Chemistry - Fostering Teamwork

Team chemistry, the elusive and intangible quality, that coaches believe teams need to be successful. There is no denying that coaching a team with good chemistry is much more pleasurable to coach on than a team without it. That begs two questions.

The first question is, "Do you need chemistry to win?" Well, there have been plenty of teams without chemistry that have won a lot of games. If you have enough good players making good plays, you can win games. I have seen teams with great chemistry get their butts kicked on a regular basis because they lacked enough good players. Basketball is a talent-based game and there is no substitute for that.

The second question is a conundrum. Does chemistry beget winning or does winning beget chemistry? I don't know the answer to that but I do know that winning covers up a lot of issues so it might be easier to create an atmosphere that promotes good chemistry when you win. Everything is harder when you lose. Harder does not mean impossible. Unfortunately, many coaches stop addressing the issues that promote chemistry when they lose. There are so many other things to worry about with a losing team that something has to be sacrificed, and unfortunately, it is usually the chemistry issue.

So, I really don't know the answer to those questions, but in my experience I have learned that teams with chemistry often overachieve. That is not to say that teams without chemistry underachieve because that is not necessarily so. But chemistry allows lesser players to play at a higher level than their ability will allow alone. Physically, they have help from other players, and more importantly, emotionally they have greater confidence in themselves and their teammates.

Can you, as a coach, create chemistry? I don't know. I have coached in college for 27 years, and have coached at all levels. I have been a high school coach, a college assistant and for 12 years, a college head coach. For the past 5 years I have been working in the professional arena. I don't know if you can create chemistry, but I am sure that a coach can create an atmosphere, where if there is any chemistry, it can grow.

Things That I Am Sure Don't Work

Coaches like to take credit for everything, especially positive things. Even if those things have nothing to do with them. The first thing that we have to understand is that winning solves everything. Winning, while it is the ultimate goal, also works against a coach by hiding issues. The result is that coaches sometimes misread the results of their actions. When you are winning, the players get their positive reinforcement from the games. So, coaches can be overly aggressive with their methods and believe that they are being effective when in reality; the players are winning in spite of the coach, not because of him.

I have been on both sides of the fence. I have had really good teams and really bad teams. Using that experience, here are a few things I have learned that don't work in creating team unity.

Team Responsibility

As a young coach, I was a head coach when I was 30 years old; I was charged with trying to reconstruct a program that over the years had produced some really poor results. I don't mean winning and losing, I mean bad citizens, poor students and generally irresponsible behavior. One of my solutions was to try to make the players responsible to one another by instituting a system where if one fell down on his responsibility, everyone would pay the price. If a player missed class, the team was penalized. If a player was late, the team was penalized.

My thinking was that I could get the good elements on the team to watch out for the irresponsible ones. In turn, the irresponsible ones would learn accountability. It doesn't work.

The negative influences on your team will always win out. The big picture of that statement might be fodder for another article. The short answer is this. People act the way they do because of the decisions they make, not for any other reason. The positive people would try to get the others to come into the fold. They would get frustrated with those that didn't follow. The incentive to do what was right disappeared. "Why should I come on time when I have to run anyway?" In penalties, innocent were punished with the guilty. Invariably, the result was that the responsible players would develop animosity toward the slackers. The slackers fought with the other players because they wanted to be left alone. They all developed animosity toward me.

Off The Court Doesn't Matter

This section might get me in a lot of trouble with the next statement. In regard to team chemistry, whatever you do off the court doesn't matter. I have found, through all the years I have spent in coaching that trying to build on-court chemistry with off-court activities doesn't work.

All the team dinners, all the barbeques, the car washes and other team activities designed for teambuilding have no effect on team chemistry. Will they help players get along with one another, possibly. Will they help the coach get to know his players, definitely. Will they give the team a sense of community, probably. Will it create team chemistry on the court, I don't think so.

I have known teams that, to a man, could not stand one another. They would fight and argue constantly - off the court. On the court, they were like 12 bodies thinking with one mind. It was amazing to see how well they played together.

By the same token, I have seen teams of best friends. If you were looking for a team member, all you would have to do is call one player and you could be sure that the player you were looking for was there. Wherever you saw one player, you saw a bunch more. I had two players that were roommates for 4 years and were the Best Man at each other's weddings. On the court, they just would not play together. They would argue, fight and refuse to play as a team, and then go to dinner together. It is hard to figure out.

My conclusion is that only what you do on the court matters on the court. Does that mean you shouldn't do those off-court activities? Certainly not. They have their place within the team structure; just don't expect them to solve on-court issues.

Locker Room Displays

Locker rooms signs and sayings are things that coaches like to play with. There is a sign on the way out to the field in the Notre Dame football locker room that says "Play Like A Champion Today." How has that worked out the last 10 years or so? Speak to your players. Do they even know what is hanging up in the locker room? Do they relate it to what they are doing on the court? The fact is that once they enter competition, any effect that those things might have are lost.

Things like, "There is no 'I' in 'Team'" is a favorite but has no effect. By the way, there is an "I" in "Win." Demonstrations such as holding up a big rock and experiencing it getting easier as more players come to help is great for the classroom but has little or no effect on the court.

