How technology may lessen a team’s chemistry

Technology receives a lot of attention but I haven’t seen this brought up before: technology may be making it more difficult to athletic teams to bond.

Ask many coaches, general managers and older players and you’ll hear a common gripe: chemistry on teams has been altered because of modern technology, and not for the better. The rise of smartphones, with all their instant-communication and entertainment options, have created insular worlds into which distracted players too often retreat instead of bonding with teammates.

Coaches and managers are particularly frustrated at the paradox of players fraternizing less with their own teammates, and more with the “enemy.” Players from opposing teams, they say, too often get each other’s cellphone numbers and start calling or texting back and forth, often griping about playing time and occassionally giving up little secrets about their teams…

Major League Baseball is one sport where the chemistry effects of smartphones, iPads, iPods and other handheld devices might be thought to be minimal, because of the longer workdays and more enclosed environs (dugouts, bullpens, clubhouses). Not necessarily so, according to Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy. When the game is over, he says, players quickly rejoin their private, smartphone worlds…

Some NFL teams are said to be contemplating outright bans on smartphones during any “team time” activities, and some coaches have spoken with exasperation at competing with phones for players’ attention. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, for instance, told ESPN 101 radio in St. Louis the difficulties of dealing with phone-obsessed players such as former Washington tackle Albert Haynesworth.

I’m tempted to argue that this is simply the outcome of having multiple generations in the clubhouse or locker room: an older generation, particularly coaches and managers, had a particular experience in the past and younger players have a different way of going about things. Perhaps it would be more interesting to talk to younger coaches who are more into technology themselves and ask how they try to build team chemistry. Of course, the topic of team chemistry is open for debate. To me, it seems like it is only really an issue when a team is losing and people are looking for reasons why.

The article does suggest that at least a few veteran athletes have adopted informal/player-directed guidelines for technology use in the clubhouse. I wonder if they have encountered some resistance or whether the spirit of such actions, to “help the team,” is reason enough for other players to comply.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. This could also be interpreted as an indicator of the professionalization of athletes. While athletes in the past might have enjoyed the camaraderie of interacting before and after games, today’s athletes have more personal leeway as most work all-year round and make big money. What matters most (or at all) is their performance on the field/court/ice.

2. The article also hints at how technology has changed how players prepare for games. It is now easy and common for athletes to be able to watch lots of video on their own, theoretically giving them some advantages.

Considering workplace flexibility

Some jobs offer more flexibility than others where a worker has an opportunity to structure their own schedule or make it to other important events in life that are held during typical work hours. Sociologist Alfred Young has looked into the issue of workplace flexibility and recently made a report to a conference:

When an assembly-line worker at a Midwestern auto-parts plant studied by Alford A. Young Jr. , a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, left work without permission to coach his son’s football team in a championship game, he paid a high price, Young told about 200 researchers, government officials and employers Tuesday at a Washington, D.C. conference on flexibility.

The story sprang from a study of the means employees use to resolve work-family conflicts–collaborating with the boss vs. sneaking around. The worker, whom Dr. Young called James, had committed to coaching his son’s team, and when the team made the championship round he asked to take a Saturday afternoon off to be present. The boss said no.

When the day arrived, James left work for lunch and later called his boss to say that his car had broken down, saying “ ‘I called Triple-A but I don’t know if I can make it back,’ ” Young says. James got to coach the game, but he also got written up by his supervisor and busted to a lower seniority level.

Such disruptions can be avoided, Young says, if supervisors bend a little, perhaps even breaking a rule or two, to try to find a solution within the work team, perhaps by allowing a shift trade; this benefits employers by motivating employees to go the extra mile and remain loyal to the company.  While this happens routinely at many workplaces, about 80% of all workers still lack the workplace flexibility they want, according to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the conference sponsor. What doesn’t work, his study found, allowing to develop the kind of clash that encompassed James.

I feel like a lot of the talk about telecommuting and the changes that might come to the workplace due to changing technology might really be about increasing the flexibility of workers. If the main concern is that a job gets done, perhaps it doesn’t matter as much whether an employee keeps certain office hours. Younger workers also seem to like the idea of flexibility, to not be completely tied down because of a job. But perhaps even the American small business spirit could be tied to this issue – some people enjoy being able to set their own hours and agenda.  But this may not apply in the same way to areas like manufacturing.

If 80% of workers desire more flexibility, is this something more businesses and organizations should address? I would be interested in knowing what holds businesses back from being more flexible with workers. Profits? Appearances? A certain workplace culture? Directives from higher-ups?

The end of the Lou Pinella era

As I listened to the Chicago Cubs pregame on WGN Radio, I heard the news that Lou Pinella is resigning after Sunday’s game against the Braves. A few of my thoughts about the Lou Pinella era:

1. This resignation spells the true end of this four year era of Cubs baseball. As the players leave (Lee, Theriot, Lilly) and now the manager is gone, the bottom has fallen out on the Cubs. The four year run included two playoff trips from two very good teams that couldn’t break through the first round.

2. Lou as a person has been fascinating to watch. He clearly has a wealth of baseball knowledge yet at the same time can often seem like another grumpy old man. He has one of the slowest walks to the mound. He can be grumpy with post-game questions. I have seen some pictures and I have read his statistics at but I still have a hard time believing he was a serviceable player for some good late 1970s New York Yankees teams.

3. I don’t know what to make of Pinella’s managerial skills. While he will certainly be remembered for two playoff losses (including yanking Carlos Zambrano early in Game 1 in 2007) and then asking for more left-handed hitting before 2009 (which seemed to backfire), I think managers are like the President of the United States: they get lots of credits when things are good, blamed for everything when things are bad. Ultimately, the players are the ones who make and break the team.

4. Hearing Ron Santo’s pregame interview with Pinella, I was reminded why some people don’t like listening to Santo and why some Cubs fans love him. Santo sounded depressed for much of the interview and talked about how much he enjoyed their friendship. Ron really does bleed Cubby blue.

5. I hope the Cubs go with a relative newcomer when selecting a new manager – the last two big names of Dusty Baker and Lou Pinella haven’t worked out. It looks like next year will be a rebuilding year and it would be interesting to see a younger guy (like a Ryne Sandberg?) mold a new Cubs team.

UPDATE 9:28 PM 8/22/10 – Listening to Pinella’s post-game press conference was touching as Pinella got choked up about his time in Chicago. He really did seem to enjoy his time with the Cubs – even if he may only be remembered for being another Cubs manager who couldn’t win a World Series.