High Performance Teams #1 – Ajax of Amsterdam (1995)

On the 24th May 1995 Ajax of Amsterdam shocked the football world when they beat AC Milan in the Champions League final by one goal to nil. It was largely a home grown side with the majority of players developing in their academy. Numerous newspaper articles and television reports portrayed Ajax as the exemplar club football set up.

Ajax – Champions League Winners 1995

In one interview the then coach, Louis van Gaal, documented a number of the factors key to Ajax’s success. He highlighted their youth development scheme based on a series of training principles known as TIPS (Technique, Intelligence, Personality and Speed). Personality and speed are intrinsic to the person, but technique and intelligence can be cultivated. Selection for Ajax’s youth academy depends on a child’s ability and potential to excel in all four areas. This was essential conditioning for Ajax’s particular system of playing football as all youth teams use the same technical formation as the senior team. The system, according to Van Gaal, was fool proof in that were the team to lose a particular player another would be able to slot into the vacant position without the team losing its effectiveness.

Ajax lost the following season’s Champions league final to Juventus on a penalty shoot-out and Van Gaal’s assertion that

Louis Van Gaal
Louis Van Gaal

the system was fool proof was exposed by a mid-season cruciate ligament injury to the excellent winger Marc Overmars. Van Gaal attempted to replace Overmars with a number of players but none were able to match the attacking threat of Overmars. Ajax’s success led to many football pundits debating the importance of systems over individual talent. Johnny Giles felt that while a system was important, nothing could override the importance of the quality of the players playing within that system.

Every player in that Ajax side was in demand and it came as no surprise that the team soon broke up with the majority of the players heading for teams in either Spain or Italy. Ajax has not enjoyed success in the Champions League since and would no longer be regarded as a giant of European football. Many of the players struggled to make a similar impact at their new clubs, with some warming the subs bench. Louis Van Gaal left Ajax in 1998 to coach Barcelona with moderate success

Over the years there has been a multi-racial mix to the Ajax squad with many children from Dutch colonies such as Surinam electing to join the Ajax youth development programme. The Dutch national squad for the 1996 European Championships contained mostly Ajax players. Their poor showing was attributed to a lack of harmony between a number of factions within the squad. Black players were reported to have kept to themselves, and perceived the more senior white players as being deceitful in currying favour and ingratiating themselves with the manager Guus Hiddink. Hiddink sent Edgar Davids home when he broached the issue of favouritism.

The Ajax case is of interest as it raises a number of issues that are important to the establishment of High Performance teams. These are:

• Role Dispensability and Functionality
• Stability
• Conditioning
• Relationships & Diversity
• Leadership.

Role Dispensability and Functionality
What is the right mix in a team? Ajax tried to build a team that would accommodate the loss of specialists such as Marc Overmars without compromising overall team effectiveness. Without the specialists Ajax may have been able to produce an effective team but it’s doubtful that it would have been a high performing one at elite level.

Soccer is a game that’s highly fluid with a high level of interdependence amongst the players. According to Katz and Koenig (2001:63) “co-ordination is achieved through constant mutual adjustment among players”. But for a team to reach a level of High Performance and excel it must consist of “excellent players”. Interdependent teams “use the collective knowledge and skills of their members to get their work done. They exhibit high quality social processes, extensive mutual learning, and a sense of collective responsibility for performance outcomes,” Wageman, (1995:174).

According to Adair (1986) though “it’s relatively easy to establish a degree of teamwork or co-operation between a group of people, it’s infinitely harder to develop a High Performance team.” Sufficient diversity and creativity should be included within any team. Groups made up entirely of people with similar backgrounds and experience is unlikely to be creative as those whose membership is more varied.

Major John Howard
Major John Howard

An important feature of successful teams, according to Woods (1993), is that each member is dispensable. For example, during the D-Day landings the capture of the Ouistreham / Pegasus bridge on the River Orne was carried out by D Company of the 5th Parachute Brigade, commanded by Major John Howard. The team was given 13 months to prepare for the attack and were instructed to capture the bridge and “hold until relieved”. The team was designed to incorporate dispensability. Whoever was killed or wounded could easily be replaced by another team member. Specialists did exist, but nobody was essential. This was crucial as all of the officers were wounded during the battle. In all, two were killed with fourteen wounded. What remained to “hold until relieved” was a reduced team who trusted each other in all the functions of the operation and worked without relying on a command structure.

The fact that each team member is dispensable does not mean that everyone is interchangeable. Everyone should know their respective roles. There are two distinct types of role and a team will only function if everyone knows their role in both senses. The first type is the expert. The second is functional, Woods (1993). Before a team can succeed it has to achieve an appropriate allocation of

Pegasus Bridge
Pegasus Bridge

functional roles. Belbin (1993) identified nine functional roles that were necessary to the successful functioning of a team. These are the Plant, Co-ordinator, Shaper, Team Worker, Completer, Implementer, Resource Investigator, Specialist, and Monitor Evaluator. Keary (1994) points out that Adair (1986) disagrees with Belbin in that people do not fit into such typification too easily. He feels that roles should be classified according to their specialisation and expertise. It’s important that these people are socially competent in order to work and succeed within the team environment.

Ideally, High-Performing teams should try to embrace the concepts of dispensability, functionality and expertise combined with the social skills conducive to functioning within the relevant team environment. Any compromise within these areas will lead to a team performing below par.

