Watching the matches in the FIFA world cup, I notice that the national line-ups apparently vary as to team spirit. You might wonder why this matters. Why is team spirit important? What brings it about? And what hinders it?
Sweden’s team spirit
After eliminating very good teams, Holland and Italy in qualifying, Sweden played their part, in sending defending champions Germany home early, by topping Group F. They lack individual talented players, but as a team with a collective spirit they’ve got heart and stand up to the challenge. They do well through determination and organisation.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” (Helen Keller, deaf/blind political activist)
In keeping with his no-frills squad, the manager had not picked Sweden’s all-time top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The player had angered many of his former fans with what were seen as characteristically self-obsessed comments.
“As a team, we play as a collective, all the players together. With Zlatan, as a person, as a player, he’s an individualist, and the play goes around him. Instead, now, we play more the team all together.” (goalkeeper, Karl-Johan Johnsson).
Every single player has bought into the idea of working hard for each other and having fun together as a bigger group outside the pitch.
Leicester City’s team spirit
Winning the English Premier league, Leicester City is another football team whose performance has exceeded what might have been expected from the sum of its parts.
Leicester had some good players, but looking at the whole squad and comparing it to the so-called “top” clubs, it’s easy to see why they were such long shots to lift the title.
“You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” – (Babe Ruth, baseball player)
Pundits spotted the players’ sense of team identity as a crucial factor in their success. The squad knew the manager would be there the following season. He persisted with most of the first team players he inherited. This continuity built on the legacy of the club, another cornerstone of a strong team identity.
Team spirit was also helped by the players viewing the objective of the club (i.e. avoid relegation) as one they were capable of achieving. So there was no fear of failure.
Many technical sides defend by playing lots of safe passes and so not letting the opposition have the ball. However, possession makes for a poor predictor of team performance. City were not afraid to play three misplaced passes if the forth move led to a goal. Team members felt positive and proud to be part of a group playing a successful fast-paced counter-attacking brand of football.
Other football teams
Boys playing football need to learn to pass the ball unselfishly rather than dribble past opponent after opponent until they lose the ball. They need to be a team player and not purely an individualist. Some flair adult players have been encouraged to succeed at the expense of collaboration when it is needed.
Professional football squads in England include highly rated players from other countries. These tend to have dissimilar languages, cultures, values and problem-solving approaches to difficulties. This can hamper the growth of team spirit.
Most football managers realise that team spirit can be hindered by voicing criticism of players in public. However leaders vary in their team building skills.
Without any emerging team spirit within a trades union, industrial disputes would fail. Unity is strength. Members need to identity with the cause and trust each other to sacrifice short-term income. Then they have a chance to negotiate from strength and gain better working conditions and pay in the future.
Worker’s morale is important in all walks of life. For example in many organisations dealing with human troubles and personal change – like educational, health and social services, or those to do with spirituality – team spirit can be fragile when one is faced with difficult-to-succeed-with-clients.
Many of these organisations use teams of workers with different types of professional training who may not see eye to eye. Dealing with complex and highly personal matters raises matters of deep principle. This can mean that people can be unwilling to modify how they approach things, leading to a degree of inflexibility. Leaders can help by team building encouraging the giving and receiving of support, communication and sharing. Without this, mixed groups tend to show disharmony as well as collaboration.
“Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” (Patrick Lencioni, business management writer)
Unpaid volunteers tend to want to carry out their responsibilities on their own terms. With volunteers doing only short hours, team spirit suffers if members have little opportunity all to meet together to resolve different viewpoints.
Heavenly community spirit
When we make friends, we tend to do so with people who share our interests and values. With them we often feel most at home and free to be ourselves. It may be hard to imagine such a sphere where community spirit prevails. Emanuel Swedenborg painted such a picture of heavenly community. In such a scenario there are no rows about how things get done. No egos wanting their own way. People joining together in the right spirit. Only wanting what is best for each other and for the team and community as a whole.
“None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.” (Mother Teresa, Roman Catholic nun)
As a clinical psychologist, Stephen Russell-Lacy has specialised in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, working for many years with adults suffering distress and disturbance.