Structure or Expression?

In Olympic sport by adminsports

As the emergence of talent makes its way to the main stage of elite performance, contrasting perceptions of an individuals’ ability to perform within a team sport come to the fore. To many, the notion of expression and individuality help to separate one from their peers, often elevating them to a higher level of performance. To others, the concept of structure and unity within a team dynamic is pivotal to success, therefore an individual breaking from this can impact on the success of the unit with which they are competing.

Whilst the concepts can often have an intrinsic value placed on them by an individual, objective measurement of the impact of expression on team dynamics and success is often difficult to quantify.

Group Dynamics

It is argued by Carron and Hausenblas that set roles and responsibilities within a group need to be adhered to in order for that group to experience success. As a result, a group structure can form to ensure that all factors leading to team success are addressed. Within elite sport, this structure can often be identified as a the formal roles of a team coach, manager and captain or leadership team. These roles, such as the captain, are often determined by an outside agent such as the coach  In addition to this, informal roles such as the social joker of the team can often be a significant contributor to team cohesion and efficiency and is often self-appointed by the group for the individual best suited to the role.

Cohesion is often an portrayed as a shared perception within the group. Whilst difficult to subsequently extrapolate against other groups or teams, the internal perceptions can provide a strong outlook from which the strength of unity can be assessed. Using this as a contributing factor, Carron, Bray and Eys (2002) identified a strong relationship between cohesion and success in elite teams by using self-evaluated team estimates of cohesion.

On Pitch Performance

Whilst group dynamics are not a direct contributor to on-pitch success, they can have a positive impact. Within the dynamics of a competitive match situation, a strong team structure can have a positive impact on the success of the team.

It is argued that, as a result of the underlying task interdependence of a sport having a significant impact on the performance of a team, coaches need to consider the organisational structure of their team when accounting for team performance. In short, in order to achieve success, the tactical structure established by the coach is a key component. Within this structure, each player and position will have roles to play in order to contribute to the overall strength of the unit. As a result, those deviating from this, potentially as a result of expression, would compromise the strength of the team.

Despite this, Soltanzadeh and Mooney (2018) identify the connection and importance of individual performance within the overall contribution to team performance. As a result, if expression directly correlates to a positive individual performance, it can be argued that it would serve as a positive indicator on overall team performance.

Within the learning process of youth sports, it has been argued that a sound structural understanding can serve as an efficient method upon which to ‘fall back’ should there be any uncertainty or if individuals are simply having ‘a bad day’. Serving as a platform from which individuals can subsequently experiment and learn in a fun environment is often conducive to allowing young players to understand their parameters and capabilities within that same structure.  

Does Expression work at the elite level?

At the elite level of team sports, there is a far greater technical and tactical understanding that is applied to matches. Intricate plans to negate a teams’ strengths or expose their weaknesses are formulated for every game and team structure and responsibilities can subsequently change regularly. Within this however, the necessity to break down an opponent is paramount. Having players that can therefore do that, often through individual expression, becomes a pivotal to a teams’ success.

In football, few could deny that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi express themselves as much as anyone else in the world. As a result, their individual performances, and that of their respective teams, are consistently at the very top of the game. In Cricket, Kevin Pietersen contributed to a wildly successful period in the history of English cricket, renowned for being expressing himself in the way he attacked opposition bowlers at the crease.

Expansive skills and ‘breaking the norm’ attracts and engages fans whilst a structured and organised unit can help to contribute to a disciplined performance.

What is the balance?

Whilst it is difficult to provide a quantitative notion of the degree to which expression should be utilised over structure, the role that both play in the success of team sports is irrefutable.

As one of the most renowned junior academies in world football Ajax FC in Holland have a very clear focus of youth development. TIPS stands for Technique, Insight, Personality and Speed. They recognise the innate properties of personality and speed, identifying the necessity of personality in particular to be harnessed in order to facilitate the progression of individuals within the system.

As outlined by Richard Gruneau in 1980, freedom to play, games and sports are all paradoxes unto each other. Under this guise, the concepts contradict one another, with the freedom of expression compromising the efficiency with which the structure of a sport can be integrated. What is important to remember throughout this process, is that the two can work synonymously with each other, allowing the freedom of expression and subsequent enjoyment of playing to compliment the structure of a team, rather than hinder it.

Like anything, moderation is the key to success as a heavy dependence on either factor can limit the effectiveness of a team’s overall success. As a result, encouraging a balance of this behaviour through an individuals’ progression can allow them to appreciate the balance required in order to be a successful player on both a personal level and as a part of a team.