Dec 31

Why do some teams fail?

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Why do some teams fail?

One of the more interesting team related puzzles for me this year (2019) was the failure of the England team to, as I saw it, show up for Rugby World Cup Final. Having delivered a standout performance against the All Blacks in the semi-finals, it was difficult to believe that you were even watching the same team. Noting there were one or two ‘tactical’ substitutions. What happened?

There are precedents

In 1996 Tony Dungy became Head Coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an American Football Team that had an abysmal record in the league. At that point they hadn’t won a game on the West Coast for at least 16 years.

Dungy immediately set about changing this, working long hours in training to drill in to his players how he wanted them to play the game. This wasn’t about creating new habits, but about changing habits that players already had. His philosophy was simple:

Players spent their lives building the habits that got them into the NFL. No athlete is going to change those patterns simply because some new coach says so.


Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, describes habits as a three-step loop:

  • The cue – a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use
  • The routine – which can be physical, mental or emotional
  • The reward – is this particular loop worth remembering for the future?

Over time, repetition of this cue-reward loop becomes more and more automatic and a habit is born.

This is what Dungy understood, if you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behaviour can be changed if the cue and reward stay the same. Worth remembering if you are looking to change a habit in early 2020!


Dungy’s record speaks for itself – reaching the play offs in ten consecutive years and the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl.

It wasn’t straightforward however. Whilst turning the Buccaneers into a league game winning machine, at crucial, high stress moments, everything would fall apart. Whilst everything would come together in pre-game training, everything would disappear during the big games. Does this sound familiar?

England’s Rugby World Cup

Eddie Jones, The England Rugby Team coach was heavily criticised for their performance in the final. Lots of pundits offered opinions about team selection and tactics in the game. The reality is that whilst the coach can decide the personnel, they are not on the pitch during the game. Hence the only factor that really influences the outcome of the game is how well the team play together and how much they trust their new routines.

What Dungy concluded was that:

they trusted the system most of the time, but when everything was on the line, that belief broke down.

This should resonate with followers of English club rugby – for the World Cup Final, many of the England players reverted to a style of play that you see them deploying week after week for their clubs in league games.

So I have quite a bit of sympathy for Eddie. Unlike clubs, national sides do not play together week in, week out. As such they never quite resolve the tension of club routines versus national team routines. When it comes to the big pressure games, there is a risk that if the teams belief in itself is not strong enough, that this will affect the chances of winning.

What do we take away from this?

There are some clear lessons here:

  • It is quite clear that success in sport or business isn’t generally achieved by developing new habits. You have to change old ones. This applies for individuals as much as teams.
  • Many endeavours in business, sport or other areas of life rely on teams, so transformational change should often be a team endeavour not an individual one.
  • Trust – no matter how many hours are put in on the training ground, eventually the team has to trust the new routines in old habits. The coach can only do so much here.

Otherwise the outcome is as predictable as it was for the England team at the end of the World Cup Final match in Japan this year – we fall-back to what we know best and don’t have enough belief in what is needed in new challenges.

In this respect, what would be a stretch for you in 2020? More importantly, what are you going to do about it and what routines do you have to change to get you there?

If you want to #changesomething, or need some help building new routines with your team, why not give us a call?

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