By NYC Grind Contributor, Dr. Jan Mohlman
In anticipation of this year’s national team championships, it might be worth giving some thought to your value and performance as a team member. Contrary to the popular notion that “there is no ‘I’ in team,” psychological research clearly shows that players can and do make substantial individual contributions to overall team success. Furthermore, team performance and satisfaction are affected by the interpersonal relationships we have with our teammates. Look back at the rosters of teams who have played at your local pool hall and you will see that some are short lived, while others have endured over years, even decades. What are the elements that contribute to the longer-lasting, successful billiard teams?
Cohesion, or the phenomenon of a group of individuals sticking together in pursuit of a shared goal, has been named one of the fundamental attributes of successful competitive teams. Cohesion has a statistically large effect on members’ performance, and this is the case regardless of whether the team is functions through individual players (as in billiards) or a unified group (as in basketball).1 Here are several steps you can take to make your team more cohesive, and therefore stronger and more successful.
1. Initiate a discussion of collective goals for the team at your next practice session. It sometimes takes the efforts of one individual to initiate a discussion of a team’s primary aspirations for each competitive season. You can ensure that your team has specified and agreed upon shared goals by bringing this matter up at your next practice session. Keep in mind that the goal of the team may differ from each member’s own personal goals, however as long as members are able to work toward both simultaneously, this should not pose any problems.
Psychological research tells us that a highly valued common goal can readily unite even the most diverse groups of individuals; however in identifying the goal, it is beneficial for a team to agree on the specifics. So whether the goal is to win matches or for all players to advance to higher handicaps, there must be a collective vision among members. It will not be advantageous to team cohesion if one or more players are hell bent on ‘winning’ as the ultimate outcome when others are focused more on ‘the enjoyment of playing matches.’ A shared superordinate goal can trump all other aspects of team membership,2 and this is best accomplished through focused discussion as opposed to leaving things up to chance.
2. Avoid these four big mistakes in interpersonal communication. Well-respected researcher of close relationships, Dr. John Gottman, has identified four styles of interpersonal communication that reliably predict divorce and relationship breakups. These may also serve as warning signs that your team is headed for interpersonal trouble or that cohesion is eroding. The styles of interaction found to be most toxic are criticizing, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.3
1. Criticism – Unproductive blaming statements that usually begin with the words, “You always…” or “you never…” Such overstatements usually put team members on guard, potentially leading to heated arguments, split allegiances within the team, and plenty of interpersonal discord.
2. Contempt – Vindictive sarcasm directed toward another individual, sometimes accompanied by eye-rolling or other disdainful gestures. Contempt can appear to be an attempt at humor, however if it is hostile or mocking in its tone then it can have a strong damaging effect on interpersonal relations.
3. Defensiveness – Unnecessarily taking the stance of a threatened victim. In defensive states we lash out at others in a manner that is unfair or excessive. We also tend to whine, make excuses, ‘countercriticize,’ or repeat ourselves over and over, in the absence of any tangible benefit.
4. Stonewalling – “Shutting down,” refusing to speak or providing only monosyllabic responses, or physically turning away from sincere teammates. This is the ultimate avoidance strategy, and it maintains and exacerbates, rather than resolves, interpersonal problems.
These styles of interpersonal communication exert harm in a linear fashion; in other words, if your team members display only one of these four styles, you have a good chance of sticking together in terms of team interpersonal relationships. However, if three or four are present, your team may be at risk for dissolution. Confront problem issues calmly and respectfully, starting the discussion with “I” rather than “you,” listen attentively, persuade gently, and formulate solutions to problems collectively. These are important and useful skills for building team cohesion and should be used as an alternative to the four toxic (but common) styles of interacting described above.
3. Demonstrate and promote trust and respect for the team captain and his/her decisions. Trust in a team captain can go a long way in cultivating team cohesion, especially if the intent is for the team to stick together for the long term. The team’s degree of trust in the captain is indirectly but strongly related to performance. Those who invest in and support their captain’s decisions also tend to exert more effort and utilize better strategies and a greater degree of knowledge in matches. If you currently have doubts about your team captain’s leadership ability, it might be best to initiate a polite discussion of your concerns in a calm and nonthreatening way.
