It is always interesting to listen to coaches and captains of losing teams give their impressions and interpretations of why things are going badly.
In his interview after the most recent loss against the Brumbies in the Super 14 rugby competition, the captain of the Sharks, John Smit seemed to suggest that things were conspiring against his team. There seemed to be an air of disbelief in his tone; how was it possible that they had not yet notched up their first win of the season? To date, they had lost all of the 5 matches played. In his opinion, they had done enough on the field to have already won 4 matches. An element of arrogance and entitlement seemed to underpin what he was saying. He was also quick to make mention that the spirit in the team was great, neutralising any suggestion that the team was unhappy or fragmenting.
If one takes a broader perspective of the performance of the Sharks, then it appears that the downward spiral of decay, that is clearly evident, actually started last year, after the 8th round of the 2009 competition. At that point, the team was on top of the log having lost only one match. In the last 5 matches of the 2009 competition they lost 4, resulting in them not even making the semi-final play-offs.
So the harsh statistics show that the team has lost 9 out of the last 10 matches played. Surely this should be a harsh enough reality for the team to get shocked out of their disbelief regarding its poor performance?
So what is happening to the team? More importantly, what is unfolding within the leadership of the team?
When looking at teams, one should never separate off-the-field functioning and on-the-field performance. In other words, if a team, with quality players such as the Sharks, is losing or under-performing then they are probably struggling to resolve an internal group dynamic that is undermining them. From a systemic perspective, this may also involve administrators.
Teams are dynamic living systems that undergo change over time. Energy and information flow, coupled with the nature of the relationships that exist in the team, will determine the quality of the synergy in the team at any given time.
I remember consulting with an elite rugby team some years ago. During my initial consultations with the team and with individual players, I became aware that there was an internal dynamic between ‘experienced players’ and ‘inexperienced players’ that needed to be resolved for the team to access its total power. As the team transcended this issue and created a purposeful vision that everyone committed to, the performance of the team improved with every game; eventually culminating in the team ending up in the top 4 at the end of the season.
Transcending and resolving an internal group dynamic invariably results in improved team performance on the field of play. There are two fundamental reasons for this; (a) team members feel more personally connected with each other resulting in more willingness to do a little bit extra for the group’s cause, and (b) there is more available energy to the team for its on-the-field performance since it has stopped wasting its internal energy on sabotaging, resisting or blocking each other.
In my experience, however, elite teams tend to resist any attempt to look inwards at their own functioning. Elite players want to keep the conversation on the technical or tactical levels (where they are most comfortable); conversation relating to the interpersonal levels of the team is uncomfortable for the players. But as the team loses match after match and starts exhausting all the ‘obvious’ attempted solutions, it eventually gets confronted with its most intimate functioning on the interpersonal level.
It is time for the Sharks to engage in some reflective, respectful and honest conversation that deals with the interpersonal level of the team. Interpersonal issues or conflicts need to be clearly identified, and then addressed. I sense that the seed of the decay process may be found sometime last year after round 8 of the 2009 competition.