The Missing Link

By Dan Bauer

Winning a championship. It is the athletic world’s version of survival of the fittest as each step toward the elusive hardware exposes both weaknesses and strengths of the competitors. The margin of victory is often as imperceptible as a razor’s edge.

It is a journey of attrition, and from the masses of suitors for the championship crown, only a handful of true contenders will emerge with the right stuff to put them in position to win it all. After years of preparation as individuals, and months as a team, each challenger will face the pressure of a long season and the finality of a season-ending loss if they are not good enough.  The devastation of coming up short intensifies with each step closer toward that final game.

Each team will be dealt a unique hand of cards to start the season. Some hands will look better than others, but like a stone faced game of poker, the best hand doesn’t always win. There is no exact formula to guarantee victory—for anyone. There are endless books, theories and game plans to achieve victory, but none are guaranteed blueprints to win that final game of the season.

Every sport is becoming a game of statistical analysis and much like the sabermetrics craze of baseball, we now have analytics being used everywhere. We chart and document virtually everything we can and try to determine what mathematical value they have in winning games. They are hard and fast numbers used to conclude the probability of victory. Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash discovered that the analytics don’t always tell the truth when he elected to pull Blake Snell in game six of the just completed World Series. We are a society that loves to prognosticate the sports future based on statistics. It is the fodder that fills endless hours of sports talk radio every day.

Despite these analytical advances to turn this game into a paper chase, the fact still remains that no team has ever won a game based on their stat sheet. As we scrutinize each team, we consider their skill level, experience, past performance, coaching records and other factors in an effort to predict their success. And while many of these characteristics can be measured in some way, there is one that cannot.

Team chemistry.

It is the Holy Grail of intangibles that can only be measured from the collective hearts of each team member. It is the Bermuda Triangle of coaching that has many strategies, but no concrete answers on how to achieve it. It is the Nuclear Power of forces that can propel a team to a championship. Its success is well documented in the animal world where wolves and geese depend on it to survive. Its influence is available to every team, but not all choose to embrace it.

Achieving true team chemistry requires an unwavering commitment to selflessness by each team member. It is finding joy in the happiness and success of others, in this case teammates. Joy can be a very difficult emotion to foster in a competitive environment where a teammates gain could mean your personal loss. It is simply stated as putting the team first.

Every concession a player makes that puts the team’s goals ahead of their own brings the team one step closer to the harmony that wins championships. Coming to grips with not being a captain, accepting your role as a back-up, not finding yourself on the score sheet often enough are all challenges that “team” players must learn to accept. Sometimes finding and grasping your role on the team is the most difficult part of a player’s season. Finding peace and happiness in the success of teammates whose job you would like to have requires maturity and selflessness. It is the ultimate litmus test for attitude.

As a coach, you know when your team has found that right blend of chemistry and you know when they haven’t. The formula is different with each team and can only be discovered by the team itself. Some teams pull together like wolves tracking down prey while other teams are like herding cats.

Coaches can significantly enhance the probability of this unifying force by implementing 2nd Dimension team chemistry strategies, but it is the individual team members that have the ultimate power to make it happen. Like the wrong chemical, one single dissenter can turn this annual chemistry experiment into a disappointing failure.

Winning a championship is a daunting task that will only be achieved by one team. The degree of difficulty in winning that final game cannot be fully appreciated until you have traveled that journey and failed. A handful of teams will have what it takes, but only one will rise above all the rest. The one team that escapes or overcomes injury, the one team that creates those “lucky” bounces better than their opponents, the one team that comes together like peanut butter and jelly will ultimately hold the trophy. Being the best has never been an easy task. It requires great sacrifice and commitment to the team at the expense of your own agenda. Not all players are willing to be that selfless. And when they aren’t, they sabotage what could have been a championship run by their team.

Championship teams depend on the power of teamwork and team chemistry. 

The legendary John Wooden said, “Each of us must make the effort to contribute to the best of our ability according to our individual talents. And then we put all the individual talents together for the highest good of the group. Understanding that the good of the group comes first is fundamental to being a highly productive member of a team.”

As a coach, when you are fortunate enough to find that group of individuals that truly becomes a team united, it is the Mount Everest of coaching that can only be enhanced by a championship. Because a team united is a team ripe with all the character traits that the athletic experience produces. In the post-game euphoria of a championship celebration, there is always reference to the unity and collective efforts of the team to pull together. As coaches we are fond of the decree that a team is only as strong as its weakest link.

When it comes to winning that elusive (for all but one team) championship, there can be no missing element in the team chemistry formula. 

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at drbauer13@gmail.com

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