Introduction

The purpose of this photo essay was to develop an ethnographic understanding of soccer in Ireland. Over the past 5 weeks, Eileen and I took on the role of observers and explored what UCD’s soccer team had to offer us. A big highlight working with this team was the opportunity to follow along their journey through the Europa League; experiencing their triumphs and disappointments in the process. This photo essay discusses team composition, the role of leadership in building team cohesion and the influence of Irish culture in sport.

Data Collection and Analysis

When we arrived in Ireland, UCD was a week out from competing in the Europa League; a significant period for the club. As a result, engaging and building rapport with the players and coaches was a challenge as the team was purely focused on preparing themselves for their first qualifying round. For that reason, we chose to approach our research as observers. Observations took place during practices and local matches, with field notes and informal interviews as our primary tools for data collection. Throughout our 5 week observation, we were only able to conduct two informal interviews – one with Pat Devlin, UCD’s Director of Soccer; the other with Eoin Clarke, UCD’s Strength and Conditioning Coach. Despite being brief, these interviews shed light on team management and relationships as well as practice agendas. At matches, we focused on determining “critical moments” – situations that were more than meets the eye and required interpretation – amongst the members of UCD soccer team. Finally, due to our limited data collection resources, I often found myself resorting to the internet in order to gain further insight and a deeper understanding of the club’s history, players, coaching staff and their opponents.

In terms of data analysis, the information obtained from our field work, informal interviews and internet resources were triangulated to create a clearer picture of a given situation. Upon obtaining a solid observation, I reflected back on the literature discussed in class and my prior knowledge in search of plausible evidence that would explain my observations. As such, the analyses present in this photo essay are based off my own interpretations.

The boys of UCD soccer team arriving to practice

The boys of UCD soccer team arriving to practice

Team

When asked to define a team, often times the usual answer comes in the form of team sports – soccer, basketball, football and the likes. What many of us tend to overlook is the fact that individual sport is comprised of teams too. An example being competitive golfers – they are rarely alone; usually surrounding them is a team of caddies, managers, physiotherapists and psychologists. Much like team sports, the cohesiveness between an individual athlete and their primary/secondary care team is vital towards performance and success of said athlete. Therefore, it is crucial to understand that a “team” doesn’t just comprise of athletes; it also comprises of those behind the scenes – the managerial staff.

Considering that the relationship web of an individual athlete is already so complex, throwing a team of athletes into the mixture would result in an even more complex relationship web. Such is the case for UCD’s soccer team which comprises of:

  • Players
  • 1st team manager
  • 1st team coach
  • Goalkeeping coach
  • Strength and conditioning coaches
  • Director of soccer
  • Club doctor and physiotherapists
  • Program development officer
  • Media managers
  • Club council (President, Vice President, Treasurer, Secretary)

Because of the complexity and dynamic nature of the relationships, there is no “one size fits all” management as no two teams will ever share the same qualities. In addition to that, as a team’s size increases, the strength of its cohesion is said to decrease (Carron, 2007). With 28 players on UCD’s first team alone, quality leadership amongst the manager and coaching staff is absolutely necessary in improving and maintaining the team’s cohesion so that they may perform consistently throughout the season.

UCD's Goalkeeping Coach, Gerrard Barron having a one-on-one practice session with 1st team goalkeeper, Niall Corbet

UCD’s Goalkeeping Coach, Gerrard Barron, having a one-on-one practice session with 1st team goalkeeper, Niall Corbet

Leadership in Fostering Team Cohesion

In literature, there are five features that offer a starting point for measuring a team’s strengths and weaknesses – interaction, structure, team cohesion, goals and identity (Kramer & Moran, 2013). Team cohesion in particular is broken down into two components: task cohesion and social cohesion. Task cohesion looks at how well the team works together as a playing unit to achieve their objectives whereas social cohesion focuses on how well the team gets along in terms of developing and maintaining social relationships. The former tends to predict the success of the team while the latter is thought to be predicted by success (Carron, 2007).

UCD’s recent success in the Europa League can be partly attributed to the team’s high task cohesion. As an overall goal, both players and coaches strived towards advancing through each qualifying round. In the course of achieving their overall goals, UCD’s first team manager, Collie O’Neill ensured that his players were clear on their roles and objectives going into each game – be it keeping a clean sheet, constantly pressuring their opponents with tight play or parking the bus when they were down to 10 men – not one player prioritized their own individual desire (if there was any to begin with) over the team’s desire.

