The following is from Bob Williams, Head Boys Basketball Coach, Niles West High School:
Some say that teamwork is the key to every success. Success in sports, in business, and in life is directly dependent on effective teamwork. Recent trends have made the concept of team building desirable to those who manage people in our culture. One cannot function in today’s global society without participating on countless teams, and the process of building an effective team has become one of the ‘hot’ topics in the business world today. This concept, though, is not something new in the world of sports. Coaches have developed and managed effective teams throughout the history of organized athletics. Coaches who are successful in an athletic environment are successful in the most competitive atmosphere available for building teams. Therefore, it is reasonable to analyze the methods of successful athletic coaches to identify effective team-building techniques. This paper addresses the process of building a successful team in athletics. The strategies presented have proven successful in various athletic environments; however, this process can be easily adjusted to be effective for building teams in any setting that requires teamwork.
The first step in building any team is choosing the team members. This process can vary greatly from situation to situation, depending on the pool of talent available for the team. A coach or business manager should look at various factors when choosing the members of the team. Talent is a major part of the successful team, but should not be the most important aspect to consider when choosing a team member. The most important factor to consider is the character of the player. A team cannot be effective if the leaders on the team are lacking in character. A highly effective team may have a player or two with questionable character, but these players cannot be team leaders. Only when the leaders of a team have character will the team itself have character. Team character is crucial for achieving success. Character gives teams the winning edge and lifts the team to its goals. It must be established in the culture of the team that character matters.
Equally important when choosing a team is how the abilities of the players complement each other. The coach needs to ask himself whether he would like a collection of amazing players or an amazing collection of players. A collection of amazing players will disappoint unless their talents are complementary. Frequently, teams achieve championship status when they don’t necessarily possess the greatest individual talents, but are victorious by blending their abilities in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is out of the ordinary, though, for a team to achieve greatness without this precious quality. A coach who has selected players with great character and complementary skills will have laid the groundwork for a team which attains the elusive state of synergy, where the skills and abilities of the team combine in the most powerful way possible.
The next task is to assess the various reasons why the players want to be on the team. There are commonly many different reasons for participation among the team members. The most common reasons are typically associated with fulfilling personal needs that can range from receiving recognition to personal accomplishment, from belonging to competing, from having fun to developing discipline. Each player will have his own reason for being on the team. It is the coach’s responsibility to insure that the players understand that the best way to achieve their individual goals is to work as an effective team member. Frequently, a coach cannot completely change the character of all of the people trying out for the team. Furthermore, a coach usually cannot have power over the reasons the players try out for the team. This is not to say that the coach will be a victim when attempting to build an effective team. The better the character and motivations of the team members, the easier the job is for the coach. A team lacking in these areas makes the job more difficult for a coach, but, either way, the job can be done.
Regardless of the composition of the team, it is imperative that the coach convinces the players that they are all attempting to accomplish the same thing – a mastermind alliance. A mastermind alliance occurs when all team members are so committed to the team vision that they seem to function as a single mind. Pat Riley refers to it as “The Core Covenant”. Phil Jackson calls it “Zen Selfless Awareness” or “Five-man Tai Chi”. Jackson also quotes Rudyard Kipling’s poem from The Second Jungle Book as an illustration of this point:
Now this is the Law of the Jungle-
As old and as true as the sky:
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
But the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk,
The Law runneth forward and back.
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
And the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
Whatever term a coach may use, compelling a team to pursue the team vision is the single most important task a successful coach must accomplish. Once the team is persuaded of the desirability of the team vision and the opportunity presented by this vision, every other task is considerably easier. A coach needs to address the vision every day in every activity. The vision needs to be worthwhile in the minds of the players. The vision does not necessarily have to be what others would deem to be positive or advisable. There are numerous examples of leaders like Hitler or Jim Jones who were highly effective at convincing a team of the attractiveness of some very negative goals. A coach who picks a positive vision and influences his team to work to achieve this vision has accomplished the most difficult task in team building.
A wise coach never assumes that the task of selling the vision to the players is done. He works each day to deepen the understanding and belief that his players have in the vision. This undertaking could be called “positive brainwashing”. Many of the techniques that comprise the process of brainwashing are techniques that effective coaches have used for years. The effective coach knows that it is important to talk to his players about the vision when they are under duress in practice. The effective coach knows that it is important to talk to his players at the end of practice when they are tired. The effective coach knows that it is important to talk to his players before and after games when they are very emotional. The effective coach knows that it is important to be redundant about important topics. These are all techniques that are shared with the process of brainwashing.
