By Garrett Wilson
Trust is a word that is so overused, and oftentimes misused, that the real importance of it is frequently overlooked. Common sense tells us that trust is an essential feature of effective teamwork, yet lack of trust seems to be the root of many team problems.
The idea of team trust is far different than the typical definition of the word, however. Team trust is not just simply relying on the abilities of another person based on what he or she has been able to do in the past – there is more to it than that.
Players may trust that the coach’s abilities will help get the team to achieve its goals set. They may trust that the coach will work hard to teach the team the skills necessary for it to perform at a high level. They may trust that the coach actually knows what he or she is talking about because of the previous success of the program. They may trust their teammates for all of the off-season work to better develop their skills. But each premise of trust here is based on things done in the past; and although this may be valuable, it is not enough.
People are naturally forward-thinking. Past experience may give insight into where a team may be able to go, but a team needs more than past circumstances to be fully invested in a new cause. Great teams have more than this standard definition of trust; great teams have team trust.
Team trust incorporates one concept that is vital for achieving full potential – vulnerability. Vulnerability is at the heart of functioning well as a team. Team members (players, coaches, managers, trainers, etc.) must be able to make themselves vulnerable to each other.
By being able to openly discuss or approach insecurities, team members can focus their energy and attention on getting better and confronting those insecurities or perceived weaknesses. But most importantly, they have to feel that they do not have to guard against what they do not do well. Being vulnerable actually shifts the focus from negativity about weaknesses to a positive focus that will help with a proactive approach to correcting those particular weaknesses.
These insecurities or weaknesses may fall into any number of categories: lack of skill, lack of confidence, lack of knowledge, mistakes, relationships, asking for help, etc. Regardless of the weakness, the first step in the process of correcting a weakness is identification, and vulnerability allows for unbridled identification.
Vulnerability cannot just come from certain members of the team; it has to include everyone, including the coach. This may be difficult for some coaches, but the result of how the coach is viewed in the players’ eyes is remarkably positive and rewarding. The players will see that the coach is genuinely interested in finding what is best for the team and not just insisting on doing things his or her own way.
James Kouzes and Barry Posner discuss the 1st Law of Leadership in their book The Leadership Challenge that “If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message” (2008, p.38). Being vulnerable to the players, openly discussing weaknesses and even soliciting help will give players trust in their coach to genuinely believe his or her message. The coach does not need to share every insecurity as the players still need to believe the coach knows how to get the job done. But opening up some and being vulnerable will be what sets the coach apart.
Players do not need or want the coach to be an emotionless rock; they actually do not want a “perfect” coach. A “perfect” coach’s expectations are impossible to live up to. Rather, they want to see that the coach is human. They want the coach to be their example and see that he or she does things that they can follow. If the players see the coach as imperfect, capable of making mistakes, and openly admitting when he or she is wrong, they will be significantly looser in approaching how they play. This looseness creates a shift of focus away from negativity and allows players to focus on improving without the fear of being attacked or ridiculed for the lack of success. The more buy-in the coach has from his or her players, the more successful the coach will view his or her season and career – no matter the results.
Some of the most competitive people tend to be very protective and put up walls against insufficiencies. To achieve team trust, and ultimately unlock the team’s potential, these walls must be brought down. This concept of vulnerability is oftentimes viewed as “soft,” but it may just be the missing factor in taking the team to the next level.
The idea of a “soft” player is commonly misinterpreted. The late coach John Wooden often said, “There is nothing stronger than gentleness.” Vulnerability is not soft, but might actually be an ultimate sign of strength. Many coaches take the approach that they must “harden” their players to achieve a level of toughness. This idea is as old as coaching but has some major flaws. Now, this is not to say that everything is always smiles and sunshine, but to have weaknesses is human. Real toughness is being able to admit when you are wrong, to ask for help, to identify weakness, realize deficiencies and understand mistakes – all without fear of others’ hostility.
Weaknesses only become more pronounced by guarding against them. The only way to turn weakness into strength is to openly face it. And to truly confront a weakness, a person has to be able to readily identify it (to themselves and others) without reservation. Team trust allows for teammates (everyone involved in the team) to expose insecurities without feeling fear of having those insecurities used against them.
Team trust is not built overnight. This type of trust is not gained from players the minute they walk into the gym or onto the field. It has to be attained, fostered and constantly confirmed. Team trust quite simply takes time. The players have to be able to see it in multiple circumstances and more importantly see that the coach follows through with it every time. It also requires an in-depth understanding of each member of the team.
Through team trust, each person involved in the team is personally invested with one another. When the coach is personally invested in his or her players, cares about them as people and not just what they can do for the team, the players will feel valued. And when the players feel valued, the results will be amazing.
Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2008). The leadership challenge. (4 ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
About the Author: Garrett Wilson is an assistant basketball coach at Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah. He received his bachelor’s degree in exercise and sport science from the University of Utah and completed his master’s degree in exercise science and health promotion (sport psychology track) from The California University of Pennsylvania this past June.