DALLAS — When it comes to success in sports, the first need that probably comes to mind is the obvious: talent.
But with softball and baseball seasons in full swing, it’s good to be reminded that success requires one other must-have element: teamwork.
“It all comes out in performance,” says Yolanda Bruce Brooks. The Dallas psychologist, whose background includes serving as senior director of player development for the National Basketball Association, has worked extensively with coaches and athletes at all levels.
The coach can have all the talent in the world, she says. But there’s no guarantee of success if team members aren’t working together to pool their talents.
Creating cohesion is a bit of an art, a delicate combination of happenstance and chemistry, serendipity and finesse. Think of a basket of market-fresh foods, or a jumble of musical notes. Delicious and pure on their own, they don’t always meld into a meal or a composition.
“Talent isn’t enough,” Brooks says. “There are so many elements that go into it. Is that person a good team player? Will that person help players on the team become better than who they are? It’s about players, mind-set, working with others as a team.
“You don’t have to be friends or best buddies, but you have to figure out a way to get together.”
Successful teams usually share three traits, she says:
Common cause. Everyone is working toward the same goal, she says.
Mind-set. You’re focused on achieving that goal. “They call it familiarity for the greatest good,” Brooks says. “You know you won’t stand alone and achieve goals. Everyone is there to support you.”
Creating the flow or synchronicity. Successful teams learn to work together as one.
“Those are things you need to create a solid, cohesive team,” she says, “whether in sports, business or the military.”
Peyton Harris adds others: communication and longevity.
“Communication is a big key,” says Harris, who has played on the Jack Wagons since the Dallas softball team’s inception five years ago. “It’s not like we sit around and strategize, though. A big part of it is just playing together for so long.”
For almost 10 years, Richard Danielson has worked with softball teams in Plano, Texas. Some are competitive; some play just for fun. The teams that work, that develop a bond, those whose camaraderie is palpable even to the casual observer tend to be both organized and altruistic.
“Why are you out there? If you’re out there to show you’re the best individual softball player in the world, maybe that’s detrimental to the team as a whole,” says Danielson, adult sports supervisor for the city of Plano. “If you find a good mix of people who enjoy playing together and are willing to sacrifice individual accolades for working with the team, you’re able to have a better group.”
That works for the Jack Wagons.
“Everybody holds himself accountable and knows the others will hold themselves accountable, too,” says Harris, whose team has already won one tournament this year. “One of the biggest points we’ve driven home is that it’s important to hit your cutoff man instead of having some guy trying to show off his arm and throw the ball home.”
Coaches play a significant role in how well this works, Danielson says.
“If you can have a coach who treats each player as a special individual and finds a place for him to be on that team and contribute in a meaningful way, you’ll have a better team overall as opposed to one who says, ‘I have my team here. One pitches, one catches, one plays shortstop and the rest we don’t talk to,’” he says.
A good coach unites the team by treating players “differently but equally,” says Scott Martin, professor of sport and exercise psychology at the University of North Texas.
“Are you as a coach preparing each player to be the best they can be and not coaching to the person you used to be as a young player?” he says. “Some of the coaches I know are some of the best psychologists I know. Good coaches make sure people understand how important their contribution is.”
That contribution doesn’t necessarily mean being the star, Brooks says. Not by any means.
“With talented players, you see this disruption most,” she says. The coach “puts everything into that player. The rules are different; there’s a higher tolerance for things not tolerated with other players.”
When that happens, she says, “you’re undermining team cohesiveness.”
In strong teams, each player has a role, whether being captain or giving the pregame prayer or motivational speech.
“Who are the people who will be the go-to in the crunch?” she says. “Who are the energizers? If they’re not pumped up, you can see the energy of the team plummet.”
One year, Brooks traveled with a Big 10 college women’s basketball team. She stressed the importance of everyone having a role, of sharing a mind-set, of building cohesion.
“They all got washable tattoos on the same place on their arms,” she says, “That was their cohesiveness, their unity. That’s what you want: You want the team to feel like a team.”
As longtime manager of Kiest Softball Complex in Dallas as well as a softball player herself, Barbara Barnette has seen plenty of cohesive teams. One thing that keeps them together, she says, “is just being able to have fun.
“They don’t get on each other when someone makes a mistake,” she says. “They’re able to laugh at and with each other. The truly competitive tournament teams may be driven by competition and success; winning is what keeps them together, but the majority of teams play for the fun of it.”
Adds Harris of the Jack Wagons: “Honestly, we’re just trying to have fun and continue playing the game that feels like we’re playing baseball again.”
CREATING A TEAM
So what’s the best way to turn a disparate bunch of talent into a cohesive unit? Here’s advice from the experts:
Limit the number of players. ”The more you have, the more have to sit out,” says Barbara Barnette, Kiest Softball Complex manager. “The whole point of the game is playing.”
Learn something new about other people on your team. This can “eliminate or reduce a biased opinion,” says Scott Martin, professor of sports psychology at the University of North Texas.
Do team-building activities. Psychologist Yolanda Brooks suggests going out to eat together and watching movies like Remember the Titans. “They were rival schools, but did what you have to do to get along,” she says. “They ate together, roomed together, worked out together, got punished together. There was that sense of unity, of camaraderie.”
Don’t limit communication to game time. Talk during warmups, Brooks says. “Those informal things tell you they’re working together.”
Think positively. Brooks uses two cliches with players: “Are you playing to win or are you playing to keep from losing?” And “Teamwork makes the dream work.”
“I love those because you don’t know what your potential is when you come together and work as a team. Mind-set is a very powerful thing.”
Be there for each other. ”Do you celebrate someone doing something well? Do you ignore someone who’s not doing well?” Brooks asks. “In football, when a guy is on the bench by himself, you might see a teammate sit by him, maybe not even say anything. That tells you a lot about players and interactions.”