The secrets of success in pro sports teams |

Leading sport psychologist Sion Thomas works with Crystal Palace FC, Harlequins RFC, Kent County Cricket Club and a host of other top performing sports teams. In this interview, he tells us why teams are crumbling under unique pressures, the new working models being explored to cope, and the future of professional sport.

What new challenges are teams facing today?

Rugby union is in crisis. Current demands on teams are immense, stretching resources and forcing management, leaders, and players to accept pay cuts to retain their professional status. In the past year, three premiership teams – Wasps, Worcester Warriors, and London Irish – have dissolved, a quarter of professional rugby union teams. This has left not only 150 players jobless but also over a thousand coaches, support staff, and other employees.

With the disbanding of several clubs, many talented players are job-hunting, intensifying competition. The club I work for has recruited a total of seven new players from other professional rugby teams over the past few months. While some teams are increasing or maintaining their squad sizes, others are losing top players due to salary cap issues. Transitioning to another team or even another sport isn't a feasible solution because skills in professional-level sport are generally non-transferable. Deal duration has also shrunk from five years to one or two years. So there is significant anxiety around job security in professional sport.

As a result of the uncertainty, we are seeing an increase in ‘social loafers’ in both business and sports environments. These team members are not in highly significant roles, given opportunities, or considered high value. In rugby union, this means they aren’t given new contracts or paid on par with their peers. Such individuals might lack motivation, drive and clarity about their career path. This population has grown because of the vulnerability of modern-day rugby union.

The pandemic is largely responsible for the precarious state of professional rugby union today, as revenue generation halted during the lockdowns. Teams are being forced to devise creative strategies to boost their income, as home games only happen once a fortnight, which restricts opportunities for revenue generation. The consensus is that the current model isn't sustainable. 

What capabilities can teams develop to cope with these pressures?

In sport it is often said that no matter your seniority or experience as a head coach or leader, you're only ever three games away from the sack. You see this happen a lot in the higher echelons of professional sport, particularly football, where leaders can be really successful, but within a month if the team hasn't won, they’re out of a job.

Given the current climate, whether it be the Ukraine conflict or the COVID pandemic, interest rates going up and inflation out of control, team leaders need to be equipped with a better skill set. Crucially, managers need to find ways of minimising social loafers. José Mourinho, a highly successful manager, has maintained in the past that he doesn’t want 26 players in his first team squad. He requires 20 players - two per position - plus goalkeepers. His rationale is that the six to eight players who don’t make the matchday squad are the players who are high maintenance. They often have a negative impact on the cohesive nature of a team - whether that be in social cohesion or task cohesion.

A simple leadership model is Steiner’s model, which talks about actual productivity equalling potential productivity minus faulty processes. The faulty processes are the things that often go wrong; the lack of communication, role clarity and coordination between people working in a given environment, as well as motivational losses. To evolve, teams need to improve their understanding of interpersonal relationships. It's easy to have a positive relationship with your star players. It’s a different dynamic with someone who isn't starting every game, despite how hard they work.

In professional sport, if you are selected you receive appearance money, whereas if you aren’t you’re only earning your basic paycheque. There's that real disjoint between those who are being selected and those that aren't. Managers need to need to become better at understanding motivation, because that’s the key to minimising those faulty processes that affect overall productivity; in a sporting environment this could simply be measured as team performance and/or result.

In practical terms, what do teams need to do to perform better?

The most successful teams are often the ones whose potential productivity almost matches actual productivity because they deal with the faulty processes. They pay attention to the really small details that most people don't think are relevant. Manchester City won the treble this year. It’s the first time they have won the Champions League, and their manager Pep Guardiola has been at Manchester City six years. It has taken him that long and billions of pounds to find a way to win. Sometimes teams have to experience failure before they find a way to win.

Guardiola’s behavioural profile would indicate that he has ‘high compliance’: he is fascinated with detail. Every player understands their role in possession and out of possession to the nth degree. He’s a bit like the chef, Heston Blumenthal who measures everything with immense precision. Often the best leaders are the ones that pay attention to those smaller details. They are focused on the 1% era - the marginal gains that ultimately are what lead not just to excellent performance but to sustained high performance. New Zealand in rugby union, and Manchester City in football are good examples of this.

Only one team can win. Everyone else finishes at best, second. It’s all about relationships, because without that what chance do you have of engendering behaviour change? There’s a paper on how to build strong relationships that I often cite to my students. It might be all about the relationship. From a humanistic psychology perspective, it’s about empathy and genuineness and also what some practitioners refer to as ‘unconditional positive regard’. You might not be someone’s best friend, but you have to find a way to work together. A cohesive group possess potential ingredients that enable high reform to take place. If you're climbing Everest and you don't find a way to quickly discover a way of working together fast, you aren’t going to get to the summit, let alone back down safely.

Relationships are the key to team performance. For example, in cricket and rugby, often professional players complain that whilst they understand they won’t be selected if other players are performing better, they don’t understand why the head coach isn’t talking to them about what they need to do to get selected. They aren’t demanding to be selected so much as asking for clarity about what they need to do to improve their performance. When players see inconsistent behaviour from coaches, naturally they start to ruminate. Leaders need to be consistent in their behaviours. Players often talk about the ‘cartoons’ we create in our heads. In other words, experiencing internal negative thinking patterns that simply disrupt our ability to focus, which in turn impact upon our ability to train and play effectively.

For me that comes down to being able to quickly understand an individual’s behavioural patterns, their working strengths and support factors. This is where the science comes in. I find the Thomas assessments to be a powerful set of instruments for developing this self-awareness, as well as for starting a conversation and building athlete rapport. This then becomes a framework for everything else we collaborate around as athlete and practitioner.

To find out more about how the new category of Team Interaction Optimisation (TIO) can transform teamwork and empower upward trajectories, visit