I think your time is better served by thinking about practice plans than sayings when working on chemistry. After all, what is off the court doesn't matter.

Things I am Sure Do Work

Sharing the Ball

All issues on the court involve the ball. Teach your players to share the ball. In your offenses, there should be rules for sharing the ball. Want players to go backdoor? Pass it to him on the cut. Want players to roll after screening? Pass him the ball. This has to be in your philosophy when you teach your team.

It doesn't mean you can't run a directed offense. How you treat the players that don't score is the key. We all praise good shots. Most of us praise good passes. How many of us praise entire teams? Give the entire team ownership of good individual play. Even if it is a one-on-one play, give the other players credit for getting out of the way. The more ownership a team can have of a particular play, the more likely they are to repeat the behavior as a group. Teach players that no action in the court is insignificant and they are more likely to take part. Every play is a 5-man (or 12-man) action.

Define Roles

Not only do players need to know their own roles, but they need to know other's roles and others need to know theirs.

Have you ever had a player complain that another player was shooting too much? Well, if you have articulated that his role was as a shooter, no other player can complain. He might complain about you giving him that role, but he cannot complain about the other player doing his job. Some players will be shooters, some rebounders, some screeners, some starters, some reserves, etc. Remember, as a coach you have to foster an attitude that there are no unimportant roles. Praise rebounds as much as you do dunks. Let everyone know what their job is and if they are doing it well.

Once you assign the players their roles, you have to give them the freedom to play their roles. There will be mistakes, failures, etc. but there will also be successes. A mistake is just an opportunity to lean to do it better. As long as the player is trying to play his role, go with the flow.

When you teach each player that what they do is important, the other players will help. They will learn that helping other players feel good about their role helps them do well in their role. Again, it gives everyone the same ownership in each play. They will learn, on their own, that it pays to play together.

Hold Players Accountable

Each player has to be held accountable for his own actions. In addition to teaching, a coach's job is to protect each player. If Joe exhibits unacceptable behavior, Sam has to know that the coach will protect the team. This helps Sam to stop worrying about Joe and his actions. That will allow Sam to just play, not grumble about what happens to him when he acts like Joe.

Team dynamics are always a very difficult issue. More teams are destroyed by coaches fostering a "Star Mentality" than anything else. I am not saying that you should not use your star player to his fullest capacity, but coaches that do it successfully also allow their lesser players to support their stars. This not only gives each player ownership of any success but it also keeps the coach in charge. It is a bad situation when the team thinks that the player is in charge. Even the "Star" has to be held to the same standard as the other players. He actually has to be better.

The only issues on the court should be basketball issues.

Positive Reinforcement

Your players will reflect two things, your priorities and your personality. They learn both in practice. If you want your players to treat each other positively, you must do the same.

Players need to know when they are performing well. As coaches, we tend to expect positive play as "doing your job" and leaving that alone, then criticizing when play goes the other way.

I used to do the same. Over time, I have learned that it is more important to let the team know when their actions are positive. Save the big criticisms for the things that are really important and present the issue as a whole. Teach them the way out, don't just yell and scream.

I have learned to praise publicly, criticize privately and correct as a group.

There is no guarantee that anything I have said will work. So much depends on the players and how they present themselves. I do know this; the way I approach my coaching is drastically different than the way I approached it 30 years ago. The players have changed, but more importantly, I have changed. Once I changed my approach, the player's approach to the game and to each other changed. For the better.

Recommended Resource

For one system that does all these things to improve team chemistry (gets players to share the ball, defines roles, holds players accountable, and provides positive reinforcement of the right things), then check out the Value Point System. It's a extremely effective system that helps you improve all aspects of your play and certainly improves team chemistry.

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Let me know your thoughts...


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tourny man says:
12/10/2010 at 2:24:36 PM

excellent article
I was always one of the "good" kids
couldn''t understand why the "bad" kids got so many breaks
I see that the coaches didn''t know how to deal with it
Team chemistry is teachable or at least something teammates can learn


Coach K (the other one) says:
11/17/2009 at 10:44:17 PM

Been coaching for 35 years. Couldn't have said it better myself!


WWH says:
11/13/2009 at 4:31:53 PM

I''ve experienced some of "what doesn''t work" first hand. One year with my daughter''s team (think she was 8th grade), I came into traveling ball all excited for the first practice and I gave them all a handout that said "Attitude is Everything" and it contained a few short sentences about how individual attitude effects success. I asked them to post it in their room on a mirror, or somewhere where they could read it every day. At the end of practice, at least half of them had left it on the bleachers and didn''t even take it home. I was so bummed.


Marty Edwards says:
11/13/2009 at 8:38:12 AM

Excellent article. In our offense we run motion and the shooters sometimes get lazy and sit on the 3 point line and wait for the ball with one shoot ! There is nothing that infuriates me more (other than playing lax defense).

When this happens, the whole team stands around and nobody moves. If nobody chemistry. I agree with your article. They must share the ball and if they do, it will promote more movement. Great job.


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