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UK Coaching Research Team
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Coaching Skills

How to Manage the Smooth Transition of New Players into a Team

Canadian research uses theories from business to describe a mix of formal and informal processes that any coach can adopt to bring new players into their team

For a new player coming into a team, the process can be one full of problems and anxiety. Although sports teams tend to have strong and supportive social bonds, the newcomer must first understand team norms, ways of working and social status among players if he or she is to fit in. As a coach, you can make this process easier, and the quicker you introduce the new player, the easier it is to maintain team harmony, and hopefully success.

Organisational socialisation is a theory from business management that researchers in Canada argue could also be applied to sports teams.

To examine whether organisational socialisation methods could be successfully applied in sport, research was conducted with university athletes and coaches in a number of sports.

Key themes for successful socialisation in sport that emerged from this research included:

  • managing expectations
  • shared group experiences
  • formal and informal learning experiences
  • the importance of older team members
  • mixing conformity and individuality

For coaches, it was essential to provide new athletes with a realistic picture of what their role will be. This was a balancing act between providing reassurance that the athlete had a role to play in the team while attempting to quell unrealistic expectations about how soon their time may come. This is especially true for university sport or any team where newcomers will tend to be some of the youngest players.

Given that players can develop at different rates, there is no consistent advice for coaches to follow. However, one strategy that all the coaches did follow was formal meetings throughout the season to reinforce and/or review expectations based on progress. Some coaches added to this by proactively clarifying expectations outside formal meetings if required.

However, one word of warning for any coach is to make sure the information they are giving is valuable to their players. Half the athletes in the study said the feedback they received lacked the detail they needed to improve in line with expectations.

For athletes, the biggest concern when entering a new team was how they would get on with their team mates. On one hand, they had to form social bonds, but these would often be with people who they are vying for positions with.

Coaches felt the best way to overcome this was with group-oriented activities and peer interaction. Training camps prior to competition represented an ideal place to promote these activities, and opportunities could emerge both in training and outside the rigours of training.

For the latter example, one coach took the players to watch another sport to encourage socialisation in a more relaxed atmosphere.

To ensure all players fully understood team policies and rules, coaches were keen to establish formal procedures. These would include providing an explicit overview of expectations during group meetings and providing written mandates related to team member accountability.

While such a process may seem authoritarian, several coaches also stated that allowing their athletes to establish their own set of team principles increased the sense of accountability among the group.

However, anyone who has ever experienced an induction in a new job will be all too familiar with the feeling of information overload. So new athletes admitted they tended to place more emphasis on continued opportunities to learn.

As such, informal learning experiences about policies and rules happen throughout the season. This can take on greater importance than formal meetings in team socialisation and therefore places more emphasis on the role of older teammates.

Both athletes and coaches agreed that older members played an essential role in helping newcomers integrate into the team. Not only did they reinforce messages that may have been missed in formal meetings, but they also provided newcomers with knowledge about group life that the coach may not be aware of.

Some coaches did try to formalise this process by pairing newcomers with older players, but it was very much a balancing act between instructing the older athlete in what to do and letting a mentoring-style relationship develop naturally.

All the coaches agreed it was beneficial to have a culture of mentorship in a team, regardless of which process was used, but this also came with a warning that it required suitable leaders to make it work.

As one coach said:

Choose your captains carefully. They are your role models, and their work ethic and just how they deal with anything and everything on this campus is going to be mimicked and repeated by the freshmen because they are impressionable. So identifying who the leaders are, who you want the freshmen to look up to, is unbelievably important.

For coaches, conformity is important. They have a vision for the group in terms of practice attendance, behaviour and tactics that they expect everyone to conform to.

While athletes tended to agree with the need for this conformity, the research also found other customary rules that were expected specifically to apply to newcomers.

These were mainly restricted to activities such as putting away equipment after practice (given group rules against hazing) and were traditions enforced by older teammates. These rite-of-passage activities helped establish status and hierarchy within the group.

However, away from set rules around tasks and conforming to the group, it was also important to allow personality differences among teammates.

Most coaches stated that they made attempts to create inclusionary environments as much as possible. Previous research has shown that inclusionary environments signal to newcomers that the group cares for them, which in turn elicits a reciprocal commitment from the newcomer to the group.

So while there was little room for individuality when it came to task matters, personal acceptance was encouraged when matters were more social in nature. In the research, the players agreed that they were very much accepted for who they were as people.

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UK Coaching Research Team