FourFourTwo - - TEAM CHEMISTRY - Words Ben Welch Art­work Peter Crowther

Get­ting the right blend of char­ac­ters in the dress­ing room can be the dif­fer­ence between hu­mil­i­a­tion and glory – FFT speaks to those seek­ing to prove that team chem­istry is an ex­act sci­ence

Sun­shine stretches out across the vine­yards that en­cir­cle Nyon, a pic­turesque lake­side town 15 miles from Geneva. Tightly-packed streets that trickle down from the im­pos­ing Mid­dle Age cas­tle be­gin to hum with ac­tiv­ity, as suits from UEFA’S head­quar­ters spill out. Af­ter a long, hard day ad­min­is­ter­ing lots of red tape, a glass of wine har­vested lo­cally is top of the bill. Tucked away in one of the mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s cosy lit­tle wa­ter­ing holes, a few other mem­bers of the foot­ball fra­ter­nity are or­der­ing an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent round of drinks. “We walked down the road about 100 yards and we were in the pub,” re­called Arsenal’s cult hero Ray Par­lour in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, The Rom­ford Pele. “There were only five of us and I’ll never for­get, one of the boys went up to the bar and said, ‘Thirty-five pints please.’”

Arsene Wenger had given his Gun­ners play­ers the evening off af­ter a pun­ish­ing pre-sea­son sched­ule in Switzer­land, and while one group chugged on beer, the other chugged on an­other per­for­mance killer.

“Later on that evening, we were walk­ing down the road and the French lads were sit­ting out­side a cafe, all smok­ing,” re­mem­bered the mid­fielder who made more than 450 club ap­pear­ances. “Be­ing the cheeky chappy, I couldn’t re­sist. ‘Lads, how are we going to win the league? They’re all smok­ing; we’re all drunk!’”

Arsenal went on to lift the Premier League and the FA Cup in Wenger’s first full cam­paign at the helm – 1997-98. The French­man found a way to wres­tle the crown from Manch­ester United with a newly-formed side of for­eign im­ports and Bri­tish vet­er­ans. But how?

Well, his squad had that rare, in­tan­gi­ble, in­gre­di­ent that all suc­cess­ful teams pos­sess: team chem­istry.

“The mix­ing of two very dif­fer­ent ap­proaches turned out to be one of the keys to the team’s suc­cess,” said Par­lour. “The English lads re­alised how hard we had to work on our tech­nique and how to look af­ter our­selves bet­ter. The con­ti­nen­tal lads learned to love that lit­tle bit of fun.”

Two decades on and man­agers are still con­sumed by the same co­nun­drum: How do I cul­ti­vate the right dy­namic in the dress­ing room to get the right re­sults on the pitch?

For any anx­ious foot­ball man­agers read­ing, don’t head to the off-li­cence to stock up on booze and fags just yet. Grab a notepad and pen, FFT is on the case...


Don’t make the mis­take of defin­ing chem­istry as spirit, as it’s a lot more than that. It’s the im­pal­pa­ble un­der­stand­ing between play­ers that man­i­fests it­self as a tele­pathic un­der­stand­ing out on the pitch.

“Know­ing each other’s move­ments on the pitch comes through work­ing hard in train­ing, but you have to play with clever play­ers,” ex­plains Celtic’s tre­ble-win­ner, Moussa Dem­bele. “When one of us has got the ball, we know a team-mate will make space for some­one else to run into and we can de­liver the right pass. Un­der­stand­ing like this is the key to suc­cess and the rea­son we were un­beaten in the Scot­tish Premier­ship last sea­son.”

To en­hance this con­nec­tion even fur­ther, you must forge strong bonds off the pitch with a so­cial net­work that stretches out be­yond the dress­ing room and into the fab­ric of the club – and one that isn’t just en­joyed via a smart­phone.

“It’s im­por­tant to be open with the other play­ers and so­cialise with them so you build friend­ships,” says Crys­tal Palace mid­fielder Yo­han Cabaye, who won Ligue 1 with Lille in 2011 – Les Dogues’ first league ti­tle in more than half a cen­tury.

