Why do teams win? What do we learn from winning teams?

Just attended 6 Gaelic Football and Hurling finals over the last 10 days or so. Five of the teams I supported were successful – so an unusually high success rate! And of course we are often told we learn more from the games we lose (and mistakes we make) than from winning games. But I was thinking – what did we learn from winning these games?

Firstly – winning beats losing. There is no ‘could have, should have, would have’ chat after the game. And, in general, the things that went wrong are put to one side and the focus tends to be on what went right.

Why did five of these teams win?

The first team was well coached, had set achievable targets for itself early in the season, had sorted out its defence and had realistic expectations of its own players (and their abilities). The coaches were meticulous in their preparation – including their analysis of strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. On the day the team made a fast start and played with hunger and determination throughout the match.

The second team to win consisted of a teams of winners. They had lots of ability and had been undefeated in Championship matches for a number of  years. The opposition played well but may have lacked some vital element of self belief. The opposition started well and had opportunities to establish a decent lead – but squandered these.  The winning team started poorly but never appeared to doubt their own ability to close out the deal. And they did so comprehensively in the end.

The third team won by one point in extra time. They played a good game – against another team of approx. equal ability and drive/ hunger. Match came down to a couple of missed opportunities for one team and a couple of opportunities taken by the other team. Would not be difficult to summarise by saying ‘they got the breaks’.

The fourth team won because they had more ability, more experience and generally shut out the up and coming opposition. Their pre-match preparation was good and after a slow start for 5-10 minutes they gradually assumed control in the match.  As the match progressed they began to exploit some weaknesses in the opposition team.

The fifth team was too strong for the opposition and won out easily.  They were faster, stronger, more skillful and, in particular, had more consistently good players across the park that the opposition.  

The sixth team lost.  This team was probably expected to win – just about.  They led well at half time.  Something happened after half time – a real momentum swing.  They seemed to lose their way for 15 minutes of the second half.  Over the game they conceded three goals – and, as many say, goals win matches.  The winning team exploited the momentum swing and just about held out in the end.

So what did I learn from watching six finals?

  • Winning and losing teams learned lots about themselves and the opposition in each game
  • Individual ability of team members makes huge difference
  • Attitude is very important
  • Experience is an asset
  • Good preparation (ambition/ focus, training, tactics, knowledge of the opposition) can make a major difference
  • Luck makes a difference in tight matches
  • Understanding limitations of your own team is important in setting out to win a match
  • Winning teams believe in themselves and their ability to win – even when faced by adversity
  • In many matches the top players on either side neutralise each other – the battle often gets decided by the weaker players – the team with the stronger weaker players usually exploits this advantage to win
  • Beware of momentum swings – over the 6 games there were plenty of changes in momentum – when teams trailing were afforded the opportunity to change things around.  The challenge having survived to the momentum swing opportunity is to take it and kick on.  Really only saw this happen in the sixth final.

Interestingly no real reference to individual leadership, per se, in these match wins.  Yes – good players were required to perform – but impact of individual leadership not as great as people may expect.

Certainly analysis is applicable to lots of work and life situations – why do teams succeed/ fail? Perhaps the importance of strong weaker players is overlooked in many situations – as also is having realistic expectations of the team. Other factors such as preparation and common goals/ sense of purpose were as expected.

 

Reflecting on a week of sport (well 8 days)

Back in Croke Park today to see Clare beat Limerick in the All Ireland Hurling SemiFinal.  Today I was in the ‘neutral’ role  unsure whether supporting Clare or Limerick.  In the end Clare were comfortable winners.  Last Sunday attended Dublin Cork All Ireland Hurling Semifinal in Croke Park – Cork won by four points.  Was not neutral and was very disappointed to see Dublin beaten.  Some controversy over referee sending off of one Dublin player – although really came down to decision to award yellow card very early in the game.  Got over my bias in favour of Dublin: great game, great spectacle and Cork were just about worth their win.

Last Wednesday attended All Ireland Minor Girls’ Football FInal (actually replay) in Mullingar  – Dublin v. Galway.  With last kick of the game in 8th minute of injury time Galway scored a goal to win by two points.  Have not witnesses such devastation in a long time as that seen in the Dublin camp.  Two well matched teams.  Possibly Galway a little sharper in attack.  Dublin had come back with two very late goals in the first match  so this time it was Galway’s turn.  I am sure the Dublin management must rue the decisions to put five subs on – seemed to disrupt their play and coincided with Galway revival.

Last Friday attended Intermediate Ladies Football Dublin Championship Final in Newcastle, Co. Dublin.  What a beautiful pitch. My own Club, Kilmacud Crokes, were beaten by two points by a very experienced Thomas Davis team.  Great game of football – and right through to the final whistle there were opportunities for either team to win the game.  Another opportunity for promotion just missed by Kilmacud Crokes.

So – not a great return in terms of seeing my teams (Dublin, Dublin, Kilmacud Crokes) losing three times.  But have to say felt privileged to see so many excellent games – served up by amateur players who give so freely of their own time (as do mentors,families, coaches and friends).  I would also be confident that each of the players on those losing teams has gained hugely from the experience – being part of a committed team, achieving such high standards of play and learning from the games themselves.

 

 

 

 

Is it right to try to win?

