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  • Writer's pictureMarcus Bazley

How Do We Build Teams?

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

I’ve recently watched two cricket documentaries:

- ‘The Edge’ – a brilliantly put together film looking at the England cricket team between 2009 and 2013. During this period, they rose to be number 1 test team in the world, under coach Andy Flower, and then dramatically fell from these lofty heights, as the team broke apart and various mental health problems emerged.

- ‘The Test’ – a very recent and fascinating fly-on-the-wall 8-part series, following the Australian Cricket Team, as it seeks to regain respect and credibility after the ball tampering ‘sandpaper scandal’ in South Africa in 2018. This scandal resulted in bans for captain (Steve Smith), vice-captain (David Warner), opening batsman (Cameron Bancroft) and the resignation of their coach (Darren Lehmann).

Both have made me consider the nature of ‘team’ and the coach’s role in developing one. How do we build a team as a coach, director, or manager? How do we create team cultures? How do we do this sustainably?

What Is A Team?

First off, what actually is a team? What do we mean by it?

Google defines a team as: “a group of players forming one side in a competitive game or sport.” Whilst it defines the verb as: “to come together as a team to achieve a common goal.

I find the definition of the verb actually more helpful than the noun. I would argue that teams are not defined by being one half of a competitive encounter. That suggests that a team can only exist in opposition to another group. Instead, let’s combine the definitions, so we think of a team as: “a group of people who come together to achieve a common goal.”

Setting A Goal

Now, immediately what leaps out of this definition is the idea of a ‘common goal’ or a shared purpose. And most coaches or leaders will feel the importance of goal setting.

In ‘The Edge’, newly appointed England coach, Andy Flower, sets a very clear shared purpose: become the number 1 test match cricket team in the world. It’s clear, it’s ambitious and it’s a goal that the whole side can buy into.

Similarly, in ‘The Test’, newly appointed Australian coach, Justin Langer, sets out his shared purpose: make Australians proud. This is slightly more nuanced as a goal – it is about building respect and reputation, rather than just status and results.

I would argue that both of these goals are flawed, however.

Firstly, to become number 1 in the world is a great ambition. It is something that any sportsperson would want to be part of but, as the documentary shows very effectively, what happens once you’ve achieved it? And what price do you pay for accepting nothing less than the best?

These ‘be the best’ goals are very successful in the short term. They get everyone excited. They create focus and determination. But they come at a massive price. It creates an intensity and ruthlessness that results in burnout, anxiety and a fear of failure. It is also fundamentally unsustainable. If you achieve the goal, everyone celebrates all their hard work, goes wild and then feels completely flat and directionless – once you’re the best, what next? It’s a lot easier to motivate yourself to climb the mountain than it is to stay at the top once you’re there. Conversely, if you don’t achieve the goal, you start to question whether you ever will. Doubts creep in, the anxiety and stress levels increase, until you eventually capitulate.

So ‘be the best’ goals are out!

On the surface, the ‘make our stakeholders proud’ type goal of Justin Langer is more sustainable. It is built more around how we do things, rather than what we achieve. My question though is: can we control whether someone is proud of us? The answer is no! You might as well set a personal aim of making someone fall in love with you. You can be really caring and considerate, you can buy them nice things and take them nice places, but ultimately it is up to them whether they fall in love with you or not!

So how can we re-frame the ‘make Australians proud’ goal into something more useful? Well, let’s focus on the things we can control. We can be honest, we can be fair, we can respect ourselves, our teammates and our opponents. We can enjoy our cricket and look out for each other.

You could actually say the goal becomes ‘make ourselves proud’. This sounds self-centred but actually it is an incredibly powerful goal that brings out the best of both the above examples but without the negatives. How do you make the team proud of itself? Well, they’d probably feel pretty proud of themselves if they worked hard and improved themselves. They’d feel proud if they helped their teammates. They’d feel proud if they won competitions. All of this focusses the team on what it can do to help itself. It takes the pressure of results – you can still be proud of yourself if you do the best you could do but the other team just beat you on the day. It puts the focus on self-improvement and developing a supportive and nurturing culture.

In short, it encourages teamwork.

The Individual and The Team

This leads on to a massively important point when thinking about building a team.

In both the documentaries mentioned the respective coaches call upon their players to ‘buy into’ the team. The focus is on getting the individuals to join the team. To put aside their own selves, their own ambitions and their own personalities for the good of the team.

This is a sure-fire way to destroy a team!

The team is built on individuals. Those individuals need to be put at the heart of the team you’re creating. The team comes out of the individuals, not the other way around. There’s no point setting the team’s culture before you have individual players within it. The culture should come from the players and be shaped and refined by the coach.

The team only exists as long as every individual within it gets something from being part of that team. (Something more than money!). When building your team, consider what each individual is getting out of the bargain.

For example, when casting a play, what is each actor getting out of being in the piece? Maybe they’re getting the opportunity to play the sort of role they never normally get considered for. Maybe they enjoy the creative freedom they’re given in the rehearsal room. Maybe they get to tell a story that they feel a personal connection to. Whatever it is, as a director or coach, you have to make sure that the individuals in your team are still getting something out of the relationship. It is a two-way street.

If you can create a culture where individuals feel that their needs are being heard. Your team will be far stronger for it. Those individuals will put more into the team because they feel valued and respected as people - they get treated as a person, not just as filling a role.

So, there’s a starting point in team building! Focus on setting a shared goal that you can control, set a shared goal that focusses on how you operate rather than what you achieve. Create these goals with the individuals in mind. Keep the individuals happy and your team will thrive.

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