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The Art of Team Selection

January 22nd, 2016

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Last year’s Rugby Union World Cup showed, amongst other things, how a great team can often out-perform a collection of superstar individuals. Often the fifteen more talented individuals were surpassed by seemingly ‘lesser’ opponents. Teams like Japan and Argentina illustrate this point and reinforce the enormous value that comes with a strong team.

I also often find it interesting to look at touring teams and other teams that come together for specific events; rugby teams such as the British & Irish Lions and the Barbarians, for example. When we see teams like this at work, it puts recruitment and selection under the spotlight.

In addition to recruiting players and coaching staff, they also have the acute demands of game-by-game selection. The challenge is exacerbated because these teams don’t have a great deal of coaching and development time. They also don’t have very long to get to know the players, experiment with combinations or mould their game-plan. Therefore, team selection becomes crucial.

Businesses have similar demands. They recruit new staff in a similar way to sports organisations creating a squad. Many businesses will also select teams for specific projects or assignments. But often, much more thought goes into recruitment than it does into the selection of team members – with a significant impact on the team’s success.

So, how are teams selected?  Is it simply a case of finding the best player for each position and throwing them onto the field together? Whilst that may be the case with some teams, the very best in the world use a more comprehensive process. In many cases, the coach looks to create a balanced team. In this context, the word ‘balance’ doesn’t mean that there will always be equal distribution. It is better to think of balance in the same way that a chef would think of balancing the flavours in his dish. To do this, the chef won’t use the same quantities of each ingredient. Instead, the chef will skilfully blend the ingredients to ensure that the flavours complement each other perfectly.

One of the ways to do this is to ensure that a team has the correct blend of ‘position specialists’. In sport, the positions are pretty well defined. The number on the back of their shirt often denotes the position they play. Each position has a role and set of expectations that accompany it. However, players are not manufactured in factories. They are unique and therefore have a unique set of skills that they bring. The role and expectations of that position, and therefore the player, also changes from team to team. Some teams struggle because they have a lot of players “who do a bit of this and a bit of that”, and not enough genuine specialists in each area. Other teams struggle because their people are too specialist, almost rigid, and therefore aren’t able to adapt.

But just filling the team with position specialists is not enough to create balance.

Many coaches will also look to ensure that there is a balance between experienced operators and those who are new to the team. There is real value in having both the experienced players, as well as those who have the fresh perspective that comes with naivety. England’s football team have seen the benefit that young ‘fearless’ faces bring. Some of the world’s best coaches also take time to ensure that the blend of experience and ‘new blood’ is interspersed throughout the team. This helps to avoid having pockets of inexperience. In a rugby team, this could mean that the coaching team will take time to assess the overall experience of the units within the team, such as the front row, back row, half-backs or back three.

If we look at our units, or sub-teams, do we have combinations that work well together and complement each other? Do we have personalities that can pull the various units or sub-teams together well? Do the team members make each other’s lives easier or more difficult? I have noticed over the years that successful Barbarians rugby teams often select combinations rather than individual players. They will select pairings, or clusters of players, that have a history of playing together. This enables them to gel a team much quicker, and perform with fewer errors.

A team also needs to ensure it is balanced in other ways. Leadership is a prime example. Experience and leadership don’t always go hand in hand. The experienced members are not always the best leaders, and vice versa. The coach needs to know how the players are likely to respond in various situations. Who is likely to step up and lead in adversity and how they will lead? Who will provide the direction? Who can change the strategy on the field, when necessary? Is the person who detects the need for a change in direction also the person who can best communicate it?

Creating a balanced team also means identifying possible imbalances. Do we have a balance between the dependable players and the risk takers? Do we have both calm heads, and those with ‘fire’? Is there a balance between the intuitive and instinctive players, and calculating or analytical players? Do we have a balance between the predictable and unpredictable, the creative and steady? What is the mix of personalities in the team? Do we have the balance that we need?

In addition to all of these considerations, a coach will also need to ensure that they select a team that can best meet the demands of the immediate challenge. In sport, there are always contextual factors. One of the most obvious is the opposition. However, there are also environmental factors such as the climate and conditions. Business teams also have contextual demands that may impact on team selection. There are many considerations. If we’re not careful, creating a balanced team could begin to look complicated. However, ultimately, there is often a fairly simple guiding question…

Which team is best equipped to execute the game plan?

 

Simon Hartley is a sport psychology consultant and performance coach who helps organisations, teams and individuals to consistently engineer peak performance and become world class.  In sport, he helps athletes win medals and teams win championships and he applies the same approaches in business. A popular Academy speaker, he is the founder of Be World Class and author of several books including Stronger Together; How Great Teams Work.

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