15 April 2016


Successful Partnerships: Finding the Right Fit

Daniel Gallan

Have you ever wondered why supremely gifted athletes don’t always form successful partnerships? Together with Warren Kennaugh, a behavioural strategist with over 20 years’ experience working with some of the world’s most successful teams, we uncover what constitutes a winning pairing. With elite teams constantly searching for the smallest gain in performance, perhaps the secret to success could be hidden in the emotions and values of their star athletes.

Ayrton Senna (l) celebrates winning the 1988 Formula 1 World Championship, after securing vicory at the Japanese Grand Prix, by spraying his McLaren team mate, Alain Prost (r) with champagne. The two would go on to forge a rivalry that has passed on into F1 folklore.  Image supplied by Action Images / Crispin Thruston.

Ayrton Senna (l) celebrates winning the 1988 Formula 1 World Championship, after securing vicory at the Japanese Grand Prix, by spraying his McLaren team mate, Alain Prost (r) with champagne. The two would go on to forge a rivalry that has passed on into F1 folklore. Image supplied by Action Images / Crispin Thruston.

Few sports turn teammates into rivals like Formula 1 and few rivalries between teammates command as much allure as the one that existed between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

The story of two of the greatest drivers that have ever lived reads like something out of Hollywood. Senna was the young Brazilian who drove these multimillion dollar machines like they were a child’s toy. He hated social hierarchies and became a champion of the poor in his third world homeland.

Prost, nicknamed ‘The Professor’, was his ideological antithesis. The experienced Frenchman was coolness personified. He was as calculated and mechanical as the cars he drove and understood the politics of the sport better than anyone.

Go and watch Senna (2010), the breath taking documentary about the driver’s life and death, and pay close attention to the scenes involving Prost. When the two became teammates at McLaren, it is hard not to ask what team principle Ron Dennis was thinking when he decided to let them drive sister cars.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to see the tension dripping in every scene. From the very start, the friction was palpable. When they collided at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix, handing Prost the title, it was clear that neither driver had the desire or ability to work together to form a cohesive team.

Why did these two extremely talented athletes struggle to form a successful partnership? Both wanted to win, but more importantly they wanted to beat each other. They wanted to exert dominance over each other on the track, because off it, their values were diametrically opposed.

For Warren Kennaugh, a behavioural strategist with more than 20 years’ experience working with elite athletes and businesses, a failure to form a successful partnership boils down to two factors: a misalignment of values and a coming together of behaviours that are too similar.

Our values are what motivate us to succeed, and each individual will be driven by different variables. Kennaugh, who has worked with Australian Cricket and Rugby, the New South Wales Waratahs and the National Rugby League (NRL), divides our values into 10 core categories. 

They are Recognition (the desire to be noticed and praised for your effort), Power (the knowledge that your efforts make a difference), Hedonism (the desire to have fun), Ultraism (the desire for everyone in the team or community to be treated fairly), Affiliation (the need for social interaction and being part of a team), Tradition (valuing history and respecting hierarchies), Security (valuing structure and safety), Commerce (the pursuit of wealth), Aesthetics (the freedom for self-expression) and Science (a yearning for knowledge through data and empirical studies).

According to Kennaugh, these are psychological, non-sport, humanistic motivators. He says, “We are unconsciously motivated by a combination of these variables and successful partnerships are formed when there is value alignment.”

Our values motivate us, and if we share the same values, our reasons to succeed will align with each other and a successful partnership can flourish.

When our values are different, it is imperative that those differences are respected and seen as complimentary. Athlete A might value hedonism more than Athlete B, but if Athlete B places a great emphasis on aesthetics, then the differing values can create a cohesive unit.

It is important to find out which values each athlete within a partnership rates highly. If there is a misalignment, it is up to the coach, senior players or the athletes themselves to recognise where those differences are and how those differences can complement an overall objective.

Unlike values, a successful partnership requires a point of difference in behaviours. On a sports field or racing track, two teammates who behave in similar ways can get in each other’s way. As Kennaugh says, “It’s like going to sit down in your favourite chair, only to find someone else is already there.”

