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Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry
By Joan Ryan
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“The contribution of team chemistry to winning is easily the biggest hype in sports.”
—Richard Lally in The Enlightened Bracketologist
“Every once in a while you hear an expert that says team chemistry is overrated. You just write that person off.”
—Hall of Fame baseball manager Tony La Russa
When my mother died suddenly at the age of seventy-six, she and my father had been married fifty-five years. My father, who was seventy-nine at the time of her death, had minor back problems and occasional memory lapses but otherwise was pretty healthy. Soon, however, his appetite waned, and his mental acuity deteriorated. While doctors struggled to find anything wrong, his once-broad shoulders became a wire hanger beneath his shirt. He was flummoxed by the telephone and remote control. And then, nine months after we buried my mother, he died. The cause of death was the puzzling “failure to thrive.”
I knew the term only in connection to babies, having remembered learning about “sterile” orphanages in Europe at the turn of the century. To stop the spread of germs and disease, nurses were instructed to hang sterilized sheets between the cribs and to refrain from touching the babies except to feed, clothe, and bathe them. Soon the babies were sicker than ever. They ate less. They were more lethargic. Many contracted the very diseases the sterile practices were meant to prevent. Death rates soared to 75 percent at some orphanages. At one institution, every baby died. Similarly, hospitalized children cut off from their parents for long stretches of time often withered and died.1 Doctors were stumped.
Not until the 1940s, when Austrian-American psychiatrist René Spitz began to study the case, did a theory begin to emerge: Babies need physical and social interaction to flourish. To test his hypothesis, he found two groups of babies to compare.2
One was being raised in an orphanage, the other in a women’s prison. The orphans were essentially isolated in their cribs, with a lone nurse tasked with caring for seven babies. The second group lived in the prison nursery where their mothers cared for them every day. These babies also interacted with other babies and the nursery staff. After a year, Spitz compared the two groups. In motor skills and cognitive performance, the orphans severely lagged behind their prison counterparts. After two years, 37 percent of the orphans had died but none of the prisoners’ babies. By the third year, the prison infants walked and talked at levels comparable to those of children raised in family settings. At the orphanage, only two of the twenty-six children could walk and articulate a few words.
American psychologist Harry Harlow built on Spitz’s research. Anyone who has taken an intro to psychology class probably remembers Harlow’s disturbing experiments on rhesus monkeys in the 1950s.3 Baby rhesus monkeys were taken from their mothers soon after birth and put in cages with two inanimate surrogate “mothers.” One was a bare-wire figure with a square plastic head; it offered 24-hour access to milk. The other figure was layered with soft terrycloth and had a round face with big eyes and a smile. But it offered no food. The monkeys spent nearly all their time cuddling and embracing the terrycloth surrogate. They left it only to feed quickly at the bare-wire mother. The researchers then took the terrycloth mother away for up to nine months. The babies eventually lost interest in eating. They behaved erratically. They curled up in a ball. Vital body rhythms—heart, respiration, sleep—were disrupted. Like the orphanage babies and my widowed father, they died from “failure to thrive.”
The results of these studies clearly show that babies need more than just caretaking to develop normally. They need to meet another’s gaze, to be held close, to hear the lilt of a voice and the beat of a heart. Like all primates, humans are pack animals. We all have our tribes, whether family, congregation, friends, workplace, or team. We need connection today as much as we did when our ancestors lived in caves. And it’s not just infants, of course. Like the case of my own parents, long marriages that end with a spouse passing can often catalyze the death of the widow or widower. My mother’s presence provided something more essential to my father than food, water, or sleep.
On a July afternoon in 2009, a few years before my parents died, I found myself in a large white tent outside of what was then called AT&T Park in San Francisco. There, a group of middle-aged former baseball players were gathered for a reunion. Some were businessmen now. Some still made their living in baseball. There were a few jowls. A smattering of beer bellies. Two or three looked like they could still leg out a slow grounder. Bursts of laughter punctuated the conversations. The familiar give-and-take. And something else. I could hear it in their voices and see it on their faces, exactly as I remembered: They still loved each other.
