Baseball teams are often misconstrued as collections of pieces and parts. Were one to be constructing a fantasy roster this is all well and fine. But, the fact is that real rosters are assemblages of humans. They, in concert with the coaches, manager, front office, and support staff comprise a team. All of the cylinders in the engine have to work in concert to produce the desired outcome. One would think this is automatic in a highly-compensated environment. That would be an erroneous assumption.
Teams, regardless of the field of endeavor go through trials and tribulations as they come together. One of the beauties of baseball is that the rosters remain more consistent over the off-season than some other sports. A key change or two will alter the dynamic, however. Few of the changes an organization could make are more impactful than changing the field manager. If that doesn’t upset things enough, then lose the acknowledged clubhouse leader/ senior statesman. Those changes are significant enough to cause a re-boot of team dynamics.
In 1965 Ohio State Psychology Professor Bruce Tuckman published his “Theory of Group Development.” Teams go through distinct phases as they are assembled and function. These are; Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. Years later he added the Adjourning phase at the end of the team term. Watching the Nationals so far this year it hasn’t been hard to see the progression through the phases.
We like to think that Spring Training is where all the organizational kinks and personality rubs are smoothed. That would be nice. However, Spring Training is a sort of parallel universe. The focus is scattered between roster selection, drills, and split-squad games that mean absolutely nothing. In the Forming phase individuals tend to be reserved, stiff, and un-revealing. It’s all about following protocol. Here’s the team. Here are the objectives. These are the rules. The players don’t know the manager and vice versa. How hard is it to trust someone you don’t know? At the end of Forming the team is simply a collection of individuals. They know where they are supposed to go. But, they have no idea how they will do that as a cohesive unit.
The bonds that tie the group together come in Storming. Pure politeness wears thin. Personalities start to grind. Mistakes are made. Lack of knowledge starts to cost. Real adversity sets in. People start figuring out who can be trusted to do what…and who cannot. Sometimes the visuals are not pretty. Team rooms in Storming sometimes sound like a simultaneous collection of shouting matches. But, the process is invaluable. Before a team can Norm and Perform it has to have mutual trust and understanding. The early Nationals’ season was a case study in Storming.
One can argue that Davey Martinez should have known his players better before the season started. He made glaring mistakes. Most notably he used Ryan Madson three days in a row with catastrophic results. Some players will tell the truth when asked if they are good to go. Some won’t. Learning which player gives reliable answers is a part of the Storming process. By the end of the losing streak there were the predictable, “…rumblings in the clubhouse.” It’s all part and parcel of classic Storming as the smiles and veneer wear thin exposing real tissue and nerve endings.
Successful teams emerge from the morass of Storming when there are solid understandings of roles, responsibilities, strengths, weaknesses, and limitations across the board. That may sound trite. But, those foundation pieces set the stage for mutual trust. At that point a team is in the Norming stage where it can start to get in a groove. That’s where the Nationals are now. The players have figured out the new boss. The new boss has a much better handle on his players. It took just about a month of real baseball to get there.
The Performing stage is defined by confidence. The team has high confidence in itself. Members rely on each other. The team functions at a very high level with great efficiency. Will the Nats get to the Performing stage? We have to wait and see.
What we do know is that the team went through the bumps, bruises, and scratches of Storming in rather demonstrative fashion during April. Teams that go through that ritual tend to form strong identities and perform well. The early trends from Norming are encouraging. With 123 games left there’s plenty of opportunity for those trend lines to solidify.