Submitted by Jay K. Smith1*
1* Battalion Executive Officer, 3-13 IN BN, 193rd IN BDE, Fort Jackson, South Carolina
The purpose of this paper is to conceptualize a practical method for coaches of any sport team to improve team performance and cohesion through inter-squad competition and intra-squad cooperation. While the concept of intra-team competition to improve cohesion and team performance is not new, this paper describes a practical, task driven approach for coaches to use. For purposes of clarity, American football is the example used to describe this approach. Although, this task driven competition format can be applied to other sports teams, American football has more distinctive task oriented positions than other sports, thus providing simplicity. Also, football teams use the most formal off-season competitive scrimmage strategies in which the first team offense and first team defense play each other in order for the coaching staff to assess players and test game schemes. This widespread tactic is useful for coaches, but it can be argued this creates division with the rest of the team. In-fighting among the individuals in each squad (i.e. wide receivers, offensive line, etc…) can prevail, and a counter-productive attitude may develop that breaks any cohesive advantage gained as players begin to focus on the amount of playing time they get in relation to their teammates. However, if coaching staffs adopt a task oriented system in which the squad coaches encourage group success and teamwork, and the coordinator level harnesses the competitive spirit, players will be more likely to encourage each other to become better. Pre-season scrimmages should not be scored in a traditional, regular season-like format. Instead, scrimmages should be scored by accumulating points for successful plays executed by any player from a specific squad against any opposing squad with naturally opposing tasks. This means receivers would be competing two levels up at the Coordinator level, and not among themselves. Building off past research, this should also diffuse anxiety levels of players since each cohesive group will be focused on building up the less talented players, instead of trying to dominate them for increased playing time.
Keywords: competition, cooperation, group dynamics, motivation, team cohesion
The purpose of this paper is to conceptualize a practical method for coaches of any sport team to improve team performance and cohesion through inter-squad competition and intra-squad cooperation. While the concept of intra-team competition to improve cohesion and performance in sports teams is not new, this paper describes a task driven approach for coaches to incorporate. For purposes of clarity, American football is the example used to describe this approach.
Although this task driven competition format can be applied to other sports teams, American football has more distinctive task oriented positions than most other sports, thus provides simplicity. Football teams also have the most formal off-season competitive scrimmage strategies in which the first team offense and defense play each other in order for the coaching staff to assess players and test game schemes. This widespread tactic is useful for coaches, but it can also be argued that this creates division with the rest of the team. In-fighting among the individuals in each squad (wide receivers, offensive line, etc.) can prevail, and a counter-productive attitude may develop that breaks any cohesive advantage gained as individual players begin to focus on the amount of playing time received in relation to their teammates.
If coaching staffs adopt a task oriented system in which the squad coaches encourage group success and teamwork, and the coordinator level is where the competitive spirit is harnessed, players will be more likely to encourage each other to improve their performance. Simply stated, the pre-season scrimmages should not be scored in a traditional regular season format, but should be scored by accumulating points for successful plays executed by any player from each squad against an opposing squad whose tasks are in opposition naturally. This structure would encourage players that play the same position to cooperate in order to improve each other’s performance. A cooperative attitude at the lowest level of a football team’s hierarchy will lower the anxiety levels of many players early in the team’s formation, before the season starts (Teymori, Khaki, & Nikbakhsh, 2014). For example, the entire wide receiving squad, whether first team starters or bench players, would receive points for every completed pass. The defensive backs would receive points for every pass not completed because they batted the ball away, intercepted it, or disrupted the play by preventing the wide receiver from running the appropriate route. This means receivers would be competing two levels up at the coordinator level, and not among themselves. Building off past research, this should also diffuse anxiety levels of players since each cohesive group will be focused on improving the performance of the less talented players, instead of trying to dominate each other for increased playing time.
The foundation of this process is for the coaching staff to encourage unit cooperation in distinct groups that are either one level up or down as described in the coaching hierarchy (see Figure 1). At the same time, coaches two levels up encourage competition. In a pure, fully staffed football team, this would leave the head coach as an active observer who is not emotionally attached to any individual player. The head coach is responsible for managing the competition between the offense and defense, and is free to concentrate his or her attention on team schemes and strategy without being bogged down with individual performance.
Although most football teams require some coaches to perform two or more positions, all teams follow a standard hierarchy and division of labor (see Figure 1).
