15 January 2019

Why Most Teams Fail in Year Three

Article written by Dr. Fergus Connolly

In Game Changer I first wrote about a not-too-subtle phenomenon that occurs in many leadership situations. I referred to this as ‘The Three-Year Rule” - where many new programmes and coaches fail or begin to struggle in their third year.

Mentorship is prolific amongst leading businesses, with an American Society for Training and Development study revealing that 71% of Fortune 500 companies have a form of formal corporate mentorship.

The great Hungarian manager Béla Guttmann, went so far as to claim, “the third season is fatal.” I’m certainly not the first to have noticed this. Working in various sports and countries around the world, this trend has become more and more apparent. Why is this?


Vitor Frade, the great Portuguese mentor to many of the world’s greatest football coaches first brought this to my attention. Professor Frade explained that many coaches roll one year into the next, without starting and reinforcing the basics of the organisation. Not to mention game plan and philosophy of play.

This might not seem necessary at the elite end of performance, but it actually is more important at this level. The importance of a cohesive message cannot be underestimated for any organisation. The ‘basics’ cover three main areas, operation, vision and methodology. Remember you can’t assume everyone in the organisation knows these areas mentioned or remembers from last year. Nor that they will be handed-down to newcomers by veterans.

Operation refers to how things are done, from time keeping to the more mundane. Vision is the philosophy of the team, the style we that play to or operation of a business. The methodology is ‘the how’ this is achieved in practice.

By starting with this first message, players and assistant coaches know what is to be expected of them. The great San Francisco 49ers Coach Bill Walsh, always started the first day of every season with the very same meeting - covering the same points and maintaining a clear cohesive message.

In modern sport and business, highly skilled talent is recruited, and more frequently there are changes in staff, making this more important in today’s world than ever before.

As a leader in your first year, you have to make things clear so that people will more or less abide by the vision. Unless you reinforce these messages in year two, they can become diluted with absence of focus and staff turnover. By the end of year three, the vision is a faded memory.


Arie De Geus, who was the head of the Shell Oil Strategic Planning Group is well known for the saying: “The only sustainable competitive advantage you can sustain is to learn faster than the opposition.” This applies to sport, not just business of course. This can be seen most clearly in the third year of any team when performance appears to suffer. It may not be that your team is not performing, it may simply be that the opposition now has adjusted to your style or system and you’ve not continued to adapt.

Good coaches have a successful system, but great coaches continuously refine and adjust to adapt. This is one of the most fundamental differences between good and great – the ability to evolve. This takes rigorous honesty and humility, with a desire to ability and to learn fast.

Remember, in the first year, any team with a good system can surprise the opposition. By the second year, there is only one year of game film available for the opposition. However, by the third year there are two years of film - but not just any film, film of your losses. This is what every opponent needs – your kryptonite (how you were beaten!).

Unless you continue to adapt your game-plan and present a different approach or misdirect, you are simply feeding your opponent secrets to defeat you.


Any successful organisation must have a level of professional trust. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have been a part of successful teams, recognise that you don’t have to be the closest of friends. When it comes to winning, it’s based on trust and faith in each other – from top to bottom level management.

In the first year a new coach can ‘sell’ any vision to a group whether they are honest or not. With a new appointment comes enthusiasm and expectation. In the early stages, most players will trust the vision presented by the coach.

If, by the beginning of the second year, it appears that the coach isn’t genuine or honest - this trust is somewhat eroded. Nonetheless, most players will still buy-in for the second season.

However, by the third year if the leadership hasn’t demonstrated honest, openness and transparency - the initial trust is in much shorter supply. As a result, you will see a failure on field and off the field, as well as in the locker room.


There are a number of ways some organisations side step these issues and use artificial principles to delay the three-year rule.

Some coaches keep older players on the roster to enforce culture and/or delay the inevitable by changing staff or players, after trust has been broken. But this never addresses the source. Avoid any issues in year three;

  • Always ‘start at the start’. Begin with operation basics, reinforce the vision and how you do things. For both assistant coaches, staff and players

  • Adapt faster than your opponent. Competition never stands still - you need to ‘Red-Team’ (the independent group that challenges an organisation to improve its effectiveness) to constantly see what your opponent is preparing for and how to challenge them.

  • Be open and honest with your staff and players. Betrayal of trust cannot be underestimated. Almost every player can take bad news provided, that is direct, honest and transparent.

Dr. Fergus Connolly

Dr. Fergus Connolly