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Team Chemistry is a Myth

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

Basketball is Psychology XXXVI

“Doing your most for the team will always bring something good for you.” -Pat Riley


There’s no magic mix or secret formula of personality types, hormone levels, or similar backgrounds that equate to great team “chemistry”. Team chemistry is a cop-out for when problems arise and we need something to blame. If someone blames a poor performance on team chemistry, they tend to view it as a fixed trait: the team either automatically has it or they don’t; that is a myth.

A team where everyone gets treated well will outperform teams where that isn’t the case, but that has nothing to do with chemistry. Treating each other the right way is a choice. You can simply decide to love, care, appreciate, to be empathetic, to respect, and build relationships with your teammates. It’s a commitment to value, trust, and believe in each other. It’s a willingness to do whatever it takes to win, even if that means sacrificing personal glory.

Google, some of the greatest pattern finders in human history, spent 3 years studying successful teams to try to figure out team chemistry, and they came up empty. All they could find was that on successful teams, people treat each other the right way: each team member talked the same amount of time, and they were highly attuned to each other’s thoughts and feelings.

It’s Not About Magic

As a little boy playing Youth League basketball in East Lansing, Michigan, Magic Johnson’s coach pulled him aside and told him, “You’re the biggest. You’re our best player. You should shoot the ball all the time.”

He did what his coach told him to, and it worked, his team kept winning. As Pat Riley tells the story,

“When he looked around at the moment of victory, hoping someone would return that big smile of his, his teammates looked miserable. They felt like nobodies. The coach’s game plan was producing wins, but it was bashing the team’s feelings of success and significance.

Earvin didn’t want it to be that way. It drove a wedge between him and his friends. So he decided to change his style. Instead of scoring all the points, he would draw the defenders, then pass to whoever was open. Through this unselfishness he would enhance the skills of others. He would help them experience the same kind of kinetic, contagious joy from playing that he always felt. Then they’d be motivated to be their best. The team could experience both winning and success at the same time.”

This unselfishness worked when Magic was a kid and throughout his NBA career. This isn’t to say you need to pass as much as Magic did, but when members of the team don’t feel like it’s about one person and they don’t matter, they won’t work hard. But when it’s about the team, everyone works harder. By truly caring about those around you and wanting them to be successful, you make them better. Perhaps that’s why Magic Johnson became one of the greatest point guards in NBA history.

Freud vs. Frankl

Sigmund Freud and Viktor Frankl are two very well-known and influential psychologists, but they differ on one fundamental belief: our core desire.

Freud believed our core desire is to seek pleasure.

This makes a lot of sense because we all want to feel good, be happy, comfortable, and we try to avoid pain.

Later, Viktor Frankl came along and argued our core desire is actually to seek meaning, but when we can’t find meaning, we try to distract ourselves with pleasure.

The problem with Freud’s argument is that it doesn’t explain why some don’t seek pleasure.

Why are some people willing to wake up at 4 in the morning to go put up extra shots?

Why are some willing to work so hard in the weightroom that they feel sore for days?

Why are some willing to restrict themselves from food they love just to be in better shape?

Why are some willing to practice year-round only to sit the bench all season?

None of these things are “pleasurable.” Sleeping in, eating whatever we want, and not having to move a muscle would give us pleasure, but it wouldn’t give us meaning.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, we each have a deep desire to be a part of something meaningful- something bigger than ourselves. We find that fulfilling sense of significance when we are part of a team. We find meaning when everyone is sacrificing for a common purpose; something that no individual could achieve. It comes from an understanding that everyone is needed and everyone is important.

When we feel we are part of something meaningful, we don’t waste time distracting ourselves with pleasure and selfish ambitions don't get in the way of winning. We are willing to make sacrifices, choose discipline, rise earlier, stay later, and go harder because we are satisfying our core desire in the process.

Pat Riley is regarded as one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time. As a player, assistant coach, head coach, and general manager, he’s won NBA Championships because he understands the value of teamwork. Coach Riley understands how being part of a team gives us meaning. As he put it, “All of us are team players, whether we know it or not. When our teams excel, we win. Our best efforts, combined with those of our teammates, grow into something far greater and far more satisfying than anything we could’ve achieved on our own. Teams make us part of something that matters.”

So what gets in the way of teamwork? Selfishness. Seeking pleasure instead of meaning is selfish, or as Kobe called it, fickle. While reflecting on his career, Kobe Bryant stated that the goal he set initially was becoming the greatest of all time. However, he realized that goal was very fickle. Kobe said he realized, “The most important thing in life is how your career moves and touches those around you.”

Psychology of a Great Teammate

While team chemistry is not real, there are players whose team’s perform better than individual statistics suggest they should have. This is a great teammate-- someone who doesn’t hope for good “team chemistry”, they are chemistry creators.

It’s important to understand being a great teammate is a skill, not a talent. A skill means you made the choice to work on it. Being a great teammate is completely within your control.

The defining characteristic of a great teammate is unselfishness.

Being unselfish does not mean you are shy or you pass the ball every time. Being unselfish means you do what’s best for the team, even if it doesn’t benefit you.

For example, During the 1990 Western Conference Finals against Portland, Magic Johnson exemplified how unselfishness translates to high-IQ, winning plays. With four seconds to go, the Lakers held a 1-point lead. Magic Johnson had the ball by the other team’s basket. While most players would’ve wrapped their arms around the ball and waited for the other team to foul, then shoot two free throws. Magic launched the ball toward the opposite end of the floor. He deliberately committed a turnover. Instead of giving Portland the opportunity to get a shot up with a few seconds left after the free throws, by the time the ball came down, they were out of time. Magic Johnson could have had 2 extra points and one less turnover, but he chose to put the team first.

Being a great team is not about chemistry, it’s about a commitment from each player to being a great teammate. Being part of a team gives us meaning.

Action Step:

Think, "It’s not about me."

Go through the week with this mentality and watch how much better you get as a teammate. One person can make a significant difference on a team by behaving like it’s about others. Great teammates are encouraging, engaged, and helpful, as a result they end up on the winning side of most games because they raised the standard for their teammates. As Don Yaeger put it, “There are a lot of talented teams year after year that don’t win because they have too many selfish players and don’t have the players who are conscious of building the right environment.”

In addition to winning, a deep satisfaction comes when we commit to being a great teammate.


Written by Julie Fournier


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