Twenty years earlier, these men had drenched each other with champagne as 1989 National League champions. I was a youngish sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner at the time, but that season and those players have stayed with me throughout my career. As with every romance in my life, I fell first for their story. They were a junk-drawer jumble of a team, rife with factions that had the potential to split the clubhouse: hard-drinking carousers and born-again Christians, African-Americans and Southern whites, Latinos from three different countries, college guys and functional illiterates, ambitious youngsters jockeying for roster spots and fading veterans trying to hold on. I never knew exactly what I’d find when I pushed open the clubhouse door back then. Maybe it would be the portly ace pitcher perched on the exercise bike with a Parliament in one hand and the Chronicle’s crossword puzzle in the other; or the kid from New Orleans with the lopsided grin tossing insults in his happy, high-pitched screech; or the six-feet-six-inch snarl of a man whom teammates called Buffy (to his great irritation) barking again at the beat writers for some obscure slight. At least one of the Christian players—God Squadders, we called them—would have his head in his Bible, perhaps reciting a prayer for whichever teammate thought it’d be funny to slip a pornographic photo into Leviticus. I’d surely see the hairy, funny veteran everyone called Caveman hobbling toward the trainer’s room for treatment on his scarred, patched, curbside-couch of a body. Their unlikely star that year was a gold-toothed former gangbanger who had been traded twice in seven months, nearly quit the game, and then found redemption among these men in the dank concrete clubhouse in the bowels of old Candlestick Park.
The ringleader, den mother, and raconteur of that team was a cop’s son named Mike Krukow, a pitcher whose arm was so shredded by ’89 that he couldn’t raise it high enough to comb his hair. But he still loved the game like a kid and seemed to know exactly what a teammate needed and when he needed it. Those ’89 players fought and judged, competed and goaded, and loved each other openly and without reservation. They bridged every fissure that season. It was a Peter Gent novel: raucous, funny, tender, heartbreaking, and ending not with a Disney triumph but with the literal fissure and fracture of a 6.9 earthquake in the middle of the World Series.
Two decades later, almost every one of them showed up for the reunion, flying in from Horseheads, New York, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Lake Havasu, Arizona. As I made my way through the party tent, catching up with everyone, two words kept popping up: team chemistry. It’s a term you hear a lot in sports. The triumph of the scraggly, big-hearted team has been a storytelling trope since at least as far back as Gideon’s overmatched army in the Old Testament. From Braveheart to The Bad News Bears, from The Magnificent Seven to Hoosiers, Hollywood has served up the formula in a million different ways. I love all of them. I’m a total sucker. Show me Gene Hackman’s underdog high schoolers from Hickory, Indiana, slow clapping in the locker room, and I’m reaching for the Kleenex.
While, in real life, team chemistry is often dismissed as a throwaway explanation for every over-achieving, fun-loving team (Look! We all have beards!), those ’89 Giants sure seemed to have something going on that defied traditional explanations. I’d seen glimmers of the phenomenon on other teams, too, of course, during the twenty-five years I’ve worked as a journalist in sports—fifteen as a sports columnist and more than a decade as a media consultant with the San Francisco Giants. On those teams, the players seemed to make each other better. I had experienced it myself in my first job out of college, in the Orlando Sentinel’s sports department. We were a tight-knit staff of a few rookies like me and a slate of veterans who deleted our adverbs and introduced us to scotch. We’d go out for burgers and beer around midnight after we put the paper to bed. Every July, we’d gather at dawn at Bill Baker’s apartment to watch the finals of Wimbledon and knock a tennis ball around afterward. Looking back, I’m struck by how easily we organized ourselves as a tribe, with roles to play and inside jokes and a vague sense that who we were in that group was different from who we were with anyone else. We liked each other, helped each other, and took enormous pride in what we produced every day. The sports section was better because of it.
If some human beings possess the ability to have such a profound physiological impact on each other, as spouses and caretakers of babies do, it stands to reason that all human beings have the ability, at least to some extent, to influence the performance and productivity of those around them. Could the success of the ’89 Giants be a foundational example of the power of team chemistry?
