There are many reasons why teams go through a losing phase. Although there is the commonality of the final score (loss), losing teams should never be compared.
It is now 7 out of 7 for the Lions rugby team in the Super 14 competition.
The Lions rugby team have been struggling for many seasons. They appointed a new coach, Dick Muir to try and turn the team around. He is innovative and has a good eye for identifying young talent. He promised to play a new brand of rugby. As in all new beginnings, there was a lot of excitement and hope as the season began.
Elite performance is made up of many dimensions. On a fundamental level, the team needs to have good basics and be able to perform these skills under pressure and over time (for the full duration of the match).
What one notices with a team that does not possess the necessary skills, is that in the early stages of the match, it appears as if they are in with a chance to win. The energy levels are high (highly charged and motivated). This is ‘raw’ energy and the players are seen to throw everything into any exchange with the opposition. But this cannot be sustained. As time unfolds, mistakes start to appear. These mistakes are usually the result of skills that have not been fully developed. In addition to the skill levels not being up to the necessary standard, they begin to fall apart when they need to be executed under pressure from the opposition (when time and space get reduced). In other words, the team cannot maintain the most basic standards that are required to be competitive.
A losing team loses because poor moment-to-moment decisions are made on the field of play. Either the decision-making is not quick enough (alertness of mind), or wrong choices are made, or no possibilities are generated to offer players options (lack of creativity). Coupled with this, one notices that the team tends to repeat the same poor decision-making as the match unfolds or from match to match, causing them to fall into the same traps week after week.
Given this, the team cannot hold onto its own cohesiveness during a match. It fragments. This inevitably has an impact on off-the-field functioning.
In such teams, there is an underlying despondency (that is seldom acknowledged). This despondency is understandable since week after week the team goes through a humiliating process in front of an audience. There is also a brittle belief system that always holds onto hope since there is very little in the actual reality (or performance) that supports confidence. In addition, players want to hide because of the emotional pain and tend to resort to blame and an external focus as a means to cope. The team becomes defensive and rifts between coaches and players may develop.
Teams do not change overnight. At this moment in time, the Lions rugby team is having to confront one of the harshest realities in elite sport: ‘even though we try our best, what if we are still not good enough?’
The challenge for new management that comes into a losing culture is to ensure that two concurrent processes unfold: Firstly, on a physical and technical level the players need to go back to basics on all levels and groove these basics in uncomfortable intensity conditions. Secondly, a new philosophy of functioning and thinking needs to emerge that will challenge the old system’s historical patterns (the losing culture). In particular, a healthy system that eventually becomes successful is driven by its own internal functioning that strives to extend itself. There are no easy short cuts and hard work is required.