The captain is responsible for making decisions that benefit the team, but also decisions that contribute to positive moods among team members. Whenever possible, captains should attend to the needs and preferences of teammates in order to optimize playing. The captain must also possess effective communication skills, meaning that he or she must verbally address the concerns of the team in an appropriate way (for instance, in face-to-face team meetings rather than by text or email messages). Transformational leaders are known to elevate members’ commitment to the superordinate goal by inspiring innovative problem solving and helping the team maintain a clear focus on the goal.4,5
If you are a captain, you might want to solicit feedback from your team on the quality of your leadership at least once per season. If you take this option, do not become defensive if the feedback is constructive – being open to suggestion is one path to positive change and a more cohesive team.
4. Develop clear and positive expectations of your teammates. Positive expectations refers to the belief that the actions of team members will not be harmful, and will more likely be beneficial to the team, despite the possibility of an occasional loss or disappointment. It is also bolsters cohesion to provide an open environment for discussing errors and implementing remedial strategies in a supportive manner.4
Remember that each member of your team has unique strengths, and these can be strategically put to good use during each match. For instance, some team members are chosen to fill gaps in the team’s rankings or abilities (for instance, an APA team strategically recruits a strong player with a 3 handicap), which implies a set of expectations for that specific team member. Others might be recruited for their reliability or unique skill set. Regardless, such strategies for capitalizing on players’ strengths can be made explicit so that roles and expectations are clearly defined, and thus more readily accepted and embraced by the team’s individual players.
Because teams function in a social environment, it is beneficial to stay engaged and show unity with team members as often as possible during matches. Team members who spend more time texting between games than interacting, coaching, or cheering on their teammates are probably behaving in a manner that is harmful to cohesion. It is worthwhile to try to be interpersonally present for your teammates even while waiting for your turn at the table.
5. Plan and engage in activities outside the pool hall to strengthen and enhance relations among team members. A team should be thought of as a synergistic group; there should be something more than the sum of the individuals when the collective whole is considered. The idea of synergy means that interrelations between team members are meaningful and positive enough to enhance overall performance above and beyond individual performance. In other words, do you play better in your team or individual matches? If the answer is that you play consistently better in your individual matches, then there may be room for improving your relations with teammates.
Interpersonal trust and concern about your team members outside the pool hall are important for building team cohesion and synergy. Group outings and activities could foster this aspect, as can widening the scope of the team to include more than just playing billiards. Once an ongoing team has determined the shared goal, the team tends to focus (perhaps implicitly) on interpersonal relationships and dynamics between members rather than the goal per se; therefore it is the strength and quality of team relationships that can be the main vehicle to success. This social process, however, might have to be long term. Research shows that when trying to build or strengthen teams, occasional or short-lived attempts at fostering positive interrelations have only a minimal beneficial effect, while longer-term efforts have a moderate beneficial effect.1
6. Consider recruiting female players for your team, if you don’t already have them. Females are generally known to be more interpersonally cohesive and socially oriented than males.5 You might consider adding one or more female player(s) to your team if you don’t already have some. Keep in mind, however, that this strategy can also alter the dynamic of the group. For example, research from social psychology shows that when females are critical of each other, they can at times be significantly more critical than males. Alternatively, a male player may be more likely than a female to respond defensively if displaced in the team ranking by a stronger female player. A socially astute captain can monitor team relations and solicit feedback to ensure that a new teammate (of either gender) will be accepted and valued by the remaining members.
Ultimately, there is really nothing wrong with protean teams who evolve and change members over time – the building blocks of team cohesion outlined here can easily be transferred to new situations. If you are adapting to a new team, then you can embrace the additional challenge in the already demanding sport of billiards – you will do well to maintain an open-minded, flexible attitude. You can also do your part to contribute to the synergy of the team by following these simple steps, which should enhance cohesion and improve the team’s performance.
1. Lidor, R., & Henschen, K. P. (2003). The psychology of team sports. West Virginia University Press.
2. Sherif, Muzafer (1966). In common predicament: Social psychology of intergroup conflict and cooperation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
3. Gottman, J. M. (1999). Seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Wiley & Sons.
4. DeJong, B. A., & Elfring, T. How does trust affect the performance of ongoing teams? The mediating role of reflexivity monitoring, and effort. Academy of Management Journal, 55, 535-549.
5. Troth, A. C., Jordan, P. J., & Lawrence, S. A. (2012). Emotional intelligence, communication competence, and perceptions of team social cohesion. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 30, 414-424.
Note to Readers: This information is intended for general education purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional and/or medical advice. While Dr. Mohlman cannot provide psychological advice to NYC Grind’s readers, we are happy to post and respond to comments, suggestions, and questions about her columns.