“You need to speak not only to the se­nior play­ers, but also to the play­ers in the youth team, too. If they play for the first team, there will al­ready be an es­tab­lished con­nec­tion so you will com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter when you’re on the pitch.

“If you know some­one well, you want to fight for them out on the pitch. You also then know how to speak to them to get the best out of them in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions.”

To achieve the alchemy that trans­forms team-mates into win­ners, un­break­able bonds are cre­ated.

Be­yond the drib­bling dec­la­ra­tions of ‘I bloody love you, mate’ af­ter 35 pints, ca­ma­raderie is best forged in com­mu­nal strug­gle. Ad­ver­sity, whether it is the pain of a bad de­feat or the burn of a bru­tal train­ing regime, acts as a ‘so­cial glue’ that fos­ters co­he­sion and sol­i­dar­ity.

“When I was at Ful­ham I liked to test out the play­ers’ men­tal­ity, so I would run them all up and down the Ep­som Downs race­course ev­ery Tues­day,” re­veals Micky Adams, who be­came player-man­ager of the Cot­tagers in March 1996.

“I used to say to them: ‘Other teams are en­joy­ing their five-a-sides right now – they’re not do­ing what you’re do­ing.’ That hard work and suf­fer­ing to­gether forged team chem­istry. They didn’t enjoy it, but it got them re­sults on a Satur­day.”

Adams over­saw an up­turn in form, sav­ing the club from rel­e­ga­tion out of the Foot­ball League, be­fore en­gi­neer­ing promotion to the third tier in the fol­low­ing cam­paign.

In the mod­ern era, clubs are not just re­ly­ing on tough train­ing drills to test a new re­cruit’s char­ac­ter – they’re run­ning back­ground checks, gath­er­ing Money­ball met­rics and then ask­ing the player to com­plete a per­son­al­ity ques­tion­naire be­fore in­tro­duc­ing him to the bristling en­ergy of the dress­ing room.

On the sur­face this sounds quite pro­gres­sive. How­ever, the business world is light years ahead of sport when it comes to un­rav­el­ling the many com­plex­i­ties of team chem­istry ac­cord­ing to Bo Han­son, the di­rec­tor of Ath­lete Assess­ments.

“Sport is still blinded by the phys­i­cal and tech­ni­cal abil­i­ties of the ath­lete,” says the three-time Olympic bronze medal-win­ning rower. “The business world has been mea­sur­ing con­cepts such as em­ployee en­gage­ment for years. They know en­gage­ment cre­ates high lev­els of prof­itabil­ity, as a more en­gaged em­ployee will de­liver an ad­di­tional 30 per cent in dis­cre­tionary ef­fort.”

No stranger to dis­cre­tionary ef­fort him­self – he com­bined com­pet­ing for Aus­tralia at four con­sec­u­tive Olympics with aca­demic stud­ies and some con­sul­ta­tive ex­pe­ri­ence – Han­son has been work­ing within sport and the business sec­tor for two decades. He helps many coaches and CEOS put to­gether the right com­bustible el­e­ments that will cre­ate an all-con­quer­ing chain re­ac­tion.

“Some­thing like 95 per cent of teams im­prove from one sea­son to the next af­ter work­ing with us.”

Han­son has adapted an ex­ist­ing be­havioural as­sess­ment tool to fit the idio­syn­cra­sies of sport and help ath­letes bet­ter un­der­stand them­selves and their team-mates. Af­ter pro­fil­ing more than 40,000 ath­letes and coaches, Han­son has a recipe for a ti­tle-win­ning team – and there is plenty more to it than just chest-thump­ing lead­ers and wise-crack­ing pranksters.

“There are four dif­fer­ent be­havioural traits within the DISC model: dom­i­nance, in­flu­ence, steadi­ness and con­sci­en­tious,” he ex­plains. “If you like to give lots of di­rec­tion, to have control and be in charge, you’re dom­i­nant. You need to have about 15 per cent of that in your team. Peo­ple who fit the in­flu­ence pro­file type bring en­ergy, ideas and spon­tane­ity – your play­mak­ers. We be­lieve you’ll need to have around 25-30 per cent of that.

