What makes a good team?

A person doesn’t really become whole until he becomes part of something bigger than himself – Jim Valvano, college basketball coach.

One of the reasons why I prefer triples above all other forms of the game is because it offers often complex and fascinating interrelationships and synergies between the players.

The nature of the game is such that when you are in the circle ready to point or take on a shot, you are most definitely on your own. You could call it a lonely place. It’s down to you whether you make a successful play or not. However, in the team game that is triples, there is no doubt in my mind that the attitude of your fellow team members towards you and your relationship with them is a critical factor in success.

I have said before on many occasions that success in pétanque is achieving the triple hiatus between technical proficiency, tactical nous and the right mindset. The right team dynamic impacts most directly upon tactical choices and mentality.

One of the examples I often cite is about a team I have observed for many years which if you separated it out individually, you might not mark within the higher echelons of technical ability. The individual players are solid technically, but not spectacular. Where they really begin to function is when you combine them into the whole. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they have established and clear roles, they have superb personal interrelationships and they make tactical decisions instinctively based on long years of playing together. They have seen it, done it and worn the t-shirt.

People often express surprise at this team’s success. It never surprises me and I am always happy to see great teamwork being rewarded.

So what might be the right ingredients in great teamwork and what are the conditions for success?

Teamwork is about a group of individuals combining to reach a common approach that has nothing to do with individual achievement alone. The right effort, commitment and pure graft of an individual will always help a team, but it is not enough on its own. Translating the individual contribution into teamwork is what seals the deal.

Poor teamwork means recriminations, individuals trying to hog the limelight, attribution of blame, lack of motivation and a desire to see the game over or even the end of the team playing together.

Good teams enjoy mutual respect, have fun playing together and most of all they put the team first. They positively look forward to the next time they will be playing together.

When teams form, it is a good thing to have an honest and open discussion about what you want to achieve together. This is not just about saying “We want to win”, it is more about how you are going to win. I make no apologies for applying the language of business here – the team needs to set itself a mission. Write it down on a piece of paper:

1. What do we want to achieve (goals)?

2. Why do we want to achieve (motivation)?

3. How are we going to achieve (plan of action)?

What is your team’s GMP – goals, motivation, plan?

How to bond as a team

There’s a number of things here that need to worked out with the whole team buying into what is agreed:

Roles of the members of the team – sounds simple, but how many times have you seen teams that appear not to have clearly assigned jobs for individuals? Start with no doubts about who is shooting, who is middle and who is pointing. In a team of four playing triples be also very clear about what the preferred triple (particularly in advance of major tournaments) is and how the fourth can strengthen the team at critical junctures. Be clear also about the conditions in a match where roles might have to be adjusted and recognise immediately when those conditions apply;

Owning success – this is about the team being accountable to the standards it has set for itself. Good teams rely on themselves and not on their coaches or their managers. Leave the guidance and strategic decisions in the hands of the coach. Sure, he/she has important decisions to make in terms of issues like selection, substitution and advice on tactics, but it is the team’s responsibility to execute the play;

‘We’ not ‘me’ – too many times I hear players saying, “We lost that game, but I played well”. This is the wrong attitude. It places the individual above the team and it also sends the message to teammates that you blame them for defeat. Instead, take every opportunity to give your teammates credit and always talk about ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. The last time the USA won the Ryder Cup in 2008, Captain Paul Azinger led them. Golf is usually a highly individualistic game and Azinger came to the view that Europe had been dominating the tournament because they had a better team mentality. He looked at how teamwork was fostered in the US Special Forces. He spent a lot of time stressing how important ‘we’ is and even brought in a specialist consultant in team building to reinforce that;

Taking responsibility – you do not win just by turning up. Sometimes you cannot control whether you win or lose. What you have to be clear about is that you have taken responsibility for things that you can control: practicing as a team, ensuring that you have sought out playing opportunities at the right level, effort, attitude, your relationships with your teammates and coach, communication, even how much you sleep or what you are eating and drinking. When each team member recognises that they are all in it together and is responsible for individual and team success, then good teamwork will follow.

Teamwork in pétanque

Frédéric Nachin has offered some recent insights in this in his excellent new book ‘Pétanque quand tu nous tiens’. Here’s some of his thoughts on this subject:

Travel and play in unfamiliar places to build the team – Nachin says he deliberately took his new team out of the locality where they normally played to build it up. It meant his normal opponents did not encounter his team. In England, this is possible, but probably implies teams searching for opportunities to play abroad;

Personal investment in the team – this is about each team member being clear to their partners about their motivation and commitment to the team. It’s linked to the mission, which I mentioned above. This is also about implementing an agreed programme of practice and agreeing a shared view of what the team is about;

Responsibility to the team – this is a more difficult area with players’ personal and family commitments causing potential conflicts. Success in any sport demands time and it demands financial commitment. This is not always possible, so it is important from the outset that the team is honest about constraints. If the team believes that it must travel abroad three times during the season to achieve its goals and a team member cannot commit to that then it’s better to find another team member that can;

Team stability – Nachin stresses the need to establish a minimum level of pitch time and at the right level of competition. Winning low level competitions is not as valuable as putting the team through its paces at higher level competitions where they may not succeed, but be exposed to the standards required to perform at elite competitions. In my own regional team this season the value of having encountered tough places in matches was crucial. Many times we were in a tight game at 11-11 or 12-12 and rarely we lost. We had a point of reference and knew we could win as we had won it several times before in the same situation. That takes pressure away at the business end of  a game;

Collaboration – this is about the team communicating honestly amongst each other and thinking what they have learnt whilst playing together. This is a post-competition routine that looks at tactics and also lays out on the table disagreements that might have taken place within the team. This is not something that should be done purely in the context of defeat. Focusing on things that have worked is a very positive thing to do and even when the team wins it is also important to look at what improvements can be put in place.

So, what are your experiences in teamwork, good or bad?

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