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Team Synergies in Sport: Theory and Measures

Duarte Araújo, and Keith Davids

The Big Idea

The authors of this is recently published research paper (Frontiers in Psychology, September 2016) aim to demystify how individual players can better become a coherent team in sport performances.  More team coherence usually translates into more team success

They do this in three steps.  They:  1) explain the ecological dynamic framework of their theory; 2) describe what they call the shared affordances of the individual players and of teams; and 3) reveal four necessary ecological properties of team synergies and their measurement.

While understanding the intricacies of synergies requires the reader to hunker down, in the end the PDP reader will find the effort worth it; and this is because in it there are novel ideas and direct ways for teams to learn and use continuous self-organization during play to improve team coherency.

Takeaways

  • For coaches of team sports, there is often mystery surrounding how to create a team who plays as a team.
  • For these researchers, team play is a matter of coaxing out synergies between and within teams.
  • Since the meaning of synergy is “working together,” this paper explores team organization that depends heavily on environmental and social constraints that determine what working player interactions are possible in the throes of competition.
  • Such action possibilities (affordances) of individual players can become action possibilities of the entire team whereby players can learn how to become sensitive to affordances of and for others.
  • Disclosing these affordances transcends typical methods of measurement such as team stats, probabilistic models, notations, and algorithms.
  • In this discussion, four properties of synergies are identified:
    • Dimensional compression (all for one and one for all)
    • Reciprocal compensation (we will cover your back)
    • Interpersonal linkages (it makes a difference if the Pope is on your side)
    • Degeneracy (to a good rider, right or left makes no difference)
  • Synergies are in fact measurable in ways that help coaches coach synergies in practice and performance. Several measuring possibilities are discussed for each of the four synergistic properties. 

The Research

Ecological dynamic framework

Let’s try to simplify what these researchers are telling us.  First off, the difference between successful and unsuccessful teams is the way in which they approach the complex interaction of physical constraints (such as surfaces, spaces, altitude, weather conditions) and social constraints (including audience, rules of the game, local rivalries).

Play courses—ebbs and flows—as performer and environment interactions create self-organizable, collective team tendencies and actions.  The organization is facilitated by the interactions themselves—not by prescriptions voiced by team captains or by coaches.  The play itself is carried away, unto itself, and is perpetually open to emerging intended behaviors.  In other words, such play actively becomes a dynamical system within which some teams cohere better than others.

Such on-going dynamisms of team play typically escape measurement; hence they are largely invisible and unknown.  And this is because what constitutes modern performance analysis is data collection reduced to statistics, algorithms, frequencies, notations, averages, and probabilistic models.  Such descriptions are basically operational and method driven.  While notational analysis may describe performance, for example, such descriptions miss altogether the whys and the hows underlying the functional utility.  In other words, one team’s emerging play coheres better than another; and that team consequently has better team synergy and puts itself in a better position for success.

Shared affordances and the relationship with team synergies

Group dynamics well done means relative stability of behavioral patterns and connectivity between individual players, both mechanically and informationally.  These relationships with one another and the environment are the structure that supports inter-player coordination in team sports.

Here is where affordances arise.  An affordance is an opportunity for action.  In sport lingo, a team that “takes what it is given” is a team sensitive to emerging possibilities within the existing social and environmental constraints at the time.  When a single player perceives an affordance, the player perceives how he or she could act with respect to situations presenting themselves.  And the key to understanding team synergies is that the action possibilities realized by individuals can extend to action possibilities realizable by the entire team.

Going a few steps further, the emergence of team synergy is produced by the even richer affordances multiplied and made possible by the presence of many more individuals attuned to successful group action behavior.  Thus, through practice, players will develop an almost uncanny ability “to be perceptually attuned to affordances of others and affordances for others during competitive performance, and can refine their actions by adjusting behaviors to functionally adapt to those of other teammates and opponents.”