…I said to the players at half-time that if we lose and don’t go through, don’t let that be because one of us hasn’t done our job or done what we were supposed to do.

-O’Neill on his half-time talk during the second leg of UCD’s first qualifying round against Dudelange. The team advanced to the second qualifying round upon winning this match despite having only 10 men on the pitch

We still want to get through this. We are loving it. We don’t want it to stop. We’re not here for the sake of it. We’re here to try  to win the game and we’ll have a plan to try our best to win it.

-O’Neill’s response when asked if advancing to the second qualifying round was merely a bonus for the semi-professional team

Research by Carron et al (2007) suggests that higher levels of training and instructional behavior, social support behavior and positive feedback from coaches are positively associated with higher levels of task cohesion. The coaching techniques used by Gerrard Barron, UCD’s goalkeeping coach were reflective of the findings above. In comparison to the other coaches during practice, Gerard was more hands on with his demonstrations and instructional cues,  frequently voiced affirmation upon successful performances and communicated with the goalkeepers under him after practice. Despite the goalkeepers and players training separately during practice, both parties were able to come together during matches to put on a quality performance time and time again; indicating that the coaching methods employed had an effect on the players task cohesion.

From left to right: Collie O'Neill (1st team manager), Pat Devlin (director of soccer), Diarmuid McNally (program development officer) and Gerrard Barron (1st team goalkeeping coach) observing the boys as they practice their skills

From left to right: Collie O’Neill (1st Team Manager), Pat Devlin (Director of Soccer), Diarmuid McNally (Program Development Officer) and Gerrard Barron (1st Team Goalkeeping Coach) observing the boys as they practice their skills

Part of effective leadership is also knowing when to let go (Kramer & Moran, 2013). O’Neill and UCD’s first team coach, Evan McMillan frequently took the backseat during practices and matches. In practice, they rarely intervene as their boys go through drills, set pieces and scrimmages; saving their thoughts for the end of each section unless an issue needing immediate attention arises. This shows their understanding of soccer as a sport with a continuous flow of activity; and that frequent interventions mid-play would deter from the boys’ improvements. Additionally, this also taught the boys to be more conscious and aware of their bodily movements and surrounding environment; directing each other and pointing out mistakes and good plays. During matches, the duo keep to their seats and watch the game intently – once again allowing their players to run the show. Their actions demonstrate the amount of belief they have in their coaching methods; trusting that said methods empower their boys to be self-sufficient in playing and making decisions on the field according to the team’s goals and values.

UCD's strength and conditioning coach, Eoin Clarke (middle), demonstrating a warm-up drill to the boys

UCD’s strength and conditioning coach, Eoin Clarke (middle), demonstrating a warm-up drill to the boys

Hierarchy

A brief conversation with Eoin Clarke, one of UCD’s strength and conditioning coaches led to an interesting discovery on the hierarchical importance of positions embedded in this team. According to Clarke, first team manager, Collie O’Neill, holds 100% of the decision making power on the team. Essentially, whatever O’Neill says, goes.

On any given day, Collie can easily overwrite whatever conditioning drills I have planned for the lads if he deems it unnecessary or if there are other more important priorities to be taken care of.

-Clarke on O’Neill’s decision making power

Based off the conversation, it seemed as though no one in the team had an issue with Collie’s choice of autocratic leadership. They readily accepted his leadership style, labeling it as “that’s just the way it is in soccer”. This observation doesn’t come as a surprise as most professional/semi-professional European soccer teams rely solely on the decisions of their managers. At this level of soccer, having too many people involved in the decision making process would only serve to complicate matters. In UCD’s case, a democratic leadership might not be the best option due to player maturity (UCD’s players are on the young side) and the high level of competition the team faces.

According to the Leadership Scale for Sports (LSS) developed by Chelladurai, autocratic behavior is characterized by independence in decision-making and stresses personal authority of the coach. Weiss & Friedrichs’ (1986) findings suggested that coaches exhibiting an autocratic behavior style were associated with greater athlete satisfaction in the amount of sport-related work placed upon said athlete. Presumably, O’Neill’s independence in decision making resulted in an efficiently run team which allowed the boys to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time. This is important as the boys, unlike most professional soccer teams, do not have the luxury of practicing every day. Therefore, they have to make the most out of the 2-3 days per week that they do have the opportunity to practice.

