Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at sjordan@alaskalife.net.

How to Kill a Team

I think I am on my 48th basketball team, counting all the teams I have been associated with as a player and as a coach. Add in another 50+ baseball and softball teams, then throw in assorted track and cross country teams, and even a few bowling teams and it adds up to ... well, it adds up to a lot of teams. Some of those teams were real champions, a lot were pretty good, and a few were downright dysfunctional. While there have been championships to savor, there have also been broken teams to suffer. These experiences have been very useful to me. I believe, given enough history, one can see the future. And while we cannot change our past, thankfully we can shape our future if we have learned our lessons well.

What this article will attempt is to do is discuss ways teams go bad. Maybe I can provide you with a few warning signs that your team is headed for disaster. If small corrections can be made in a team’s course early in its journey, then you should be able to stay on track. If corrections are not made, this analogy provides other words to describe what will happen to your season – side-tracked, derailed and train-wrecked!

First, let’s quickly define what a team is. Click here for a more fully developed discussion of teamwork.

“Team” is one of those popular words coaches like to use and everyone acts as if the meaning of the word is understood. Yet a team is a complex entity and is envisioned differently among individuals. To some, a team is simply one person helping another, and that is an acceptable definition. To others, it means a change from personal identity to a collective identity. The second definition of a team, that of a collective identity, provides a glimpse of the power a team can wield. The concept of collective identity is what a true team strives to achieve and maintain.

Who is on the team? Believe me, there are a lot more members on the team than just the players. The team-at-large also includes the coaching staff, the administration and the players’ parents. All of these folks are part of the team whether you like it or not. One of the basic initial mistakes a doomed team makes is ostracizing a portion of its membership. Once any part of the team feels left out, unwanted, unneeded or forgotten – watch out! That’s the part that will become very noticeable indeed.

Where will an attack on the team come from? Almost always, it comes from within. Attacks from outside the team tend to make you stronger as the team unites in defense. But, teams that collapse do so because they are weak on the inside. Angry parents can be very damaging to a team, but they are not outsiders. Parents attack from within. Remember, like it or not, parents are on the team, so if they are offended, they are in an inside position where they can hurt you the most.

How will the disgruntled members disrupt your team? Well, they will attack the team structure in some way. It helps to know what holds the team together in order to understand how it can be taken apart. People who are upset with how the team is being run probably don’t sit down and analyze the team like we are doing here. But, they will be watching for weaknesses. If there are structural problems in the organization, they will be found and exploited.

A true team has three primary components: unity of purpose, trust and self-sacrifice. Again, these are more fully discussed in the link above, so I don’t want to repeat all that here. But, if you were some kind of Psycho, Team-Killing Terrorist you would attack the group through one or all of these three areas. Of all the teams that I have seen die, or at least struggle to finish their season, the root problem(s) came down to an unclear or splintered purpose, self appointed heroes that couldn’t trust teammates and/or coaches to do anything right, or players, parents or coaches too concerned about individual gratification to allow the team have its own identity. “Psycho, Team-Killer Terrorist” is not too extreme a term to apply to people who intentionally (or unwittingly) set out to destroy a team.

Let’s talk about the components of purpose, trust and self sacrifice and see how they can be weakened and then exploited.

Purpose

The word purpose implies sense of direction. A team needs to know why it exists and what its goals are. For example, a team may exist for the purpose of competitive success. That success may be defined by seeking championship. Another competitive minded team may recognize that its success lies in long term growth and sets goals of improving its standing over time. Another example of a team goal is fellowship. Perhaps success for a team dedicated to fellowship is determined by how much the team members enjoy being together and the win/loss results are secondary.

Once a team has defined its purpose, it has begun building its identity. A team’s identity is much more than expected achievements. Identity involves a statement of character values. Those values are essential in defining who the team is, how it behaves and how it will be viewed in the community. As a team pursues its goals, it will need to make decisions along the way as it encounters obstacles. A team with a defined character will know how to consistently deal with trials.