This is so because a synergy is a concept of function, not structure.  A synergy is a group or team of otherwise independent member degrees of freedom behaving as a unit.  This means that the collection of individual athlete degrees of freedom can become a coordinated, functional group synergy.  In other words, perception-action of individual players can be coordinated with other team members and become synergistic with regard to realizing an affordance in accomplishing specific task goals.  Such synergies are context-dependent and time-evolving dynamical systems.

This ecological dynamic approach allows for interventions designed to experimentally study performance synergies by way of player-player-environment interactions.  And too, if we can learn to predict conditions where these synergies develop, the process has implications for practice and training designs consistent with actual performance environments.  The continuous interactions of players in competition can be tracked and studied for the emergence of patterns of stability, variability, and transitions in such team synergies.

Ecological properties of team synergies and their measurement

When it comes to measuring the properties of synergies, the first problem is to sort through the different perspectives of what the properties are.  These researchers have selected four properties of a synergy for the sake of measuring.  They are: 1) dimensional compression; 2) reciprocal compensation; 3) interpersonal linkages; and 4) degeneracy.  Motion sensors are used to track positional data of this interpersonal, rhythmic coordination of movements.

  • One for all, and all for one.” Dimensional compression is one of the properties of a synergy.  Measuring compression is a way to see how the players of one team influence one another to create a collective movement at the team level. For example, instead of the relative phase value of two linked players, 11 players football players of two teams during a competitive match have been tracked to assess whole team and player-team synchrony.  In one of the first such studies, there were high stability levels in a longitudinal direction compared to a lateral dimension.  In addition, there was a measurable improvement in synchronization in both teams over time.  In other studies, it was possible to measure a team’s center of gravity, or to assess the extent teams in possession of the ball could create space by stretching the field or how effectively on defense a team could contract the field by reducing distances between players.
  • We will cover your back.” Reciprocal compensation means that as one player contributes either more or less than their role, other team members adjust and compensate to successfully achieve the team’s task performance goals.  To assess a team’s effectiveness to compensate and adjust to one teammate’s movements, in one study they measured the delay time values in co-positioning.  In other words, they measured how rapidly or slowly a team repositioned itself.  It was shown that the speed of such adjustments and recoveries could be improved (delay values decreased) in a 15-week practice program.
  • It makes a difference if the Pope is on your side.” Interpersonal linkages are sharing patterns or divisions of labor.  When a group—such as a sports team—is simultaneously focused on the same task goal performance, a team becomes more than or beyond the mere sum of their individual players.  The players are linked in an open-ended correspondence; the players are wrapped around one another, coiled where equal and opposite twists hold it together.  This is why we sometimes say when a team is losing badly “they unravel.”  Without losing their identities, individual players give themselves to the team.  This intertwining can be assessed variously through division of labor.  Heat maps, for example, can give a picture of the distribution of players on the pitch; warmer colors reveal longer lingering during the match.  Or one can measure the actual total area covered by each player; or in a more dynamic view of player aggregation we find the distance of each player in relation to a private locus on the field, over time, capturing in time their movement oscillations.
  • “To a good rider, right or left makes no difference.” Degeneracy refers to the way in which synergies during competition transform or co-exist or how different synergistic functions are incorporated.  Synergies have degrees of freedom just as individual players do depending on constraints and affordances.  One way of looking at the functional role of movement variability at the team level is to study social networks, especially during sub-phases of play.  The measurements determine, for example, the number of passes or positional changes completed between players.  Those more central players will likely have stronger connections (social networks) with other players.  With network data, it is possible to learn the number of players who pass to a focal player; the number of players to which the focal player passes; and the preferential attachments between some players.  This data can be compared over time and in a variety of matches.

Conclusion

It was the intention of this overview paper to discuss the relevance of ecological dynamics to the formation of team sport synergies.  The analysis showed that player and environment constraints can impact team synergies formed by players in competitive performances.  Team performance and training development can be improved using operational metrics in performance analysis through concepts like shared affordances and team synergies using an ecological dynamics framework.