I find myself being drawn into the debate emerging, again, re tactics employed by managers and teams to win matches. This weekend in the GAA All Ireland Football Quarterfinals Tyrone stand accused in some quarters of very cynical play – designed to ensure they won a knock out match and progressed to the semifinals.  Star player, Sean Cavanagh, was awarded ‘man of the match’, but attracted lots of criticism for committing a ‘professional foul’ when an opposition player advanced on goal.  In their previous match both he and fellow star Stephen O’Neil were involved in ‘professional fouls’ late in the game.  I believe the players did what they did in the interests of their team – in the context of winning both matches.  Their manager has been incensed – he is seeking to protect players who he believes did not do anything wrong – not particularly out of line with what goes on in knock out championship matches.  And he points to the many fouls committed against his players in both games.

During the week I attended an outstanding cricket test match in England – Third Test of the Ashes series between England and Australia. There has been plenty of controversy in this series –   batsmen knowing they were out not ‘walking’, umpiring errors, deliberate slowing down of over rates by England as they seek a draw.

In the last couple of weeks we have had another two top sprinters unveiled as drug cheats.

What does all this tell us?  What is acceptable in trying to win and what is not acceptable?  How does it leave us feeling – us the players, the coaches, the spectators, the kids starting out in their sporting careers?  And obviously the above includes both professional (cricket and athletics) and amateur (GAA football)?

This year I find myself supporting a Dublin GAA  football team that seems to possess great speed and agility in attack – and benefits from ‘open play’.  So therefore we want fast flowing, foul free, play and trust that our skills and speed will bring us home as ultimate winners. But if I were coaching a team against Dublin and did not have the same speedy assets what tactics might I employ?  Without doubt I would look to break up the game, slow down the game, negate the influence of the very fast and skillful Dublin forwards – through denying them possession, crowding my defence, man to man marking, fouling – some combination of all of these  – whatever would work to enable me to counter their advantages.

Of course since I am supporting Dublin this lets me assume the higher moral ground (this year) – as I am supporting fast flowing, open football.  But what of the outer county and the other manager – to whom is he accountable?  In the first instance – to himself.  Thereafter to his players, their supporters and all those involved in the game more generally.  Some where in the middle of this is an expectation from his county that he will maximise their opportunity of winning – and will therefore design and implement tactics likely to overcome Dublin’s range of skills.

Today we saw Mayo ‘destroy’ the Donegal team which seemed to have perfected, in the last two years, massed defence, superior fitness and fast breaking football.  Mayo were not short of men in defence when required – but played Donegal ‘off the pitch’.  Many neutrals had high praise for Mayo and will no doubt believe that the negative tactics developed by Donegal have been seen off.

One other element of sport at a high level e.g. playing in front of 70,000 paying attendees in Croke Park yesterday, is to provide entertainment – some sense of ‘value for money’.  Kevin Pietersen did this yesterday in the Ashes Test match yesterday by scoring another century for England in the aggressive style in which he bats.  Brian Lara, possibly the greatest West Indian batsman of all time, says he saw himself as an entertainer No. 1 and a batsman No. 2.  Severiano Ballesteros claimed in his final TV interviews that his popularity was based on the range of shots he played – that’s why people wanted to come to see him play. But all three were also outstandingly competitive sportsmen focused on winning matches.  And they were three of the most talented – so entertaining the audience was part of their gift.

But would any of these GAA football teams mentioned – Donegal, Tyrone, Dublin or Mayo have achieved very much in terms of winning without developing and implementing tactics which maximise their opportunity to win – by emphasising their skills and limiting the potential of their opponents to succeed?  And is there anything wrong with this?

Very easy for commentators to criticise the manager and/or the team that seem to be less creative, limit the potential of the opposition to play ‘attractive’ football and focus on winning, potentially at the cost of the entertainment element of the game. I felt this frustration myself watching Tyrone yesterday but what does this ‘frustration’ really amount to?

Playing rugby in years past I remember being matched against a future international rugby player – who was 10cm taller than me, an outstanding footballer and able to jump far higher off the ground than me.  My objective was to find ways to prevent him catching the ball  – in the hope of limiting the damage he would do to our team. For part of the game I had some limited success – and did not even question for one second whether such an approach was ‘right’.  I was working with my inferior team to try to counteract one the opposition’s key weapons.

I think it is time for a few reality checks.  Some teams do not have the same skills as other teams. They will seek to develop and implement tactics which counter the opposition advantages – if they do not do this we will not have competitive matches.  Some of this behaviour will include breaking rules and accepting punishment e.g. frees, penalties, yellow cards and, even, red cards.  If the rules prove ineffective in counteracting unduly negative (probably difficult to define) behaviour then the rules need to be adjusted and implemented effectively by the relevant officials.

I have taken huge pleasure from playing, coaching and supporting/ spectating at sport.  I have experienced frustration in all roles – but overall the experience has been fantastic.  I would like to think that drug taking would have no part to play in sport – unfortunately it does and I would suggest should continue to be dealt with very harshly.  However in the case of coaches and players pushing the envelope to try to win I do not have much of an issue.  When I hold all the skills I am absolutely fed up to see there frustrated by less skillful teams.  But it is for me to figure this out – if I possess the skills.  Finally, the ‘professional foul’ is simply an assessment by the fouler (and potentially his coach/ team) – that the result is worth the punishment.  If you make the punishment sufficiently serious it will be cut out (and there will be some innocent victims) most professional fouls.  But sport is not perfect and we do not want it to be perfect.

As a coach to younger players I believe my responsibilities are primarily to assist in development of the players, ensuring they enjoy their sport and develop their skills.  But  I have no doubt that as coaches we will in years to come find ourselves looking to develop tactics to maximise the likelihood of winning specific matches.  I hope that what we do to try to win will be right.