Learning Teamwork from the Football (Soccer) Pitch

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Studying teams, teamwork and leadership from an academic angle can be a difficult endeavor as there are thousands of opinions and a thousand books. Using a real world example of something we are all familiar with can give us a feeling, which is a starting point on which we can then elaborate using research. Team sports are an ideal example of teamwork in action as it is natural action with minimal thinking. In team sports having skills gets you onto the team, but a winning team is determined not by skills alone but the way team members play together.

  • Cooperative effort by the members of a group or team to achieve a common goal.
  • Work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole.
  • The process of working collaboratively with a group of people in order to achieve a goal.
  • Work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole.
  • The combined action of a group of people, especially when effective and efficient.

Soccer (in North America), globally known FOOTBALL / FUTBOL (logical all since you move the ball with your foot), also known as the “beautiful game” due to the simplicity and flow of the game, is a good example of teamwork. Each person on the team has been selected due to a skill, given a responsibility, afforded leeway in carrying out their role and expected to perform for the common goal.

The team has a set of objectives:
  • Primary: Win the game by scoring more goals than are scored on you.
  • Secondary: Win more games than you lose so that you enter into the championship round.
  • Tertiary: Be profitable (in the professional leagues).

Winning a football game requires a team to have:
  • Players with a high level of skill for the game
  • A shared philosophy for how they will play the game
  • Subordination of self interest to the common good of the team
  • Cooperative and coordinated play

Teams made of great players that do not know how to work together do not necessarily win. A player with great skill will not win the game alone but a player weak in teamwork can lose the game for the team. What makes a player great is not necessarily the number of goals he scores but in the plays that he sets up.

Even the best teams lose when they “have a bad day”. One of the most interesting phenomenon of teams is how "team mood" can have a big impact on performance. When I am exhausted and I see others on the team giving their all I am motivated to give a little more so that I do not let down the team. Conversely, when I see a few other players not performing to their maximum (loafing) then I start to wonder if I should give everything I have, why should I waste my energy when others are not.

Laws of the Game

There are few constraints on how to play the game. The “Laws of the Game” are only 50 pages in length and made up of 17 laws, with each law refined with rules and directions. The spirit of the laws is that they are guidelines and goals of principle. There is an unofficial 18th law where referees are expected to use common sense in applying the 17 Laws of the Game.

Most of the laws are about administrative details such as the field, the ball, the referees, duration of game and the number of players and equipment. There are also rules about what can be done with the ball when play is stopped such as free kicks, penalty kicks, goal kicks, corner kicks and throw-ins. Only two laws are related to what can be done with the “ball in play” and those are the offside and fouls and misconduct rules as well as the definition of scoring. Other than the few rules that define what is illegal, the game is wide open to opportunities.

Formations and Strategy

There is no ideal team structure. The rules state that a team is comprised of 11 players, one goalkeeper and 10 players on the field. The 10 fielders can be divided into forwards, midfielders or defenders. The nature of team strengths and the opposing team’s style of play, coupled with the overall philosophy of the game at that time, will determine how the coach organizes the 10 players into either offensive or defensive formations.

Two examples from the spectrum of formations

The style of football has evolved over the Laws of the Game were originally codified in 1863. In the early days of the game the English style was centered on individual excellence where the player would try to take the ball as far as possible on his own and then kick the ball forward for someone else to carry on the play. It was soon discovered that passing the ball more often created better team play and more wins. Dribbling, or individual play, is not as prevalent today as it was 70 years ago.

The offense heavy formation was favored unto the 1950s when there was a shift to more defense oriented formations. Today, the focus is on strong midfield oriented formations. There is a plethora of formation permutation and it is up to the coach to determine which formation is best for the team at what part of the game as a team is not locked into one formation for the whole game.

Positions and their responsibilities are well defined and every person knows where they have to be, when and why. If a person is not fulfilling their responsibility they could create a hole that the opponent can take advantage of and score. The boundaries of the areas of responsibility are not sharply delineated. There is overlap in what the players can do. Each player is supposed to know how far he can go to maximize an opportunity without creating too much of a weakness.

Note: For illustrative purposes only

Players do not mind when another team-member enters their area of responsibility. A right-midfielder will not complain if a right fullback moves up the field when the team is on an offensive play moving the ball forward. Cooperation is part of teamwork but there must be discipline so that everyone is not just chasing the ball such as a defender wanting to score a goal playing the role of a forward.

Teamwork requires reacting to changing situations, reacting to where the ball is and what the opposing team is doing, but it also requires discipline to play your designated role, to fulfill your responsibilities. We are always accountable to the other team members. When player A gets the ball and wants to clear it forward he needs to know where player B will be so that player B gets the ball and not one of the opposing players. We do not chase the ball willy-nilly, looking for glory, like we did in grade-school games.

Important concept: A good soccer team moves as a coordinated networked unit
where each player has an understanding and expectation of where the other players will
be and the player fulfills his expectations to the other players.