Leadership is needed to define a purpose, communicate that purpose to the team membership and then guide the team towards that goal. It’s not so important where that leadership comes from (although typically its expected from the coach), but it is critical that the leadership’ direction is accepted and applied by all team members.

A team also requires resources to achieve its purpose. Resources include players, money and a wide circle of supportive volunteers. The organizational structure of the administration, coach and staff is also an important resource.

So, to sabotage a team by undermining its purpose, one would seek to destroy the leadership and/or destroy the team's resources.

Destroy the Leadership

Divert the team’s direction. This is done by introducing goals that do not fit the team’s purpose. For example, if the team’s goal is to be as competitive as possible, someone might insist on equal playing time for all players.

Discredit the leadership (coach or captains). This is a very common practice by those who wish to hurt the team. If it is possible to generate a loss of confidence in the coach, it is possible to destroy the ability to apply direction. A common method (with the advantage of hindsight) is to second-guess the coaching decisions after the game. Some parents, when dissatisfied with the coach, will actually tell the player, “You don’t need to listen to your coach”.

Distract players from directions given by the coach. This tactic is most used by parents who provide a different coaching method at home and shout contrary instructions to players at the games.

A coach can weaken his/her own position by failing to define the team goals so everyone understands them. If the players and parent are confused, they will make up their own various goals.

A coach that fails to define and enforce standards of character and behavior will struggle with frequent problems as players make decisions in their personal lives that are disadvantageous to the team.

Disrupt communication. How the leadership provides information is critical. There are different ways to hurt a team by damaging communication channels. One way is failing to pass on needed information such as practice times. The omitted parties are bound to feel slighted.

Introduce incorrect information. Faulty information may have a deliberate, malicious source or it may be the result of poor organization by the coach, staff or administration. In either case, the results are demoralizing.

Suggest ulterior motives without any basis of fact. Using innuendo, it is easy to “explain” situations with quiet accusations of favoritism, greed, power – what have you. Even the cleanest programs can be tarnished with allegations that have no merit.

Destroy the Resources

It's frustrating if the team is unable to meet its needs for travel, uniforms, equipment and so on. Raising money is not much fun, but lack of funds is worse. One way to break a team is to hinder the money flow. This can be done brazenly through theft or loss, negligently, or by passive resistance (failing to help out).

Money is prone to misuse. If hard earned cash is spent without agreement from the fundraisers, hard feelings are certain. Raised monies belong, in a sense, to the entire team for the purpose of supporting the team. All should have a voice in its use. To hurt the team, spend the money in secret and inform afterwards, or only when asked. If you have no control over the money, you can hurt the team by suggesting that it is being spent improperly.

Money needs accountability. A team is like a business in that it needs a budget, cosigned checks and a review of expenditures. If allegations arise, and the record keeping is poor, the team will suffer greatly.

Power corrupts. When the head coach controls the checkbook, player selection and playing time, etc., there is too much power in one place. Not only is there danger in that the coach has too much to do, there are also many more targets a team terrorist can attack. The coach can spread the risk and increase the level of expertise and accountability by delegating control of the business items to trusted committee members.

The administration is a critical part of the team. A team without administrative support will run into a host of problems. Upset parents often go straight to the principal or athletic director to get their grievances heard. Politics often enter into decisions about coaching placement. An administration that doesn’t trust the team’s integrity can shut the team down in a hurry.

