This week England cricketer Kevin Pietersen was told that he won’t be considered for selection for England this summer, thus effectively ending his England career. This announcement was made on the back of scoring an astonishing career high 355 not out for Surrey. Andrew Strauss, the new England Director of cricket, made the announcement, citing a "massive trust issue" as the reason.
This whole saga has brought the issue of team relationships in sport high up the agenda. How important is trust in sport? More broadly, how important are relationships in sport? Is it enough just to have the best players? Should coaches and managers care about team relationships?
With Kevin Pietersen, many ex-players have expressed their dismay at the decision, arguing that all that matters is that you have the best players on the pitch. Cricket itself however, is a different sport from many other. No-one bowls to a team mate or hits the ball to a team mate in cricket. Players play very much as individuals. It is well known that the great Australian team of the 1990s and early 2000s did not get on particularly well, yet they were incredibly successful.
Nevertheless, it is being increasingly recognised that strong team relationships are fundamental to team success. In invasion sports (sports where you invade the opposition's side of the pitch), skill and talent are not in and of themselves enough.
Gain Line Analytics
Ben Darwin is a former Australian Rugby player who has recognised the importance of relationships. He has set up a company called Gain Line Analytics which looks at team cohesion and unity. He argues that there is a basic misunderstanding about how teams work. The general public and many sporting journalists look only to player skill and talent and a coach’s ability as indicators of sport success. The reasoning often goes that if a team is successful, it’s because their players are so talented, or they have a fantastic coach, or a mixture of both. What people are missing though, is the importance of relationships between the players within the team.
Gain Line Analytics have developed something called called the Teamwork index (TWI), which measures cohesion and unity of a team through the strength of the relationships between the players. They have found that the "higher a side's TWI, the more unified the team, the more likely the club is to enjoy sustained on-field success, off-field stability, and heightened brand engagement." Talent, skill and an excellent coach are therefore not enough. Indeed, team cohesion is so important that they calculate that you have to spend vast amounts of money to overcome the poor cohesion in a team.
Manchester United provides a good example of the importance of relationships in sport. After 26 years in charge of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 and chose David Moyes as his successor. David Moyes had an excellent record at Everton and was Ferguson’s choice of successor, but he failed. There are a number of reasons for this, but a major factor seems to have been relationships. He failed to realize the importance of continuity in a team and the importance of relationships the players have with the coaches. When he came in, he immediately sacked the assistant Manager, the first-team coach and the goalkeeping coach. He also changed the way that Manchester United played. And the team ceased to be the world-class team it had been, dropping from first in the Premiership in Ferguson’s last season, to seventh.
This cohesion is based primarily around ideas of continuity. For example, the length of time players have played together, whether they played together at Junior grade level etc. For example, the Canterbury Crusaders, one of the most successful sporting teams in the world over the last 15 years, have an exceptionally high TWI, built up on the fact many of them grew up playing rugby together. Their work shows how important continuity is for teams and organisations. To have effective relationships, whether that's your understanding with your fellow centre-back in the football team, or an effective working relationship with colleagues in the office, continuity is needed.
Building these strong relationships, requires time. It’s not something that can be built in a few days, weeks or even months. It can take a long time for new players who have been brought in from another club, to reach their peak again, because relationships (and fruit of those relationships like trust, motivation and understanding), take a long time to build.
Therefore, high staff turnover is a particular problem, because it stops strong relationships being formed. In business,this decreases efficiency and hinders innovation, as well as bring additional costs in the form of recruitment.
Ben Darwin also argues that when you lose a player, you don't just lose that player's skills, but you lose that player's relationships with others as well. You break the relationships that person had in the team and there by reshape the whole network of relationships within the team. Without knowing, you can replace several players on a team with more talented players and actually undermine the success of the team.
Margaret Wheatley warns about this in business. Writing about the dangers of reorganisations, she argues that many "strategists focus on rearranging the boxes of the organisation without realising that they're ripping apart the networks of relationships employees constructed to help them perform better."
To return to our question, Gain Line has shown that in sport individual talent is not enough. We are so often preoccupied with individual skill, that we miss that it is relationships that make teams and organisations work. Relationships need continuity over time to work and if we focus on this, for example by reducing staff turnover, or keeping in touch regularly with stakeholders, we can create healthy relationships that drive organisational success and ultimately personal happiness.