Team chemistry study conclusion: Let's get defensive

What do you do when you're stuck on a shitty team and you can't leave? 

Comparing yourself to a better team's performance won't help your self-esteem; in fact, it might make you feel worse about your team and its prospects. But, what if, instead of focusing on wins and losses, you emphasize nonperformance aspects like academic performance, good looks, or general awesomeness? Research suggests that these comparisons should engender team-wide feelings of positivity, leading to a greater sense of identity, plentiful team chemistry -- and, ideally, increased performance.


In our last article, we gave a midseason report on the intervention that we were in the midst of conducting aimed at implementing some of these ideas. With the overall goal of increasing these teams' performance, we built a team chemistry intervention, and administered it to three Southern California college football teams via a series of surveys throughout the season. 

Our initial glance at the data showed promising returns -- a slight trend on offense, with an increase in points scored per gameand a stronger trend on defense, with a decrease in points allowed per game. Now that all the results are in, we thought an update was in order.

A little of this, a little of that

After 5 rounds of treatment, the final results are a mixed bag of the study are a mixed bag. First, the offensive trend seems to have washed out: all three teams' points scored per game were on par with their four year averages. 

More encouragingly, the defensive trend became a bit less dramatic, but remained consistent: Two of the three teams that participated in the study showed four year lows in points allowed per game. 

Some is good, more is better

These results represent an encouraging start. But to really increase our confidence in claims about team chemistry leading to better performance, we'll need much more evidence. Fortunately, that's exactly what's in the works -- just like Kahneman and Tversky, we're looking to be sports analytics disrupters

We're using team chemistry to increase performance for a few college football teams

There’s an old adage in psychology that says, “the best predictor for future behavior is past behavior.” This formula pretty much sums up how sports analytics works: analytical minds compile players' previous performances, and use them to build models to predict how they’ll perform in the future. Though this method seems to be pretty good, it’s far from the whole story.

Rob Arthur's recent piece on 538 was an amalgamation of some of the more reliable baseball prediction outlets (PECOTA, Vegas lines, and Fangraphs projections).
Together, the predicted win totals from these sites correlate well with the actual win totals of most baseball teams (r = .60). If we do a little math, we find that previous performance explains about 36% of the reason why baseball teams win as much or as little as they do. Now, if we knew 100% of the reason, we could flawlessly predict the number of wins for each baseball team; unfortunately, we've only got 36%. The result is that something other than previous performance accounts for around 64% of baseball team's performance1.

So the question becomes: Can we measure other stuff to add to the already awesome previous performance prediction models to increase our predictive power? If we said "Hell yes, you can!" would you call us crazy? You wouldn’t be the first. 

The future is now

First off, psychology as a discipline is quite large. There are plenty of sub-topics within psychology that can be brought to the professional sports landscape to help predict future performance. That said, research has time and time again shown that chemistry and performance are related. So, for this reason, we've decided to focus on this often talked-about (but not-so-often accurately measured) component of a team’s ability to stick together. 

Utilizing over 30 years of research, we designed a survey to measure and increase team chemistry; we are currently implementing it with a few community college football teams in Southern California, with the aim of increasing their performance. After 3 rounds of the survey, here’s a midseason report of how it’s going:
Each team has played 6 games thus far with an average opponents winning percentage at 47%
Each team has played 6 games thus far with an average opponents winning percentage at 47%
Looking at the 4 year averages, the overall trend indicates that increasing team chemistry has played some role in improving these teams' offenses and defenses. Before you get your scientist hat on, we know these findings are preliminary: It's a small sample of schools -- perhaps these teams would be performing this well without our survey2. There's also another 4 to 5 games left to play for each team, so things could change by the end of the year. However, it's a nice enough trend to get us excited about the intervention. Stay tuned for an end-of-season report to see if the results hold.

The million dollar pitch

Previous research in team chemistry has often occurred within college teams, so the mid-season results of this study are by no means revolutionary. What could be revolutionary is if professional teams begin to use this research: monitor players, build a team with players high in team chemistry, and design interventions to increase overall team chemistry. The idea is to chip away at that missing 64% of future performance that previous performance doesn't capture.

1 This assumes our predictive models built using previous performances can’t improve, right? We're capturing about 36% of the reason (or variance) of future performance right now in 2016, what's to say we can't get better in the future? True, the correlation coefficients have ranged from just over r = .8 to just below r = .3. So, at most we can unreliably predict upwards of 64% of the variance on a good year, which still leaves 36% unexplained. Predictive power has varied over the last 20 years, but the average guess is that previous performance only eats up around 36% of future performance.

2 Each team was randomly chosen and had to be a low-performing team in past.

Colin Kaepernick is accidentally a brilliant psychologist

Over the last few years, there has been what feels like a never-ending spiral of police brutality, followed by protests against police brutality. Despite the cries from protestors, change is either incredibly slow, or has yet to begin altogether. Over the last few months, however, a new twist has been added to the saga – professional athletes, some of our most public figures and role models, have begun to demonstrate in public forums. Colin Kaepernick, the $114 million backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, has become the visual symbol of protest that has reverberated through the American athletic landscape.