The head coach typically has three coordinators that manage the offense, defense, and special teams, respectively. These coordinators in turn, have individual position coaches that train and manage each player. While the coordinators are responsible for the overall schemes of either the offense or defense, position coaches are charged with the development of individual players that are grouped together by function. The wide receiver coach, for example, is in charge of the development of all wide receivers. It is also important to understand that most of the tasks that position coaches train are individual tasks such as catching, running, tackling, or blocking. These tasks, by nature, are coactive tasks. Therefore, the majority of tasks taught by position coaches are individual efforts whose outcome is aggregated for the team’s success or failure. These coactive tasks are similar to a collegiate golf team in which each golfer’s score is not dependent on the other players, but does influence the team’s overall performance. Because these coactive tasks are fundamental skills of the particular position players, these tasks are the primary focus early in the training cycle when the team is first being formed. Typically, coaches spend this time focusing on player competition in order to set an aggressive tone early in the season. Aggressive and often negative language is used while running fundamental drills during practice and even during conditioning workouts. However, if coaches use this time early in the training cycle for cooperative teambuilding attitudes, versus the usual competitive philosophy of the players fighting among themselves for starting positions, position coaches will be able to identify the various informal roles within their particular squad. Instead of encouraging competition between individuals of the same position, by encouraging cooperation among those players, the position coach will have formed a group that is in constant interaction. Not only will this interaction be constant as players are working together and not as individuals, their interaction will be positive in nature. This positive interaction will help the position coaches quickly identify the informal leaders since the players will be focused on working together instead of trying to beat each other out for a spot in the starting lineup (Cope, Eys, Beauchamp, Schinke, & Bosselut, 2011).
Traditionally, the position coach level is where the intra-team competition occurs, as individual receivers compete against each other for playing time and the accolades placed on them by the coaches. In this system, there is little incentive for players to encourage other players to be better, because the starter may risk losing playing time. This player versus player competition at the lowest level contradicts a multitude of research that proves when coaches engage in positive, task-oriented interactions with players, a higher perception of team cohesion and improved performance is achieved (Carron & Eys, 2012, pp. 284-288). Thus, when position coaches encourage competition at the lowest level within the hierarchy of a football team and in the smallest groups, these coaches are missing opportunities to establish a team comprised of many smaller, cohesive teams that can influence the overall performance later in the training cycle as games approach. Not only will small groups of players with like task responsibilities be cohesive early on in the training cycle, but roles and norms of appropriate attitudes of those players will be clearly defined. Role clarity is important to establish early in the formation of any sports teams, and the more clarity assigned those roles, the more cohesion and collective efficacy will be present (Hodge, Henry, & Smith, 2014). Meanwhile, before and during the season, most coaches attempt to shift their focus on the cohesion of the entire team. This shift conflicts with months of players competing with each other, and is arguably too late for the team to reap any benefits they would enjoy from a new practice of cooperation among players. This shift from competition to cooperation can be confusing to many players, thus resulting in interpersonal conflict and a lack of cohesion among players (see Figure 2).
One level up from the position coaches is the offensive, defensive, and special team coordinators. The coordinator is two levels up from the players. Because of the separation between the coordinator and the players, the coordinator can safely encourage competition when interacting with players as individuals. The coordinators’ emphasis on competition would negate any pitfalls of social loafing that may occur among groups of players of any given function. A leading cause of social loafing, the phenomenon in which individual effort is reduced when participating as part of a group, in sports teams is that many players will become too secure in their status on the team as either a starting player or a substitute player. If players do not believe consequences, good or bad, exist for the amount of effort the player puts forth, then social loafing can occur during practices (Bohlander & Snell, 2010; Carron & Eys, 2012). Two-level-down coaching focuses on individual performance and allows for self-enhancing attribution that will increase the motivation to seek self-improvement by each individual (Carron & Eys, 2012, p. 293 and p. 334). Meanwhile, the Position Coach is constantly reinforcing teamwork and improvement, as he or she is charged with the performance of each player that plays a certain position (see Figure 3). This method of one-level-down coaching shifts the focus of the players to team enhancing attribution at the earliest time and the lowest level. This shift of emphasis on the team’s performance by the smallest groups of players institutes social norms of individual responsibility in relationship to team success or failure (Vincer & Loughead, 2010). While this conflict between coaches may seem to be disruptive, the level of interaction between each coach and each player is not balanced. Therefore the cooperative encouragement of the position coach would have more impact on individual players when it comes to player-to-player