Whether you're the owner of the Dallas Cowboys or captain of the playground dodge ball team, the goal in picking players is the same: Get the top talent. Hearts have been broken, allegiances tested, and budgets busted as teams contend for the best athletes. The motivation for recruiting peak performers is obvious — exceptional players are the key to team success — and this belief is shared not only by coaches and sports fans, but also by corporations, investors, and even whole industries. Everyone wants a team of stars.
While there is no denying that exceptional players like Emmitt Smith can put points on the board and enhance team success, new research by Roderick Swaab and colleagues suggests there is a limit to the benefit top talents bring to a team. Swaab and colleagues compared the amount of individual talent on teams with the teams’ success, and they find striking examples of more talent hurting the team.
The researchers looked at three sports: basketball, soccer, and baseball. In each sport, they calculated both the percentage of top talent on each team and the teams’ success over several years. For example, they identified top NBA talent using each player’s Estimated Wins Added (EWA), a statistic commonly employed to capture a player’s overall contribution to his team, along with selection for the All-star tournament. Once the researchers determined who the elite players were, they calculated top-talent percentage at the team level by dividing the number of star players on the team by the total number of players on that team. Finally, team performance was measured by the team's win-loss record over 10 years.
For both basketball and soccer, they found that top talent did in fact predict team success, but only up to a point. Furthermore, there was not simply a point of diminishing returns with respect to top talent, there was in fact a cost. Basketball and soccer teams with the greatest proportion of elite athletes performed worse than those with more moderate proportions of top level players.
Why is too much talent a bad thing? Think teamwork. In many endeavors, success requires collaborative, cooperative work towards a goal that is beyond the capability of any one individual. Even Emmitt Smith needed effective blocking from the Cowboy offensive line to gain yardage. When a team roster is flooded with individual talent, pursuit of personal star status may prevent the attainment of team goals. The basketball player chasing a point record, for example, may cost the team by taking risky shots instead of passing to a teammate who is open and ready to score.
Two related findings by Swaab and colleagues indicate that there is in fact tradeoff between top talent and teamwork. First, Swaab and colleagues found that the percentage of top talent on a team affects intrateam coordination. For the basketball study, teams with the highest levels of top performers had fewer assists and defensive rebounds, and lower field-goal percentages. These failures in strategic, collaborative play undermined the team’s effectiveness. The second revealing finding is that extreme levels of top talent did not have the same negative effect in baseball, which experts have argued involves much less interdependent play. In the baseball study, increasing numbers of stars on a team never hindered overall performance. Together these findings suggest that high levels of top talent will be harmful in arenas that require coordinated, strategic efforts, as the quest for the spotlight may trump the teamwork needed to get the job done.
The lessons here extend beyond the ball field to any group or endeavor that must balance competitive and collaborative efforts, including corporate teams, financial research groups, and brainstorming exercises. Indeed, the impact of too much talent is even evident in other animals: When hen colonies have too many dominant, high-producing chickens, conflict and hen mortality rise while egg production drops. So before breaking the bank to recruit superstars, team owners and industry experts might want to consider whether the goal they are trying to achieve relies on individual talent alone, or a cooperative synergy from the team. If the latter, it would be wise to reign in the talent and focus on teamwork.