Parents are essential to run the various committees that support team activities. Here are some ways to break the parental support structure down:

  1. Failure to express sufficient appreciation guarantees little incentive to help in the future.
  2. Failure to open communication lines with parents ensures that they will talk amongst themselves and not with the coach. Parents are bound to have questions and even complaints. With no way to express them to the coach, problems will fester and worsen until they are too bad to heal.
  3. Don’t give the parents a season plan. The plan includes the game schedule, practice times, meeting times, financial requirements and activities. Ignorant parents will leave you alone, right? Right?
  4. Notify parents of meetings and events at the last minute forcing them to cancel important plans to support basketball. Remember, basketball isn’t the most important thing in most parents’ lives. They need time to plan if you want them to help.
  5. Most parents are willing to help because they are also helping their child. Most parents also like to be a part of a team. Most may actually feel offended if not asked to help. If they are not working for you, they could easily be working against you.
  6. Demonstrate favoritism to certain parents. The parents who you shun will assume that their child is sitting on the bench because you prefer to play your friends’ kids.
  7. Ask a small group of parents to do all the work while the rest do little or nothing. Watch the excitement as the working parents burn out and rebel!
  8. Discipline a player without talking to the player’s parents. That way, the parents only hear one side of the story (from the child) and you become monster of the year.
  9. Make jokes that could be offensive to any of the parents. Such jokes would include ridiculing any player or parent, or jokes that use a sexual, racial or other demeaning context.
  10. Touch or speak to the players in a way that appears disrespectful. Obvious actions that will alienate (if not infuriate) a parent are slapping bottoms, using profanity or using verbal abuse.
  11. Once the parents are against you, they will work to remove you. While that painful process is underway, the team has little chance to succeed. The team structure is fractured with critical elements working against each other. The players are caught in the middle with no ability to rectify the conflict.

Trust

Once a team has a purpose, all the members need to “buy in” and work towards the common goal. Trust is required from each person to rely on the others to do their individual responsibilities. For players, they need to trust each other to do a hundred things, from showing up on time, staying eligible for play and performing their on-court roles as designed. Coaches must trust their staff members to do their jobs and delegate tasks to others. Parents must trust the coaches to maintain the best interests of the program with fairness and competence. The administration must trust the program to operate professionally and stay in an oversight role. Any member of the team can hurt the program by interfering, complaining or not cooperating with another. Any member that is irresponsible dissolves the team trust because undependable people force others to interfere, complain and become uncooperative.

Here are some actions that create mistrust:

  1. Broken promises from coach can be devastating. Players may be told they will make a certain team or play a certain position. Parents may be misled and used. Sometimes coaches make well-intentioned promises in a momentary effort to appease somebody. Bottom line, promises shouldn’t be made. Instead, offer a plan and a goal and stick to making them succeed. The people must change to help the mission. The problem with promises is that they tend to alter the mission to please a single member.
  2. Leadership that is aloof – out of touch – breeds mistrust. Without communication, members feel left out. Its important to stay in touch and report on the mission’s progress, whether its fundraising, game results or whatever activity is fueling the drive to the overall goal.
  3. Favoritism dissolves trust. When certain players receive inordinate playing time, or are exempt from expected duties or discipline, the other players will eventually rebel. An example may be player(s) benched for making a turnover when another player makes several turnovers and is rarely benched. After a while, even constructive criticism from the coach is viewed as suspect.
  4. Its tough knowing you’re on the team, but not having a very good idea of what your role is. What are you supposed to be doing? How are you supposed to behave? It takes a lot of organization, but the roles need to be defined for all the team members. Everyone needs to know what is expected from them, when its due and what a successful completion is. Fundraisers should have targets. Necessary tasks, like video-taping and statistics, need to have an definition of what constitutes a good job. When a person works hard all season and then receives no feedback, its not clear if you were successful. The result is mistrust about your role and your leadership.
  5. John Wayne was one of our biggest American heroes. His movie roles were generally the same. As one strong individual, he would take a stand and defeat all the enemies and save all the good folks in the process. However, when you are building a team, be wary of making heroes. A hero could be a parent who becomes too influential due to volunteer contributions or monetary support. The downfall is that the hero may expect payback in a form that isn’t in the team’s best interest. A hero may be a player that is depended upon to carry a team through exceptional personal performance. The problem there is that such a role is a tremendous burden for a child and failure cannot be shared very well. Plus, it leads to special treatment that creates mistrust and resentment. Treat everyone the same. After all, you all have the same goal so you are all equal in that sense as teammates.
  6. If you hear many excuses, look for irresponsibility. Sure, there may be valid reasons that prevented someone from meeting their obligations. However, a pattern of excuses can’t be tolerated. Irresponsibility is the prime cause of mistrust.
  7. Some people try to help by pointing out problems. They can recognize everything that is going wrong. Its not complaining, exactly, it's more of maintaining a consistently negative viewpoint. Or example, a coach may always point out player mistakes without much praise to balance it out. A parent tries to show knowledge of the game by always second-guessing the coach. A player may constantly criticize teammates for their mistakes. An environment of finding fault will break down trust in one another as well as erase the personal self-confidence every member needs to succeed.
  8. There are times when you have folks in your organizations with excellent memories and they remember every mistake you ever made. If they are also the unforgiving type, it will be impossible to build a feeling of trust. Players who get benched for making turnovers need to have a chance to redeem themselves. People who speak unwisely need to have a chance to apologize and make it up. Coaches who make mistakes in judgment need to have an opportunity to learn and improve. Without forgiveness, there is no way to heal and grow.