interaction. Since the position coach would monitor individual, skill-centric drills early in the training season, a sense of cooperation would first be established throughout the entire team. Therefore, long before the spring practice game, the composition of the team would be a collection of smaller teams whose focus is to make each particular team better through cooperation. This part of the theory captures the conclusions of the Carron et al. study in which they hypothesized that “increased cohesion would be a catalyst for increased coordination in sports where task interactions are essential for group success” (Carron, Colman, & Wheeler, 2002, p. 172). Although Carron et al. found that there is no cohesion-performance correlation based on task type, using a Group Environment Questionnaire to provide an operational measure of team cohesion, they did find evidence that coactive sports have a stronger cohesion-performance relationship. In other words, increased cooperation from coactive competitors, such as the individuals that play the same position, raised the performance of the group. For example, the collective group of wide receivers would perform better in their assigned tasks if they all viewed themselves as part of a cooperative whole, despite the fact each individual’s ability to accomplish a given task does not affect the other receivers’ ability to do the same task. (Carron et al., 2002, p. 182)
Once the team’s training shifts toward more collective preparation, running plays for example, the individual players would already be cohesive in smaller groups, and have improved each other’s performance. As the groups of players are organized by functions without delineation of starting players and bench players each group would begin to compete against the other groups with the position coaches continually encouraging cooperation in order to defeat another position coach and those players. Scoring of inter-squad scrimmages should be conducted by the functions that are required by each position. During the scrimmage, position coaches are still encouraging cooperation within each group, but the coordinator challenges each individual to beat out the other players for a spot in the starting lineup (see Figure 3). Receivers are cycled through plays against the defense; the receiver coach is actively keeping score of how many catches the whole group of receivers make. Meanwhile, the coordinator is challenging each receiver to be the best receiver of the group by providing rewards for them.
Rewards should be centered on an appearance of expert power. For this example, the wide receiver who makes the most catches is awarded by being assigned as a trainer for the other positions that may have similar functions, such as the tight ends and running backs that often catch passes. Thus, the coordinator would be effectively encouraging cooperation one level down as players of different positions would join together to create a better offense in order to compete against the defense and vice versa. This model also works for other positions. This includes offensive linemen teaching running backs pass blocking techniques, running backs teaching receivers how to break tackles after the catch, and even physical training like tight ends teaching offense linemen techniques to improve quickness and agility.
The key factor of success is that all of the coaches, whether a position coach or coordinator, pay close attention to the interpersonal style they use when interacting with various players. This may be particularly challenging for the coordinators who may be required to shift from a style of interaction that is competitive and aggressive with a player at a certain time and a style that is positive and cooperative with that same player, but in a different situation. As Hodge et al. determined, the techniques team leaders use when interacting with their teammates greatly influences the team’s environment (Hodge et al., 2014; Sullivan, 2013). Therefore, in order to promote a strong sense of competition and to defeat social loafing, a defensive coordinator may use intense, harsh, and possibly negative language and mannerisms when one of the linebackers misses a tackle. Since the player, a linebacker in this case, is two levels down, the interaction will be brief and may spark cohesion among the whole group of linebackers as his teammates try to defend the mistake. The position coach, who will have longer, more in depth interactions with that player, augments this. However, when the offense and defense square off during scrimmages in order to practice unit schemes, the coordinator should use positive, reinforcing language that explains how the player’s missed tackle affected the entire defense. This should inspire not only other linebackers to help their teammate, but also players of other positions to help demonstrate how to shed the opposing blockers so that the next time that linebacker will not miss the tackle.
This type of specialized interaction between coach and player will reinforce role acceptance among the team. To further the above example, when the defensive coordinator calls one of the linemen to teach the linebacker how to avoid the block in order to make the tackle, the chosen lineman should be a team captain and leader (see Figure 4). This provides the team captain role clarity and diffuses any role conflict among the players because the coordinator provided the necessary expert and legitimate power. Thus, the lineman’s self-efficacy in the role of team leader and captain is increased (Carron & Eys, 2012, p. 181). Furthermore, Benson et al. (2013) proved the importance of an athlete’s perception of his or her role and the roles of teammates when it comes to group cohesion. Benson et al.’s study determined that players would be more accepting of a leader’s role as the team captain if they perceive that the role has meaning and importance. By tasking various players with the duties of training less skilled players, the coordinator and position coaches are displaying the importance of the captain’s role long before the first game when the captains are announced and walk onto the field for the coin flip (Benson et al., 2013, p. 273).
