The myth of team culture

GLENN TURNER
Last updated 13:07 28/12/2011

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OPINION: An enormous amount of time, energy and money continues to go into attempting to develop a "winning team culture", not only in New Zealand but throughout the world of sport.

The recently published Argus Report in Australia has a section on "Improve the Australian Teams Culture". It is a prime example of a make work scheme, making a mountain out of a mole hill and imposing unrealistic expectations on players. It makes statements like "a 360 degree feedback process is needed followed by adult conversations, senior players including the captain and vice captain receiving mentoring by an external professional at least every six months".

It talks about leading by example, role models, desired behaviours, opinion-shapers, trust and honesty, induction processes and so on. All this and more to get players job ready and in between times I suppose they can do some practice and play the odd game. I thought you only had to drink Speights to be the perfect man.

Frankly, I don't see those culture improvement programmes making a skerrick of difference to the on-field performance of a player. They're more likely to irritate, and many of the best players I played alongside would tell them to bugger off. I suspect some of the current players share similar sentiments.

The reality is that long established trained responses automatically kick in during the execution of the various skills. During the heat of the battle, the subconscious takes control, and making good on-field decisions if anything, is more likely to be compromised by the attempted interference from others. 

In the last decade or so the common belief has been that it is captains, coaches and to a lesser degree managers, who are most responsible for creating the "right culture". It is expected that through their 'leadership' they can play a significant part in motivating players and establishing the right behaviours. It's as if it's believed cloning is possible and all the different personalities can be moulded to fit their theory of what will work best for everyone. Even if you subscribe to this dubious point of view, NZC's three different national coaches in three years suggests that if any organisation needs to change its' culture it is NZC itself. 

Generic comparisons continue to be made between cricket and rugby, when the reality is they are vastly different games. Cricket is very much one player competing against another, whereas in rugby a player is reliant on team mates moving into position to receive a pass, or players coming in very quickly behind another to protect him and the ball. Logically, rugby requires greater emphasis on team strategies if a team is to combine and function well, and players' arousal levels need to be much higher to cope with the extremely combative physical nature of the sport. Over time motivational talk becomes repetitious and less convincing. In just about anything you can name, to gain higher levels of consistency self sufficiency is very important, never more so than in cricket. 

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 It is widely accepted that players should be encouraged to be personally responsible for their game, take ownership of it, take the lead in their own preparation and be accountable for their performance. So why does so much time effort and money go into undermining these principles?

Nowadays, players are being presented on a platter all the comforts, pampering, and pastoral care given to a juvenile emperor. Under the guise of help, players are surrounded by people advising them about all and sundry. This discourages them from searching and finding their own answers. Instead, it cultivates a blame mentality, destalising personal responsibility, self analysis and learning.

All of the attempts at cultural transformation and the flood of peripheral information seem to largely ignore the character and entrenched practised behaviour of people generally. To think that players' behaviours and motivational stimulus are going to change overnight is unrealistic, no matter how well the various corrective measure programmes are presented.   The make-up, personality and state of mind of players varies from bullet proof to depressed. Players within the same team are personally stimulated by all sorts of things. They range from internal to external drivers; from self fulfilment, to doing it for others; to national pride, to money and statistics.

Why should anyone be surprised if money is the main driver when the chief learning style of today is to be a "learning consumer". Already players have got to where they are because of whom and what they are. In my experience, most attempts at brain washing are mostly consciously or unconsciously resisted, hence, a waste of time or worse.

I contend that too much is made of the need to construct so called team cultures. It would be far more effective for management and players to sit around the table before each series of matches and come up with some agreed protocols. Management is then responsible for the application of those protocols.

What should follow from that is a culture that grows naturally in line with the variety of personalities in the team. Usually, most problems that arise are dealt with by the players themselves, or if necessary by management. Any major issues may need to be directed towards the Board and the selectors may be asked to act. An open door policy allows players to express concerns that may develop and if they want to take matters further they have the Players Association to turn to.

The real advantage in structuring things this way is that everyone gets their say, the best arguments should prevail and then everyone can concentrate on doing their own designated jobs without distraction.

- The Dominion Post

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