Group Think

In all of my undergraduate (and come to think of it, also in the graduate) communication courses, we typically discussed the idea of “group think” in negative terms. Loosely defined as the sort of collective thinking that discourages all individual creativity (and responsibility) and gets a group of people – in essence – to think as a single unit, it makes sense to view this sort of mental structure in an unflattering light when you consider the value we tend to place on innovation and thinking outside the box these days.

But what of the positive value of group think when it comes to putting together things like athletic teams (for example)?

I’ve mentioned previously that I always enjoy my conversations with friends who are coaches and athletic directors, both when we talk about equestrian sports as part of the intercollegiate athletic sphere, as well as when we speak about athletics in general. (As a rules-and-data person, I also confess that I find conversations about NCAA compliance fascinating – go ahead, call me a nerd. I’m cool with it.) And in my most recent conversation with a group of coaches and ADs, the idea of group think as not a bad thing, but instead a vital and intrinsic trait of a successful athletic program really took hold.

And then I realized that, for athletes in traditional sports, group think is often part of their training all through their middle and high school years. For equestrians, however, it’s often one of the hardest things they have to learn when they transition onto a college equestrian team.

You see, the thing about traditional horse showing is that, while the horse and rider are themselves a team, the rider (and very often the trainer/coach) are ultimately the leaders of said team. There’s no voting process to elect the leadership and creativity in the relationship structure is generally frowned upon for safety reasons (!); thus, (for better or worse) the will of the rider dominates the partnership. As a result, the need of the “team” is usually participation in whatever class or particular competition trainer and rider deem necessary for the advancement of the partnership, either for year-end awards or in order to take them to the next level. In other words, the sport is highly geared toward the individual horse and rider team (partnership) as opposed to a larger, more diverse team of multiple horses and riders with a shared goal.

Middle and high school riders who have the opportunity to participate in team format competitions like the Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) or newer Youth Equestrian Development Association (YEDA) get a taste of group team competition (and therefore group think) on their way to the intercollegiate realm, but even then, I’d argue that, for the majority of high school teams, the level of group think still doesn’t match that which can be found within varsity intercollegiate programs.

Here’s why:

Middle and high school teams are largely comprised of riders who live within relatively close proximity to the coach’s barn and are therefore able to travel there for regular lessons (team practices). So while the coach needs his or her riders to function well as a unit, when it comes to filling out the various divisions (beginner through advanced and open), he or she is left to the luck of the type of riders who live within the appropriate driving distance of the barn to form the roster. Perhaps there are a lot of advanced riders or a lot of beginners but not a lot in between – or perhaps it’s all middle-level riders one year and then when they advance into the upper divisions, there aren’t any beginners to be found whatsoever. What’s more, students in such a program are free to switch from barn to barn if they want to – and if their area has a lot of barn teams to choose from, they can easily try another if one isn’t a perfect fit. Thus, the coach can cultivate that “all for team” mindset within the group as much as he or she wants to, but in the end, there are some logistic issues to overcome if the team is going to be truly cohesive (and successful) over an extended period of time.

In contrast, varsity equestrian programs have the ability to build a new roster each year – and because they only turn over a certain number of students with each graduating class, the consistency within the team mindset can be maintained steadily over a longer period of time as the coach builds the exact type of program he or she desires. And though in IHSA programs students earn points and ascend the divisions in a way similar to that found in the IEA, every coach still has an idea of what slots will need to be filled in the next recruitment cycle due to graduations and other forms of team attrition and can recruit specifically to address those areas. What’s more, when recruiting those new students, the coach can also look for the other traits he or she prefers in riders – not just what slot they will fill on the roster sheet, but the general riding style, preferred character traits, and even a particular body type if they wish.

Varsity coaches from all sports – not just equestrian – get to custom-build their own teams and, as a result, they can start the group think dynamic well before the season’s practice schedule even begins simply by who they select to put on the roster.

Thus, when I begin working with students who seek spots on varsity rosters for their intercollegiate riding careers, we can’t always begin the process by talking about what teams will fit that particular rider. (Blogger’s note: The main reason for this is actually because academics come first in the college selection process always, but once we move on to the riding part, the roster availability comes very quickly into play.) Part of the research into teams has to examine what roster slots they’ll need to fill in the next year and where the current riders on the team have been recruited from (e.g. particular types of shows or show locations), as well as the coach’s teaching style and other similar factors. It isn’t difficult research to do, per se, but it is time-consuming and painstaking. It’s also extremely valuable when it comes time to make a final school choice, as the student’s overall fit in a particular college and program relies heavily on several factors (academic, athletic, social, economic, etc.) all hinges on the amount of information the student and family are able to gather about each institution during the research phase.

And let me tell you from firsthand experience, group think is incredibly difficult when you don’t fit into the group to begin with!

Intercollegiate athletics present an entirely different experience from high school athletics in a wide variety of ways, regardless of sport. For any student who plans to make the transition, a period of adjustment is certainly to be expected – and a change in mindset as well. (“All for one and one for all” isn’t just the motto of The Three Musketeers, you know.) So if you’re looking to make the leap, be prepared for it – and research your prospective colleges accordingly.

(Need help with the search? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book to guide you.)

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One thought on “Group Think

  1. Excellent point! Thank you for bringing it to our attention. Not only are you trying to find the right team for the rider, you have to be the right rider for the team.

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