The Science Behind The Perfect Team

Getting the right blend of characters in the dressing room can be the difference between humiliation and glory — FFT speaks to those seeking to prove that team chemistry is an exact science

Sunshine stretches out across the vineyards that encircle Nyon, a picturesque lakeside town 15 miles from Geneva.

Tightly-packed streets that trickle down from the imposing Middle Age castle begin to hum with activity, as suits from UEFA’s headquarters spill out.

After a long, hard day administering lots of red tape, a glass of wine harvested locally is top of the bill.

Tucked away in one of the municipality’s cosy little watering holes, a few other members of the football fraternity are ordering an altogether different round of drinks.

“We walked down the road about 100 yards and we were in the pub,” recalled Arsenal’s cult hero Ray Parlour in his autobiography, The Romford Pele.

“There were only five of us and I’ll never forget, one of the boys went up to the bar and said, ‘Thirty-five pints please.’”

Arsene Wenger had given his Gunners players the evening off after a punishing pre-season schedule in Switzerland, and while one group chugged on beer, the other chugged on another performance killer.

“Later on that evening, we were walking down the road and the French lads were sitting outside a cafe, all smoking,” remembered the midfielder who made more than 450 club appearances.

“Being the cheeky chappy, I couldn’t resist. ‘Lads, how are we going to win the league? They’re all smoking; we’re all drunk!’”

Arsenal went on to lift the Premier League and the FA Cup in Wenger’s first full campaign at the helm — 1997–98. The Frenchman found a way to wrestle the crown from Manchester United with a newly-formed side of foreign imports and British veterans. But how?

Well, his squad had that rare, intangible, ingredient that all successful teams possess: team chemistry.

“The mixing of two very different approaches turned out to be one of the keys to the team’s success,” said Parlour. “The English lads realised how hard we had to work on our technique and how to look after ourselves better. The continental lads learned to love that little bit of fun.”

Two decades on and managers are still consumed by the same conundrum: How do I cultivate the right dynamic in the dressing room to get the right results on the pitch?

For any anxious football managers reading, don’t head to the off-licence to stock up on booze and fags just yet. Grab a notepad and pen, FFT is on the case…

“WHEN YOU KNOW SOMEONE WELL, YOU WANT TO FIGHT FOR THEM ON THE PITCH AND KNOW HOW TO GET THE BEST OUT OF THEM”

Don’t make the mistake of defining chemistry as spirit, as it’s a lot more than that. It’s the impalpable understanding between players that manifests itself as a telepathic understanding out on the pitch.

“Knowing each other’s movements on the pitch comes through working hard in training, but you have to play with clever players,” explains Celtic’s treble-winner, Moussa Dembele.

“When one of us has got the ball, we know a team-mate will make space for someone else to run into and we can deliver the right pass. Understanding like this is the key to success and the reason we were unbeaten in the Scottish Premiership last season.”

To enhance this connection even further, you must forge strong bonds off the pitch with a social network that stretches out beyond the dressing room and into the fabric of the club — and one that isn’t just enjoyed via a smartphone.

“It’s important to be open with the other players and socialise with them so you build friendships,” says Crystal Palace midfielder Yohan Cabaye, who won Ligue 1 with Lille in 2011 — Les Dogues’ first league title in more than half a century.

“You need to speak not only to the senior players, but also to the players in the youth team, too. If they play for the first team, there will already be an established connection so you will communicate better when you’re on the pitch.

“If you know someone well, you want to fight for them out on the pitch. You also then know how to speak to them to get the best out of them in certain situations.”

To achieve the alchemy that transforms team-mates into winners, unbreakable bonds are created.

Beyond the dribbling declarations of ‘I bloody love you, mate’ after 35 pints, camaraderie is best forged in communal struggle.

Adversity, whether it is the pain of a bad defeat or the burn of a brutal training regime, acts as a ‘social glue’ that fosters cohesion and solidarity.

“When I was at Fulham I liked to test out the players’ mentality, so I would run them all up and down the Epsom Downs racecourse every Tuesday,” reveals Micky Adams, who became player-manager of the Cottagers in March 1996.

