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Team atmosphere – When players don't click

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Fans of sports love to talk about team atmosphere. When drama from the locker room spills out onto the playing field, spectators and commentators alike spawn countless theories about who started what and how it affected the match. In 2002 an analysis of many studies done in team-sports finally revealed a conclusive connection between a team’s atmosphere and their chance of victory.

In eSports recent reality TV shows such as GameCribs and Chasing the Cup have already demonstrated just how much behind-the-scenes behavior can impact a team and their professional matches. Recently there have also been a number of athlete moves attributed to team atmosphere or team support networks. TSM’s Amazing just returned to Europe citing a lack of support structure, and CLG’s Dexter departed citing a lack of compatibility.

Therefore, today I wanted to talk about what team atmosphere actually is, and how coaches and managers can lead their team to better results both on and off the playing field.

What is team atmosphere?

To start with, we have to talk about all the small parts that add up to make a fully functioning team. Researchers and sport psychologists have been investigating this for years, and have shown it to be a complex issue. Here are some of the main things to think about when trying to analyze your team’s atmosphere and figure out how to improve it:

  • Team cohesion (also called closeness, camaraderie, or unity)
  • Motivational atmosphere created from the coach and/or the athletes
  • Coach-athlete relationships
  • Athlete-athlete relationships
  • Team’s support structure (i.e. life coaches, retirement packages, bonus systems, etc.)
  • Individual athlete’s support network (friends, family, closeness with their mentors, maturity level, etc.)

Since there are so many ways to analyze a team atmosphere, I want to take time for each of them. This first article is about team unity. In the second article I go over the motivational atmosphere of the team. Then the third article, communication, is covers relationships and leadership. Finally we discuss the background infrastructure, which makes a huge difference between an athlete’s experience on one team compared to another team.

“Liking each other” or team cohesion

Team cohesion has a lot of different names. Closeness, camaraderie, dynamic, atmosphere, unity, etc. A lot of spectators, team managers, and coaches want their team to have a good working relationship, to be friends with each other. Rightly so, since cohesiveness has been shown to have a marked effect on performance. For example, the case of CLG or the 2004 US men’s basketball team, where a collection of independent plays by independent players led to errors that ended in miserable defeat. Then there are the exceptions of course, such as the drama between Uzi and inSec which has apparently resulted in them reaching the League of Legends world championship finals. Ultimately though, it is safer to assume that it is harder to win with a less unified team, so teams should look at ways of building camaraderie between athletes and also their coaches. There are a lot of strategies in sports training and even in the business world for how to improve a team’s togetherness, but they all boil down to same few things. Here are the main steps to go through for team managers and coaches when doing team building:

  1. Set team goals for the team that everybody can get behind
  2. Make sure athletes know their roles and are happy with them
  3. Effective leadership
  4. Understand the way the team functions

1. Team goals

Agreeing to goals as a group is much more likely to change an athlete’s behavior and motivate a team than setting individual goals. In fact, research in the 90’s showed that teams that prioritize group goals over individual goals win more often. Let’s look at a hypothetical example feature C9, a North American League of Legends team famed for it is good and functional atmosphere.

If everybody on C9, for example, decides that Sneaky, their marksman, player needs to get good at playing Twitch, then the results do not rest on Sneaky’s shoulders alone. The next time LemonNation is practicing with him, he might suggest a new Twitch based pair for their bottom lane. On their next meal out together as a team, Hai, the mid-laner, might recall some cool trick that got played on him by a Twitch player and pass it on. In essence, everybody takes responsibility for the group’s goals, and when/if a person fails, the whole group is at fault. This kind of motivation is much more powerful than simple individual goals can provide, since those individual goals lay all the responsibility on a single athlete.

Teams should always take charge of their destiny as a unified group, and not lay their success or failure on an individual’s shoulders. It is too easy to lose and then blame a weak player, when in reality there were a thousand moments over the season when a teammate could have stepped up and helped that player develop. Instead, most athletes and teams like to lay the blame for their loss on the non-motivated or mentally weak player and simply trade them away in the post-season. At the end of the day, though, the team still lost, no matter whose “fault” it was.

Practically, when trying to decide what a team’s short-term training goals should be, it is a good idea to do something like the performance profile and identify four weak areas that everybody wants to work on. Then create goals for those areas and commit to them as a team. Remember the best goals are S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely). See my articles on goal setting and performance profiling for more information.

2. Athlete roles and acceptance

In League of Legends some roles on the team end up being strategically important and also boring to play. For example, at the end of season 3 the best game strategy involved the support player buying nothing but wards and placing them around the map all game. Throughout season 4, tanky-initiation characters have dominated the top lane position, forcing those athletes to conform with the strong strategic play rather than sticking with their personal style. Athletes who accept their roles, first of all by understanding them, are shown to be more motivated to train and less likely to go on tilt.

One of the easiest ways to do this is simple team building exercises like the mutual respect exercise: everybody writes down their description of what each player brings to the team and why that is important. Another good time to help athletes accept their roles is during group meetings. Coaches should always take time to highlighting an athlete’s role and host a discussion on why it is crucial and useful.

