Club Dynamics: What Factors Impact Performance?

What factors can enhance team performance? Which can disrupt team chemistry? Today on the blog Alex Titkov tells us that team success is all about the foundations of a club's culture.

Ajax Stadium

The chemistry of a team ebbs and flows. Why do some clubs seem to use the currents to their advantage while others are left in their wake? Solving success in such complex club environments is about as predictable as the sea itself. Yet, some common themes do emerge regarding what clubs can do right and wrong.

As I commenced writing this post, I was considering the dynamics of the first-team that can affect the chemistry of a squad. While doing so, I realised that in order to get a better and more thorough understanding, it’s best to start at the beginning with a club’s foundation; starting with a little insight from the world of business.

A Solid Foundation

Having recently moved to San Francisco, I have noticed many shared principles that make this city’s work culture unique and progressive. They follow a general model that has been the foundation of many great companies-- discussed in early organisational psych literature-- while also adding other aspects that facilitate quality output; aspects that top football clubs also share.

Some of these include:

  • A set of values/goals that are also inherent to all employees or are easily adopted by everyone employed (Specific hiring / recruiting criteria).
  • Goals that are realistic, consistent, flexible, and measurable
  • Communication lines that are clear and open.
  • Democratic/horizontal structures (as opposed to top-down autocracies)
  • Regular personalised feedback.
  • People who can check their egos.
  • People who know their individual value and role on a team.
  • Environments that foster creativity and spontaneous situational adaptation.

Football Foundations: The Ajax Model

While I was doing my internship with a Swedish football club, my best friend from the States messaged me saying he needed a vacation and that the cure would be a week-long stay in Amsterdam. I was more than happy to meet up with him, explore the city, and mix in a little business with pleasure by visiting the hallowed grounds of Ajax FC. We booked tickets for the classic Dutch derby between Ajax and Feyenoord and later on, I stopped by the Ajex Experience where I received an in-depth look at the history, vision, and structure behind this great club.

Successful clubs really thrive because of the groundwork they put in and consistency in club values, goals, and strategies. Ajax is a hallmark example because they do exactly this. And even though they are not as “successful” as they used to be, they have survived and continue to produce world-class talent because unlike many clubs in Europe, they focus and value their youth academy.

The Ajax scouting process is thorough and time-invested. They have a model that is consistent and developmental that begins the day a player steps foot into the club up until they enter the senior team. Their specific model is called TIPS; a mix of innate and trainable traits an Ajax player will have.

TIPS stands for:

  • Technique (Trainable) A player’s ability to perform specific movements in a smooth and efficient motion.
  • Insight (Trainable) Anticipating plays before they happen. Displaying and understanding of both team tactics and positional responsibilities, thinking creatively and the mental aptitude for attack-dominant football.
  • Personality (Innate) The ability to communicate with others, provide leadership, be creative, show flair and daring, be receptive to fellow players, and be able to work in a disciplined manner.
  • Speed (Innate) Starting speed, acceleration, manoeuvrability, and speed endurance.

From the Ajax Youth Academy:

“Central within the club is the style of play (4-3-3), training, behaviour, and house rules. Ajax strives to keep the way of playing football recognisable; attractive, offensive-minded, creative, fast, fair and preferably far away from the own goal on the opponents’ half. The players own a special Ajax passport, in which all achievements are noted.”

Burnout and Over-Specialisation

Burnout and demotivation result from over-specialisation in a sport. This comes from support in the sport psych literature and is another aspect Ajax does well. Younger players train less than older players. Academy players are also given time off from the sport and participate in other activities like martial arts. You also will find a photo of Johan Cruyff decked out in baseball gear in the history area of the Ajax Experience.

Does money always = success?

In today’s age of over-inflated transfer fees and outcome focused foreign owners; it can be tough for a football club. Ajax posits not only an effective model for on-the-pitch success but a long-term sustainable one as well. Their example was especially poignant during their two-game performance against Manchester City (3-1 & 2-2). I couldn’t help but smile when I heard City’s starting line-up cost was over £180M while Ajax’s was less than £4M.

Lacking funds was one of the most common explanations I heard as to why Swedish football was yet to blossom. I was especially disappointed when the club I was interning for decided to cut their junior squad entirely in order to save cash. But is this a legitimate strategy or just plain ignorance?

If Ajax has anything to teach football clubs fighting to stay above the red; it’s invest in your youth. And maybe hire a sport psychologist as well.

Day-to-Day Dynamics

So the foundation has been established and now you are dealing with the day-to-day of senior squad football. What can impact a team’s chemistry?

Top-tier football is a hectic and unpredictable myriad of abrupt decisions and changes by board members and owners. Many times there appears to be a serious disconnect between the men in suits above and the men in kits below; not to mention the fans. Preparation for every eventuality is thus required.

So what are some of the external and internal factors affecting the dynamic play of a team?

External Factor Examples:

  • New Stadium (Environment unfamiliarity).
  • Away Match (Away fans, weather, pitch type: grass/turf).
  • Travel fatigue (Especially after European cup ties).
  • New ownership.

 

Internal (within team) Factor Examples:

  • New Manager
  • New Captain or Player(s)
  • Formation / Line-up Changes
  • Internal feuds

 

Changes

New players possess a unique challenge for a club especially if they come from a different cultural background not akin to that of the club’s. Behaviours like body language and personal religious influence can all-of-a-sudden present confusion. Such aspects are typically overlooked by clubs and even by sport psych literature.

Foreign players (especially from similar backgrounds) tend to stick together. They sit together during meals at the clubhouse or get together with their families on the weekends. This kind of behaviour can be seen in the television show Being Liverpool. And while familiarity (among fellow foreign teammates) is important when integrating into a new club in a new land, a club can really achieve if they can make all players interact, understand, and empathise with one another.

Landon Donovan’s loan stints at Everton is a particular example of a club with a solid foundation and supporters that have made a player’s transition go smoothly and thus also assisting them in excelling.

Consistency and Ego Deprivation

Great teams have been able to keep a reasonable level of club consistency with team ideals, managers, strategies, and tactics while remaining relevant in the modern game. The Chicago Bulls (under Phil Jackson’s reign) UCLA Basketball (under John Wooden), Barcelona FC, and Manchester United are some sporting clubs that particularly spring to mind regarding these facets. John Wooden, Phil Jackson and Sir Alex Ferguson were all successful for considerable amounts of time; emphasising selflessness and setting aside egos for the success of the club (including Phil Jackson).

Improving team performance can also be further enhanced not only by team talks and team building activities but by the team tactics themselves. Barcelona favours the quick one-touch passing between groups of three players anywhere on the field; also maximising the number of touches on the ball.

This high attacking football stems from the Ajax attacking model and even to Phil Jackson’s tactics during his time with The Bulls. Phil Jackson employed a non-traditional strategy of moving the ball around the court and pulling opponent players out of position. This ball movement and in-the-moment creativity allowed for various players to become open for shots (not just Michael Jordan) and thus empowering the personal value of the rest of the squad.

Concluding Remarks

Everyone has their own style and not every club should force themselves to strictly follow a certain formation or set of team values. A club should embrace their history and create something unique that everyone, including the fans, can get behind.

And if a club is struggling, then it may not be a bad idea to learn something from the greats (such as re-evaluate the youth academy and practice mindfulness techniques) in order to change course for the better.

 

 

Follow Alex on Twitter: @alextitkov

And read more of his work at the EMSEP Sport and Exercise Psychology Blog