Winning the world cup: great individuals or a great team?

June 14, 2018

Football world cup trophy against a blue sky

The inevitable football world cup blog!

Ronaldo and Messi bowed out of the World Cup this week and their departure prompted a flurry of tweets. I was particularly struck by one from Rio Ferdinand:

The message is clear: football is a team sport — it’s pretty hard to deny that. But how should we balance team versus individual brilliance? Is talent development about individual skills or interpersonal skills?

Team or individual sports

For some time sports have been classified according to the level of interdependency. In football or soccer the level of interdependency is high. Ronaldo and Messi’s success is significantly affected by their teammates skills and attitude. Ronaldo was able to rescue Portugal with his three goal miracle against Spain but that’s not going to happen every time. It’s great to have a Ronaldo or Messi in your team but it can’t guarantee you victory.

Another sport with a high degree of team interdependence is basketball. The interplay of team members is critical to success. Adam Grant in his excellent TED talk describes the problem with having the team of all stars and the importance of humility. Yet his research tends to demonstrate the best teams have a combination of good team players and star players.

Other team sports place a greater reliance on individual performance. In cricket and baseball there are clearly periods of play where an individual can have an innings that significantly affects the game.

Finally, there’s individual sports — for example, athletics, cycling or golf. However recent research leads us to question if any sport is won by individual brilliance alone.

“Most individual sport settings involve groups, as athletes often train in a team environment even though they compete individually and often in opposition to their teammates. However, the reliance on task interdependence to dichotomise sport environments into one of two categories (i.e., team or individual) overlooks further differences in how members rely on each other (e.g., interdependence for individual and group-level outcomes or resources)”.

The report encourages a more nuanced reclassification of sports beyond the false dichotomy of team sports or individual sports.

Talent development - coach the individual and the team

The reality is that all sports involve a combination of individual and team activity. Therefore as a manager or coach you need to understand and coach both individuals and teams.

I sometimes ask people whether they could ever imagine a great football coach that exclusively focussed coaching either the individual or the team.

If you had said to Alex Ferguson of Arsene Wenger “It’s OK to talk to talk to the team as a whole but don’t ever have a one to one with a player”. What do you think the reaction would have been If Alex Ferguson was not able put his arms around someone that needed a confidence boost (or indeed give them the famed “hair-dryer” treatment)? On the flip-side it’s ludicrous to say “you can coach individuals one on one but don’t ever coach the team as a whole”.

If you are coaching an athlete or a boxer you may well spend more time coaching the individual but there are clear moments when you need a team to support. For example in training or sparring in recovery or mental preparation. These groups will need to share a common goal.

Can we apply these lessons beyond sport?

We see this same false dichotomy in business today. If you are a manager you need to be able to coach the team as a whole and each member individually as well.

  • A complex multi functional team developing technology is usually seen as a true team. The team need to have shared goals and reflect how they work as a team. But they will also need individual goals to get the job done. Therefore at any point there’s likely to be individuals that need individual support and coaching.
  • A group of individuals in a call centre that apparently work separately may have clear individual targets. However it’s also likely that there are some collective goals, these might relate to how they support each other in difficult moments and build the kind of collaboration they need to be successful as a whole. Defining the goals they’d like to achieve as a collective can enable the team to get more than the sum of the parts.
Tips for managers

The implication for people managing a team is that they should consider three things when they want to get the best out of a team.

  1. Make it clear where you need to “team” and where you need to be operating individually. Too often this isn’t clear, individual and collective accountability is blurred and this leads to reduced performance.
  2. Develop your skills to coach individuals. We all know that we should be having regular one to one’s with our team. These one to ones should be coaching conversations, using open questions that encourage team members to grow and learn as well as increase performance.
  3. Develop the skills to coach the team as a whole. Many managers feel a little less comfortable with this. CoachBot — our digital team coach can help set up the right conversations for a team context or help managers understanding the basic principles of coaching teams.

This world cup is way too unpredictable to call. The winners will manage to get the best out of both individual stars and the team as a unit. Spain and Portugal were not up to it. Let’s see what happens tonight!

Find out more about team coaching at www. or contact us at

Want to learn more about the Saberr platform?

Book a demo
Two male team members having a meeting