Translating Team Sports Principles in the Workplace

May 03, 2023

I love sports and watch them regularly. I am particularly drawn to those that I participated in – soccer and track. I played soccer beginning at age 4 and played off-and-on for over 17 years until my mid 20'S. I ran track, broke records, won medals and all of that fun stuff. I play basketball in the neighborhood for fun - yes, Streetball! Of course as a native Texan - I love football! So now that you understand that I love sports – I am sure you are wondering where I am going with this article – well, here we go.

There is a difference between individual competitor sports and team sports. There is no doubt that you are an individual competitor (contributor) even on a team. Team sports require you to work together for a common goal, mainly because you cannot win alone. You can have all-star players but the quarterback can't win the game without his offensive linemen (especially the Center, of course), wide receiver, and running back, and so on! In high school, I ran the 100 and 200 meter races, but I also ran 400 meter and mile relays. I still get nervous while watching relays on TV as I think about running and passing and receiving the baton while in the exchange zone. If you pass the baton outside of the exchange zone, you disqualify the entire team from the race.  So while I may run my leg of the race flawlessly, there is still a risk that the performance of someone on my team may cause disqualification. But remember - I cannot run a relay by myself. I need other eager, skilled and qualified team mates to win!

There were skills I learned growing up playing competitive team that have resonated in my professional life over the years. These skills have helped me navigate the professionally arena. It doesn't matter the type of sport one plays; the principles remain the same. I have discerned that there are common threads of winning sports teams and winning workplace teams. I have listed a few thoughts below.

Winning teams promote some level of trust with each other.

While running relays, I never ran the race thinking about who would drop the baton. Even if someone made a mistake in a previous game, I didn't play anticipating the mistake would be repeated in this game. In order to be efficient and effective, there has to an inherent level of trust in those on your team. You have to believe that those on your team want to win just as much as you do.

Many years ago, I was certifying to facilitate Franklin Covey's course, The Speed of Trust. I can remember thinking that numbers don't lie. Here are a few statistics about trust.1

  • 2002 study by Watson Wyatt showed that total return to shareholders in high-trust organizations is almost three times higher than the return in low-trust organizations.
  • In some circumstances, rework and redesign might also be considered costs of redundancy that are triggered by low-trust behavior. In software development, as much as 30% to 50% of expenditures can be on rework. In manufacturing, rework costs can often exceed the original cost of producing the product.
  • Only 36% of employees believe their leaders act with honesty and integrity.
  • According to a 2005 study by Russell Investment Group, Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” (in which trust constitutes 60% of the criteria) earned over four times the returns of the broader market over the previous seven years. As Fortune declared, “Employees treasure the freedom to do their job as they think best, and great employers trust them.”

Winning teams are consistent in their growth and development.

No matter how much you think you know, there is more to learn and always an opportunity to be better. The Coach of a winning team doesn't call players and beg them to come to practice.

Players with winning attitudes are at practice early and ready to go. They even practice in the off season. They regularly condition themselves – mentally, physically, and emotionally.

When you discover “winners” on your team, you should notice they are dependable and have initiative. When they are not in place, they are fully aware that someone else is working harder to fill their role. When it is time to compete – teammates want the “doers” not the “talkers.” The team isn’t influenced by others that hold a position and title but aren’t dependable or put their all in the game.

So as a Coach or Leader of a high output team, share the vision without getting caught up in prescribing the details. As a leader, I often remember that you can kill the creativity and initiative of your high-performing team members by telling them "what" to do.

I find that many leaders want to hire the most experienced person so they DON'T have to teach them anything. When did leaders stop wanting to engaged and develop their team?

Winning teams take calculated risks. 

I remember in one of my later years playing soccer, I made a goal with a banana kick - which is when the ball is kicked off-centered making the ball curve (like a banana) before suddenly dropping. In my case, went the ball went over the head of the goalie and dropped in the goal. You would have thought we won the Super Bowl that day. I admit I have skills but that goal didn't happen because of skill. How do I know this? I couldn't duplicate the kick. The next game we all played our best and were all wanting to recreate that awesome kick. The kick was inspirational and motivational for the entire team. It created a win for the team - even if we couldn't duplicate the kick. Out calculated risk was that we were not willing to risk losing in order to "show boat" our skill. We went on to win other game, just not with a banana kick!

Winning teams don't quit after a loss or an injury. One "no" doesn't mean it's over; you are only being fortified for the next assignment. When one strategy doesn't work, a cohesive team quickly agrees that it is okay to tweak or adopt a new strategy.

Winning teams are self-policing.

Finally, I have found that teams with the winning attitudes won't allow too much interruption to interfere with their winning tempo. I remember being at soccer practice even if Coach D wasn't there – we understood the expectations and didn’t need a babysitter. If there is a slacker on a winning team, when empowered, others on the team will vote the slacker off the team.

It doesn't matter if you are a superstar quarterback or star pitcher with a lucrative contract - on the field everyone has equal accountability and responsibility in their own position and are expected to produce. Everyone is expected to show up and play to win for each game. It’s the enormous pride they feel to be a part of the team. This can be sensed by other team members.

Can you identify confidence in the attitudes of those on your team? And can they sense it in the Coach?  “Confidence in attitude” can be described as having an assurance in knowing those on the team have the capacity and desire to win; even if they don't yet have the "ability" to win. It’s an attitude that you can’t teach – either a person has it or they don’t.  Some of my best team members were the ones that were coachable and agile AND believed they could do whatever I asked of them.

Keys to Building and Maintaining a Winning Team

There are a few key points to consider to support a winning team.

  • Embrace Diversity: Have an organizational culture that is open to ingenuity and ideas.

Beyond regulatory and compliance, if you can't explain or don't know why you do something, is it necessary?

Sometimes an organization's internal processes squelch personal knowledge and turn eager winners into robots.  
  • Foster Trust: Be trustworthy and encourage your team to do the same.

People want to know that you trust them but also that you can be trusted and are consistent. Don't have one set of rules for one person, and another set of rule for someone else. If we all practices together, it is easier to win together.

  • Scrap Your Recruiting Process: Matching words in a resume and job description won't work anymore; it's a lazy process.

Building a winning team doesn't mean that everyone has 15 or more years of experience, or graduated summa cum laude. Some of my best team members were methodical, creative, edgy, not to serious, and were calculated risk takers. They did not graduate at the top of their class. In some cases, I hired the most fluid person that had less skill.

If you a leader and are looking for winners in 2018, they may already be somewhere in your organization. Think about:

  • Those you may be overlooking aren't loud and boast about their own abilities. They want to make a difference and will leave if you make it too difficult. They want to resolve conflict to be effective.
  • Do they thrive on guidance and coaching but not instruction? When you tell them what to do and how to do it - you kill creativity. More important, there isn't enough time to tell everyone what to do. 
  • Who on your team shows up and consistently works to achieve their best whether you are watching or not?
  • Do you have teammates that are trying new things or are introducing new concepts? This means they are still dreaming and looking for ways to make a greater impact. Create a "space" for your team to develop the strengths of each other.
  • If they are responsible, accountable, and care about doing a good job. They basically take pride in their work because of innate work ethic. You can't teach that. Remember - rework is costly in time and money.

In competitive team sports, an individual can’t win on their own. They need others on the team to support, encourage, and demonstrate their desire to win. Essentially, the core of my thoughts are that it’s time to rethink how we structure organizations, how we identify leaders, and how we hire talent.

At the end of every season in professional sports, owners and general managers reflect on whether they have the "right" coach in the seat. During the season, the same happens with players. In organizations, when do we make the changes that are necessary to build a winning team? I have thoughts.....


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