Often times we tend to want to think of success and look at how teams succeed and then do our best to mimic them. That said, sometimes there is a great deal of worth in thinking about what makes a terrible team so terrible. As someone who is a devoted fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that spent two decades below .500, most of those seasons particularly terrible, I am quite familiar with bad teams. I have even played on bad teams. In one memorable experience at a Winter Family Weekend, I was a benchwarmer on the worst basketball team at the competition, a team that lost all 6 of its games over the course of three days, several of which by more than 50 points. And remember, I was not a starter on this team but rather someone who only played a few minutes a game as a defense-oriented point guard. When I speak of bad teams, I speak of someone who has cheered them on, watched them closely, read about them , and played on them. Perhaps the same is true for you as well.
One thing that is true of many terrible teams is that they are set up to fail. When I was a young person living in Plant City, the church organization I attended had an organized youth league for sports in volleyball, basketball, and track. And while I became a competent volleyball player in two years of play, my basketball skills did not improve. I played on a team that had two star players (who unfortunately were aware of it) and a sizable number of smaller and less obviously talented players whose main job was to pass to the two stars and score. A team with that kind of setup needs to be organized in such a way that complementary skills are developed. Since the two most skilled players were a center and a forward, it would appear that developing skilled shooting guards who could hit longer range shots would open up the spacing, but no, none of us were trained in how to pick a spot and shoot with skill, thus forcing teams to come out from the middle of the court to guard us and allowing us to pass to the players. Again, if you know what you want to do, and you know the sort of talent you have, you can make a plan for success, but if you tell the less skilled players simply to pass so that no one bothers them because no one needs to, then it becomes much harder to win. And so it proved for us.
One of the classic books of a terrible season is called Lost Sundays , about one of the few Pittsburgh Steelers seasons that was not at least okay. In looking at this lost season, the reasons given for why so many games were lost was a lack of talent, unimaginative coaching, and a lack of leadership from players who should have stood up to encourage others. Having already discussed the talent problem, it is worthwhile to consider the other factors here. Teams that lack obvious talent have to play in such a way that their strengths are maximized. A strong defense can help overcome for a mediocre offense. Inventive trick plays can provide a team with the unpredictability necessary to overcome some shortcomings. Yet all of this requires the veteran and most skilled players on a team to do what is necessary to encourage everyone else. When those who should be leaders fail to encourage and train others, the team as a whole lacks the cohesion it needs to succeed. And the results are predictable in losing when leaders fail to lead.
Some teams fail, though, because they are designed to fail. One year, for example, the Dallas Cowboys traded their best player for several other players with draft pick options, and the coach of the Cowboys, Jerry Johnson, knew that he wanted his team to tank. Last year, the Dolphins traded away their best defensive player to the Steelers for a first round pick so that they could Tank for Tua, who they drafted with the #6 pick after doing better than expected. Baseball teams frequently are designed to fail because their owners want to make money through transfer payments and are unwilling to put that money into salaries that might make a team more competitive but might not. This is especially true in baseball. It is frustrating when you are on a team that is built to fail and does, but you can’t blame the players in such a case. The lessons for this are all too evident in the teams we all tend to be involved in.
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