With that question in mind, I began reading research papers and books on group dynamics, psychology, emotion, linguistics, love, the military, neuroscience, gender, leadership, evolutionary biology, mirror neurons, and a variety of sports. Really, just about anything I could get my hands on that might provide some insight into how we perform better or worse based on who we are around.
I came across a story in the New York Times with the headline “The ‘Love Hormone’ As Sports Enhancer” about a neuropeptide called oxytocin. This is the stuff that is produced in the brain and released in our bloodstream when, for example, we fall in love or when women go through labor or breastfeed, fostering strong feelings of trust and connection. It can also be triggered by meaningful touch.
Aha! Suddenly a lot of things I had seen in sports began to make total sense. Male athletes are so much more physically affectionate with one another than men in general (at least American men). They always seem to be touching each other—hugging, high-fiving, slinging their arms around one another, holding hands at courtside as the final seconds tick down in a close basketball game. In the Giants’ clubhouse, I’ve seen guys on the couch draped over each other like puppies as they watched TV. I watched a player in the dugout rubbing the top of a teammate’s head for good luck through an entire inning. Teammates embrace with full-bodied gusto, not with the shoulder bump that passes for a hug in the outside male world.
Now I know the scientific explanation for all that touching. Oxytocin helps them to bond and to operate as a close-knit tribe. A gesture of trust, such as a reassuring arm around a teammate’s shoulders, triggers the release of oxytocin in the recipient’s bloodstream, creating a reciprocal feeling of trust and connection. Evolutionary psychologists theorize this is why oxytocin developed in humans (and lower primates). We needed a trustworthy pack with whom to hunt, gather food, and fend off enemies. The human brain had to figure out a way to create bonds so strong that members would sacrifice themselves for the survival of the group.
What’s particularly fascinating about touch and the release of oxytocin is that, through a network of “mirror neurons,” the feelings of trust and bonding that they trigger are contagious. Mirror neurons were first observed during experiments with macaque monkeys in the early 1990s. Italian researchers had monkeys pick up objects and then observe fellow monkeys picking up objects. The same set of brain cells leapt into action whether they were carrying out the action or simply watching it. These brain cells came to be known as mirror neurons.4
Through brain imaging, we know that humans have mirror neurons, too. Neuroscientist and psychologist Christian Keysers, now at the University of Amsterdam, tested the phenomenon in an experiment similar to the macaque-monkey research.5 He split a group of fourteen participants into two groups. One group was lightly touched on the leg with a feather duster. The other group simply watched a video of someone being touched on the same spot. The same area of the somatosensory cortex was active whether the person felt the feather or simply watched someone else being touched by the feather.
In other experiments, people were monitored as they watched videos of happy faces and angry faces. The cheek muscles we use for smiling were activated in people watching happy faces, and the brow muscles we use when we’re angry were activated in people watching angry faces. Marco Iacoboni, a UCLA neurologist and neuroscience professor who wrote the book Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others, believes this phenomenon is what helps us to feel empathy. We mirror other people in order to identify the emotion they’re feeling. One study tested this theory by having subjects hold a pencil between their teeth, thus severely restricting their ability to mimic. They performed much worse in detecting emotional changes in other people’s facial expressions. (This raises interesting questions about the connection between the flat affect common to those on the autism spectrum and their poor ability to read other people’s emotions.)
Iacoboni’s research has found that the more people like each other, the more they seem to mimic. “Couples have a higher facial similarity after twenty-five years of marriage,” he wrote. “The higher the quality of the marriage, the higher the facial similarity. The spouses become a second self.”
The impact of mirror neurons is a major factor in explaining how team chemistry may work on a biological level. A locker room is an enclosed environment where everyone sees everything. So is a dugout, a bus, or a plane. Let’s say Buster Posey drapes his arm around a rookie and tells him his perfect throw from right field that nailed a base runner saved the game. The rookie’s bloodstream floods with oxytocin. He’s feeling happy and confident and connected to the superstar veteran in a way he hadn’t felt before. Now let’s imagine another rookie is watching this interaction from across the clubhouse. The mirror neurons in his brain “feel” Buster’s touch as if it’s happening to himself. His somatosensory cortex lets loose a hit of oxytocin, and this rookie feels happier and more connected to Buster Posey, too. Amazing.