Self Sacrifice

The true team has a collective identity intent on achieving a common goal. Team members can easily trust one another because they want the same goal. Mistakes are tolerated because they are not made to benefit an individual. People just stumble once in a while. To fall is just part of learning. Teammates pick one another up and try to help one another improve. Teamwork comes naturally when everyone is headed in the same direction.

Does it really happen that way?

A coach can be fooled by the players, their parents and even by the administration. The problem is that everybody gives lip service to the ideals of teamwork, but few are really willing to sacrifice anything to achieve it. Sacrifice is essential to building a team. If you think about it, if it doesn’t cost anything to make something, is that something worth anything? A team’s worth is measured by the sacrifices made to build it. Examples of sacrifices include member’s free time. Players must practice and parents must help out with committee work. Cash must be coughed up. The effort to become a good basketball player is intense and long-coming.

Don’t be surprised if everybody is saying the right things and nodding up and down, yet the team just isn’t clicking. Watch for behaviors that betray self-interest. They will show you where the problem lies.

  1. Internal competition for playing time can be the downfall of a great team. Sometimes, when the best athletes gravitate together (and they always do, it seems), the team faces stronger competition from within than from opponents. Good players may find it very difficult to accept roles that are beneath their expectations. But, if they can’t accept the roles, the team cannot achieve its peak. Signs to watch for include:
  2. Another kind of internal competition arises when two or more players develop games within the game. Their personal contest may be who can score the most points, for instance. Private competition can easily disrupt the team flow.
  3. Anytime a few players set themselves above the others the team is hurt. Sometimes the stars will create their own team within a team, perhaps with a special name or apparel. When the team suffers, they will blame their less talented teammates. When the team succeeds, they will claim the credit. The team will soon split.
  4. Sometime adults cause elitism by glorifying the stars. They will tell the admired players that they are special and deserve extra attention, or perhaps an elevated role on the team (like taking more shots). If anything, advantaged young players need to learn discipline and respect. Once they lose those two traits, they can no longer be coached. The irony is that they cannot get much better without accepting instruction and will fail to reach their potential. Talented players get this kind of input from their parents, friends, adults who hope to gain something from them, and unfortunately, from their coaches.
  5. Every once in a while a coach must deal with issues concerning respect. I’m not talking about the healthy, mutual respect that exists between all members of the thriving team-at-large. I’m talking about players who take personal offense at constructive criticism. It’s a mistake to mollify a player (or the parents) by trying to heap additional “respect” their way. You can never satiate the hunger. If a player is above criticism, how can they be helped? The player is already as good as he/she will get. Players that demand special respect have no concept of the team identity and sacrifice required to develop a true team. They are only concerned for themselves. I believe the coach should make an effort to teach the concepts of sacrifice and collective identity and if the chances seem slim that the player will conform, remove the player(s) from the team. Respect issues are intense and personal and have long-lasting, damaging effects. You cannot build a team around players who feel they are bigger than the team.
  6. When someone sets out to hurt your team they often use the old strategy of divide and conquer. There are lots of ways to do this. Watch for any adult (outside of your coaching staff) that pulls any of your players aside for a talk. What good could they possibly be offering for the team? Perhaps your player is being recruited right in front of you. Beware of people who offer benefits to a subset of your team. Anything given to the team should be given to all. Sometimes folks try to soften the sting of defeat by telling one player that it was somebody else’s fault the game was lost. The result may be resentment among teammates.
