English have to grasp team sports are not about individuals

It is incredible. At the weekend, England, a relatively wealthy country of 53 million people, was comfortably beaten at cricket by Sri Lanka (a much poorer country of just 20 million) and at rugby by Ireland (a comparably wealthy one of just over 6 million). This came after further humblings at the Cricket World Cup by New Zealand (4 million) and Australia (23 million), all following in from elimination from football’s World Cup at the hands of Uruguay (3 million) and Costa Rica (6 million). Even the hockey team has mustered only one major success since 1988. Seriously?!

I cannot help but think the media’s reaction was informative. Bring back “KP” (Kevin Pietersen) into Eoin Morgan’s side and all will be well, apparently. Did anyone writing that stop to consider, just consider, that the very fact they were even debating whether or not a South African should play for an Irishman’s team is the basic problem?!

The point is twofold. First, England has a peculiar inability – at any team sport – to bring through talent to elite level. Second, the English seem to believe you succeed at team sports merely by changing around individuals.

The problem is that the culture of believing that teams are effectively just groups of individuals, and that scant thought should be given as to how those individuals best work together, is becoming ever more pervasive. The English media are also quick to pin team failures on one individual, but slow to recognise when that was obviously nonsense – how is the successful campaign to remove Alistair Cook as England’s one-day captain working out?

It is hard to get away from the fact this all derives from our general culture of thinking that there are easy solutions to complex things – we believe we can solve the entire financial crisis just by changing a few politicians in much the same way we believe the English cricket team would be world beaters with one change of personnel. The idea that this is a much broader problem, consisting not just of spending or personnel but also of efficiency and team-building, seems beyond our grasp.

Yet the New Zealanders, Australians and Sri Lankans (even, dare I say, the Irish) seem instantly aware that sporting success – even social success – come from working as an efficient and cohesive unit, not just tampering with the edges of the line-up on a near trial and error basis.

Those who drive public debate in England – managers, administrators, commentators and so on – now have a responsibility to recognise there is something fundamentally wrong when a country of such vast population and resources fails so comprehensively at team sports time after time. Public debate has to shift away from individual performances here and there, and on to the business of building teams as efficient units which operate cohesively. Otherwise, this same story will be repeated for generations.

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4 thoughts on “English have to grasp team sports are not about individuals

  1. martyntodd says:

    Ian,

    Excellent piece and well argued.

    Good teams being so much more than the sum of their individual members has been a deep interest of mine for years.

    One of the best examples is when Australia won the Americas Cup from the US in I think 1983, the first time in about 100 years that the US lost it.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1983_America%27s_Cup

    The Australian skipper, John Bertrand’s strategy was simply to have a better team. He reckoned that the two team budgets were the same and so the hull designs and keel configuration would both be as good as money could buy. He knew that yacht technology was very similar in the two competing countries and so the sails and deck gear would be the same.

    So he focused on building a better team. As skipper he trained with the crew, and cooked, ate and lived with the crew on training trips. The US skipper, Denis Connor, in contrast, stayed aloof from his crew. They had to have their boat ready for him to step aboard, being piped up the gang plank if there was an audience.

    As the Wikipedia entry above says, the results were even going into the last race. The Australian boat was just ahead going round the last mark and heading upwind for the line. It had slightly slower boat speed and so its only hope was to tack as often as possible on the last leg, giving the Australian crew the chance to tire the US crew out so that they would effectively lose heart and give up. This is exactly what happened.

    John Bertrand’s book about the achievement, “Born to Win”, describes very well how this focus on teamwork worked out, against everybody’s expectations, allowing the underdog to win

    One of the best short books on teamwork is by Larson and LaFasto. http://stellarleadership.com/docs/Team%20Working/articles/Larson%20and%20LaFasto%20on%20Teamwork.pdf

    As soon as I have the personal credibility in the Alliance Party I hope to introduce some of these ideas – I think they could transform the effectiveness of the party.

    Regards Martyn

    >

  2. There’s no under-population when it comes to the pitch if you can field a side. Though to be fair to your argument Button vs. Hamilton is taking can’t work as a team to the extreme.

  3. boondock says:

    I think you are being a bit unfair on England. The big problem is these days in the UK and Ireland kids dont get involved with sports as much as they once did – too many other distractions and those that do play a million and one different things (pretty sure your Sri Lankan example fails on any other sport other than cricket). As for rich and poor well funding helps but if sports your only way to better your life then you might just try a bit harder. Populations are also deceiving. India and China have more than 1 billion people each and yet neither of them could beat a pub football team and Pakistan has a population of 200million and pretty much concentrates everthing onto cricket and they are still cr@p.

    • The point about India in particular is well made.

      But I don’t think I’m being unfair. Take comparable Western European countries and England’s record at team sports is laughable.

      I think the media have a lot to do with it. The pursuit of instant glory and individual scapegoats is crazy.

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