Of all the sports I could choose to illustrate team chemistry, baseball might seem the least likely. Basketball, football, soccer, hockey, and almost any other would seem more relevant: In those sports, players have to cooperate on every play—passing balls or pucks to each other, blocking, screening. Yes, baseball players throw the ball to each other, but that’s about it for cooperative interaction on the field. The batter, pitcher, and fielder stand alone. With rare exceptions—such as double-play combos and pitcher-catcher conferences—no player can help a teammate complete his assigned task. In that way, team chemistry would seem to apply least to baseball.
Which is exactly why I chose to focus largely on baseball. America’s “national pastime” is more like a regular workplace than any other sport. In most offices, employees are alone in a cubicle performing an individual task. The employee’s task is integral to the common goal, whether manufacturing cell phones, designing software, or putting out a newspaper. Understanding how team chemistry works in a baseball clubhouse, consequently, helps us understand how it works in any group with a shared purpose.
Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball had come out a few years before I attended the Giants’ reunion. The book famously pitted the intuition and wisdom of old-school baseball scouts against the statistical analysis of a new generation. Baseball analyst Bill James coined the word “sabermetrics” back in 1980 to describe this growing field of baseball analytics, a nod to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Of course, even before Lewis’s bestseller, most major-league teams already were using analytics to evaluate players. But after Moneyball, every front office suddenly had bunkers of young Ivy Leaguers churning out proprietary algorithms and new statistical categories with ever-longer acronyms (PECOTA, BABIP, LIPS, VORP).*
Relying on hard data to gauge a player’s value or understand how a team succeeded or failed obviously makes sense. Our own minds are spectacularly biased and thus unreliable observers. We’re wired more for stories than mathematics. Our ancestors explained the movement of the sun with tales of gods hauling it across the sky in flying chariots. Aren’t we doing the same thing, the SABR folks ask, by explaining wins and losses with stories of an unmeasurable, undefined phenomenon called team chemistry?
To that point, in the years following the Giants’ reunion in 2009, I couldn’t help noticing that every World Series champion was said to have great chemistry. Every single one, from the 2009 New York Yankees to the 2019 Washington Nationals. “Proof” of team chemistry included one or more of the following: matching hairstyles (face or scalp), celebratory rituals (e.g., pie in the face), elaborate handshakes or dance moves, clubhouse pranks, humorous nicknames, hand gestures (e.g., the 2010 Texas Rangers’ claw and antlers), catchphrases, big team dinners paid for by a magnanimous superstar, and a manager who “lets his players be themselves.”
If team chemistry does exist, and it has such a profound impact, how could it be as simple as all that? Come up with a few gimmicks and start sizing the rings?
I wondered about the acrimonious Oakland A’s and New York Yankees during the 1970s, the “twenty-five-players, twenty-five-cabs” teams. They could barely get through a road trip without a fistfight, yet they won championship after championship. Why didn’t the lack of chemistry matter for them?
Conversely, what about good-chemistry teams that don’t win? The 2007 Washington Nationals come to mind. Spring-training stories gushed about their fun team dinners and how they brought back the old-school kangaroo court to foster camaraderie. That team finished sixteen games out of first place. They didn’t have the talent. The satirical Onion once ran a headline that captured this perfectly: “Great Team Chemistry No Match for Great Team Biology.”
Hall of Fame baseball manager Jim Leyland falls in the talent-is-everything camp. We talked one spring afternoon in 2010 inside the visiting clubhouse in the Oakland Coliseum. He was managing the Detroit Tigers at the time, the fourth and final team in a storied career that earned him three Manager of the Year Awards and a bronze plaque in Cooperstown. He waved me into the cramped manager’s office, stubbing a Marlboro out in a paper cup on his desk. He had the leathery face of an old baseball man and the curmudgeonly demeanor, too, which is to say he gives the impression of being, at all times, one scotch away from taking a swing at someone.
