Whoever started using the phrase ‘team chemistry’ most likely knew exactly what they were talking about.

But these days it is such a vague term. There doesn’t seem to be a set criteria for what it means, although a brief Google search will show you how many people think they have the solution for building it.

The reality is that building team chemistry for any group – in athletics, business, religion, family – actually does have a lot to do with the chemicals your body releases.

In fact, there are three key ones all coaches should know – dopamine, oxytocin, and cortisol.

Dopamine is one of the key chemicals your body releases to give you a feeling of excitement and motivation to contniue a task. From it’s positive release mechanisms, it is fueled by accomplishing something meaningful or in making strides towards reaching that goal. This could be a personal or group goal. In athletics, the feeling you have seconds after a huge win is the ultimate dopamine release.

There is a down side to dopamine, which is that it’s highly addictive. And unfortunately there are a range of other negative ways to release it – consuming drugs & alcohol, gambling, even becoming obsessed with receiving messages on our smartphones.

Basically anything you develop an uncontrollable craving for is being driven by your body’s chemical need for a dopamine release. It is not a long lasting chemical, so it wants to be fed constantly.

Oxytocin is far different. It gets released when you are in the company of one or more people that you have a deep friendship and trust with. If you’ve ever been on a team that was truly close, where everyone really felt safe being themselves, then you have felt the power of oxytocin running through your veins.

The challenge here is that you genuinely have to feel that deep bond to get the oxytocin release. It can’t be faked or manufactured.

Oxytocin also helps us to be far more empathetic, so we tend to think and likely play more as one because team members are far more aware of what other players need. Small gestures like high fives and handshakes strengthen the bonds that create an oxytocin release. This one is a long lasting chemical release, so you’ll feel its effects all the time when you are truly lucky enough to have people you deeply trust.

Cortisol is a stress hormone, the ‘fight or flight’ chemical. It’s original intent was to jolt us into action when we were in danger, and it can still do that. But it is meant to be a very short-term release, because when cortisol is chronically elevated it leads to all sorts of problems.

Chroically elevated cortisol due to constant stress negatively impacts your immune system, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, along with causing even more health problems. When they say stress will kill you, it is entirely because of the negative effects of chronically high cortisol levels.

It also has another interesting effect, in that it lowers oxytocin levels. So it is nearly impossible to have high cortisol and oxytocin levels at the same time.

So what does all this mean for building team chemistry?

The nightmare scenario for anyone is a life fueled by dopamine and cortisol only, which unfortunately is widely prevalent at all ages of our society today but is very much impacting our younger generation. Stress and short-term bursts of excitement have become the world they’re used to. It is a growing problem and is potentially a driver of the growing substance abuse and depression problems millenials face.

From a team chemistry standpoint, a best case scenario is one where dopamine and oxytocin live in balance along with the other two key chemicals: endorphins and serotonin. In this world athletes are working towards a goal together, they feel better being with their teammates than alone, and are confident that they are valued members of the tribe. Cortisol will obviously be elevated during challenging times but it will not be elevated constantly.

Some key strategies for building better team chemistry would be:

  • Training & laughing together
  • Working towards goals together that are meaningful
  • Developing deep friendships & trust
  • High fives & handshakes
  • Having everyone placed in a valuable role, even if they aren’t stars, so they are respected by the group

Key areas to avoid are:

  • Allowing anyone to be isolated within the group
  • Not appreciating everyone on the team for what they bring to the group
  • Constantly being under stress with no relief ever

We could talk all day about team chemistry, ways to build it, and its effect on everyone involved.

But the lesson here is that there really are chemicals inside of you that create the feelings of trust or mistrust within a group. Done correctly, there is no greater feeling than being a respected member of a group, or having a relationship that has meaning to you. And for today’s kids I believe they need this kind of atmosphere more than any generation that has come before them.

But this has to be cultivated by someone at the top for it to become reality.

REFERENCE: ‘Leaders Eat Last’ by Simon Sinek

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