By Adam H. Naylor, EdD, CC-AASP
It can feel magical when a team strives toward great accomplishments and comes together as a cohesive unit just at the right time.
A magical feeling… but a daunting task to create.
The challenge of having athletes from diverse backgrounds fully commit to shared values and openly communicate with each other is an enormous one. Preaching teamwork is a never-ending duty for a coach, but truly teaching it and creating a culture it can thrive in is often much more difficult.
To help facilitate a teamwork-friendly environment on your own team, ask yourself these questions:
Do my athletes truly understand their role on the team and its value?
In this SportsCenter-era of endless highlight reels, the term “role player” seems to have become a boring one. The irony is that individuals are only able to excel when teamwork roles are embraced.
Coaches succeed most when they not only help athletes define their roles on a team, but also grow a sense of pride in players that execute these roles well. Complimenting players doing these valuable “little things” right teaches the importance of role play. Similarly, teaching a team to cheer for teammates when they do these things further instills passion toward the “small” jobs.
Do my athletes know the player sitting on the bench next to them?
At the root of teamwork is caring for fellow teammates and being willing to make on-field sacrifices on their behalf. For a variety of reasons, this is deceptively difficult for an individual to do. In our competitive culture, young athletes are often pitted against each other instead of being taught that excellence is actually a collaborative endeavor.
To create team unity, locker rooms benefit when individuals have the space to share their stories. In an era of travel teams and endless hustle and bustle from one activity to the next, too often players fail to learn about their teammate sitting next to them. Simple questions like, “Where are you from?”, “Do you have brothers or sisters?”, and “What do you like to do other than play sports?” creates connection. When athletes are able to relate to their teammates, the willingness to strive on their behalf increases.
Do I provide opportunities for my team to problem-solve on their own?
Wise coaches are invaluable to a team’s development, but sometimes the team‘s cohesion is benefited when they take a step back. When athletes have to struggle to solve problems together, teams reap great benefits. Beyond just developing effective communication skills, the empowerment a team feels when collectively accomplishing a challenging task with minimal adult input emotionally resonates from player to player.
Preaching teamwork is wonderful, but focusing on resonating roles, creating unity, and providing opportunities for shared struggle create the ties that bind a team together. These approaches require coaches to develop a clear philosophy on how to make their teams flourish and also require an appreciation for creating practices and plans that are purposeful beyond the X’s, O’s, and teaching of technical skills. Teamwork is taught best by creating an environment where each player cares as much about their teammates as they do about themselves.