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In life, there’s chemistry and then there’s chemistry. The former deals in atoms and electrons and periodic tables of elements. The other is much more abstract. It consists of people and emotions and why we get along with each other. And while there’s definitely a fair share of chemistry in sports (ahem… Balco), there’s really not much research going on in locker rooms. It’s the other chemistry that can make the difference between finishing a season as champions or limping to the finish line as chumps. Joan Ryan’s new book, Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry, is an exploration of whether harmony and camaraderie among teammates actually makes a difference in the Wins column.
A former baseball reporter for ESPN and current San Francisco Giants media consultant, Ryan approaches her subject matter with an insider’s knowledge and privileged access to players and coaches. The launch point for her book is the 2009 reunion of a San Francisco Giants team that won the National League pennant two decades before. They were a collection of players who obviously liked each other then, as now.
Ryan recalls, “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.”
They represented the classic example of an over-achieving team that scraped out wins and whose whole was much greater than its parts. Sports history is replete with similar stories. Even in seemingly solitary sports like golf, tennis, or boxing, the whole package — coaches, trainers, managers, promoters — can often make the difference. Just look at Mike Tyson and Cus D’Amato. While by no means dismissive of the 1989 Giants’ talents, Ryan’s curiosity lay with the miracle glue that not only held the team together, but also made them better.
The central premise in Intangibles is that certain environments are more conducive to productivity, in this case, winning baseball games. Favorable circumstances can sometimes result in average or under-achieving players to exceed expectations.
Ryan presents Aubrey Huff as the perfect example. Prior to joining the 2010 New York Giants, he’d been a quality player but by no means a star nor a leader. But when he arrived in the lockeroom that year, something clicked and he had a career year and emerged as a team leader. That season all of the players seemed to get along better than usual. They ended up winning the World Series for the first time since the New York Giants won the Fall Classic in 1954. That was the effect of team chemistry.
Ryan breaks down the clubhouse elements that make team chemistry possible. She calls them the Seven Archetypes: The Sparkplug, the Sage, the Kid, the Enforcer, the Buddy, the Warrior, and the Jester. Each plays a very specific role and a weakness in one can destroy the delicate balance between teammates. (Ryan cites a personality type she calls the malingerer as the ultimate positive energy suck above all.)
Trust is a constant theme in Intangibles. Ryan looks beyond sports for examples of interpersonal dynamics. She spends time with General Stanley McChrystal, discussing the role of trust and bonding among soldiers.
Camaraderie in the military comes up more than once, so much so that it’s impossible not to make an association between organized sports and martial traditions. The similarities in language used by athletes and soldiers are striking (if not somewhat infuriating), though not surprising for anyone whose ever heard locker room platitudes about manning-up, backs-against-the-wall, leaving-it-all-on-the-field, and do-or-die situations (I mean, really…). It’s a conscious choice by Ryan to juxtapose the two and that’s fine. But it’s telling that the most revealing thread to come from her interview with General McChrystal revolves around the effect losing his mother had on his family while growing up. It’s a valid comparison, especially since teammates and organizations often describe themselves in familial terms.
There’s some science in Intangibles. Again, trust plays a central role and therefore guides her scientific exploration. From a purely hormonal point of view, the obvious starting point is oxytocin and the role it plays in the development of trust. She alludes to it earlier in the book, the release of oxytocin when teammates make physical contact, whether it’s a hug, high five, or handshake.
Ryan describes an experiment on oxytocin performed by Paul Zach at the Center for Neuroeconomics and then another by Josh Wooley at the University of California San Francisco. They seem to bring her investigation tantalizingly close to what she describes as “the scientific underpinnings of bonding’s impact on performance.” Unfortunately, she receives a first-hand lesson in how real world science works. Its advance is slow, steps incremental, and plight uncertain. Intangibles’s oxytocin journey is left unresolved.
While the notion of team chemistry is not accepted across the board from people involved in sports, enough people do believe in it to make Intangibles a necessary book, not just for sports junkies but also for anyone whose work depends on other people. It’s clear early on which camp Ryan belongs to and that’s not a bad thing. It does, however, open her up to a touch of confirmation bias.
The many behind-the-scenes sports stories recounted in the book is where Ryan shines. The story about the 1996 U.S. Olympic basketball team stands out. If you miss Barry Bonds, there’s a contentious and at times, revealing interview with him about his relationship with the Giants organization and his teammates. Setting science aside, her portraits of athletes underscores a deep understanding of human nature and the challenges people in all walks of life must overcome. Extended beyond the sports world, Ryan tells a universal story. Net-net, Intangibles is a win.
WORDS: Marc Landas
IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons
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