it more for the social and fitness aspects. Finally, you must understand what your players are like as people. You are not really communicating to players, but to people.

These lessons have come to me over the course of the season in a very real way.

Back to the game. The team retains 5 players from the previous season. Many of the newcomer have never played before. We have come off the back of two 7-0 defeats. The first came against the best team in the league. The second came when we had no goalkeeper and played away with 10 men. Today we are missing our captain and have two players pull out hours before the match. Preparation was not ideal.

Yet the recent hardships we have faced and the willingness of players to sacrifice themselves for the team - e.g. by playing in goal - has been inspiring. Today we ran until our legs were heavy, and then we ran some more. As coach I projected exactly the emotions that I expected my players to have: enthusiasm, commitment and positivity. I urged them to "USE THE BALL AND WE WILL SCORE". Simply projecting ideas onto the team - drawing on past experience with NLP - lead to a sense of confidence. We played some beautiful football and despite having far more shots on goal and showing far more commitment to our style of football we lose 1-0.

It is easy to be a bad sport. I accept that every single loss we have suffered this season we have deserved. But today was different: the referee agreed, the players knew it, and the opposition walked off absolutely exhausted. We were physically drained but mentally buzzing.

The ideas in this post will be of use to other coaches as well as shedding light on why some managers have more success than others. The best managers pace their players, and lead them to a new place such that the squad are made in their own image. This sense of shared identity fosters team spirit and competitive success.


  1. I just want to say I love the blog. The articles are really brilliant. I'm a very big fan of your work.


  2. I second James statement.

    This blog is not about football, it's about life! And the reason why articles like this are so great, is because football is life. you can use the essence of this article everywhere.

  3. Thanks for the kind words. Appreciated!