If players can not accept their role, then there is bound to be failure in the team. Some time ago CLG tried out a new support player from Korea named Locodoco. As an athlete, Locodoco did not enjoy his new role and it showed in their training and their results. His example was extreme, CLG eventually parted ways with him, but coaches and teammates should take small steps every day to assist their fellow athletes on the team with recognizing and respecting their strategic roles.

3. Effective leadership

Efficient Practices

The less time a team practices the more down-time an athlete gets to recharge their batteries. So well-organized and planned practice time as well as rest time is important. However, practices can also become inefficient even if it looks like training is happening. Around the end of season 3 several prominent League of Legends teams recognized that their 7th day in a row of training had almost no positive impact on their success. In fact, they did better when they took the day off than when they spent it srimming. Several ways a coach and team staff can improve training efficiency are:

  • Have clear short-term goals going into each session
  • Create a realistic practice environment that mimics competition
  • Create and run well-timed drills that train key skills
  • Plan for rest and downtime, both mental and physical

Relating with players

Good communication is one of the hallmarks of excellent leadership; therefore it is important that the coach be well versed in handling people. If he or she is not, then the team management should improve those skills through professional development. It is better to take a coach for his content knowledge and then train him how to handle conflicts and inspire athletes. If you are struggling as a coach, the best place to start is with communication training. Once you are more confident handling conflicts between yourself and players, then move on to examine how you motivate players. Research has shown that athletes appreciate their coaches and are inspired by them due to three main categories. Those are:

  • Closeness (i.e. trust and respect)
  • Commitment (i.e. dedication towards improving an athlete and enabling them to win)
  • Complementariness (i.e. level of good cooperation)

Reflect on your coaching and decide where your strengths are and where your weaknesses are. Your coaching style should naturally drive you towards your strengths, so make sure that you focus on those strengths and develop them even further. However, it’s also a good idea to at least make sure your athletes are coping well with your weaknesses as a coach. Sometimes this is why it is good to have two coaches, for example team dignitas brought in a life coach who would supposedly be very close and committed to the athletes. This frees the strategic coach up to focus more on driving and motivating the players.

Handling conflicts

Athletes need to be able to cope with conflict just as well as the coaches. A group always has constant communication and interpreting of each other’s opinions and personalities. Some athletes goad others into performing better, others like to play the jokester. Some personalities get along; others do not. A functioning team does not need to have everybody like each other.

This is one of the largest misconceptions in sport. Camaraderie is important, but even if two people on a team will never like each other, they can respect and work with each other. Focusing too much on a positive atmosphere can be a waste of time. In fact, study after study reveals that a happy team does not necessarily win more. Instead, coaches should focus on making an effective team, a functioning group, which can deal with conflicts while staying dedicated to the team’s goals.

4. Team Identity

Everybody in the organization should be aware of how the team functions. In other words, what is the teams identity? Some teams win more when they crunch training in before a match. Other teams win more when they take a rest day before a match. TSM is motivated by a leader who is very heavy-handed and controlling. CLG is motivated by a leader who gives his athletes a more free hand and greater agency. It is important for an organization and its athletes to be on the same page for how a team functions, and when that identity conflicts with a player’s motivational needs, then it should be quickly identified and taken into account during training. A simple example of this CLG’s Dexter, who recently left the team citing an incompatibility with the teams motivational style. Had the different motivational needs been caught early on, provisions could have been made.

How much does it count

The same 2002 study that showed unified teams win more also pointed out some very interesting conditions. High school sports benefit the most from a good team atmosphere, college sports less, and professional sports benefit the least. This is perhaps due to the fact that professional athletes are just more capable of performing amazing feats no matter what environment they are suffering from. Spectators can see this in League of Legends when professional teams come up against challenger teams in the post-season relegation matches. Oftentimes despite their poor team unity and poor showing in the professional league, they roll all over the lesser teams.

The second point was that larger teams diffuse the effects of team atmosphere. So the smaller teams benefit more from developing and maintaining camaraderie. League of Legends is small enough that team unity should still have a large effect on winning.

The future of League of Legends

Team atmosphere will become more and more important in League of Legends as the most successful teams continue to show how well prepared they are to handle diversity and integrate new players into their organizations.

In sports, athletes live independently and attend a training facility for their practice. There are very few League of Legends teams at the moment that do this; the tradition has been to save money and coordination by all living together in a central location. My prediction is that more and more League teams will move towards an office style training environment as they realize all the benefits that come from both crafting a professional workplace and forcing their athletes to take charge of their personal lives while simultaneously increasing the quality of their downtime.

When it comes down to it, team atmosphere is both crucial to develop and difficult to understand. There are so many factors at play it can be daunting deciding where to start teambuilding. It is something all League of Legends eSport teams will have to face moving forward, however, because ignoring it will lead to relegations, to constant player trades seeking a perfect personality, to decreased player happiness, and to a bad team reputations. The best option is to opt for a practical stance: take the group of players, and transform them into a team of athletes.

Team unity - When player's don't click
Team motivation - Competition versus Mastery
Team leadership - Communication and relationships (forthcoming)
Team infrastructure - Support for athlete development (forthcoming)
Weldon is an American sport psychological consultant based in Finland. He started MindGames, an online magazine exploring eSport psychology. read more »