This process of two levels competition and one level cooperation facilitates important behaviors among the coaching staff that will influence the team’s cohesion. In their 2014 article, Zakrajsek et al. noted the importance of the behaviors of the coaches on team cohesion. By creating a competitive and cooperative atmosphere among the different levels of the team’s hierarchy, the coaching staff can show a competitive or cooperative attitude with each other based on the performance of their players. This can further tighten the various teams within the team as their coach is subjected to similar interactions with the next level coach. Also, once the offensive and defensive units scrimmage in the collective training block, the position coaches will display a cooperative attitude, thus influencing the attitudes of the players (Zakrjsek, Abildso, Hurst, & Watson, 2007).
In conclusion, coaching staffs of sport teams should closely analyze the organization of their team and the method of pre-season training in order to capitalize on previously published studies and conclusions that identified the influences competition and cooperation have on team cohesion. While team hierarchy among coaching staffs is critical to the operations of the team, especially during pre-season training, coaches should include the players at the lowest level of the hierarchy. This not only allows coaches to organize the players by function, which many already do, but also allows a framework on how coach-player interactions can be focused to achieve an attitude of cooperation or competition among the players at specified times in the training cycle. This type of organizational system allows a sense of cooperation among players of a specific function or position, thus capitalizing on the benefits of a cohesive group at the earliest time. Two-levels-up coaching focusing on competition among individuals will simultaneously capitalize on the benefits that strong competition provides, including preventing social loafing and increasing self-motivation to improve performance by each player on the team.
Applications to Other Sports
Although American Football was used as an example for this concept, this organizational competition concept can easily be applied to other team sports. One caveat to applying this concept to other sports is that the team must be relatively large similar to American football. If the team is too small, the separation of hierarchal level will not be great enough and would not contain the necessary diversity in players or sport-required tasks. Also, the sport must be task interrelated in that each player’s actions directly impact other players on the field. Therefore team sports in which the performance of an individual is simply aggregated to create a team score would not have the wide variety of tasks to create the necessary interaction. Therefore, team sports such as wrestling, tennis, and golf would not benefit or be able to appropriately apply the techniques described in this paper. However, coaches of soccer, rugby, and lacrosse teams could benefit greatly from the use of this concept.
For example, rugby teams are often divided into Forwards and Backs. Forwards are traditionally the larger, more power based players, while the backs are speed and skill based. As a result, the coaching staff has two primary assistant coaches for the forwards and the backs respectively. These assistant coaches can be viewed in the same context as the offensive and defensive coordinators in American football. Forwards and backs are further divided into specific positions based on physical attributes and task responsibilities. The forwards are further divided into the tight five and the loose forwards, or back row. The tight five form the core of the scrum, and are the largest, most powerful players on the field. These five players, not including bench substitutes, bind together by holding onto each other tightly in preparation to engage the opposing tight five. These players physically restrain each other by gripping the uniform of the others, including the other team. As a result, speed and quickness are useful attributes for a tight five player in the open field, but are not required since the player cannot transition into open field play until released by another player during the majority of playing time.
The loose forwards on the other hand are bound to the edges of the tight five, but are not restricted by the bind of another player. One of the key tasks of a loose forward is to immediately put pressure on the opposing ball carrier as soon as a defensive scrum is over. Therefore, physical size and quickness are both important characteristics for loose forwards, but neither is a primary concern. In other words, loose forwards must be strong and fast, but not the strongest or the fastest on the team. Also, the tight five are more likely to carry the ball in traffic on offense, similar to a fullback in American football, and defend in large clusters during free play. While the loose forwards also operate in large clusters and confined areas, they are more likely to support the backs in the open field whether on offense or defense. Consequently, open field tackling, passing skills, and the ability to break tackles are more important skills for a loose forward than they are for a tight five player. Similar division of the backs should be done in order to improve specific skills required. That being said, rugby is a fluid sport in which players from different positions may find themselves being required to execute various skills of the other positions. Therefore, cooperative and competitive interaction would benefit a rugby player greatly. The same could be said for soccer, lacrosse, and any other task interdependent sport with a large number of players required.
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