Why losing the team’s trust is just one small step away from losing

Our most finely-tuned athletes – and the teams in which they play – seem to be much easier to push off course than was once the case, writes Michael Blucher

Apr 05, 2024, updated Apr 05, 2024
Brisbane Lions co-captain Harris Andrews was left to face the media over rumours of a rift within the premiership runners-up (AAP Image/Darren England)

Brisbane Lions co-captain Harris Andrews was left to face the media over rumours of a rift within the premiership runners-up (AAP Image/Darren England)

First the Brisbane Lions, now the Sydney Swans, “apparently” de-stabilised by a bit of locker-room scuttlebutt, rumours that there’s been some over-stepping of the invisible (but well understood) social boundary line that helps retain harmony in any testosterone charged team environment.

The reports vary as to how serious or significant the “breaches” might have been. In the Lions’ den, the alleged foot-faulting occurred at the end of season tour LAST YEAR – in professional sport, that’s as good as “an eon” ago. Could it have anything to do with the Lions sluggish start to the season? Surely not.

The Swans meanwhile have moved swiftly and strategically to paper over any suggestion of a cat fight amongst their playing group, on account of Cupid firing an arrow at an inappropriate target.

OK, one player’s been asked to take a spell, spend a bit of time alone – but it’s “all good, Bro! Nothing to see here. We’re tight as.”

TBH, I’m not really interested in who’s been dipping their pen in the wrong ink well, or in Brisbane’s case, contravening the oldest and most rigid sporting team edict – “what happens on tour, stays on tour”.

What I’d like to do instead is briefly shine a light on the role trust plays in any high performance environment, be it an AFL locker room, a boardroom, a war zone, or a scout den.

Amid all the ingredients that contribute to team excellence, trust sits right at the top. It’s the starting point for high performance curators as they set about building a culture of excellence.

In the heat of the battle, can you rely, unconditionally, on those around you to act selflessly, for the greater good of the collective? Put team before self?

Going way off grid, in the selection of United States’ Navy SEALS, an organisation regarded as being without peer in any field of endeavour, anywhere in the world, high trust takes precedent over any other attribute.

Within the SEALs’ performance/trust matrix, high performance/ low trust individuals are regarded as toxic influences and uniformly overlooked, preference instead given to high trust/medium performance candidates.

Business guru David Maister placed similar weighting on selflessness in formulating his acclaimed “trust equation”.

In his extensive work in the professional services field, the celebrated Harvard Business School professor determined that trustworthiness was the sum of “credibility, reliability and Intimacy, divided by self orientation”.

In other words, an executive could be brilliant, do everything they promised they would, and have an intimate understanding of the needs of those around them, but any sign of self interest, and their trust quotient disappeared down the gurgler.

Just like the Navy SEAL example, in Maister’s mind, a business would be better served if led by a less dynamic individual who always put team before self.

But back to rumoured ructions in our two AFL teams.

While no-one would be brazen enough to suggest any form of weekend footy combat carries anywhere near the significance of the duties performed by our military, as a sports-loving nation, we remain vigilant in our monitoring of performance and effort, our expectations coloured by our own prejudices and priorities.

When our team is not performing well, the conspiracy theories can quickly develop a life of their own, especially when fuelled by a bit of juicy gossip.

Has the Lions 0-3 start to the season got anything to do with the careless dissemination of “tour confidential” intel? Has the “alleged” transgression in Sydney eroded trust and caused dissent in the Swans’ inner-sanctum?

Only those inside the respective dressing sheds would truly know the answer.

What is certain is that high performance in team sport has a very delicate equilibrium. In a heart beat, the smallest impurity can send excellence tumbling towards mediocrity. The magic and the discretionary effort mysteriously disappears, replaced by simmering friction and tension, even dissension.

And in men’s elite sport, there’s no greater potential source of dissension than the fairer sex. The wives and girlfriends, or the “WAGs” as they are so commonly called.

Over the years, there’s been countless examples of team dynamics getting upended, just by the presence of females. An Australian cricketer never played another Test after a comment he made about a senior teammate’s wife.

An NRL team finished with the wooden spoon, the same year it was revealed a senior player was having an affair with another player’s girlfriend. In anther football code, the international career of a superstar was terminated, purely on the strength of an inappropriate relationship.

All of these incidents at some level involved a betrayal of trust. They were acts of self interest, where individual took precedence over team.

Let’s hope for the sake of Lions and Swans supporters, the conspiracy theories prove incorrect.

And it all proves to be a storm in a D-Cup.

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