Updated: Sep 29, 2019
Let me start with a sad fact. Bench lost every game at Nationals last year.
That was obviously a bitter pill to swallow, or at least would be if we didn’t have the best time, and it caused the leadership to do a bit of soul searching.
So, when looking down the barrel of the 2020 season, what is Bench going to change to reverse our fortunes? All new structures? Try and poach some star talent? Reshape our culture? Change the name?
Nope. We’re going to do it all again.
The reason is simple - cohesion. We believe that Bench is the best when we’re greater than the sum of our parts. And this feeling is backed up by data.
And by data, I mean Ben Darwin from Gain Line Analytics. Darwin recently presented at the AFDA conference. His argument is simple. Teams that stay the same, perform the best.
And based on the stats, he certainly seems to have a point. Looking at some of the most successful teams in recent years across codes, like the Melbourne Storm, the Sydney Swans or the Crusaders (Rugby Union), they’ve had remarkable levels of continuity across their personnel, their coaching, and their culture.
By contrast, trying to import talent or ideas from other clubs can be a recipe for disaster.
A sports stat: Players who swap clubs in any given year in the NRL have a 43% lower chance of making an Australian team and 46% lower chance of making a state team than those who stay in the same system.
A non-sports stat: 78% of plane crashes happen when pilots fly together for the first time. Yikes.
With this in mind, Darwin suggests that shared experience is your most valuable asset.
This is not just because shared experience (knowing what your teammates are going to do in the moment) can have obvious performance benefits; it’s also because it gives you a greater capacity to build skills outside of games.
This stability allows you to innovate - knowing a structure so well that you can break it. It also allows you to spend more time on complex skill acquisition rather than having to go back to basics each session or season. Rather than having to establish a common language again, cohesion frees up time for more advanced and detailed tactics. I’m sure anyone who has ever coached at university level will know this feeling well.
The impact of just a few personnel changes on a line can be surprisingly large. A line of seven frisbee players has 21 personal (aka 1-on-1) connections. Change just two people on that line and you’ve changed more than 50% of the relationships (11 to be precise). If it’s an offense line, just one of those connections misfiring could be enough to turn the game.
Under pressure, teams tend to revert back to old habits. In a team of newer players or with high cohesion, this might be OK - they might only know what the club has taught them so at least they’ll be on the same (wrong) page. But if you’ve got low cohesion and lots of prior external experience on the field, this could lead to missed connections and on-field chaos.
The most iconic example is probably an undisciplined endzone O after a long point. Total chaos.
Darwin offers a few frameworks through which to think about translating stability into success.
The first is that “skill multiplied by cohesion equals your performance capacity”. This is a big one for coaches. When thinking about training, how can you increase cohesion or skill to build your performance capacity? When thinking about tournaments and games, how can you ensure that your team is achieving this performance capacity?
One of the big takeaways for coaches in big moments is that you can’t strongly impact the performance capacity of your team, sometimes a hard fact for coaches to admit to themselves. So, knowing your limits, how are you helping your team reach its potential in the moment?
The second framework divides cohesion into “People, Program and Position”. In order to deal with change effectively, you need to have stability elsewhere. The Melbourne Storm for example, do not have a list of team values plastered on the wall. They just have three words. Know your role.
In this way, certainty around position allows new people to join the club or innovation to happen in the program with minimal disruption and maximum improvement.
Other teams might have a strong culture or long-standing veterans that help anchor the club in periods of change in other areas.
So how can you start to build cohesion in your own club?
Well, a good place to start with is your philosophy. This is partly because it’s firmly within your control. But, it also forms the foundation upon which everything else is built, reverberating through your structure, your skill base, your behaviour and the outcome of your games/season. If you can keep your philosophy clear and consistent, it will help provide a throughline of continuity.
Once you’ve set your philosophy and values, if you’re a club with multiple teams, then consider using the same base structures across your club, or at least doing shared sessions that drill similar movements. This could span both mixed and single-gender teams. If you don’t have a feeder team, you could consider getting your senior players to coach your team’s key structures at university training or even at local leagues. Make your club structures the new norm.
Overall, focusing on what Australian Ultimate might call “the basics” may also help. Although it might seem frustrating to do the same thing every other team is doing, there’s a good chance you’ll get more gains than trying to innovate without a shared base of knowledge.
When building your team, understand what positions require significant understanding between players and which ones can get by with just pure skill. Bringing in a new central offensive handler might mess with your mojo, but your athletic new recruit might be able to run an effective mark in a zone without needing to have a strong connection with everyone else on the field.
At training, make sure people are working together in the groups that matter to your performance. That might look different during different drills. For example, when you’re throwing, you might want your receivers working in pairs with handlers so they can understand their throws better. But when you’re doing a cutting drill, it might be more beneficial for the handers and cutters to work in separate groups. Do what makes sense on the field.
And finally, try to think about the long term. This is easier said than done, but when making changes, don’t expect to see instant results. Cohesion takes time to build and you might not be able to see if your strategy or personnel was truly successful until you come back and try it again next season.
When teams lose, there’s a tendency to change everything. Sack the coach, flip the players, rebuild the culture.
But if your ship is at sea, it might not be the right time to fire the crew and rebuild the boat. You might be better off staying the course.