Despite having absolute decisional power over team affairs, O’Neill still has to deal with the hierarchy that exists between him and the club’s council – a crucial relationship as the existence of this power differential places limits on the coaching staff’s freedom and creativity to manage the team. Upon closer inspection, O’Neill’s task of managing UCD’s soccer team goes beyond developing an optimal environment for his players to perform in. Instead, it has O’Neill acting as a middleman trying to strike the right balance in pleasing those invested in the club – the council, team members and fans. As the council determines the fate of the coaching staff at the end of every season, more often than not, managers are pressured with the tough decision of implementing strategies deemed “appropriate” by the council or foregoing traditional methods in pursuit of discovering what works best for the team but risking their job in the process.

UCD chooses not to print their player’s names on their jerseys

Shaping the Irish Sporting Culture

In comparison to other European countries, a distinct feature of the Irish sporting culture is their nameless jerseys. Regardless of sport and competitive level, all Irish jerseys do not include player’s names. This feature is said to promote collectivism instead of individualism amongst the athletes in sport – a culture that might be the inspiration and foundation behind team cohesion and success. Collectivism is interpreted as behavior based on concern for other and group harmony as well as care for tradition and values (Jowett & Lavallee, 2007). These nameless jerseys give rise to the mentality of “you don’t own the shirt, you have the honor of filling the shirt” – instilling feelings of pride in playing for the team and diminishing any individualistic desires of the athlete, keeping their egos in check. As far as the Individualism-Collectivism (I-C) framework goes, not much of this framework has been studied in the context of sport psychology, thus paving the way for future research opportunities

Another distinct feature of the Irish sporting culture is that many of the athletes, UCD’s soccer team included, have day jobs or an educational commitment on top of being athletes. O’Neill for example, works as an IT consultant during the day whereas first team goalkeeper Niall Corbet is a senior majoring in food science. In fact, UCD’s places so much emphasis on non-sporting endeavors that one of the criteria’s used to select future players is “possessing the ability to study”. Carrying on this holistic tradition is vital as Connaughton et al’s (2010) research suggests that maintaining a balanced sporting and non-sporting life may aid in the development and maintenance of mental toughness in athletes.

In addition to that, it is normal for most top-level Irish athletes to not receive any form of compensation for their athletic endeavors; which goes to show that the commitment and sacrifices made towards their sport is purely driven by intrinsic motivation and passion. While UCD does offer some degree of compensation through the form of weekly wages ranging anywhere between €50- €250, for the time and effort spent on practice and matches, it is still safe to say that the boys are very much driven to persist in this sport by their own intrinsic motivations.

The unique features of the Irish sporting culture discussed above keeps the Irish athletes humble in the face of success and hungry in achieving greater heights.

References

Carron, A. V., Eys , M. A., Burke, S. M., Jowett, S., & Lavallee, D. (2007). Team cohesion: Nature, Correlates, and Development. Social psychology in sport, 91-101.

Connaughton, D., Hanton, S., & Jones, G. (2010). The Development and Maintenance of Mental Toughness in the World’s Best Performers. Sport Psychologist, 24(2), 168-193.

Fitzmaurice, A. (2015, July 10). UCD’s little wonder. Retrieved from http://www.uefa.com/uefaeuropaleague/news/newsid=2263993.html#ucds+little

Jowett, S. & Lavallee, D. (2007). Social Psychology in Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Kramer, J. & Moran, A. (2013). Pure Sport: Practical Sport Psychology. New York, NY: Routledge

The Irish Times. (2015, July 16). UCD not fazed by Slovan Bratislava. Retrieved from http://www.irishtimes.com/sport/soccer/national-league/ucd-not-fazed-by-slovan-bratislava-1.2286182

Weiss, M. & Friedrichs, W. (1986). The Influence of Leader Behaviors, Coach Attributes and Institutional Variables on Performance and Satisfaction of Collegiate Basketball Teams. Journal of Sport Psychology, 8, 332-346.