What makes a winning team?

03/06/2013  -  10.13

Andrew Lane, Professor of Sports and Exercise Psychology

What makes a winning team?

Around this time of the sporting calendar, talk invariably comes round to the issue of what makes a winning team. Pundits start picking their dream teams. Various combinations of players are suggested but being individually brilliant is only part of what matters. “We all dream of a team of Carraghers” is a song lovingly sang by the Liverpool fans; a song that pays testament to the fighting spirit of Jamie Carragher. Would this team be successful?

Yes, they would work hard, but they might not score many goals (Jamie scored 4 goals in 508 appearances). A successful team needs people to work hard and to share the common goal of being prepared to put the team goal ahead of their personal goal. In terms of who to select, this then depends on what you want the team to do and how they want to play. It's about each player knowing her or his role and how that fits into the team's goal. A team is as strong as its weakest part. A soccer player who harasses the opposition into mistakes can often go unnoticed but without such a contribution, the brilliant centre forward will never get the ball. 

The above does not only apply to soccer. I build research teams and try to place people into positions in a similar way to a soccer manager. We can’t all be centre forwards that wait for passes to get the glory goals. I start by looking for “midfielders” – someone who will do a lot of the running, being tenacious in their effort; they cover a lot of ground and are not picked for their creative thinking skills.

I pick someone with an eye for detail, to follow the logic of arguments, to work out the relative contribution of the work. This is similar to a central defender who reads the game, intercepts the ball via cunning and skill rather than toil. He/she scores goals from corners by finding the gaps and reading the game. I want strikers who want to score goals – in research terms this is the person who will be able to articulate why this work is needed, how it will contribute and ultimately, why it should be publishable. PhD students often begin their careers as midfielders, doing the work, learning about attack and defence; or in academic terms, learning about all the jobs that need to be done.

PhD students become strikers as they seek to publish their work, get their names on papers, or make the headlines by their proposing and testing brilliant ideas. Academics get to work with such people, and if you put them in a winning team, they will flourish. Let's face it, Ronaldo, currently of Real Madrid, brilliant as he is, is unlikely to hear fans sing a similar song to him as they do to Carragher.