“I used to say to them: ‘Other teams are enjoying their five-a-sides right now — they’re not doing what you’re doing.’ That hard work and suffering together forged team chemistry. They didn’t enjoy it, but it got them results on a Saturday.”

Adams oversaw an upturn in form, saving the club from relegation out of the Football League, before engineering promotion to the third tier in the following campaign.

In the modern era, clubs are not just relying on tough training drills to test a new recruit’s character — they’re running background checks, gathering Moneyball metrics and then asking the player to complete a personality questionnaire before introducing him to the bristling energy of the dressing room.

On the surface this sounds quite progressive. However, the business world is light years ahead of sport when it comes to unravelling the many complexities of team chemistry according to Bo Hanson, the director of Athlete Assessments.

“Sport is still blinded by the physical and technical abilities of the athlete,” says the three-time Olympic bronze medal-winning rower.

“The business world has been measuring concepts such as employee engagement for years. They know engagement creates high levels of profitability, as a more engaged employee will deliver an additional 30 per cent in discretionary effort.”

No stranger to discretionary effort himself — he combined competing for Australia at four consecutive Olympics with academic studies and some consultative experience — Hanson has been working within sport and the business sector for two decades.

He helps many coaches and CEOs put together the right combustible elements that will create an all-conquering chain reaction.

“Something like 95 per cent of teams improve from one season to the next after working with us.”

Hanson has adapted an existing behavioural assessment tool to fit the idiosyncrasies of sport and help athletes better understand themselves and their team-mates. After profiling more than 40,000 athletes and coaches, Hanson has a recipe for a title-winning team — and there is plenty more to it than just chest-thumping leaders and wise-cracking pranksters.

“There are four different behavioural traits within the DISC model: dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientious,” he explains.

“If you like to give lots of direction, to have control and be in charge, you’re dominant. You need to have about 15 per cent of that in your team. People who fit the influence profile type bring energy, ideas and spontaneity — your playmakers. We believe you’ll need to have around 25–30 per cent of that.

“The S profile — steadiness — is all about the team. They’re selfless, loyal and considerate — they are the glue that will bond other people together. You need 35–40 per cent of this. Finally there’s the C profile — conscientious. This profile likes to follow a game plan and loves to have structure and set-plays. You need 20–25 per cent of it in a team.”

Cramming this eclectic mix of personalities inside a single dressing room will inevitably create some conflict — but that’s welcomed by Hanson, who insists that true team chemistry is not a perfect portrait of back-slapping harmony, but a melting pot of competitive tension.

“Coaches will sometimes say, ‘We’ve got awesome team chemistry because everyone gets along so well’ — they get along well because they’re not willing to hold each other accountable,” explains Hanson.

“Without the accountability factor you will end up with a situation where you are valuing harmony over honesty, and that’s not going to create high performance.”

Neither does a dysfunctional dressing room — and winning is by no means an indicator of a happy union. When the team hits a bad run of form and the dressing room walls start to close in, festering conflicts come to the fore.

“Look out for cliques, whisperers and finger-pointers if things are starting to go badly,” says Adams. “The characteristics of a strong dressing room are the ones that take responsibility when things are not going particularly well.”

In this situation the interests of the overall team must override the individual’s instinct for self-preservation, says Cabaye. “Every player has got a responsibility to put the team’s needs before their own,” says the former Paris Saint-Germain pass master.

“If you have got players who think only of themselves, this will have a negative effect on the team’s chemistry.”

How do you avoid this? Education, reveals Hanson. If the different profile types understand one another and how they all contribute to the team’s overarching goal — winning matches — they are far more likely to value their colleagues’ input, in spite of their differences.

“We will get the different profile groups to identify the three most critical behaviours that they bring to the team,” says Hanson.

“Then we ask the other profiles to look at those behaviours and to discuss openly how they see those behaviours adding value to the team.

