How Do You Teach Teamwork?

by Alli Polin on May 2, 2014

How can you teach teamwork?

It’s the start of the new sports season in Australia and our daughter is playing netball and our son, AFL footy.  It’s an interesting time that most parents know well, filled with the shuffle between practices, games and team outings. Today, I had it easy as my son was on the footy field and daughter on the netball courts right next door.  I had an opportunity to observe both teams practice and the longer I watched, the more I began to wonder, how do you teach teamwork?  Both coaches were doing their best, but one was struggling while the other was succeeding.  What was the difference?

The scene on the footy field:

  • It looked like 100 kids were running individual drills (not really 100 but it was madness)
  • Kids were throwing, kicking and running the ball around and trying to avoid getting hit by everyone else’s practice shots.
  • They had a big practice game where they ran as a pack after the ball.

The rhythm of the netball court:

  • Coordinated drills required two to ten girls bring focus and speed to their skill development.
  • Passes were constantly moving up and down the line.
  • Skills were not taught in isolation (getting open) but in coordination (blocking, getting open and passing)

My sixty minutes of observation clearly left me with a few ah-has about teamwork and leadership.  It would seem, that in one case, learning basic skills took priority over learning how to be a part of a team.  However, the netball coaches proved that instead of making skill and team development sequential, they can be integrated, taught and reinforced simultaneously.

Can You Teach Teamwork?  Absolutely.

It Starts with the Leader

Where is your focus as a leader?  Do you focus on a collection of individuals working side-by-side or a team that is  working in unison, each person playing a unique yet equally critical part?  Seasoned leaders know that training, coaching and skill development can still be done 1×1 without omitting the context of why it matters to the whole.

Create Opportunities for Teamwork

Do you tend to give assignments to individuals or encourage collaboration?  No matter what you may think, in most cases a single superstar isn’t going to carry the team and be a part of the team.  Sure, there are some people who can run circles around everyone else, but really all they’re doing is playing alone.  A team thrives when they know what it means to have each other’s back, consistently give their personal best and how to play well with others.

Recognize Team Engagement

We’ve all heard it before and I’ll say it again because it’s true: What gets recognized gets repeated. What behaviors do you reinforce?  Do you recognize the behind the scenes players as much as the person that’s always out in the front?  I’m not remotely suggesting that you stop thanking people for their individual contributions, but you must accept and understand the leader’s responsibility to coach, develop and compliment the team as well.

Great coaches and leaders master the dance of zooming in and out, taking in the big picture yet still seeing each of the moving parts.  They bring a laser focus to required individual shifts that have an incredible impact on the team as a whole. More importantly, they give feedback, advice and counsel without fear because everyone wants to be a part of the magic mix that creates a great team.  Egos, put aside, in service of creating a rockstar team that sings.

What’s your advice for creating a strong team? 

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Terri Klass May 2, 2014 at 9:48 am

My favorite formula to describe teamwork is: 1+1=3. When individuals get together to create something, the end result is always greater working together than each person contributing individually. We piggy-back on one another’s ideas and add our additional suggestions. The synergy in teamwork is extraordinary especially, as you point out,when there is strong leadership.

Love the post, Alli and wondering if females have a more natural tendency towards collaboration!

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Alli Polin May 2, 2014 at 8:13 pm

It’s a great formula, Terri! Teamwork always takes us further than any one of our individual strengths.

When I think about leaders that help their teams excel, I think that they need to be on the team and not above it to really work too. Ideas and suggestions aren’t an affront in that case but truly offered in service of the success of the whole.

Love your style and approach! 🙂

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Bill May 2, 2014 at 9:56 am

Hi Alli,

I totally agree with you – the leader needs to create opportunities for the team. This is the essence of leadership.

I would also add leaders must create an environment of trust amongst team members and I think this starts with encouraging open communication within the group. Essentially, ensuring no one fears speaking up with their thoughts and ideas.

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Alli Polin May 2, 2014 at 8:15 pm

I agree, without trust, the team never fully unleashes its potential. If it’s a dictatorship where you do what the leader says and that’s the end of the story, while team members may rely on each other to get through it… they’ll miss an opportunity to do oh-so-much-more. Leadership is key!

Thanks so much for sharing your insights here, Bill!

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Blair Glaser May 2, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Hi Alli!
I love this post, and once again how you use everything in your life as a lesson about leadership.
I love what you had to say about the leader’s role in promoting teamwork, too.
My winning formula for working teams (which I teach to couples as well as organizations) is about 1) arriving at a common vision; 2)stepping into the commitment to see it though; 3) learning how to work with difference (i.e., negotiate and fight fair when necessary) and 4) setting up the best maintenance structures (i.e., meetings, time for socializing, etc.) to work together and see the vision through.

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Alli Polin May 2, 2014 at 8:16 pm

Thanks, Blair! Appreciate that your formula helps team find their groove to thrive as a whole while honoring the individuals as well.

Can see why it works!

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LaRae Quy May 3, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Loved this, Alli!

You made a great statement: leaders really do set the tone for teamwork. The concept of teamwork trickles down from the top.

The ability and willingness to communicate fully is so essential…another reason women are good team builders???

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Alli Polin May 6, 2014 at 12:00 am

Communication and clarity of intention are both critical. Interesting that the netball coaches were predominately female and the footy male…

Thanks, LaRae!

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Karin Hurt May 5, 2014 at 8:47 am

Excellent. Also, teach them how to really cheer for one another.

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Alli Polin May 6, 2014 at 12:01 am

Yes! Heartfelt praise from colleagues is an awesome team skill to cultivate.

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