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Helping High School Students Work Together to Build Great Teams

By Lee Rubin on November 10, 2015 hst Print

There are few things as important as helping high school students work in teams. It is critical that they learn early and well that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Whether it’s a sport, a theatrical or musical performance or just a class project, with the right guidance, students will discover that their possibilities are exponentially greater when they develop the SKILLS demonstrated by great teams.

While most organizations focus exclusively on building the skills of their individual members, elite organizations invest in the “stuff” that transforms a collection of talented individuals into extraordinary, machine-like teams. To shift behavior, we must shift the things that we measure, recognize and reward.

Through experience on some winning teams – athletically and professionally – following are some ideas that might help high school leaders facilitate the development of great teams among their students.

Extraordinary Teams are Comprised of Competitors
Competition – in its proper context – is extremely critical to our development. Walt Disney once said, “I wouldn’t know how to get along without competition.” However, true competition is out of control. We find ourselves at either of two extremes. Sadly, either youth are under such pressure to win/succeed at all costs, or we diminish the value of competition to the point that we reward participation and everyone gets some type of award.

Competition is simply the leveraging of one’s skills, abilities, talents and desires to reach his or her full potential. It is not always about beating someone else as it is defeating the limits within one’s own self. The objective is not for an individual to be the best at any cost, rather it is to leverage the talent and skills of others to be the best.

Competitors are in a unique relationship. They are actually working together, striving together to achieve the same goal. It’s important to note that they are not working against each other, but with each other in their striving.

Recently, Magic Johnson, in discussing his relationship with Larry Bird, said that the two basketball stars hated each other during their playing days, but what seem to be hatred was actually a deep love because it forced each of them to be their best.

Understanding this unique relationship is the foundation of good sportsmanship. You appreciate your competitor because he or she helped you fulfill more of your potential.

Extraordinary Teams Have a Common Goal
Teams exist because of a challenge or opportunity too big for one person to handle alone. All of the team members are working to achieve a shared goal. Amazingly, many teams don’t have a common goal.
First, the goal must be clearly articulated. It’s impossible to achieve a goal unless all team members are aware of the goal. Then, everyone must be willing to make sacrifices on an individual basis in order to achieve a common goal for the team.

While coaching the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson told Michael Jordan that he would experience even greater success and fulfillment if he was willing to sacrifice his individual accolades for a more team-centered approach. Jordan adopted Jackson’s team-first philosophy and the Bulls won six NBA championships. Team members must be more concerned with the success of the team than their own success.

Extraordinary Teams Communicate
Communication is more than the transmittal and reception of information. The strongest teams don’t just exchange information; they are connected to each other. Ideally, they trust each other.
However, trust cannot be built without open and honest communication.

Honesty is the foundation of trust. If team members cannot trust each other, a difficult working relationship exists. It is difficult to make sacrifices if players don’t trust each other. Michael Jordan had to trust his coaches, his teammates and the system in order to relinquish his desire to be individually successful.

It is amazing what can happen once trust is built on a team.

Extraordinary Teams Have Chemistry
Chemistry is about bonds. It is about how particles and molecules come together. It is not about the study of the individual components in isolation, rather it is about how those atoms and particles and molecules are connected. In other words, it is not enough to have a team full of talented individuals. Extraordinary teams have team members who are connected or bonded.

With regard to chemistry, most bonds are formed under heat and pressure. Instead of pointing fingers, playing the blame game or being a destructive force on the team, extraordinary teams possess individuals with the maturity to understand that the “heat and pressure” of adverse conditions can be leveraged to actually build the team.

Great teams have individuals in leadership positions with the mental toughness to properly deal with adversity. This maturity is often more important than having a team full of talent.

Extraordinary Teams are Consistent
The enemy of consistency is a desire for the immediate or the spectacular. Consistency is boring. It may not be exciting, but it is effective. How does a person become consistent? The answer is simple – practice. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, it’s a habit.” Extraordinary teams are like machines. They are consistent. They don’t do things to hurt themselves. They function with amazing dependability. 

Here’s the irony: When teams focus on consistency, they find themselves in the right place at the right time. As a result, spectacular things tend to happen. With hard work and consistency, you can create your own luck. When there is a sustained focus on excellence, growth will occur.

So What?
What gets measured gets managed. Instead of measuring, and consequently measuring individual performance, we must find ways to acknowledge and reward the behaviors that make for strong teams – passion, sacrifice, honest communication, maturity which manifests itself as compassion or support, and holding ourselves and teammates accountable to be consistent (focus on excellence).

Team Building Suggestions

• To help nurture a healthy competitive environment, measure growth, not just wins and losses.
• Encourage the importance of making sacrifices to achieve common goals. Try asking students to create two lists: 1) What are your assets? (what do you bring to the table) 2) What are you willing to sacrifice (for the sake of the team)?
• Demand trust-building communication by challenging students to get to know their teammates.  
• Assess and reward those who demonstrate maturity – especially during times of adversity. Teammates should maintain a positive outlook and display empathy and concern for others. 
• In addition to, or instead of, highlighting “outstanding” performances, celebrate consistency – perhaps creating a “Most Consistent Performer” (MCP) award.

High school leaders have an awesome responsibility and privilege to help shape and develop how our young people interact with each other. We must continue to focus on helping our young people build great teams. Too often, we are so focused on the outcome that we don’t properly build the machine. If we pay the proper attention to building a functional and consistent machine, then the machine will produce the desired outcome. The lessons will benefit our students long beyond participation on their current teams.