The key for a successful coach is to thoroughly examine the team vision and his own motivations for this vision. If the fundamental motivation is to develop effective team members who will become useful members of society, then this process can be called positive brainwashing. If the fundamental motivation is something less than this, then the vision can easily be twisted into a harmful situation with a predictably negative outcome for all.
True belief in the team’s vision is essential for the core members of the team. This will create positive leadership and a positive team culture. Then, even if there are members of the team who don’t quite have the true belief, all team members will still feel compelled to work to achieve the team vision. Not doing so would violate the norms of the team. A player who violates these norms can be easily identified. When this happens, the player must be forced to decide whether he wants to work to achieve the vision with the rest of the team or decide that he no longer wishes to be part of the team. The biggest mistake a coach can make is to be seduced by the talent of a player who does not believe in the team vision. Regardless of talent, a player who does not work to achieve the team vision cannot be allowed to remain on the team. Every effort should be made to convince this player of the merits of the vision, but when push comes to shove, the player has to be given a choice – work with the rest of the team to accomplish the team vision or be removed from the team.
The coach must also develop leadership on the team from among the team members. If the coach is the only legitimate leader on the team, the values and commitment of the team tend to be very superficial. The leaders on the team can accomplish a great deal when the team is away from the coach. If the leaders are promoting the team vision when they are away from the coach, the team will realize that this is not something they are doing for the coach, but something they are doing for themselves. The easiest way to develop leadership on the team is to find important non-critical issues and let the team decide how to resolve such issues. The more often the coach does this, the better. It is essential that these issues are important to the team, or this activity will be meaningless and weaken the leadership of the team. When a coach defers important decisions to the team often, he can gauge the level of understanding that the team and the team leadership have of the vision. If that level is very high, the coach can then let the team address critical issues as well. The coach can have confidence that the team will do the right thing because they have demonstrated an understanding of the implications of the team vision. If the level of understanding is not as high, then the coach knows the team will need more guidance in decision-making. Also, the coach knows that he must be more diligent in his efforts to convince the team of the merits of the team vision. The delegation of decision-making responsibility to team members is a proven way to develop effective team leaders.
A coach must also set the values for the team. This, again, is done on a daily basis. A common negative occurrence on a team is that the players learn to value talent. Talent is important, but it cannot be one of the team’s core values. Talent is relatively fixed on a team. One can develop talent to a point, but most physical or mental attributes cannot be changed considerably and those that can usually are changed over a long period of time. The same can be said for skills. A basketball player who has a poor jump shot cannot learn to be a great three-point shooter overnight. It takes time. If a team has a core value of talent, then they become victims of that talent. They either have it or they don’t. If they don’t, they might as well go home. If they do, they will tend to rely on their talent and not improve much in the process. This team will lose when facing a team with equal or greater talent. This team will also lose to lesser talented teams that have worked to improve throughout the year. Achieving and developing more talent is important, but it is not a positive team value. The key question then becomes “What should a team value?”
Effort needs to be at the core of the team’s value system. When a team member makes great effort, it needs to be recognized and rewarded by the team. Each team member will bring different talent levels to the team, but every team member can make great effort. This value puts all team members at the same level. Regardless of the relative status of the team member, it must be important to give great effort. The coach must give great effort. The most talented must give great effort. The least talented must give great effort. Each and every member of the team can and should be accountable for their effort. The most talented players are going to accomplish more and, as a result, outsiders will be likely to recognize them more for their labors. The team members must always be conscious of the core value and recognize those players who are making great effort regardless of the outcome of that effort. There are many other values that need to be important to the team, most of which revolve around character issues. These need to be wisely chosen and encouraged, but the value that has to be emphasized on a daily basis is the value of making effort.
Most teams have some type of a hierarchical system that determines the duties and relative importance of each team member. Obviously, this creates an atmosphere of competition among the team members. These circumstances can inspire each team member to give great effort each day. They can also lead to bitterness and a sense of discord among the team members. To avoid this, the leader of the team must communicate very concisely the roles on the team and the process used to choose the personnel for each of these roles. This process must be well known to all members of the team. The leader must communicate that the ability to make others around you perform better is an essential characteristic for those wishing to fill the most desirable roles on the team. A team member who has this characteristic must be put in a position of relative importance. When a team member behaves in a way that helps others perform better, it must be recognized and rewarded by the team leader. This will not only underscore the importance of this ability, it will also help to define what behaviors actually help others to improve their performance. Some common behaviors that should be rewarded are showing enthusiasm, encouraging others, mentoring, and showing a sense of humor in discouraging situations. This is a partial list that is contingent upon the personality of the team, but it is important to recognize and clearly state which behaviors truly lead to better team performance. A wise coach will work tirelessly with his best players to develop these abilities. When the organizational culture dictates that the best players excel in this quality, the teams in this organization will consistently achieve at high levels.