This new movement is no mistake, nor error of any kind. The events that have unfolded since Kap’s first National Anthem kneel down on August 14th, 2016  have been textbook group psychology – the influence of the minority can spread like wildfire. Some initial data seem to bare this out: the graph below shows the weekly frequency of professional, collegiate, high school, and middle school athletes that have demonstrated against racial inequality since Kap’s first kneel down. 

*frequencies were calculated based on news reports, numbers were estimated if there were no reported numbers or photographs.1

So how might one man's action in a preseason NFL game spark this kind of change? The science of minority influence gives us some clues.

Step 1. Black Lives Matter is the minority, for now
A minority group is a subgroup that is both numerically smaller and possesses less power than an opposed majority2. Arguably, those who have protested against police brutality have seen little measurable change thus far, but have instead amplified the saliency of recent gruesome events. Though it’s a good bet that most Americans oppose police brutality, many also oppose Black Lives Matter (BLM). Regardless of numbers, it’s also abundantly clear that BLM doesn’t yet possess enough power to create the systemic change it seeks.

Step 2. The minority has the upper hand
Popularized by Moscovici (1969) conversion theory has been used to describe the behaviors of minority and majority groups over the last 50 years. At the broadest level, influence from a majority causes people to focus on the relationship between themselves and the members of the majority: an are you with us or against us mentality. Influence originating from a minority group, on the other hand, focuses on the message itself. Interestingly, research has shown that this focus on the message (vs. comparison) often has a greater influence3. In the end, the message will win.

So perhaps conversion theory can explain why opposition to Kap’s kneel-downs may not stand a chance – many of those who are against him focus on the method, not on the message. Indeed, people have stated that they’re in support of the movement against racial injustice, but that they object to Kap kneeling during the National Anthem. Simply, people agree with his message, but not the method; this should double down on the likelihood of minority influence. What’s more is that when people believe the minority’s message, it is more likely to persuade them4, and most Americans believe racism is a serious problem.

Step 3. Fortune favors the bold and consistent
Minority influence stands a better chance with a brave and consistent leader. Perceived courage stemming from the minority has been shown to help create systematic change. Minority leaders who assertively and repeatedly state their opinions publicly, with full knowledge that they’re in the minority group that they’ll have to publicly defend themselves, often stand the greatest chance of creating change5.

In Kap’s case, he’s certainly been consistent, using the same message and method since August 14th; he’s also been assertive, making clearer and clearer statements about his beliefs. And, as you might have noticed, other players across the professional sports landscape have are taking up the cause (just wait until the NBA starts again).

Step 4. The minority becomes the majority
According to conversion theory, the minority movement eventually reaches “critical mass,” where it becomes the majority. The process has then come full circle, where people conform to the new majority opinion. This terminal part of minority influence can take time, but can also result in clear, systemic change. 

So far, public protests have led to more athletes standing up for change, but a real shift has yet to happen. However, the fact that this protest is coming now, when most people agree with Kap's message, could set it apart from past stands by professional athletes like Jack Johnson, Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The theory is clear, and the game plan for change is the same as the one on the field: kneeling down is the victory formation. 

1 (1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 8.

2 Crano & Alvaro, 1996

3 Martin, Hewstone, & Martine, 2008; Martin & Hewstone, 2003; Moscovici, 1980; Moscovici, 1985

4 Moscovici, 1969

5 Kerr, 2002

The Potential Backfire of Golf at the Olympics: Men's Golf Still Isn't Attracting Millennials

#SorryNotSorry @IGFgolf, because it’s true.
One hundred twelve years of golf-less Olympics came to an end at tee-off of the men’s tournament on August 11th. Justin Rose of Great Britain and Inbee Park of South Korea took home the golds for the men’s and women’s tournaments, respectively, in this historic moment for modern day golf.

Yet the top four ranked male golfers in the world were not present: Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy. These four are not the only qualifying golfers who decided not to represent their countries (or their sport) in this year’s historic games in Rio -- other well known players like Vijay Singh, Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen also declined invites. This lack of participation for the men (a phenomenon not observed for women golfers) of the sport is a troubling prospect given golf’s mission to increase awareness and viewership throughout the world. Not only does the absence of golf’s top players put golf in a precarious position in terms of the sport’s Olympic future, but the publicity these withdrawals are getting also does not bode well for their mission of increasing viewership -- especially among the sought-after Millennial crowd.

To summarize the problem, in withdrawing from the Olympic games, golfers cited concerns with the Zika virus, security, and an already cramped PGA tour schedule. However, many people, including IOC President Carlos Nuzman, claim that the actual motivation behind the withdrawals is money. Winning the Olympics gets you a medal and bragging rights for your country. But it doesn’t get you any cold hard cash.

