January 21, 2016

Is a Team only as strong as the Weakest Link?

Written by:
Scott Searle

The best coaches and leaders are the ones who reflect on their practice and strive to improve. In many respects, reflecting is the easy part.  If you watch sports on television, visit a book store, or listen to talk radio after a big game you will be inundated with coaching advice. The challenge is figuring out what pieces of advice will work in your context with your athletes.

For example, nearly every coaching book I have read includes some variation of the cliché that "a team is only as strong as its weakest link.” But as a fan of sports and student of coaching; I have been left to wonder if this true for all teams in all sports? There is no doubt that the Chicago Bulls started to win championships when Michael Jordan learned to work more effectively with his teammates. But, does that mean the success of Lionel Messi is determined by a person who sits the bench? Is the success of Tom Brady and the Patriots a result of the back-up punter? I remain unconvinced.

Sports are not all equal in their reliance on teamwork. To find out if your team is reliant on its weakest link, you must first analyze the sport or context in which you coach. To help, Robert W. Reidel wrote a book entitled “Game Plans: Sports Strategies for Business”. In this book, Reidel presents three sports as archetypes for team dynamics.  He analyzed; american football, baseball, and basketball. Reidel argues that the unique nature of each sport presents different needs for team selection and development. For example, in football, the most important player is the system itself.  As a casual observer of the NFL, I am frequently surprised at the ability of many teams to recover and move forward when injuries occur to top players. Reidel explains this by suggesting;

A football team is a lot like a machine. It's made up of parts. I like to think of it as a Cadillac. A Cadillac's a pretty good car. All the refined parts working together make the team. If one part doesn't work, one player pulling against you and not doing his job, the whole machine fails. Nobody is indispensable. - Robert W. Reidel

A basketball team on the other hand, requires all of the players to work in harmony and the coach must manage the flow.  Perhaps the best professional example of this is the “Triangle Offence” made famous by Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls.  This system relied on perfect harmony between the team, and each player knowing what the other would do. An injury to a key player would require the team to slow down to accommodate the replacement.  In this system, movement of the ball is critical and winning requires a five-man coordinated effort.  Phil Jackson was frequently the subject of derision for only coaching the best athletes.  Jackson defended himself in an article called the “Triangle Offense” when he wrote,

Yes, Micheal Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant have thrived in the system, but those four all-time greats would excel and score in any system.  What the triangle really does is help players who aren’t so gifted contribute to a team’s success at the offensive end.  The system...uniquely offers an offense the option to play unselfishly as a unit while still allowing players creative individuality in the offensive decisions.

'Triangle Offense' in operation

The key factor for the basketball coach becomes “how do I influence the flow of the game?”. The basketball coach is responsible for teaching a system, then allowing the athletes the freedom to execute it.

Keidel’s final metaphor is baseball. Baseball teams are made up of a group of individuals, with diverse skill sets, as well as skill levels.  A baseball player who is a great hitter, but with a poor level of fitness level, and a poor fielder, will still find a place on nearly every team they try out for. The work of baseball players is also nonsequential, the work of the shortstop is totally independent from the work of the right fielder. Baseball teams are also characterized by “infrequent-and brief interactions among team members”, their contribution to the team and outcome of the game is made autonomously.  In baseball, the most important decisions for the coach, are: who do you want on the team, and who do you put in the line-up.  Earl Weaver is a Hall of Fame manager who managed the Baltimore Orioles to the third highest winning percentage in the history of Major League Baseball.  When asked about the key to success, he responded “Get the guy up there you want”.

A coach must know what game they are playing before they decide on their approach to develop individual technique. In my sport of softball, our context is most similar to baseball. At the highest level, the team with the best players almost always wins.  I have the good fortune to coach at a number of levels and in a number of different contexts, and this remains true regardless of gender, level or age.  In the Ontario Intercollegiate Women’s Fastpitch Association, the University of Western Ontario has recruited 3 athletes from the Provincial Team, and 1 athlete and 1 from the National team.  Correspondingly they have won the last 5 Provincial Championships, beating the team I coach in the final for 3 of those Championship Games. At the International Softball Congress World Championships which is the highest level of Men’s Fastpitch in the World, the Hill United Chiefs boast a line-up of top hitters from around the world, and the best pitcher in Adam Folkard.  Not surprisingly, they have won the last 3 World Championships.

These facts highlight the importance of athlete recruitment and selection for baseball and softball coaches, but should not excuse coaches from helping individual athletes improve their technique. Coaches must be mindful of their responsibility to develop individual technique, while remaining aware of the limitations their sport presents.  For most coaches their most valuable asset, and biggest limitation is time.  Given these constraints, successful coaches must be mindful of where they invest their time during training.  In Canada, the National Coaching Certification Program reminds coaches of a rule of thirds.  1/3 of the athletes on most teams will be above average, 1/3 will be below average, and 1/3 will be average.

While this might seem obvious, many coaches fall into a trap of spending too much time with the best athletes on the team. It is certainly enjoyable to see an athlete master a skill, and elite athletes can provide a quick result which helps the team and boosts the ego of the coach.  However, in a team sport, you cannot always guarantee that it will be the best hitter at the plate with the game on the line.

A successful coach must ensure all athletes have the capacity to be successful and that they are making a contribution to team success. The challenge for coaches of team sports becomes; how can they work with one athlete, while keeping others engaged?

I have been involved with the University of Ottawa Softball team for 13 years and it presents an interesting case study.  Everyone involved with our program is proud of our success, winning 11 medals in our 13 year history.  We have accomplished those results with a huge spectrum of ability within our own team.  Our team has included athletes who have competed at World Championships, won Canadian and Provincial Championships, and been named to National Level All-Star teams. Those athletes are very easy to coach.  On the flip side, our team has also included athletes, who are trying softball for the first time, have played at a recreational level, or have only played slow-pitch.  Perhaps the best illustration of this, was two years ago when we had an athlete who told us that she had never successfully made it as far as 2nd base, hitting in front of an athlete who had been named to the National All-Star team. Clearly, we had to take different approaches with these two athletes.

We have had a great deal of success by differentiating practice time, and encouraging athletes to work on something specific to their skill set.  In our experience, higher level and more experienced athletes are usually self-aware about the skills they need to develop.  This has presented a problem because those athletes are not always the ones who need the extra assistance.  In designing training sessions, our staff has worked with athletes to identify gaps in performance, and paired those athletes with teammates who have mastered that skill.

Our most successful practices have been ones where athletes take turns, teaching a skill and being taught by a teammate. This engages all of the athletes, and makes them all feel like they are invested in each other’s success. Once athletes have a clear understanding of their abilities and limitations, and are engaged in closing the gap between themselves and their teammates, training sessions become fun and easy for the coach to manage. In this environment, all athletes are working towards improving themselves, helping their teammates, and increasing the chances of victory in competition.  This allows the softball coach, to manage, and as Earl Weaver suggested make sure the right player is at bat when the game is on the line.

[1] Keidel, Robert W. Game Plans: Sports Strategies for Business. New York: Dutton, 1985.[2] Ibid Page 8[3] Gandolfi, Giorgio, and Phil Jackson. "Triangle Offense." In NBA Coaches Playbook: Techniques, Tactics, and Teaching Points, 90. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2009. Pg. 89[4] Keidel, Robert W. Game Plans: Sports Strategies for Business. New York: Dutton, 1985. Pg 59[5] Ibid Page 20[6] Ibid Page 22

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