“To me chemistry was a subject you took in school,” he said, and he tapped another cigarette from the pack.
“I had teams that’d go to chapel together every Sunday, couldn’t win a game. So that don’t mean shit to me. Forget chemistry out here. Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it. It’s so overused in sports. It’s the first thing normally some journalist who doesn’t know what he’s talking about brings up. Whenever somebody’s losing, you hear they have bad chemistry. There’s ‘problems in the clubhouse.’ There’s a problem here, there’s a problem there. All it does is get managers fired, whether it’s true or not. It gets players traded.
“Listen, it all begins and ends with talent. If you have a horseshit team, they can all go out to dinner together, but they’re not going to win a lot of games. That’s why I’m all about talent. That’s what this is all about. Now whatever you get beyond that—everybody likes each other, that’s all bonus. That makes your season more enjoyable. It doesn’t necessarily make it more successful.”
As ten minutes with Leyland stretched to forty, however, the manager began to change his tune, sort of. He agreed that “personality and people skills create the electricity” and that players need to trust that “each guy is not on his own agenda.” He got worked up about the impact of veteran players in the clubhouse.
“Let me tell you this,” he said. “Good veteran players are the best tonic your team could have. The younger players see that if the veteran players believe in the program, they’ll follow suit. But if you get veteran players that are pissed off they can’t play anymore, that’s the worst scenario you can have.”
Wasn’t he saying that factors beyond talent can affect how a team performs?
Tony La Russa, another Hall of Fame manager, would give a resounding yes. La Russa was still coaching the St. Louis Cardinals in April of 2010 when we talked in the visitor’s dugout at AT&T Park. He had won two World Series championships by then and would notch a third in 2011, his final season as a manager. Intense and declarative about most things and particularly so about team chemistry, La Russa has been honing his understanding of the concept since his first managerial job in 1979.
“If you think players can be around each other every day for eight months and it doesn’t matter what the vibes are between them, you’re foolish,” he said.
Get him going about team chemistry and he’s like Elmer Gantry delivering a TED Talk, preaching its power in detailed themes and sub-themes with examples and supporting evidence. In short, he said, chemistry can be distilled to three values: respect, trust, and caring. He drills those values into his players. He recruits and mentors team leaders to model and evangelize them in the clubhouse.
“The larger that leadership group, the better it is for the team and each individual. [Former manager] Chuck Tanner said if you have good chemistry, it’s like you traded for a superstar, and I believe it.”
That same season I spoke with La Russa, the San Francisco Giants were beginning to emerge as what some might call a case study in chemistry. Manager Bruce Bochy referred to his 2010 club as “a band of misfits” and “the Dirty Dozen.” No one predicted these cast-off veterans and unproven youngsters would end up on a cool Wednesday in November riding trolley cars up Market Street through a shower of confetti. However, despite having witnessed this unlikely championship season firsthand, I was no closer to understanding the dynamics of team chemistry than I was driving home from the ’89 team reunion a year earlier.
That December, I went to Orlando for Major League Baseball’s winter meetings, the annual gathering of managers, general managers, executives, and media (plus out-of-work baseball people looking for jobs). I was learning a ton about clubhouse behavior and relationships, and how folks inside baseball perceived chemistry. But I still had a thousand questions.
How do we know team chemistry actually exists? If it exists, what is it? Is it similar to romantic chemistry, some magical connection that happens among and between certain human beings? And how does it affect performance? After all, why even talk about team chemistry if it doesn’t affect performance?
My search for answers split into two strands that curled around each other like a double helix. One revolved around the friendships, resentments, humor, fights, ego, and humility in the clubhouse, the other around the science of how and why such things matter to performance.
Both, however, start in the only place they can: the human brain.
You Complete Me
Two doors down from the No Name Bar in Sausalito, California, sandwiched so tightly between two tourist shops I almost miss the entrance, is the office of UC San Francisco psychiatrist and psychotherapist Thomas Lewis. He’s the principal author of A General Theory of Love,* a beautiful mindblower of a book that includes this sentence:
“[No human] is a functioning whole on his own; each has open loops that only somebody else can complete.”