One of the more important lessons from the Ajax case may be the importance of keeping a winning team together. Ajax’s power and success dissipated once key players began to leave the team. Keary (1994) addresses the importance of stability by citing Belbin (1993) stating that a “mature team knows what it is good at, where its strengths and weaknesses lie and avoids engaging in activities where it cannot compete effectively.” Katz and Koenig (2001) stress the importance of team stability by citing a study by researchers, Berman, Down and Hill, which analysed the records of all teams in the NBA between 1980 and 1994. They were able to show that there is a strong causal link from shared experience to performance.

The more time team mates have together, the more able they are to anticipate one another’s moves and the clearer they are about one another’s roles, and this results in enhanced team performance. Shared experience constitutes a tremendously valuable strategic asset for a team, since it is based on knowledge that is unique and non-transferable.

– Katz and Koenig (2001:62)

Katz and Koenig (2001) maintain that this is just as true within the workplace where there is a high degree of interdependence among workers and cite a study of fifty product development teams by Ralph Katz. Katz found that it took up to two years for team members to get to know each other and become familiar and confident in the other members’ routines and working practices.

Why were a large number of the extremely talented Ajax players less successful in different team environments? Moving to a new club leads to a break in stability and routine, as well as a different cultural environment. The unique conditioning of Ajax players through the TIPS (Technique, Intelligence, Personality and Speed) system may have been one factor. The TIPS conditioning may have been incompatible with the conditioning of players from other cultures, leading to a clash in expectations. Ajax players, going back to the time of Johan Cruyff, have had a tradition of disputing tactics. The Ajax system encourages this and is an important part of the Intelligence competence within the TIPS system. If anything, it avoids the pitfalls of “groupthink”, (Janis, l971). Italian and Spanish coaches are regarded as being mainly dictatorial in approach and would not encourage or appreciate such questioning.

Louis Van Gaal attempted to migrate the Ajax system to Barcelona when he took over as head coach. As well as a number of his former players, Van Gaal brought ideas and footballing concepts that were alien and anathema to the Catalan footballing culture. Despite winning two Spanish league titles Van Gaal’s tenure was not a happy one. Player dissent and constant calls for his removal by the Catalan press were unrelenting.

During the conditioning process team members develop the skills required to succeed within a certain team environment. According to Katzenbach and Smith (1993) skill requirements fall into three categories:

1. Technical or functional expertise
2. Problem-solving and decision making skills
3. Interpersonal skills

Nichol (2000) maintains that one of the ten reasons for dysfunctional teams is a lack of the appropriate conditioning and training. All successful teams must undertake a four stage training process:

1. Explain the concept of teams
2. Teach “team players” skills in interpersonal communication, decision making, problem solving, assertion, negotiation, conflict management and change management
3. Training in technical and administrative skills
4. Train members to perform each other’s functions to maintain high performance in the face of changes in the team and work place.

Relationships and Diversity
Why were Ajax successful and the Dutch National side which contained a similar group of players unsuccessful? One explanation may be the differing managerial approaches of Louis Van Gaal and Guus Hiddink. Hiddink, may not have had as in-depth a knowledge as Van Gaal of the relationships that existed between the Ajax players and was therefore unable to anticipate potential problems.

The conflict was largely between the more senior white players and the more junior black players. There was therefore a possible issue of both tenure and race. Pelled, Eisenhardt and Xin (1999) found that differences in both tenure and race led to increased emotional conflict within work groups. The vastly improved performance of the Dutch football team in the 1998 World Cup suggests that these differences were managed properly and not allowed to affect performance.

Redgrave & Holmes
Steve Redgrave & Andy Holmes

There are numerous other instances of successful sports teams where team members detested one another. For instance, at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 the British gold medal-winning coxless pair of Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes were known to hate each other. It was literally a common goal of winning an Olympic gold as well as a respect for each other’s abilities that kept them together. Redgrave has won an Olympic gold at five consecutive Olympic Games as a member of different teams.

MacMillan (2000) suggests that good relationships must exist amongst members of a high-performance team.

Effective teams manage their differences to create the climate needed for high levels of co-operation. Solid team relationships are characterised by trust, mutual accountability, acceptance, respect, courtesy and a liberal dose of understanding.

– MacMillan (2001:II)

This view is supported by Jehn and Mannix (2001.240) who put forward a hypothesis that, “high-performing groups will have lower levels of relationship conflict throughout all phases of group interaction than low-performing groups”.

While it’s nice to think that everyone within a team should get along, experience tells us otherwise. Difference should not be allowed to dictate the success or failure of a team and management systems should be introduced and common goals should be found that allow team members to focus on the objective at hand.

The disharmony among the Ajax contingent of the Dutch side points to issues of relationships, diversity and leadership. MacMillan (2001) points out that one of six characteristics of a high performance team is accepted leadership.

High performance teams need clear, competent leaders who can serve, set direction, manage boundaries and coach the team members toward extraordinary results. These leaders are capable of stimulating the levels of commitment, initiative and creativity that lead to unprecedented levels of both individual and collective performance.

– MacMillan (2001:II)

The case of Ajax of Amsterdam highlights five factors that must be addressed before a high performance team functions with success. Though all five appear to be obvious their sustainability over time is questionable. Managers who are trying to assemble teams for tasks in any environment should be aware of the pitfalls in achieving success and sustaining it. Ajax managed to balance the five factors of role dispensability and functionality, stability, conditioning, diversity and leadership in winning the Champions League. Their system though unraveled with the injury to Marc Overmars, and the breakup of a very talented team.


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