This outlines some basic team-building rules for coaches who have been burned in the past by a team environment which hurts performances.
Step 1: Decide If It's Important Enough to Take the Time
It may be helpful to ask yourself the following question: Does the team environment promote individual excellence, or does it interfere with it? By taking a bottom line approach, many coaches realize that medals may be won or lost based on how well athletes work and live together in training and competition settings. If you work on team-building because it helps performance, not because you want everyone to be happy, your team-building work will be more focused and effective.
Step 2: Decide What You Expect From A Team
Your ideal team environment may not be realistic with the athletes you have. For example, some coaches might prefer to have athletes socialize together and be best friends, but many of the athletes may have developed into rivals as they have competed for team slots. Rather than making the team be a place of friendship or "family", it may be appropriate to make the team environment one of "professionalism". In other words, think of your teammates as co-workers, and you are less likely to swear at them or refuse to eat at the same table with them. Once you do decide what kind of team environment you want, as a coach you need to make that environment an expectation, or you will not move closer to achieving it.
Step 3: Talk about It
Once you decide what you want from your team, you need to communicate that expectation. It is surprising how many team meetings a team can have without talking about anything other than logistics such as practice times, housing accommodations, and travel arrangements. Early on in the team-building process, it is important to have a team meeting to discuss the advantages and challenges to successful team building. Consider adopting the following meeting structure that we have used to start teambuilding exercises:
- Team strengths: Have the team think out loud about the things that make the group strong. These characteristics can be used as rallying points later in competition.
- Team Challenges: What are the things that might get in the way of a strong team and strong performances? Have the full team brainstorm typical challenges such as team negativity, fear of competition, or bitter rivalries that cause team dissent. By having the team acknowledge factors that get in the way early on, they will become easier to discuss and eliminate as they happen in competition.
- Team Goals: Have the group decide what goals for the entire group are. These should be goals that help make individual goals easier to achieve. Examples might include: better communication; competing with other teams rather than your own team, or; focusing on the team strengths in competition.
Step 4: Walk The Talk
If you have decided that the team environment does impact individual performances, you have talked about it, and have come up with goals for the entire group, then make those goals important. Remind the team about those goals during competition, and evaluate whether the team is achieving them. Don't be afraid to have a team meeting during competition which focuses on re-charging the team, reminding the team of its strengths, challenges, and goals. Remember, the team looks to the coach to see how important these team issues really are. Once the athletes see that you really do expect the team environment to support individual excellence, they will make efforts to work for the team. If the athletes see you ignoring the team issues, they will become cynical and slip back into the same behaviors you wanted to prevent in the first place.
What about Tough Situations?
There are a number of situations which may interfere with effective team-building. These situations include:
- A history of conflict between two more team members.
- A lack of confidence in your ability as a 'team builder'.
In these situations, it might be worthwhile to bring in a consultant with experience in working with teams. Bringing in a sports psychology consulate may offer some advantages for a coach in a tough team-building situation. Consultants should not make decision about athletes' playing time or training issues, and consultants should be able to tolerate the strong emotions that sometimes occur in team-building. A good consultant can free up a coaching staff to become part of the team-building process rather than just orchestrating it. Finally, watching a consult work on team building can provided the coach with ideas on handling these issues in the future.
Courtesy of the United States Olympic Committee