Behind the Scenes: The Art of Successful Teams

It seems that teamwork as a phenomenon has been inadvertently thrust into the media spotlight over the last few weeks, with Kevin Pietersen and Roy Keane both airing dirty laundry in public through their accounts of their respective dressing rooms. The much awaited anniversary return of ‘The Apprentice’ inevitably brings to light issues surrounding team cohesion, and there wouldn’t be controversy on the topic without Mario Balotelli having something to do with it! What is it then, that makes teams dysfunctional, or perhaps a more suitable question is – how do teams perfect the art of teamwork? Undoubtedly teamwork plays a hugely significant role in any group success, whether it’s on the sports pitch, the board room, the stage or whichever environment you find yourself in.

First and foremost however, it is worth noting that teamwork is not something which materialises instantly during a training session, a game or during pre-season. It is something that needs fostering over an indefinite period of time. Some individuals or groups of people may develop a greater sense of team spirit sooner than others and vice versa. Certain events and circumstances that can affect team work are often uncontrollable for the coach or ‘project manager’ if you’re an Apprentice fan!

Here we look at how teamwork might be developed, whilst drawing upon some interesting examples employed in sport, which can be applied to many domains.

The Collective Unknown
Being thrown into a completely new and unfamiliar environment might be a strategy a coach uses in an attempt to bring their players together. I’m not talking about the traditional awkward ‘ice breakers’ you used to do; where you introduce yourself, and recount some interesting fact about yourself that really isn’t very interesting and makes you feel even more uncomfortable than before!

No. I’m talking about being thrown into an unknown and uncomfortable environment where you have no choice but to interact and work together – often this encompasses the group performing at their physical and/or psychological limits. Why? Simply because you quickly bypass any social or interactional barriers, and instead start learning about your teammates on a deeper level – how they operate under pressure, what their motivational drivers are, how they respond to challenge etc; characteristics that you’re able to relate to and apply back into the context of your team environment. Enduring a collectively gruelling experience along the lines of what has been mentioned, and then coming out the other side is something the group can identify with, and can buffer a sense of community. Anyone who has not seen Gavin O’Connor’s ‘Miracle’ film, recounting the famous 1980’s USA ice hockey win over the Soviet Union – watch this and you’ll know what I’m talking about!

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That is not to say the unknown is always successful – take the last few examples from Alan Sugar’s team of boys for example! It is worth therefore, considering the intention and outcome of the unknown beforehand – for example if external rewards are involved (monetary rewards, or a chance of staying in a competition) then perhaps team work will not have the effect you want it to.

The ‘Cult of Saracens’ Rugby
It’s the October pre-season – it’s the time of the year all the other teams are pushing themselves to their physical limits in the gym and in training striving for that small gain; that extra yard of pace or power. Instead of being in the gym however, your team are having a lavish time at the legendary Oktoberfest beer festival – the very heart of German culture! Last year you were skiing in Switzerland! It might (and does at first glance) seem a ludicrous idea for pre-season preparations. Dig a little deeper though and you start to see the “carefully planned process” that chief-executive Edward Griffiths describes. Below he elaborates on the Saracens philosophy further:

“it’s a process to develop a group of people who will do whatever is necessary for each other and ultimately love each other.

If you can have something that is over and above being a team-mate and be a genuine friend that I can ring up in 10 years’ time, that is what I think Saracens is about.

If you get to know someone well – their wife, their children, what excites them, what concerns them – when you are defending your line in the last minute the bond between you and the man outside you is going to be stronger.

If we can find an extra inch in that bond, in the depth that players are prepared to go for each other, in Miami, New York or anywhere else, that is where we will go.”

Wow. I don’t know about you, but reading those statements are pretty powerful! Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Saracens have enjoyed a continued success over the last 3-4 years. Developing that social, almost family-type bond is as close to as perfect as it gets with regards to team work. Given, it will never be perfect all of the time, but the emphasis here is on knowing the players as people first, and as a player after.

Kevin Pietersen may not have many friends at the moment in the public eye at least, but Matthew Hoggard made a valid point recently about resolving his differences of opinion with Pietersen – simply by being mature enough to sit down, outline their problems with each other and gain a better understanding of KP the person, not the player. Again this goes deeper than being a team mate; it’s not scratching the surface, it’s really looking at what goes on behind the scenes of the player you spend the day, week or tour with.

The All Blacks
Aside from the unique Maori culture that underpins the New Zealand rugby philosophy, what is it besides supreme skill that has made New Zealand such a formidable force over the last decade? Similar to the philosophy of Saracens, the All Blacks place the emphasis on the bigger picture – the person. ‘Leave the jersey in a better place’ is the mantra that they live by – all those legendary players that have come before them, all that history and tradition boils down to the each individual jersey with the collective team interest at heart. The baggy green cap for the Australian cricketers very much possesses the same connotations.

How about this one though? Again, if you’ve read James Kerr’s ‘Legacy’ book on the All Blacks you’ll have an idea – at the end of EVERY game, these world renowned players can be found sweeping the dressing room until it’s spotless. It could happen, but I somehow can’t picture Wayne Rooney doing this! New Zealand are all about personal humility, and playing for a bigger purpose than the game of rugby. They believe that their best chance of success on the field, is if their feet stay collectively on the floor. Sounds really simple when you say it, but that’s quite a powerful message they convey.

So there are a few examples of how teamwork could be developed, maybe you’ve tried some of these already, maybe you haven’t but perhaps they’d be worth a go! The common theme across them all has been that idea of respect and understanding of the individual as oppose to the player.

When you’re in a team full of different characters and personalities, you don’t have to be best mates with everyone (though it might help!). You just have to respect them for what they are, and what they bring to the cause. It has been well documented that Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne weren’t the closest of friends off the pitch, but watching them play together and form one of the greatest dismissal combinations in Test Cricket history you wouldn’t guess it!

Can you foster this ‘high purpose’ attitude amongst your players, your employees, your colleagues? If you can, performance will have no choice but to improve.

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