Team bonding suffers in tech age

Publish date:

Ask many coaches, general managers and older players and you'll hear a common gripe: chemistry on teams has been altered because of modern technology, and not for the better. The rise of smartphones, with all their instant-communication and entertainment options, have created insular worlds into which distracted players too often retreat instead of bonding with teammates.

Coaches and managers are particularly frustrated at the paradox of players fraternizing less with their own teammates, and more with the "enemy." Players from opposing teams, they say, too often get each other's cellphone numbers and start calling or texting back and forth, often griping about playing time and occassionally giving up little secrets about their teams.

"There are times I get frustrated, as an older manager," said Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray, 68. "You get on the bus after a game and look back, and all you see are guys on their cellphones. Whether they're calling their agent or a guy on another team, I don't know. It may be to their wife, but more than likely to somebody else. Sometimes it's about getting too much ice time, but most of the time it's about not getting enough ice time or some other issue."

It's not that team chemistry was always better in the olden days; history is full of teams whose players didn't get along or were distracted from their jobs by entertainment options. The mid-1970s Boston Red Sox became known for the very unsociable slogan, "25 Guys, 25 Cabs." But too often today, the older-generation player or manager say, the slogan could be: "25 Guys, 25 BlackBerries."

"When you get on the bus now to go to a game, everybody's got their headphones on, or staring at their phones instead of sitting there talking," said former NHL defenseman Rob Blake, who retired last year and now works in the league's front office. "But now where I've seen [a difference] most is in the dressing rooms. You always had a team stereo, and you always had one guy put the music on and you always had a team song. Now, guys have their own headphones. You don't even really need a team stereo anymore, because they're all listening to their own music."

Major League Baseball is one sport where the chemistry effects of smartphones, iPads, iPods and other handheld devices might be thought to be minimal, because of the longer workdays and more enclosed environs (dugouts, bullpens, clubhouses). Not necessarily so, according to Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy. When the game is over, he says, players quickly rejoin their private, smartphone worlds.

"Years ago, there would be any number of occasions where you'd walk into a clubhouse two hours after a game was over and you'd still see players sitting there talking baseball and/or what just took place and/or what was going to take place over the next two, three, four days," Tracy said. "You don't see a lot of that anymore. I wouldn't say that's necessarily for the worse. That's not to say conversation doesn't still go on.

"But today, when the day's over, the day's over. But there's also a wealth of information available to these guys that wasn't there several years ago, with the Internet and all that other kind of stuff. Maybe it can even be a plus in some guys' cases, where maybe they want to get away from it mentally a little bit and they have other venues to go to, to get their mind off the game a little bit when things aren't going the way they'd like."

But Tracy clearly isn't a fan of the ease with which players from other teams can privately converse today. "It's very, very difficult to keep secrets in this game now. Believe me when I tell you," he said.

Rockies veteran first baseman Jason Giambi is in agreement with much of Tracy's assessment of today's clubhouse era. "When I first broke into the league [with Oakland in 1995] everybody did everything together. Now, everybody's got their own thing going on," said Giambi, 40.

But Giambi also believes today's athlete -- himself included -- loves the advantages to their craft that today's technology affords.

"Before I even go hit, I've seen the [opposing pitcher's] last 10 starts on my iPad," Giambi said. "It's pretty amazing. The scouting and information you can get right away today is unbelievable. It's like anything, there are plusses and minuses. But at the same time, yeah, I think it's hurt a little bit, where there isn't that camaraderie anymore."

Giambi said he and fellow old-schooler Todd Helton actually have instituted informal clubhouse rules as to when players cannot be on their smartphones or other devices.

"Times like before stretch. Right before stretch, we all try to get together and we'll stretch a lot together in the clubhouse. You really want that team chemistry, for guys to talk to each other and hang out," Giambi said. "We've made a point to go around and try to include everybody in the clubhouse. I don't know if guys are talking to guys from other teams more now with [smartphones], but I can see how it would definitely be easier. Before you tried to do any of that stuff on the field, but it's probably a lot easier to do it off the field now."

Secrecy of strategy has long been a source of obsession in the NFL.

Stories of paranoia about spying and leaks are legion, including the one when former San Diego Chargers coach Harland Svare was reported to have peered into a light fixture in the visitors' locker room at Oakland Alameda-County Coliseum and yelled "Damn you Al Davis, I know you're up there!"

It's probably no secret, then, that NFL coaches aren't big fans of Twitter, text messaging and all that other newfangled technology. NFL players, coaches and operations personnel are banned from using social media beginning 90 minutes before kickoff -- and players are highly discouraged from saying anything but the most milquetoast of thoughts.

But that hasn't stopped several players from saying things on Twitter and Facebook that have gotten them in trouble, like in 2009 when running back Larry Johnson essentially got himself kicked off the Kansas City Chiefs for tweeting criticism of coach Todd Haley, including the use of a homophobic slur. That didn't help team chemistry any, as the Chiefs finished with a 4-12 record.

Some NFL teams are said to be contemplating outright bans on smartphones during any "team time" activities, and some coaches have spoken with exasperation at competing with phones for players' attention. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, for instance, told ESPN 101 radio in St. Louis the difficulties of dealing with phone-obsessed players such as former Washington tackle Albert Haynesworth.

"He's one of those you walk into a meeting and tell him, 'Put the phone down.' The next day you have to tell him to put down the phone. The next day you tell him to put down the phone. It doesn't stick. It's an everyday thing," Haslett said.

Reminiscing recently to the Quincy (Mass.) Patriot-Ledger about the 25th anniversary of his 1985-86 Boston Celtics' NBA championship team, Hall of Famer Bill Walton seemed grateful that he played when he did.

"It was a very close team, on and off the court,'' Walton told the newspaper. "It was an era that predated smartphones and headphones (though the first commercially available cellular phones came in 1983).

"We played together, practiced today, lived together. We celebrated together. We did everything together. What Larry [Bird] set up for us at the Scotch 'N Sirloin after the games, all the events we went to together, the road trips, we spent all of our time together. We were always going out to dinner, to the movies. We were always just doing fun stuff."

Hockey Hall of Fame former coach Scotty Bowman, the NHL's all-time wins leader, actually loves today's technology. He has an iPad and top-of-the-line smartphone, and was one of the first coaches to embrace the Internet for gathering information from all sources in the mid-1990s. But the 77-year-old living legend admits he might have had a tougher time coaching players in today's high-tech era.

"There's a lot of things competing for their attention today," Bowman said. "It's just a lot different. I don't know if it's that teams aren't as close as they used to be, but players don't seem to need to rely on each other for company as much like they used to. Now they can just go talk to a million other friends if they want, on what do you call it -- Facebook?"