The Lessons of Teams

June 1, 2007

I’m pretty sure it’s considered “common knowledge” that involving children in team activities is a good thing. It’s supposed to help them prepare for adult life where they have to get along with groups of people and work as teams.

In the idealized version, kids will have the chance to learn how to deal with different kinds of people and their personalities. They will have an adult outside their families (usually) who helps train them and guide them, being a role model and mentor (remember this is the idealized version). They will learn to count on other people some of the time, and they will learn other people are counting on them. If they don’t do their part, the whole team or group will struggle. They will learn the value of being part of something greater than themselves.

All that CAN happen, but it’s pretty rare. Fortunately, even with a pretty pathetic experience as part of a group or team, our kids learn a lot about dealing with other people. They can get some of the idealized lessons on struggling teams, and they can get some of the harsher lessons on high performing teams.

As you read my list of other lessons, be forewarned this is not a feel-good entry. Some of these lessons are a little harsh. I’m not all smiles and hugs. That’s not my nature. I’m a skeptic and a cynic and a pragmatist about human interactions, good and bad.

When push comes to shove, when it’s their own child who is struggling, parents will give up the idealized values of learning to perform for a team and being accountable for doing your part. They will see high expectations as threatening to the self-esteem and emotional comfort of their own children, although they are widely proven to produce higher performance.

Most people value excuses over valid feedback. They hear a specific critique of a choice they made or the quality of their performance as personal criticism. Teammates who think they might also be critiqued in the same way are likely to defend a person receiving critique and find fault in the coach or team leader for offering the critique. Friends and parents of the person receiving the critique are likely to find fault in the person offering the critique, thinking they are protecting the player’s feelings.

Most people scapegoat one or a few people to avoid seeing personal responsibility. When there’s a breakaway play caused by poor strategy or sloppy team performance, the guy left alone trying to stop the score often gets the blame. With presentations, the speaker can get the blame when things don’t go well, even though it was poor visuals or a lack of good information due to other team members’ incompetence.

Most people oversimplify success and celebrate the one who scores. In team sports it’s very hard for one person to make a scoring play happen without relying on the work of teammates. The person who reads the field or the court best may move in a way to open up lanes for other players, or might get the ball to the scoring player after lots of effort. The one who scores usually gets the cheers.

It’s human nature to find strong players and focus on them instead of developing the entire team. It’s hard work to see the abilities and potential of someone who is new to a job or a sport, and it’s even harder to walk them step-by-step to becoming a good player. It’s easy to get comfortable and keep using what works.

Teams that rely on strong players without developing the others can’t keep performing long-term. Relying on a few strong players can win a lot of games, but big games and championships drain the players. The team with more well-prepared and talented players is much more likely to survive the energy drain by spreading around the hard work.

Adults that can teach our children valuable skills aren’t all role models or mentors. Usually people who teach a sport or hobby or skill are passionate first about the activity. If they are teaching, they might also enjoy working with people and seeing them learn and grow. But a lot of them just enjoy finding other people who share their interest in the activity and don’t concern themselves with the whole person. That’s okay. Our kids get to learn the difference between finding someone who is great at helping them learn a skill and intentionally choosing someone to be a mentor or role model.

Most leaders (including coaches) have very specific qualities and abilities they look for, so their evaluations of the same person can be very different. The lesson of receiving critique is very important. Critique should not be shunned because it’s harsh. It shouldn’t be completely embraced because it comes from someone with expertise. It should be thoughtfully and honestly considered and compared to what other people of similar expertise have to say. A player who is valued for his speed by two coaches and criticized for being too slow by the new coach has probably not really lost his speed. The new coach may not be specific enough describing what he wants to see, or he may just be seeing a narrow window and not the big picture.

Most leaders have one or a few team members they target for criticism, out of proportion to the way they respond to the rest of their team. This is mostly hard on the targeted players. Sometimes it leads to the whole team scapegoating the criticized players. That is most likely when the coach or leader is unfairly biased against the players and doesn’t see a balanced picture of their performance. Sometimes a coach is particularly harsh on a player because he sees enormous potential and is pushing hard, or because he thinks other people in the player’s life are soft on him and he’s held back by low expectations. The leader is trying to compensate for this in order to help the player long-term. This targeted player isn’t likely to be a team scapegoat. But he is likely to get frustrated and discouraged if he doesn’t talk to the leader and learn about the leader’s strong commitment and high expectations.

Most leaders have one or a few team members they favor and whose flaws they struggle to see. This is hard for the team members who aren’t favored, but it’s actually dangerous for the ones who ARE favored. A leader who provides predictably consistent feedback to a group but seems to give a pass to a couple of people causes resentment and hard feelings against the favored players and himself. That can undermine team spirit if the members don’t recognize this normal human shortcoming. The favored players won’t be getting much useful feedback and the expectations will be lower, so their performance will slip over time. They won’t be ready to do well on a different team. They won’t be ready to stand on their own.

One person can lift an entire group’s performance through personal effort, commitment and determination (I’m not ALL cynical). I don’t know if this is a gift everyone can cultivate or if it’s something only a few people can do. Motivation is a huge determining factor in sports, and it carries over to team performance in other areas. When one player suddenly starts playing with a burst of energy, shows a lot of focus and effort, and encourages teammates to improve their performance, a shift can occur. Suddenly execution is quicker and crisper and confidence is evident. A team can start to dominate and look unbeatable playing with intensity that starts from one player’s burst of enthusiasm.

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey

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