Social Cohesion: Can we help teams like each other?


In 1974, the Italian team Lazio achieved something rarely seen in soccer: they won the Scudetto (the “shield” for finishing top of Serie A – the highest division in the country). This by itself would not seem to be that amazing as, like the Super Bowl, someone wins it every year. What made the Lazio team so different was that they achieved the title with a team who wouldn’t even talk to each other off the pitch. So divided were they that the team prepared in two different changing rooms, depending which clique they were in. Any trespassing led to significant violence.  This spiraled dangerously out of control. The team carried so many guns with them that “on one occasion a pilot refused to take off with the players on board” (John Foot).

We call the ability to get along off the field ‘social cohesion’. Clearly in Rome that year there was a team with very little team social cohesion, and yet they still came away with the title. Maybe this was down to the work of the coach, or maybe players don’t need to be friends to win soccer games. There are other examples of players who didn’t like each other off the field, but managed to play together on it. At Manchester United George Best, Bobby Charlton, and Dennis Law didn’t really like each other. Their dislike became so strong that it spilled on to the field. By the 1970’s Best and Charlton wouldn’t pass to each other on the field. We call this ‘task cohesion’ – when players cannot work together on the field as a team.

Alan Hansen – a respected pundit in England, and former Liverpool and Ireland defender, has experience of playing on a team who didn’t like each other off the field but won championships together on it. About his experience he said “human nature dictates that if you have 16 players, 2 coaches, and a manager, they won’t all like each other. But that doesn’t matter as long as you can rely on each other.” Research shows that although there is some sense to what he is saying, in most cases it is too difficult for players to separate what happens off the field with what happens on it. This is especially so in the youth game, where cliques and bullying off the field usually transfers to the same situation on it. Once that happens it becomes very difficult to beat anyone. If a team cannot play together it doesn’t matter how good the eleven individuals are, they are unlikely to win many games.

“Football’s history is full of teams who should, on paper, have carried all before them, but who failed to gel.” (Phil Ball)

“Show me a club that has laughter in its dressing room and corridors as well as talent in its team and I’ll show you a club that will win things.” (Brian Clough)

“He who plays for himself plays for the opposition. He who plays for the team, plays for himself.” (Helanio Herrera)

As a coach your job is to constantly listen out for any signs of trouble with your team’s cohesions. Ask yourself questions like is it a coincidence that one of your players never chooses to pass to one of the others, or just that their vision is poor? Find out who hangs out together, who goes to the same school, and who are the leaders and followers. Watch what happens at water breaks and as they get ready before practices. With clubs reaching across school districts, it is likely that you will have a group of players from different areas, some of whom only see each other at soccer. This is likely to affect the social cohesion of the group.

At tryouts when you are adding new players to the team, you need to consider the new players’ character and personality, and how they will fit with the rest of the team. Don Nelson of the Dallas Mavericks said that “when I drafted on talent, looking the other way regarding character, I have been burned almost every time.” The lesson here is by being proactive, you can save yourself a huge amount of trouble later. Building task and social cohesion is a slow and delicate process that takes a lot of different angles from coaches and players. Destroying it can be an almost instantaneous process that only takes one mistake.

As a coach and de facto team leader you can speed the process along by creating situations that will allow players to develop their social cohesion. Often these will be outside of games and practices. You can arrange team dinners, hikes and fun activities that give players a chance to learn more about each other in a different setting. Similarly, at practice you can introduce a few simple games where the primary focus is on players developing trust and working together to solve problems. We have several listed in our team building database.

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