Take for example a centre pairing in rugby union. If both players are aggressive and flamboyant, constantly trying to off-load in the tackle and play extravagantly, there will be no cohesion in the midfield. One player needs to be more tempered in his game. He needs to follow and anticipate that something unexpected might happen. If his desire is to be another flamboyant player, the partnership will suffer.

It’s the same with any partnership. Wicketkeeper and first slip in cricket, centre back parings in football, two teammates in F1; if the behaviours are too similar, the chances of collisions and frictions are increased.

After establishing what each individual’s values are and how they naturally behave when in competition, the next step involves flagging the conflicts and gaps. Naturally, each partnership will have certain values that are in conflict with each other and it is important to find a way of resolving this friction. Kennaugh believes that this is achieved through compromise. An almost obvious resolution, but how many relationship breakdowns can you attribute to an unwillingness to compromise?

Just as there are conflicts, so too will there be gaps – both in terms of values and behaviours. If neither partner values a particular variable, it might prove problematic when incorporating that partnership within the greater nucleus of the team. Likewise, if a particular behaviour does not exist in the partnership (say, long range shooting in a centre midfield partnership), that can lead to a partnership that lacks a crucial element necessary for success.

Behavioural gaps and conflicts need to be worked on practically – during training or in the gym – whereas values need to be worked on off the field – by having conversations and finding out where those conflicts and gaps are. “Each person needs to understand how their partner is similar and different to them,” Kennaugh says. “Behaviours can be trained and that can lead to an understanding of values. It’s easy to dismiss our partners as difficult to work with which is why we must understand our differences.”

The moment you label your partner as someone impossible to work with, as Prost did with Senna before the Frenchman left McLaren, the partnership is over. The aim is to avoid getting to that place as returning to a positive environment can be extremely difficult.

A partnership that does not flourish is not only emotionally jarring, but detrimental to the team environment. Clashes are often highly visible and can derail team performance.

Kennaugh believes that this is the great oversight of elite sport’s recruiting and scouting process. While he admits that it is impossible to say with any certainty how two individuals will work together until they are doing so, more could be done before contracts are signed.

“Most teams don’t do any investigation into the personalities of their athletes,” he says. “They assume that because you were a star in a previous team that you’ll replicate that success at your new team. They often don’t take into account that team chemistry could have been a major factor and that removing a player from a successful partnership could have a negative impact on performance.”

He says that there is a great rush to sign talent. Understandably so as talent is the commodity of elite sport and fans and stakeholders are as impatient as they come. Nonetheless, a concise strategy on the assessment of individual’s values and behaviours will inevitably lead to more informed decisions.

In most corporations, whenever a prospect is interviewed, the men and women he or she will be working with are often present for that interview. It makes sense that those who will be working alongside a new recruit should have a say about whether or not that recruit is hired.

Kennaugh calls it “Unwrapping the Christmas present before Christmas” and is adamant that elite sport does not do enough when it comes to assessing individuals within a partnership.

In elite sport, the margins between success and failure are decreasing every day. The best teams have scores of scientists collecting and analysing data in a number of areas including nutrition, equipment, sleep, training methods and a host of other variables that contribute to success. It seems a severe oversight if a team were to ignore the human values and emotions that could potentially create friction within a crucial partnership.

“We can talk about a niggle in the hamstring at great length but we struggle to talk about a niggle in the heart,” Kennaugh muses. “It’s in no one’s interest to have a bad partnership; not for the team, the fans, the coach or for the players whose performance (or lack thereof) could be the difference in securing a lucrative contract in the future.”

Human emotions will always be more challenging to empirically measure compared to a muscle injury or power output. However, if an elite team wishes to venture into a realm where few currently reside, perhaps the answer lies in understanding what motivates their athletes and how to adequately create a partnership that fits.

CONQA Sport is hosting our third annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 11th - 12th October 2017.