So your team is under-performing?

You have a talented team that shows glimpses of real potential, but is unable to sustain that level of play on a consistent basis. They are quality athletes in proper physical condition for soccer. Their skills vary from average to good to very good. It is a team that should win, yet they struggle to achieve to potential. Something is missing, but you cannot quite put your finger on what it is. You try everything you can think of in training to spark the team. You change lineups looking for a spark to ignite the team and your season. Sometimes you see a flicker, a glimmer of what you know they should be. but it quickly disappears. Seasons like the one being described here can be extremely frustrating for all involved.

What can be done to "fix" such a team?

The truth be told, there probably is not a miraculous cure to be had. I have often heard in posited that such a team "needs something to bring them together." In the movie Major League the Cleveland Indians baseball team is brought together by their dislike of the owner and a common goal of ruining her plans to sell and relocate the team.  This is their motivation and becomes the common goal that unites the team propelling them to success. That's what most people will take from the movie. There's something else that takes place to make this all happen and that is the key to the process.

Quite obviously the leadership on display from ownership is about as toxic as possibly can be. She doesn't want the team to succeed. It's a huge problem for the assemblage of misfits who are not supposed to win. Then two characters do the near impossible when they step forward with positive leadership to counteract the owners toxicity. The manager brings in a poster board of the owner with removable pieces of clothing. For each win a piece of clothing will be removed until a nude picture of the owner is revealed.  The catcher, begins holding every player accountable for their performance and his teammates respond.

The fictional portrayal of a team uniting to overcome toxic owner leadership makes for a good story and a cult classic of a movie.  The Longest Yard (both original and remake) is a similar movie about a prison pointy football team.  In both movies, overcoming adversity to achieve and perhaps overachieve is the theme. Can this happen in real life?

Identifying the problem is the first step in the process and is one of the focal point of my writing today. Too often when faced with an under-performing team coaches will look to shore up fundamentals, change lineups or artificially try to prop up a teams culture, its team chemistry.  I would suggest the real target of attention should be the teams leadership. Coaches and players alike might well benefit from leadership training. Make no mistake that while a coach and certain players exert more influence than other members, every member of a team contributes to the culture of the program, the team's chemistry.  Of course, if the key players are the source of toxicity the problem is exponentially compounded,

How do we know if leadership is being ineffective and holding a team back?

I believe there are ... symptoms ... that manifest themselves in the absence of strong positive leadership. These we will take a look at today.

1) Poor Body Language: Non-verbal communication is of extreme importance in leaders.  I preach this to my goalkeepers all the time. I use the term salesmanship to describe how I want goalkeepers to perform in their position. Every action must be strong and forceful giving the impression of being in complete control of the penalty area. I teach and coach this until the goalkeeper's authority goes unquestioned amongst his teammates knowing full well that if his teammates respond with belief and confidence in their goalkeeper's performance they opponents will take notice and respond accordingly as well.

Think of examples of poor body language when a player makes a mistake or the opponents present adversity. Open demonstrations expressing annoyance, disgust or frustration with others is non-verbal communication of a lack of confidence in the person that has committed the mistake. We might extend that train of thought to include similar displays of frustration directed at one's self when committing mistakes.  This type of communication coming from a teams key leaders following a mistake can result in making the offending teammate feel insecure about his role and unsure of themselves on the pitch leading to hesitancy which begets more mistakes.  It can be a vicious cycle of negativity and perpetuate poor team chemistry.

I teach and coach a philosophy of Next Play! which is simply to put the mistake behind you immediately. No "my bad" or any other recognition of the mistake having been made including non-verbal communication. The mistake cannot be changed and the game continues on. We need to stay in the present moment, not dwell in the past.

2) Gossip and Negative Talk: If poor body language is allowed to go unchecked gossip and negative talk will surely follow.  These things destroy confidence and undermine any efforts being made to build cohesiveness, togetherness and unity. Players gossiping about teammates play or talking negatively about the inevitable up's and down's that occur in any season are signs of toxic leadership. The same is true when the negative talk is directed towards the quality of coaching decisions. Those who talk divisively cannot be part of the solution for they are to busy being the problem.

