Michael Bar-Eli, Ph.D.


Hierarchies and Rotations

Maybe it's time to reconsider the role of hierarchy in team sports—and beyond.

Posted Oct 17, 2017

It is a commonly held belief in sports that a successful team requires a clear hierarchy among its players. Hierarchies exist everywhere, from governments to businesses and families to schools. The interaction of members within such teams or units tends to break down into levels, exhibiting a type of vertical, top-down approach. In sports, next to the “Michael Jordans”—the shining stars—we find excellent number twos, like Scottie Pippen, followed by efficient substitutes like Toni Kukoc (all three players were members of the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the mid-90s.).

Jens Lehmann, former national German soccer goalkeeper and current coaching staff member of Arsenal Football Club, certainly knows a thing or two about team performance. In Lehmann’s 2010 book, Madness Lies on the Pitch, he states that “genuine harmony” on the pitch can only be created if there is a task-related, “stable hierarchy” in the team, according to the sole criterion of “who plays better.” Lehmann implies that task-cohesive teams—those focused on achieving a specified common goal together—essentially need players who know how to become the “best number two” like Pippen. They also need players who understand and accept their role in supporting the team’s success: The ultimate “clutch” player, such as Kukoc, who won, among other awards, the “NBA Sixth Man of the Year” for the 1995–96 season.

So hierarchal thinking and organization seems to lead to success—but what if it doesn’t? What if a more horizontal approach is appropriate today, not only in sports, but also in business, politics, or society as a whole?

Let’s consider the “rotation principle,” an idea that has recently been widely discussed among soccer experts and fans. In practice, this principle means that there is a less defined hierarchy in the team, as players are substituted in and out throughout and between games, and very few players know for sure if they will play more or less regularly. In order to succeed in the European arena, many soccer teams beef up their bench by buying good players. The result is that teams have more than 11 almost-equally-good players competing for playing time. To deal with this potential problem, coaches often apply the rotation principle.

As mentioned, many sports experts firmly believe in hierarchy, but rotation is already used in modern international soccer to spread out the sport’s immense physical workload, which can lead to serious injuries. For example, toward the end of the 2014-15 season, in the final, critical phase, when “the money was put on the table” in both local (German) and European arenas, 6 out of 11 players of Bayern Munich’s starting team were injured and had to be replaced by substitutes. To cope with such situations, top soccer teams—which may play more than 60 games in one season—should therefore have a “long bench,” with a cadre of up to 28 to 30 players, including several equal and/or versatile players who can play several positions on the pitch and rotate with each other as needed.

Assuming that every member of the team wants to be on the field playing, such a rotation creates a somewhat paradoxical type of competition through cooperation. Team members cooperate to win the game but also compete with each other for their moment to shine. So here we see that even though many sports experts firmly believe that a successful, harmonious team needs a clear and stable task-related hierarchy among its players, other, more flexible options are sometimes required with equal or versatile players, which are necessary for success.

Applied to businesses, we already see the development of a more egalitarian horizontal, or “flat,” structure, in which there is little middle management between staff and executives. This organizational method is used today in smaller enterprises and startups, and elements of it are applied in larger companies. If colleagues within an organization compete through cooperation, it’s possible the result will be increased performance of the team. As many members contribute equally to attaining an ultimate goal, there is no need for strict vertical hierarchy; they must only be prepared to handle their share of responsibility and commitment to success.

Team hierarchies are not dead, but we should revise the way we look at them, removing the emphasis on strict multi-tiered organizational structures. Leaders will always be necessary to a team, but with a more flat approach, the desire for individual success and the collective benefit of the team can both be obtained.

So next time you’re faced with a situation that involves “rotating” your team, you are advised to reconsider your options. It’s possible a little competition through cooperation is in order.