Millennial Power?

This selfish rationale for not standing up and representing their country and abandoning their sport is not going to help the image of golf. Though golf in the Olympics will provide the sport airtime in a variety of places it would not otherwise, the fact of the matter is golf is losing popularity, and fast. Millennials don’t care about the sport, and many people that cared previously are losing interest.

Millennials are the key. Born between 1980-2000, give or take, this generation has substantial buying power as the largest demographic group in developed countries1. So gaining this group’s loyalty could mean big business for golf. But Millennials, already uninterested in golf, are unlikely to turn to it given the publicized selfish behavior of the sport's top players. Let us explain: Social responsibility is very important to Millennials; it impacts how they make and spend their money and what they do with their time2. Unfortunately, all we are hearing about are the top golfers in the world being socially irresponsible in relation to their countries and their sport. Golf does not necessarily market itself as socially responsible, but recent events make the lack of social responsibility extra salient -- and that’s something that could turn away Millennials.

Changing the Message

If Millennials are all about social responsibility, why not share the work professional golfers are doing to help the world around them? For 20 years, the Tiger Woods Foundation has been empowering students to breakthrough stigma, labels, and restrictions to reach their goals. Ernie Els established Ernie Els for Autism in 2009; inspired by the diagnosis of his son, the organization works to increase Autism awareness. The Jordan Spieth Family Foundation supports multiple groups, including special needs youth and military/veteran service members and their families.

There are many, many more ways in which professional golfers support various social causes -- and most likely, any Millennial can find a golfer (if not several) supporting causes about which they care. But Millennials aren’t going to go looking for the social causes that golfers support. It’s up to golf to get the word out by highlighting the prosocial work its players are doing.

All about the Benjamins, Baby

Maybe joining the Olympic games will get some extra viewership and exposure for golf. Maybe. But, in terms of Millennials, the Olympic appearance likely won’t inspire long term change in the overall viewership of/support for/participation in the sport. In considering Millennials, golf’s publicity with the Olympics may have even backfired -- making everyone aware of top players unwilling to sacrifice for neither their country nor their sport. This leaves us to ask, what are golfers, and by extension golf, really all about? Right now, it seems that it's merely about the Benjamins.

1 Dotson, Clark, Suber, & Dave, 2013

2 Baranyi, 2011; McGlone, Spain, & McGlone, 2011; Winograd & Hais, 2014

Talking to The People: Why You Should Be Using Social Validation

Editor's note: This article is a continuation of our series focused on communicating findings from peer-reviewed sports psychology research to the masses. At the end of the post, you can find additional information, including a link to the original research article. 

When analyzing a new strategy or intervention, teams, coaches, and researchers often look to the numbers. If the stats are better following a change, the presumption is that it was successful; the new defensive strategy, for example, worked and we can all celebrate a job well done. But sometimes statistics aren’t enough to understand the true impact of a change to an individual’s or team’s play.

An additional tool we can use to supplement the evaluation of sports-related interventions is social validation -- direct feedback from the very people making the change. For anyone working with athletes, social validation is a necessity for understanding both our strategies and our team.

Social Validation?
According to a study from 2013 by Jenny Smith (Page) and Richard Thelwell, two researchers at University of Portsmouth, there are three general aspects of social validation:

These three components may address why a particular strategy did not work out for a team. If a team or athlete does not care about the intervention, finds what they are doing to be inappropriate, and/or don’t care about the results, the intervention is likely not going to be as effective as it could be. 

Drs. Page and Thelwell conducted a literature review of social validation in studies related to sports and exercise, and reached two broad conclusions. First, they found that the ways in which scholars have investigated social validation has been rather inconsistent. More encouraging, the authors suggested that this inconsistency should not stifle the use of social validation among practitioners and those who implement interventions, like coaches and team captains. Quite the contrary, Drs. Page and Thelwell suggest that using social validation can further support attempts to improve individual and team performance. 

When, Where, How?
Social validation can occur at any time throughout the intervention process -- before, during, and/or after a strategy change has taken place. For example, let’s say a coach wants her basketball team to play more physically, by taking more fouls. Before instructing the team, the coach could survey the athletes to get their thoughts on the new strategy. As the team begins implementing the increased level of physical play, the survey could be implemented several more times. Getting this feedback from the athletes could provide an opportunity for the coach to adjust the physical play strategy as needed. Without this feedback, she might not know as well whether or not it was working.

According to Drs. Page and Thelwell, the bottom line is that using social validation can provide even more support, beyond the statistics, for the quality and effectiveness of and intervention or strategy change. So maybe the next time your beer league softball “coach” tells the team to stop swinging for the fences, you should ask these questions -- they could determine whether or not popping out to the pitcher less frequently is helping the team.

The citation for the article on which this post is based is below: 
Page, J., & Thelwell, R. (2013). The value of social validation in single-case methods in sport and exercise psychology. Journal of Applied Sports Psychology, 25, 61-71.