Team Chemistry

Originally printed in the January 2, 2004 issue of Collegiate Baseball


Head Baseball Coach/Wisconsin-Stevens Point

STEVENS POINT, Wis. ó "United we stand, divided we fall." "All for one and one for all!" In any language, the idea of team chemistry, this dynamic process that occurs when a team sticks together in pursuit of its goals, is an extremely important variable in the quest for athletic success.

Yet how important is it?

You will hear coaches across the country claim that their teamís ability to remain united in the face of adversity and failure led them to feats never before realized (see Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1970ís and their "We Are Family" motto). Others will blame their teamís lack of cohesiveness for its poor play and constant clubhouse chaos.

But, is it possible that maybe team chemistry has nothing to do with performance at all? Can it be that team chemistry is something that is a by-product of the teamís success, a direct correlate of that all important number in the win column?

Itís time to define this concept of team chemistry for coaches across the country. We toss it around like itís this mythical, mystical phenomenon that is neither developed nor learned, but is instead explained as something that "just happens when everyone/everything clicks."

As a matter of fact, a teamís chemistry, or level of cohesion as it is more formally referred, is an ever-changing group of dynamic that comes in a couple of different forms, and can be learned and improved with practice just like a hitterís ability to take the ball the other way.

The remainder of this article will try to define team chemistry, its effects on performance (or vice versa), and how we as coaches can improve the level of cohesion within our teams through our thoughts, words, and actions.

What Is Team Chemistry?

As I mentioned before, team chemistry, or team cohesion, can be defined as a group dynamic that occurs when members of the team work together and make a united effort to accomplish the goals and objectives of the collective whole.

A teamís ability to stick together can prevent the team from falling apart in times of great distress and turmoil, and can also be the "X factor" that propels a team to victory over an evenly matched opponent.

But letís be more specific: There are, in fact, two main types of cohesion as defined by researchers in the fields of social and sport psychology.

The first, called task cohesion, refers to a teamís ability to function as a collective unit and perform effectively on the field.

For example, when we say that a pitcher and catcher are "on the same page" with regard to pitch selection and location, we are effectively stating that they possess a high degree of task cohesion.

Can Team Chemistry Enhance Performance?

Without further ado, the answer is yes. Team cohesion is shown to be related to a teamís ultimate success on the field. But wait before patting yourselves on the back, itís a little more complex than what I just mentioned.

Although many studies have found that a teamís chemistry was related to is subsequent performance, many other studies found that team chemistry had very little to do with how successful the team became. So why the "yes" response you ask?

Itís simple. Success is related to the type of cohesion that exists within the team. More specifically, if your team has a high level of task cohesion, meaning that they play well together and remain united in the pursuit of the teamís goals, then they are more likely to enjoy success.

On the other hand, having a high amount of social cohesion, meaning that the team members are good friends and that they enjoy each otherís company, means very little in the way of predicting your teamís performance.

In fact, it has even been found that teams who are high in social cohesion play worse as a team!

So, the key is not necessarily that your team members like each other (although this is an admirable team quality and can be good for membersí well-being), but that they are united in their efforts to achieve the team goals set forth at the beginning of the season.

So, If I Increase Task Cohesion, Our Team Will Be More Successful?

Not necessarily. Remember, I said that high task cohesion was related to greater team success, not that it directly caused greater team success.

Plus, there are a couple of other factors that we need to work into the equation before we come to any drastic conclusions.

First, the relationship between team chemistry and team success is also dependent upon the demands and parameters of the particular sport.

So, for team sports like basketball and ice hockey, where playersí movements and verbalizations must be highly interactive and coordinated to achieve success, it has been found that greater levels of task cohesion relate to greater team success.

On the other hand, for individual sports like golf and track, where little, if any, interaction and coordination of member actions is required to achieve success, there is no relationship between the team chemistry that exists and the teamís collective performance. So what about baseball?

First, we have to decide whether it is a team sport or an individual sport Ė or does it possess components of both? Think about it.

While the pitcher needs the catcher to complete a pitch, and the shortstop requires the assistance of the first baseman to throw out a batter on a ground ball, each of the nine hitters in the order rely on their own skills and abilities to succeed at the plate.

In a sense, baseball is a hybrid of sorts. It possesses both the autonomous components of an individual sport and the integrative, coordinative components of a team sport. So how would team chemistry affect performance? Put simply, we donít know.

We can speculate that task cohesion could improve performance for the more integrative components of the game, or that it would have a greater effect on performance than it does for an individual sport like golf, but there are no definitive answers at this time.