“We’ll then ask the same groups: ‘Is there a behaviour you need to modify to be more helpful for the team?’ This could just be a matter of softening their tone of voice or having a one-on-one chat instead of yelling across the pitch.”

Were teams to delve deeper into the various personality types of their players — and even the dressing room’s seating arrangement — they might stumble across a blueprint to a higher-functioning team chemistry.

That’s the opinion of biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher, a leading expert on the science of love and relationships.

“I would think very carefully about putting two high-testosterone, rank-orientated people right next to each other — unless you wanted to drive up their competition even more,” says Dr Fisher, who created the compatibility questionnaire for popular dating website Match.com.

“For example, there could be an awkward atmosphere between two strikers who are competing to score the most goals. They may not pass to each other out on the field, instead choosing to go for goal themselves which could bring tension to the dressing room.”

Fisher’s theory is that every person’s personality type is in part determined by their dominant brain chemical. Far from just being modern navel-gazing, this is a phenomenon that can be traced all the way back to our evolutionary past.

“For millions of years we grew up in these little hunter-gatherer groups and you needed all styles of thinking and behaving in order to survive as a team,” says the author.

“Groups have always needed people who are both aggressive and experimental — that’s the testosterone; someone who is going to go steaming in and try everything — that’s the dopamine; someone who is going to say: ‘Wait a minute, we’ve never done it like this before, let’s stick with what we know’ — that’s serotonin; and someone with empathy and a will to co-operate — that’s oestrogen. The dynamic in a dressing room would be no different.”

“THE ONLY COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE YOU HAVE IS CHEMISTRY. EVERYTHING ELSE CAN JUST BE BOUGHT AND COPIED”

The future of sports analytics may not be passes, crosses and, er, expected goals, but far less tangible metrics like neurotransmitters, hormones and plain body language.

Being able to crack the algorithm to team chemistry would surely be a down-payment on success. And the brightest minds in sport and science are getting closer to it.

“Our scientists are developing the first algorithms to objectively quantify team chemistry from player biology,” says Kevin Bickart, the co-founder and chief scientist at SyncStrength.

“We have been analysing the strength of synchrony between players’ heart rates during games, providing a window into how their nervous systems anticipate, react and recover from the physical and mental demands of having to work together as a team.”

Analysts captured data from a game between two top women’s college teams in the United States. In one sequence, a defender got caught ball-watching and her opponent went onto score the winner. The data showed all the defenders were in sync — except the one who suffered a mental lapse.

Bickart adds: “We’ve been adding variables to the performance prediction equation. We are not claiming that team chemistry is predicting all of the performance, but we believe it does predict some proportion of the performance.”

Research by Katerina Bezrukova, a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management who has also worked with Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, found the demographic “fault lines” — inter-team divisions determined by racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds — is fundamental to the team chemistry.

Finding that optimal balance between diversity and homogeneity is worth three victories to baseball sides, says Bezrukova. Get it wrong and you’ll end up winning fewer games.

And ultimately that is all anyone cares about: How does team chemistry help me win? Or should the question actually be: Does team chemistry breed success or success breed team chemistry?

“Chemistry is fostered by results, for sure,” insists Adams. “You can get spirit and understanding through team-bonding exercises, but to get a strong chemistry among the players, you need results.”

It’s chicken and egg — one cannot exist without the other, and that intrinsic link cannot be ignored.

“At the top level the only competitive advantage you have got is chemistry, everything else can be bought and copied,” says Hanson.

Wenger’s squad of chain-smoking Europeans and beer-guzzling Brits had it right. Ray Parlour may or may not subscribe to the DISC analysis model, or have any idea what hormone was swirling around the brain of a fist-clenching Tony Adams, but he recognises chemistry when he sees it. “The jigsaw just fitted together with that team,” he said. “You have to have the different pieces — a bit of everything.

“When our puzzle was complete it was an outstanding team to play in — we all valued what everybody brought to the party.”

Originally published in FourFourTwo in October 2017.

Football writer specialising in sports science and performance. His work has appeared in FourFourTwo, Men's Health and The Independent https://www.benwelch.org/

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