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Getting Your Head Right: The Team Ethic

Since retirement the former Gloucestershire, Leicestershire and England ODI player Jeremy Snape has become an in-demand performance coach, working with South Africa and the Rajasthan Royals amongst others. In his second column of the summer, he considers how to cultivate team spirit from the bare bones.

The key thing to remember about teams is that they’re dynamic. They can either grow together or they can grow apart. For me, it’s not just about leaving it down to the players to decide which way they’re going to go. You need to build a team culture, one that is based on a set of values and operating principles that inspire confidence and hopefully success.

One example where this happened was during my time as performance coach with Rajasthan Royals in the IPL. It was fascinating. We had to build a team culture from scratch and all we were told was that we were wearing blue kit and that our first game was in a week’s time. All the hype was around the price tags and ability of individual star players, but I knew we’d have a competitive advantage if we could come together and function as a team in pressure moments. We didn’t go off and build rafts together or anything like that, we just got to know each other’s personality, style of play, and roles and responsibilities. It turned out to be our niche, and winning the first IPL tournament was an unbelievable achievement.

My time with South Africa was equally rewarding. I worked with Mickey Arthur and Graeme Smith to build a structure that would help the Proteas become the best team in the world. The focus was on beating Australia in their backyard, something that hadn’t been done for 26 years, and the team did it.

There was no doubt that team spirit played an integral part in the success, even though they had an Englishman in their ranks! It didn’t help that my first series working with them was against England, and the alpha males of the group like Kallis, Boucher, Smith and de Villiers were quick to sniff around me to check I wasn’t a double agent.

High performing teams are fascinating as they often don’t behave in the way you would expect. Firstly, there is almost a sixth sense in play which comes from a deep understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Strangely, showing weakness and vulnerability is all part of boosting the mutual support which teams rely on in high pressure situations.

Another thing which often shocks people is the level of conflict in high performing teams. Strong teams have diversity and if everyone plays to their strengths of skill and character, there will always be conflict. Far from idyllic harmony it is this friction which creates the strongest decisions. Providing the players all have the same vision for where the team is going they will be able to disagree and still commit rather than fuel personal politics. Conflict is healthy in teams but needs managing so that friendly fire and banter doesn’t develop into personal attacks.

The best people to police their team cultures are not always the coaches as they can’t be in every room, every conversation and every car driving home. The team needs informal leaders, social leaders who maintain the behavioural code: the standards the team lives by every minute of the day.

The final thing about successful teams is that they don’t fall into the ‘success trap’ after winning. They remain hungry. This drive is evident in everything they do. At Sporting Edge we have been fortunate enough to interview some of the greatest performers in world sport and Sir Matthew Pinsent sums this point up beautifully: “There needs to be brutal honesty in teams, no wasting time and smoothing feathers, if it doesn’t make the boat go faster, why would we be doing it?” It’s easy to see why his boat went faster – does yours?

Jeremy is a director of Sporting Edge, delivering high performance coaching to professional sports teams and businesses. You can follow him on Twitter @thesportingedge and find him on Facebook and LinkedIn

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