However, being that baseball possesses several instances where members need to work together to achieve success, it is reasonable to assume that your attempts to enhance the level of "task chemistry" could facilitate performance to some degree, providing your team the edge it needs to get to the top.

The other factor we need to look at before making any wide-ranging conclusions is related to the chicken and egg phenomenon between team chemistry and team success. Remember the old adage: "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Phrased in a way to suit our purposes, the questions would read: "Which comes first, team chemistry or team success?"

That is, does team chemistry provide the team with the stability and togetherness it needs to help it succeed, or is team chemistry just something that happens after the team enjoys a string of victories? The answer, according to previous studies in sport psychology, is both.

Higher levels of team (task) chemistry appear to be related to great team success as the season progresses, and as the team becomes more successful, the degree of team chemistry appears to increase as well.

So you might say the relationship between team chemistry and team success is circular. As team chemistry improves, so does the teamís record, and as the teamís record improves, it becomes more and more cohesive.

No wonder the Yankees talk about how the team is "really coming together" after they reel off a 15-5 record in the month of September!

One more thing about cohesion and performance: It appears that the link between a teamís success and its subsequent chemistry is stronger than the link between the teamís initial chemistry and their success early on in the season.

So, it appears that winning is the best medicine when we are talking about building team chemistry, but that still doesnít mean that you canít throw on your lab coat and mix up an elixir of your own to improve the ailing state of your teamís performance.

What Can I Do As A Coach To Improve The Level Of Cohesiveness On My Team?

There are several ways, both subtle and overt, that you can improve the overall chemistry of your team through your thoughts, words, and actions.

Remember, it has been shown that whatís most important is that your team is united and together in its mission to accomplish its goals and objectives, and that they function as a collective whole in this pursuit.

However, it is important not to overlook that the degree to which your players develop friendships with one another on and off the field can be just as important when evaluating the level of satisfaction and personal well-being that each member feels as a result of inclusion on the team.

Either way, your words and actions can have a significant impact on both types of cohesion, so here are five tips for improving the chemistry on you ball club.

  1. Learn to communicate effectively when speaking to the team and to individual players. First and foremost, your players have to feel comfortable expressing their true selves with you and with other members of the team.
  2. Coaching demands that we invest as much time in our communication and daily interactions with our athletes as we do in our tactical and technical preparations.
  3. Collaborate with the team in setting specific and challenging goals for the upcoming season. When setting goals for the team, be SMART.
  4. Set short and long term goals, make sure the goals are Measurable, have strategies in place for how you plan to Achieve the goal, keep the goals Realistic, and keep the goal within a proper Time framework so you can gauge your progress. These goals need to be clearly defined and delineated from the outset, and make sure that each player buys into the plan before proceeding. Ownership is key!
  5. Work to develop a sense of pride and shared identity with the subunits on your team, while making sure that "cliques" donít form.
  6. This is a fine line to walk as a coach, but it can be done if you work to foster a climate of support between pitchers, infielders, outfielders, and catchers. Players need to feel that others on the team (including coaches) "have their back," but this trust will cease to develop if you donít work to provide consistent and contingent feedback to each athlete (regardless of skill level).
  7. If you are not meeting the playerís individual needs, or if you create a divide between players based on ability or personal affection, you lose trust. Make each individual feel as though they are a valuable and contributing member of the team.
  8. Be systematic in conducting both team and individual meetings throughout the course of the season. Be proactive in addressing the interpersonal and intra-personal needs of your athletes.
  9. Donít wait until a problem arises to conduct a meeting Ė itís too late. Work to minimize intra-team conflict by clearly defining individual roles, being honest and genuine in your communications, and providing constructive and contingent feedback where necessary.
  10. Let your captains be your thermometer in judging the climate of your team. A hot (bickering/arguing amongst teammates) or cold (non-verbal dissension, unspoken conflict) climate will ruin any chance of developing a cohesive unit.
  11. Know your players! Take the time to get to know your players as people and their lives as they exist outside of sport. Athletes are not machines, they are human beings, and they have thoughts, feelings, and lives off the field just as you do.

Coaches need to make an undying commitment to helping your players grow as students and as individuals, in addition to helping them improve on the field. Coach with a vision for success for each athlete and for the team, but always keep each game in the proper perspective.

With that in mind, whatís more important to you: task or social cohesion? The correct answer is BOTH!

Pat Bloom is currently in his first year as head baseball coach at Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He graduated from the school in 2001 with honors. Following the completion of his college baseball career in 2000, he became the pitching coach for the Pointer, helping lead them to a berth to the NCAA regionals.