“The S pro­file – steadi­ness – is all about the team. They’re self­less, loyal and con­sid­er­ate – they are the glue that will bond other peo­ple to­gether. You need 35-40 per cent of this. Fi­nally there’s the C pro­file – con­sci­en­tious. This pro­file likes to fol­low a game plan and loves to have struc­ture and set-plays. You need 20-25 per cent of it in a team.”

Cram­ming this eclec­tic mix of per­son­al­i­ties inside a sin­gle dress­ing room will in­evitably cre­ate some con­flict – but that’s wel­comed by Han­son, who in­sists that true team chem­istry is not a per­fect por­trait of back-slap­ping har­mony, but a melt­ing pot of com­pet­i­tive ten­sion.

“Coaches will some­times say, ‘We’ve got awe­some team chem­istry be­cause ev­ery­one gets along so well’ – they get along well be­cause they’re not will­ing to hold each other ac­count­able,” ex­plains Han­son. “With­out the ac­count­abil­ity fac­tor you will end up with a sit­u­a­tion where you are valu­ing har­mony over hon­esty, and that’s not going to cre­ate high per­for­mance.”

Nei­ther does a dys­func­tional dress­ing room – and win­ning is by no means an in­di­ca­tor of a happy union. When the team hits a bad run of form and the dress­ing room walls start to close in, fes­ter­ing con­flicts come to the fore.

“Look out for cliques, whis­per­ers and fin­ger-point­ers if things are start­ing to go badly,” says Adams. “The char­ac­ter­is­tics of a strong dress­ing room are the ones that take re­spon­si­bil­ity when things are not going par­tic­u­larly well.”

In this sit­u­a­tion the in­ter­ests of the over­all team must over­ride the in­di­vid­ual’s in­stinct for self-preser­va­tion, says Cabaye. “Ev­ery player has got a re­spon­si­bil­ity to put the team’s needs be­fore their own,” says the for­mer Paris Saint-ger­main pass mas­ter. “If you have got play­ers who think only of them­selves, this will have a neg­a­tive ef­fect on the team’s chem­istry.”

How do you avoid this? Ed­u­ca­tion, re­veals Han­son. If the dif­fer­ent pro­file types un­der­stand one an­other and how they all con­trib­ute to the team’s over­ar­ch­ing goal – win­ning matches – they are far more likely to value their col­leagues’ in­put, in spite of their dif­fer­ences.

“We will get the dif­fer­ent pro­file groups to iden­tify the three most crit­i­cal be­hav­iours that they bring to the team,” says Han­son. “Then we ask the other pro­files to look at those be­hav­iours and to dis­cuss openly how they see those be­hav­iours adding value to the team.

“We’ll then ask the same groups: ‘Is there a be­hav­iour you need to mod­ify to be more help­ful for the team?’ This could just be a mat­ter of soft­en­ing their tone of voice or hav­ing a one-on-one chat in­stead of yelling across the pitch.”

Were teams to delve deeper into the var­i­ous per­son­al­ity types of their play­ers – and even the dress­ing room’s seat­ing ar­range­ment – they might stum­ble across a blue­print to a higher-func­tion­ing team chem­istry. That’s the opin­ion of bi­o­log­i­cal an­thro­pol­o­gist Dr He­len Fisher, a lead­ing ex­pert on the sci­ence of love and re­la­tion­ships.

“I would think very care­fully about putting two high-testos­terone, rank-ori­en­tated peo­ple right next to each other – un­less you wanted to drive up their com­pe­ti­tion even more,” says Dr Fisher, who cre­ated the com­pat­i­bil­ity ques­tion­naire for pop­u­lar dat­ing web­site

“For ex­am­ple, there could be an awk­ward at­mos­phere between two strik­ers who are com­pet­ing to score the most goals. They may not pass to each other out on the field, in­stead choos­ing to go for goal them­selves which could bring ten­sion to the dress­ing room.”

Fisher’s the­ory is that ev­ery per­son’s per­son­al­ity type is in part de­ter­mined by their dom­i­nant brain chem­i­cal. Far from just be­ing mod­ern navel-gaz­ing, this is a phe­nom­e­non that can be traced all the way back to our evo­lu­tion­ary past.