As we know from the orphanage studies and cases like my father’s, the human brain, for all its power and complexity, does not come preprogrammed with everything necessary to live. But that’s not the open loop Thomas Lewis is talking about.
Mammals need other mammals to flourish, and humans most of all. I remembered enough from high-school science to know that early humans evolved into one of the most social, cooperative species on earth because, of course, they needed each other to stay alive. They weren’t fast enough or strong enough to battle mammoths alone. Coordination required communication. Before language in our little hominid tribes, we still managed to let each other know where food could be found, which berries made you sick, and how to bring down a bison ten times your size.
Walking upright elongated our vocal tract, which produced a broader and increasingly nuanced range of sounds. With our face no longer covered in hair, facial muscles became visible. We learned to “read” the messages embedded in the variety of muscle combinations, particularly around the eyes: worry, joy, fear, confusion, surprise. We could now see the blush of embarrassment and the flush of love. Our largely hairless body, with eighteen square feet of exposed skin, became a soft keyboard for the language of touch: I trust you, It’s OK, Stop that. Our eyes changed from almost completely brown—like the eyes of other primates—to having bright white sclera around our corneas, allowing us to convey immediately where we were looking—Pay attention to that snake over there!—and also enabling others to get a glimpse of our intent: deceit, kindness, malevolence. The big, jutting primate brow disappeared, clearing the way for our eyes to be more easily observed. Over the course of three million years, our brain quadrupled in size. This was an unusual development.
Brain size generally corresponds to body size. Elephants have enormous brains; squirrels, small ones. Ours are way bigger than our bodies would dictate. In fact, we have the largest brain relative to our body size of any animal. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar concluded that our brain grew so large not so much to house our intellect but to accommodate our massive amount of social wiring.1
"A book mixing the deeply emotional with the highly technical, presented with the kind of sensitive, authoritative touch readers came to expect from Ryan."—San Francisco Chronicle
"Fascinating mix of reportage and clinical research...Ryan's cogent, persuasive effort will give sports fans much food for thought."—Publishers Weekly
"Nuanced...complex...All of this makes for a mind-opening study that extends far beyond the confines of any ballpark."—Booklist
- "Ever since the wave of analytics began to dominate decision-making in baseball, many insiders have been worried that human connections were being marginalized and stripped out of the game. In a compelling way, Intangibles settles the debate about the merits and validity of the role team chemistry plays in enhancing individual, and ultimately team performance."—Vince Gennaro, President of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and Associate Professo
"Team chemistry is real and it impacts performance. Now we know the why and the how. With terrific storytelling and deep research into the science of human relationships, Joan Ryan has delivered the seminal work on the capacity of teams - in sports, business or otherwise - to summon the best from one another.''—Billie Jean King, founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative
"Team chemistry is no longer valued in baseball today, which is a big mistake. It is crucial for every team; it is critical to winning. Joan Ryan explains what team chemistry actually is and how it affects performance in this fascinating and important book. The voices in here are powerful. This should be required reading for every general manager of every major league team.''—Tim Kurkjian, senior baseball writer/analyst, ESPN
"In this entrancing book, Joan Ryan goes on a deep dive into both the human brain and the locker room and delivers a compelling, surprising look at the nature of team chemistry, and its dramatic impact on the sports we love. Outstanding work."—Rob Neyer, author of Powerball
"In a laboratory, chemistry can be defined. But when it comes to personal and team dynamics, chemistry is among the things about which it can be said: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." While a precise definition will always be elusive, Joan Ryan's lively, thoughtful, and carefully reported book brings us much closer to an understanding of what team chemistry is and can be."—Bob Costas
"Joan Ryan writes the way we all wish we could: clearly, simply and powerfully, with nothing wasted. Intangibles is a sports book but it's really a mystery. In a time when players are reduced to assets and data, Joan returns the people to the room. How they interact - or don't - is so much of why we watch. This really is a terrific book."—Howard Bryant, author of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron
- On Sale
- Apr 1, 2022
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Back Bay Books