Team Dynamics and Cohesion
Updated: Jan 21
I've spent the past few months diving into the research and literature on team dynamics. I read articles, listened to podcasts, and talked to coaches and athletes. I reviewed findings from the fields of Clinical, Social and Sport Psychology. I've also had the chance to apply the gold nuggets I found with the teams I work with. It's been a great journey. I want to dedicate this blog to highlighting some of the valuable pieces I've discovered as well as share a link to an awesome podcast on the topic below.
To stick with the analogy, I took a deep dive into team dynamics and have come back up with a vital concept, COHESION. The research has shown (see sources at the bottom of the article) that cohesion is related to performance and athlete satisfaction. They found this is for both Coactive (more individual sports like golf and wrestling) and Interactive (team sports like soccer and basketball) sports. Basically, across sports, cohesion matters!
Cohesion can be broken down into two parts 1) Social Cohesion and 2) Task Cohesion. Social Cohesion is how connected athletes feel on a team. Do they feel close to their teammates and that they have each other's backs? Social Cohesion can be developed from shared experiences, i.e. we've gone through tough things together, as well as through a supportive environment where trust and communication are present.
I facilitated an exercise with a team on Social Cohesion recently. I asked each member of the team to write down on a scale of 1-10 how close they felt to their teammates. They put the answer down on an anonymous index card and passed it forward. I plotted the answers on a graph to show overall how connected the team felt. Then we sat down and discussed questions like, a) what helps us feel connected?, b) what gets in the way of feeling connected?, c) what can I do to be more connected to my team? and d) what do I need from my teammates to feel more connected? The conversation was alive and full of valuable participation. Athletes got to really hear each other and the exercise itself I believe increased social cohesion. Athletes have continued to share, weeks down the road, that this team feels more connected than recent years. And I'll give them credit for talking about it in the team meetings and then following up with their actions to connect with their teammates!
Task Cohesion is when a team is on the same page with goals and the process, procedure and pathway to meeting those goals. This includes agreeing to and following team rules and expectations. The athletes are all in on what has to be done to meet their goal.
To develop Task Cohesion, a team needs to go through a process where goals, values, rules and expectations are developed. Then, the leadership structure needs to be developed to maintain accountability for these goals and expectations. We did a similar exercise with the team around task cohesion. How all in are you to meet your team goals and follow the steps expected? They rated 1-10 and then we discussed what helps, gets in the way and what they can do to improve task cohesion. The topic of injury came up and the team had a great honest discussion about what it feels like to be out with an injury as well as what it feels like to be practicing while seeing teammates sit on their phones on the sidelines. I had a follow-up conversation with the coach about how to handle athletes that are injured with the concept of cohesion in mind.
The research points to some, in my mind incredible stuff related to cohesion. One study suggests athletes who feel connected to their coach and teammates experience less nervousness when under pressure in a performance than those who feel less connected. They even measured cortisol (stress hormone) in the participants blood to confirm their reports. This makes sense intuitively but now there is some evidence, an athlete who feels like their team has their back, is there for them, is all in with them, experiences less stress in high pressure performance moments. Why? We might infer because they know they have a solid net of support behind them, good or bad outcomes, they are in it together. It is no wonder the research also supports that the more cohesive a team is, the better performance and athlete satisfaction there is. And conversely, if a team has poor cohesion, the more likely performance and satisfaction suffer. Again, cohesion matters!
How do we build team cohesion? That is an important question that coaches and leaders have been asking since the dawn of sport. I recommend below 4 initial practices toward building overall cohesion.
1. Lead what I call team “heart to hearts.” Having time and space where athletes can be themselves, speak openly and talk about difficult things can build trust and a feeling of belonging. Clinical and Sport Psychologists are trained to facilitate these but I also think coaches and leaders have some innate sense of how to guide meetings like this. Ground rules are respect, speaking from the “I” point of view rather than attacking with “you” statements, and encouraging people to speak their truth (what is real to them), even if it is different from another. It is good to have an exercise or questions ready to get the conversation moving along. I like to have them write down their answers before we discuss so they don’t have to feel on the spot.
2. Surround the practice and performance facility with cues and images that remind them of their goals, values and connectedness to their team. If you go through a process of developing goals and values – put them up in the spaces they can see everyday. When I worked at Notre Dame, the football team had the tradition of every athlete hitting the sign, “Play Like a Champion Today” every time before they went out on the field. Putting up photos of past teams, celebrations and events can be meaningful in feeling like they belong to something larger than themselves and the present moment.
3. Schedule events that the team can go to together. Even better if they are events that inspire them. This kind of shared experience builds cohesion.
4. Rather than only punish team members for not following team rules, give them homework assignments to find and report on someone they look up to and how they approach being on a team. I’ve had success with teams I have worked with doing this. Missed a team meeting? Now your job is to research the theme and present back what you found. Athletes have come back to me, months and sometimes seasons later and referenced what they learned.
See the excellent podcast on cohesion and togetherness here: Podcast
See the academic article on cohesion here: Article
Want to learn more about building team dynamics or are interested in hiring someone to work with your team? Contact the Performance Psychology Center to find out more at email@example.com.