Team building is the single most underestimated element in creating a team at the start of any sport season. There are huge amounts of research to support the idea that team building and fostering team cooperation matter more then simply teaching the skills of any particular sport. This may account for the reason why some coaches with limited knowledge of a sport, or coaches who have never even played the sport they are coaching, can often achieve success. I think the one element that these coaches possess, also very much underestimated, is the ability to bring players into an environment in which they want to belong. Team building is an essential element to any team if your goal is to create a positive climate, promote a safe environment to learn, foster friendships and of course win games. I believe that long-term winning teams can not be created in a culture of intimidation and aggression. Long-term winning teams grow from a culture of kind, skilled and inspired coaching.
In his book David and Goliath, author Malcolm Gladwell chronicles the success of a basketball coach who never played basketball. While Gladwell describes a strategy for the game adopted by the coach, I think there is something else at play that he only touches upon – the respect that this coach shows toward the athletes. One thing this coach, new to the game of basketball, realized was that young people generally don’t respond well to being yelled at and criticized in an effort to elicit motivation, something he saw other coaches doing. Team building speaks to this. It transforms potentially aggressive and critical athletic environments into places where trust can develop among teammates.
Katherine Heffernan in her Ted Talk points this out beautifully. In her TED Talk, “Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work” she examines what makes teams of any type including sports teams more successful. What the research shows is that teams that value each other on many levels often experience the greatest success. Heffernan maintains, that the highest achieving teams are frequently successful because they maintain higher levels of empathy toward one another, within the group no single voice is more important then the others and all are given and accept the opportunity to become contributors to the team, regardless of whether they are the star player or they sit the bench. Once again, team-building speaks to all of these concepts. In a teambuilding exercise we have the opportunity to see a fellow teammate as not just a lacrosse player, but as a whole person who has much value to bring to the lacrosse team.
Team building creates off-field cooperation which in turn creates buy-in. Buy-in is the foundation for success on the field. Team building creates a more meaningful athletic experience at a time when young athletes need it most – when they often experience marginalization. In his book the Talent Code, Daniel Coyle defines this buy-in as “belonging”. The promise of “belonging” to a desirable group, such as a sports team where there might be some exclusivity – sometimes manifested through team cuts, safety – a safe learning environment, and belonging – being part of a group that accepts and values who and what an individual brings to the team. All of these elements help to create an environment where a young person can grow in ways not limited to just athletic success. Being part of a group we love breeds dedication and motivation. Creating a team community off the field creates a successful team on the field
What sorts of characteristics can shine during a team building exercise? Well, some that I have observed are acceptance – for both oneself and for those sharing the experience with us. Trust – so that when were are placed in a vulnerable position like learning something new together, we can turn to our neighbor for help or offer an empathetic glance. And, yes empathy – as each member shares the same experience we also share that unsettling feeling we get when we are learning something new. When we are collectively practicing that new skill we come to understand that some may “get it” faster than others and those who do can help those who don’t along the path. This goes a long way in developing a team that values trust in each other.
Listen, I’ve said this before, I like to win. But, I don’t believe a winning program can happen if we don’t take care of the team first. Take care of the team and the winning takes care of itself.