  7. Parents are an integral part of the team, yet they can also be the most destructive. They are destructive when their agenda differs from the team’s goals. Usually, parents will be biased toward their own child and that is a natural feeling. It turns ugly, however, when the parent is using the team to further the individual interests of the child. Maybe the parent is designing a college scholarship for the player and feels it is essential for the player to be seen as the star. Maybe the parent has always been one of those overly-protective types that won’t even hesitate to go right to the top and lobby the principal to get their child on the team or granted more playing time. The tragedy is that if they are successful in their ambitions, some other parent’s worthwhile child will be a victim. It’s very difficult to build a true team when there are political wars being fought and forcing team decisions to be made off the court. If this is the case in your organization, work with your administration to respect your authority. Most administrators are willing to tell parents when they are out of line, but it is critical to have an open line of communication between the coaching staff and the administration.
  8. When players blame and criticize each other, it is time to step in quell the discord. In fact, the coach should set rules of behavior in the very first meeting or practice. Blaming teammates is just another way of making excuses. Criticism between players stunts improvement and is counterproductive. Set a positive tone and get all to agree that they’ll treat each other with respect. Instead of criticism, use encouragement. Its just another way of expressing yourself about the same situation.
  9. Don’t allow players to maintain a special appearance. Cliquish identities, like a symbol or group name on their shoes, wearing different color socks (maybe one long one and one short one), or anything the players come up with that promotes part of the team and not all. When the kids decide that they all are going to shave their heads, or dye their hair, or wear the same thing, then they have made the team stronger through a show of unity. But, if it is just a few, look out. Some players may have already made individual choices about their hair style (or wearing a tattoo) that are not reasonably reversible. The best you can do is sell the concept that if they all look alike they enhance the concept of team unity. With personal decisions, like changing a hairstyle, it may become quite clear how much a player is willing – or not willing – to sacrifice for the sake of the team.
  10. One objectionable demonstration that occasionally happens when a player is removed from the game is when the player rips off his shirt, removes her shoes or finds the furthest seat possible from the coach and then sulks. This is a temporary display that effectively states to all who view it that the player is not part of the team. Some coaches may prefer to let the player cool down. I believe that this situation should be specifically covered in the opening season meeting. Any player who removes the uniform or shoes should leave the bench and go to the locker room. Such behavior reflects poorly upon the school and the program.
  11. Even when the team is going great, unplanned outside influences can create turmoil. If two players become involved with the same girlfriend/boyfriend, the animosity that results can be extremely disruptive. The best the coach can do is to explain to the players that only basketball matters during practice and game time. If the enamored suitors can’t set their feelings aside for that time, then they are hurting the team. The coach shouldn’t take sides. Treat both the same, even if both must go. What if two players on the same team fall in love? I have never seen that situation. If you do, please write and tell me how you dealt with it.

In summary, the key to building a true team is practicing fairness. Even though the players come to you with different talent levels, they have equal human values. Treat them all with the same rules and respect. Include all participants – players, parents, coaches and administrators – on the team. Clarify the mission so everyone understands how to help, and then trust the people to do their jobs and learn to rely upon one another. Foster the team identity concept and encourage and recognize the sacrifices individuals make to support the team’s cause. Do not make a point to reward individuals. MVP and Coach of the Year are labels that promote elitism. Keep the team first and everything else will fall in line.