Note: For illustrative purposes only

Principles, Values, Culture and Norms

Having individual skill gets the player onto the team, but individuals do not win the game. Winning requires that there be a dynamic interplay between players as a system. The forward knows that his responsibility is to be ready to make an attempt to score a goal while the defenders know that their primary responsibility is to stop the opposing team from getting close to the goal and scoring. The player on the left side stays on the left side so that no holes are created that the opponent can take advantage of.

Teams develop a set of principles, values and a culture that defines the expectations and behaviors of each of the team members. Peer pressure motivates all team players to act within team norms.

Early on, in grade school during gym class and recess we played a lot of football because it was easy to set up and anyone could play. During gym class the teacher tried to teach us about sportsmanship, being a gracious winner and loser. They tried to teach us that winning was not the most important objective of the game, “It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.” We never understood that, after all our objective was not to run around aimlessly kicking the ball willy-nilly but to kick the ball into the opposing net and score a goal. Occasionally it was fun to play bully-ball and knock over players from the other team.

Winning was important. Winning, aka success, is important in every one of our endeavors. How we played the game was also important. During the recess games rules were not too important but we learned two game norms that were important; don’t be a “ball-hog” or a “goal-suck”.

  • Ball-hog: Player that “hogs the ball”, does not pass the ball to other players. This person thinks that he is better than everyone else, wants to show off skills, create play on his own, score and get credit for winning the game. The ball-hog tries to do too much and wants to be the center of attention and can burn out early and will be useless to the team while he recovers.
  • Panicker – Opposite of the ball-hog, this player did little to add value to the game because he would ‘panic pass’ the ball, like a hot potato, as soon as he got the ball and an opposing player got close. Eventually people just stopped passing the ball to that person.
  • Goal-suck: (aka camper or goal-hanger in UK) This is a person that stays up front, close to opposing net, waiting for a long pass and an easy attempt to score. While waiting for scoring opportunities this player does little to assist in defensive play and is seen as not playing the ‘full game’. In basketball the player is called a ‘cherry-picker’ and in hockey a ‘loafer’ for loafing near the opponent’s blue line. A cherry-picker is more accurately known as the player who scores the goal after all the hard work has been done by others. This type of player focuses too narrowly on his position and area of responsibility and waits for play to come to him rather than help create plays.

The goal-suck and ball-hog styles of play are selfish. The offside rule prevents goal-hogs but there is no rule against ball-hogs. Both of these player types are bad for the team and were an indicator of personal character. Players that consistently played in a selfish manner had that character trait associated with them off the field as well. Peer pressure can modify the player action and turn a ball-hog into a team player but unfortunately if the ball-hog scored the winning goal, then the play style was reinforced rather than modified.

After the game was over, it was quite OK to talk about the game, the great plays and the goals scored. It was also acceptable to joke about bad plays and other errors made but it was not OK to be a “bad winner”, belittling the other side for losing.

The Captain

The football team captain, also known as skipper, is the on-pitch (on-field) leader of the team. The captain can be designated either a club captain for the season or a match captain for the specific match. The captain has only one official responsibility specified by the Laws of the Game and that is to participate in the coin toss prior to the kick-off to choose ends and to decide which team takes penalty kicks first in the case of a draw. The captain is also the first to receive any trophies the team wins.

Team captain is not a privilege but a sign of respect and a set of responsibilities. The captain need not necessarily be the top goal scorer or superstar but the player that has excellent team building abilities. The captain is s player that is respected for his playing abilities, is focused and mentally strong, resilient and an excellent communicator. The captain is also emotionally centered, a good role model, respects the team and is respected by the players.

Captains act as mediators between their fellow players, coaches and referees. A good captain leads his team both on and off the field and is chosen based on leadership skills, not physical abilities.

While the captain has no special status or privileges on the field he does play a vital role as a mediator between the coaches, referees and fellow players and has some responsibility for the way the team behaves. When a referee has a problem with team behavior he will talk to the captain and the captain talks to the team. The captain is the figurehead of the team chosen for his sportsmanship and team building skills and not solely for physical abilities.

The captain does not give direct orders during the game but he does affect the overall mood and direct of the team. After the start of the match the team coach has minimal opportunity to communicate with the team. The captain, an ethical role-model, maintains game discipline, as he is the on-field voice of the coach, ensuring that the strategic vision of the coach is followed. Even when the captain is exhausted he is still the rallying point for the team, showing passion and determination playing to the best of his abilities, boosting team morale and reinvigorating the team to greater performance. Intra-team player conflict resolution is another of the soft-skills of a good captain.

Activist Team and Teamwork

Our activist teams are similar to a football team. We are a small group with a specific goal. We are competing against someone or something, some injustice that exists or preventing an injustice from happening. We seek the best people available to join our team and we give people responsibilities but the boundaries are fuzzy and everyone is expected to contribute what they can, without forgetting their primary responsibility. The team leader, be it a formal or informal designation is a person that does what it takes to improve team ability without dictating to people what they should do.

Our team works best when we have team spirit and play with a sense of sportsmanship and honor. Being successful in our cause is like winning the game but while we want to succeed in our cause we do not believe that the ends justify the means because after the game is over we still have to live with ourselves and the reputation we earn.

Željko Zidarić