“For mil­lions of years we grew up in these lit­tle hunter-gath­erer groups and you needed all styles of think­ing and be­hav­ing in or­der to sur­vive as a team,” says the au­thor.

“Groups have always needed peo­ple who are both ag­gres­sive and ex­per­i­men­tal – that’s the testos­terone; some­one who is going to go steam­ing in and try ev­ery­thing – that’s the dopamine; some­one who is going to say: ‘Wait a minute, we’ve never done it like this be­fore, let’s stick with what we know’ – that’s sero­tonin; and some­one with em­pa­thy and a will to co-op­er­ate – that’s oe­stro­gen. The dy­namic in a dress­ing room would be no dif­fer­ent.”


The fu­ture of sports an­a­lyt­ics may not be passes, crosses and, er, ex­pected goals, but far less tan­gi­ble met­rics like neu­ro­trans­mit­ters, hor­mones and plain body lan­guage.

Be­ing able to crack the al­go­rithm to team chem­istry would surely be a down-pay­ment on suc­cess. And the bright­est minds in sport and sci­ence are get­ting closer to it.

“Our scientists are de­vel­op­ing the first algorithms to ob­jec­tively quantify team chem­istry from player biology,” says Kevin Bickart, the co-founder and chief sci­en­tist at Sync­strength. “We have been analysing the strength of syn­chrony between play­ers’ heart rates dur­ing games, pro­vid­ing a win­dow into how their ner­vous sys­tems an­tic­i­pate, re­act and re­cover from the phys­i­cal and men­tal de­mands of hav­ing to work to­gether as a team.”

An­a­lysts cap­tured data from a game between two top women’s col­lege teams in the United States. In one se­quence, a de­fender got caught ball-watch­ing and her op­po­nent went onto score the win­ner. The data showed all the de­fend­ers were in sync – ex­cept the one who suf­fered a men­tal lapse.

Bickart adds: “We’ve been adding vari­ables to the per­for­mance pre­dic­tion equa­tion. We are not claim­ing that team chem­istry is pre­dict­ing all of the per­for­mance, but we be­lieve it does pre­dict some pro­por­tion of the per­for­mance.”

Re­search by Ka­te­rina Bezrukova, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity at Buf­falo School of Man­age­ment who has also worked with Ma­jor League Base­ball and the Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion, found the de­mo­graphic “fault lines” – in­ter-team di­vi­sions de­ter­mined by racial, eth­nic and eco­nomic back­grounds – is fun­da­men­tal to the team chem­istry. Find­ing that op­ti­mal bal­ance between di­ver­sity and ho­mo­gene­ity is worth three vic­to­ries to base­ball sides, says Bezrukova. Get it wrong and you’ll end up win­ning fewer games.

And ul­ti­mately that is all any­one cares about: How does team chem­istry help me win? Or should the ques­tion ac­tu­ally be: Does team chem­istry breed suc­cess or suc­cess breed team chem­istry?

“Chem­istry is fos­tered by re­sults, for sure,” in­sists Adams. “You can get spirit and un­der­stand­ing through team-bond­ing ex­er­cises, but to get a strong chem­istry among the play­ers, you need re­sults.”

It’s chicken and egg – one can­not ex­ist with­out the other, and that in­trin­sic link can­not be ig­nored.

“At the top level the only com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage you have got is chem­istry, ev­ery­thing else can be bought and copied,” says Han­son.

Wenger’s squad of chain-smok­ing Euro­peans and beer-guz­zling Brits had it right. Ray Par­lour may or may not sub­scribe to the DISC anal­y­sis model, or have any idea what hor­mone was swirling around the brain of a fist-clench­ing Tony Adams, but he recog­nises chem­istry when he sees it. “The jig­saw just fit­ted to­gether with that team,” he said. “You have to have the dif­fer­ent pieces – a bit of ev­ery­thing.

“When our puz­zle was com­plete it was an out­stand­ing team to play in – we all val­ued what ev­ery­body brought to the party.”


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