When a problem exists strong positive and inclusive leadership is required to work through it to a positive solution. Coaches and captains must be involved. When it is a coach or a captain that is a source of drama there needs to be strong secondary leadership to call attention to this concern so it can be address appropriately. Difficult situations cannot be allowed to divide the team, destroy trust or erode team chemistry.

3) Negative Reaction to Adversity:  Every team will encounter adversity throughout a season. Every team will have a comfort zone for the level of adversity they are prepared to overcome. The measure of leadership is how a team responds when the adversity they face is more than they have overcome before.  How will the team respond? Let's be clear there is a decision to be made here.

Three common situations teams with toxic leadership encounter may help shed some light on what is being discussed here.

Your team may find itself losing to a clearly weaker opponent. The conscious decision to be made is whether to assign blame to someone (player / coach / referee) or accept responsibility and work cooperatively to improve the situation.

When your team faces an opponent whom they have a history of poor performances against. The first time something goes against your team the response is poor body language and negative talk. The choice to surrender to a familiar problem has already been made and a resignation to not finding a solution to this problem accepted.

A player who is subbed out reacts adversely to this coaching decision. He might verbally complain or non-verbally display his displeasure. The player has a choice to either sulk to the bench and project his selfish feelings to those around him or he can choose to redirect his frustration by staying involved in the game cheering on the efforts of his teammates and watching his particular position in preparation for returning to the game.

The point being made is simply this; whatever the reaction is, it will communicate a specific message to coaches, teammates, opponents and referees alike. Toxic people tend to be consumed with their own small situation within the greater whole of the team's predicament and are thus prone to negative reactions to adversity.  Positive people are more likely to ask a teammate to "pick me up," share information with a teammate that will aid the teammate's efforts in the match or find another way to contribute to the teams efforts in a positive manner. It is a choice, a conscious choice, to be made.

4) Pouting: At first glance pouting may seem to fall under poor body language or negative reaction to adversity, but I believe it to be a more selfish negativity than either of those.  When a player is unable to enjoy team success due to his own lack of accomplishment in the contest this becomes an anchor to the team's enjoyment dragging it down when it should be soaring in celebration, The message being sent is of "MY" performance being more important than the "TEAM" performance.

The ability to celebrate others individual success is a sign of positive leadership. When the attitude is one of genuinely sharing in success ... and failure ... a bond of cohesiveness, together and unity is fostered that helps strength a teams spirit and steel its spine.

5) Martyr Syndrome: Advanced stages of toxicity in leadership sees the manifestation of what I refer to as the Martyr Syndrome. When poor body language, gossip, negative reactions to adversity and pouting are left to run amok and unchecked, martyr syndrome is sure to follow, When a perceived leader of the team begins to communicate their belief their (lack of) performance is due to any reason except their own accountability and responsibility real trouble has taken hold of the team's culture and chemistry. Everyone is to blame except the person most responsible for his own play, actions and reactions.  Coaches and the decisions they make are blamed. Or referees are blamed for bad calls. Incompetent teammates are blamed for hindering his own performance. Injury is used as an excuse for not performing to potential.  Anyone and everything is blamed, except the player himself.

When a leader / player begins to believe other people are the primary source of problems an environment of entitlement and laziness takes root. The surrender of control of their own destiny to the power they feel someone else exerts over their performance is an admittance of lacking self confidence. Rather than looking inwardly and fighting to find a solution martyrs look outwardly for someone else to blame. And a martyr is weak. They will not fight through adversity. They seek the path of least resistance and submit when confronted by obstacles posed by the game.

In conclusion, the training of proper leaders might well be one of the most overlooked aspects of coaching.  Leadership is contagious whether positive or negative. The quality of your team is dependent on the quality of leadership provided. Therefore, training of leadership should of at least equal importance to the training of technique, tactics, and physical fitness.

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