Advanced Team Building: Going Beyond Activities

I cringe whenever someone uses the phrase "team building activities". Not because there isn't some value to setting aside a specific time and place for working on being a team. In fact, far from it. I cringe because team building is an everyday, every practice activity. 

Coaches talk a lot about creating an "environment" for success. When you are a leader on a team, the bulk of team building is what kind of environment you create for others. You need to create an environment where a diverse set of personalities come together for a unified cause.

Sounds easy right? But many teams struggle with building a cohesive unit. One area that frequently causes conflict is the athletes perception of team values.

Let me give an example. "Work hard" is one of the most obvious values a team can have. But what does it mean? Unless the coach communicates and leads the way, athletes will fill the space with their own interpretation of hard work.

I once had two swimmers in my group that didn't get along. Both thought the other wasn't "working hard".

One swimmer was consistent- never late, always the first in the water, always repeating times like a metronome through pace sets. He attended morning practices (doubles) no matter what. He was always serious at practice- like an adult showing up to work. Let's call him Mr. Consistency.

The other was a wild card. He got into the water last- but then finished warmup before half his teammates. When it was time to give a "max" effort, no one was better. He laid everything on the line, and often paid for it later in practice. He could never gauge his own effort- his paces were inconsistent. If something was off, he was sick or something hurt, he took a more cautious approach and sometimes missed training. Let's call him Mr. Wild

As a coach, I knew that both swimmers were working hard. They both fit into what I valued as a coach. Were they perfect? Of course not. I wished Mr. Consistency would take a day off once in a while- he often concealed when he was sick knowing that I would send him away from training. I wish that Mr. Wild would learn to pace himself a bit better so he wasn't so useless for parts of training.

One of the things I would say to bring these two swimmers together was to remind them of something that swim coaches often say to each other but forget on their own teams. "There are many ways up the mountain". Coaches can get trapped by their own "philosophy" about "how things should be done" and fail to include athletes who are actually embodying their values, just using a somewhat different looking process. 

Instead of valuing "hard work", we valued self-improvement. Were the swimmers doing what they needed to do to get better? In this case, both were, so much so that both would go on to be NCAA Division 1 Championship qualifiers. Eventually they learned that even though they could poke holes in each others approach, they both had a lot to learn from one another.

This is just one example, there are many more situations where you can be inclusive with your values as a leader without compromising high standards. If you do so, you will create an environment where a diverse group of personalities can co-exist and thrive, making you look very good as a leader.