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Last season my youngest son’s under-15 soccer team had a remarkable turnaround from the beginning to the end of the 2022 season.

In the grading component of the season they won one game out of ten and finished third from bottom and were placed in division 3. Three players left the team and a new player lasted two games before leaving. We were left with thirteen players for the remainder of the season.

In the 18-game regular season, due to injury, illness, holidays, and COVID, we only had all 13 players available once, yet the team only lost two games and won the premiership on the last day of the season with a 1-0 win over the top team.

What happened to cause such a remarkable turnaround in the second half of the season?

After listening to former Australian rugby player and coach Ben Darwin, present Cohesion Analysis – why we have teams wrong at the RCSA SHAPE Conference last week, I know the answer – cohesion.

Darwin’s formula is simple: skill x cohesion = capacity.

In his company’s decade-long research into what makes a high-performing team, the evidence confirmed the following points:

  1. When a player moves from a high-performing team to a lower-performing team, the player’s subsequent performance is also lower
  2. The specific positions and roles of each player within each team matter
  3. The stability of the team the player joins matters, in fact stability was, he discovered, massively underrated in team success.

“The more stable you are the greater level of understanding you have. You can buy skill but skill doesn’t manifest itself in chaos. If you have lots of different players coming in from different places with different habits it’s hard to get them on the same page, particularly defensively.”

After starting with a deep analysis of professional team sport, Darwin broadened his research to include teams in organisational and military contexts.

The fundamental conclusion was; that the level of understanding between the components of a team is far more predictive of the team’s performance than the skill level of the individual team members.

As Darwin put it, “It’s cohesion, rather than skill or culture that overwhelmingly dictates team performance. In fact, cohesion makes up around 80% of the differential in performance”.

In short, the old adage that ‘a champion team beats a team of champions’ is empirically true.

Darwin offered a couple of real-life sporting triumphs as examples of the power of cohesion.

In the 2016 men’s Euros England met Iceland in the quarter finals.

On paper England looked unbeatable with a whole squad of Premier League stars on multi-million pound salaries, compared to their opponents, a tiny, mostly snow-bound, island of 330,000 people (0.5% the size of England’s population) represented by a team of players, most of whom played in Europe’s minor football leagues or were semi-professionals at home.

The huge advantage Iceland had over England was that the national team knew each other’s strengths and roles, having consistently played with each other in various national teams, starting at the under-age level, going back many years. They were a highly cohesive team because of their long-term stability.

England, by contrast, rarely played the same eleven players, as there were so many players of comparable standard to choose from. They were not a cohesive team.

The bookmakers’ odds equated England’s winning likelihood to 88% but their cohesion was far short of their opponents’ and they famously lost 1-2 (see photo, above).

In 2006 the West Coast Eagles won the AFL premiership, beating Sydney by one point, having lost the previous year’s grand final to the same opponent by 4 points.

The Eagles were a powerful and cohesive team led by their gun midfield of Ben Cousins, Chris Judd and Daniel Kerr (brother of Matildas’ start, Sam Kerr) and powerful and skillful big men, Michael Gardiner and Dean Cox.

Although there were rumblings about the Eagles’ ‘party culture’ and various players continued to fall foul of the law the coach, the club’s administration and the AFL did nothing, fearful of disrupting the on-field success.

As later came out the Eagles’ culture was rotten and the impact of this terrible culture reverberates to this day –  one former Eagles player is dead, three are (or were) in prison and who knows how many have ongoing substance abuse issues (most famously Brownlow medallist Ben Cousins).

Darwin’s conclusions had me reflect on my own experiences with teams in agency recruitment.

I can now clearly see the best team I worked in had a high level of cohesion – we were a stable team who knew each other extremely well, borne from the years of sitting next to each other getting to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses as well as each other’s clients and candidates.

When a temp job came in we were often able to fill the job over the phone within an hour with little negotiating required. Refilling a temp job because the candidate didn’t work out was uncommon.

On reflection, I think we hit the triple jackpot as the team possessed highly skilled individuals, high cohesion and a positive culture.

Darwin emphasised the importance of leaders systemically undertaking coaching and teaching, not just to build individual skills but to ensure that each team member understands their role and how that role relates to the roles of other team members.

The coach of my son’s soccer team was forced to play the same players in the same positions week after week, with few in-game substitutions because we only had one or two players on the bench at any one time.

The coach worked hard on ensuring the team knew the game plan and then he clearly and consistently communicated to each player their role in executing the game plan.

The team was moderately skilled but became highly cohesive; and it made all the difference when it really mattered – on the final day of the season.

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