Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's
Notebook. Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 teams 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, lets 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!
Thats 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 dont 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
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 dont 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 couldnt 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.
Lets talk about the components of purpose, trust and
self sacrifice and see how they can be weakened and then exploited.
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 teams 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.
Its 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
So, to sabotage a team by undermining its
purpose, one would seek to destroy the leadership and/or destroy the team's
Destroy the Leadership
Divert the teams direction. This is done by
introducing goals that do not fit the teams purpose. For example, if the
teams 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
dont 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
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
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 doesnt trust the teams 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
- Failure to express sufficient appreciation guarantees little
incentive to help in the future.
- 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.
- Dont 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?
- Notify parents of meetings and events at the last minute
forcing them to cancel important plans to support basketball. Remember,
basketball isnt the most important thing in most parents lives.
They need time to plan if you want them to help.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Discipline a player without talking to the players
parents. That way, the parents only hear one side of the story (from the child)
and you become monster of the year.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
Here are some actions that create mistrust:
- 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 shouldnt 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.
- 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 missions progress, whether its fundraising, game
results or whatever activity is fueling the drive to the overall goal.
- 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.
- Its tough knowing youre 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.
- 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 isnt
in the teams 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.
- 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 cant be tolerated. Irresponsibility is the prime
cause of mistrust.
- 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
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.
- 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.
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
doesnt cost anything to make something, is that something worth anything?
A teams worth is measured by the sacrifices made to build it. Examples of
sacrifices include members 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.
Dont be surprised if everybody is saying the right
things and nodding up and down, yet the team just isnt clicking. Watch
for behaviors that betray self-interest. They will show you where the problem
- 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 cant accept the roles, the team cannot
achieve its peak. Signs to watch for include:
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.
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
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.
Every once in a while a coach must deal with issues concerning respect. Im
not talking about the healthy, mutual respect that exists between all
members of the thriving team-at-large. Im talking about players who
take personal offense at constructive criticism. Its 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.
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 elses fault the game was lost. The
result may be resentment among teammates.
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 teams 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 wont 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 parents worthwhile child will be a victim. Its 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.
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
theyll treat each other with respect. Instead of criticism, use
encouragement. Its just another way of expressing yourself about the same
Dont 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.
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.
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 cant set their
feelings aside for that time, then they are hurting the team. The coach
shouldnt 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.
- Comments that some player gets too much playing time
- Comments that another player is too tired, has personal problems, etc.
- Players striving to do too much to prove a point
- Players sabotaging each other with bad passes to limit their
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 teams 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.