The coach and the leaders of the team must impart a sense of duty and responsibility to all members of the team. Players need to feel that their performance is important to team performance. They need to believe that by not being properly prepared or by not giving adequate effort, they are letting their teammates down. Each member must feel that his performance is essential to the total team effort. Many times a leader can best communicate this by pointing out a seemingly insignificant effort and showing the invaluable effects of this effort in the big picture. A prime example of this effect occurred recently in a Schaumburg High School basketball game. In the middle of the first quarter the opposing team scored a three-point basket to make the score 7-6 in their favor. A Schaumburg player immediately ran the floor full speed and scored an easy lay-up before the other team could react to regain the lead for the home team. Schaumburg subsequently went on a 17-0 run and handily won the game. Looking at the video closely, it was clear that the easy basket frustrated and discouraged the visiting team. They had just gained the lead and ‘boom’, it was gone. Some players put their heads down, while others were yelling at their teammates. This single effort had changed the course of the entire game. The impressive part of this play is that the Schaumburg player ran the floor in this way every time, and had no guarantee that it would make any difference on this particular possession. He chose to make this effort because he knew it was the right thing to do for his team, and his teammates were counting on him to make great effort. The leaders of the Schaumburg team recognized and celebrated this effort even though it was expected from each team member. This reinforcement serves to insure that the player will continue to make great effort and other players will consider improving their effort.
On the flip side of this coin, members of the team must trust each other enough that when a team member is not performing, they can freely tell the team member to improve his performance. All team members must agree that this criticism will not be personal, but it can and should be pointed. Every effort should be made to keep the goal of improving the team in mind when a situation occurs with team members. A team member can forcefully correct a teammate without demeaning the player as a person. This allows all team members to share in the responsibility for the performance of the team. The team leader can best facilitate this in two ways. First, the leader should have a team meeting for the express purpose of compelling all team members to agree to this concept – one can correct an individual for the betterment of the team as long as it is not personal. Secondly, the team leader needs to model this behavior during team performance. He can do this by intensely correcting the behavior of a team member during a performance without changing the way he treats the person after the performance. This shows the team that the leader cares deeply about team performance, but that a poor performance does not affect the way that the leader feels about the individual. Role modeling in this way will encourage others to react appropriately when the performance of a team member is not acceptable.
Also, a coach needs to adopt a non-judgmental attitude towards the players. He must encourage them relentlessly. He must hold them accountable to the team for their effort and performance. He must remove them from the team if they choose not to conform to the team culture. But he must not be judgmental about the decisions a player makes concerning the team. A coach’s job is to convince the players of the desirability of striving for the team vision. If a coach fails to do this with a player, he must direct his efforts toward the players who are still on the team. A coach who spends time making unkind remarks about a player who quits the team is wasting time and is conveying an extremely negative message. The message a judgmental coach gives to his team is that a person is valuable only if he does what the coach desires. It will not be long before the players begin to understand that the coach is simply using the players to fulfill personal goals. The non-judgmental coach sends the message that each player is important as an individual, but the coach has chosen to make team performance more important than any individual.
When new members become a part of the team, it is important that they are integrated into the culture of the team in a timely manner. It is important that the coach and the leaders of the team realize that the socialization process will take some time. It is also important that the new members of the team realize that they have much to learn. The standards set for the new members will not be as stringent as the standards for experienced team members. It is imperative, though, that the new members understand that they must have a sense of urgency to develop into fully functioning team members. This is the quickest way to return the performance of the team to optimal levels after a change in team personnel has occurred.
Building a successful team requires persistence and determination. First, one must choose a team considering the character and motivation of the prospective players as well as their talent. Then, the leader must work diligently to convince all team members to energetically pursue the team vision or remove themselves from the team. Leaders must be developed from within the team through a team decision-making process. A core value of exceptional effort must be instilled in all team members beginning with the most talented players. The team leader needs to clearly communicate the respective roles of the team members and reward those players who make their teammates better. The leader must inspire a sense of responsibility among the team members to make great effort for their teammates and to recognize this effort when it occurs. The leader must also foster a sense of trust on the team so that each player can honestly and openly critique another player’s performance. The leader must always encourage team members to work towards the team vision without being judgmental.
A coach or team leader who determinedly works with his team using these strategies is destined for success. It is said that teamwork is the key to success in life. The most noble of endeavors in life then is to build a successful team. The team leader who remembers this through the difficult progression of team development will surely move successfully towards the ultimate accomplishment – being the architect of a great team!