Updated: Apr 14
“There’s no i in team!” shouts the best player in the school as she runs past you, with the ball seemingly glued to her hockey stick. Ever been in that situation?
We are lucky, in 2019 and 2020, to have some impressive sports teams to look at. Liverpool and Manchester City have set the football world alight; the Rugby World Cup brought us the Japanese Brave Blossoms; fast forward a few months and we will have glorious teamwork all around us as the world’s best athletes head to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
But how do we create teamwork? How do we take a selection of flowers and make them into a riotous bunch, ready to lead any bride up the aisle, with all the different colours and textures setting each other off in harmony?
I’ve competed in some awesome teams in my international rowing career, where you barely feel you are putting any individual effort in and are instead swept along as part of a relentless machine. I’ve also been part of some terrible teams, where you are working against each other and bickering like a married couple.
In my experience it’s a myth to say that the best teams don’t have individual stars. In sport and the workplace you can’t create something from nothing. World-class teamwork can transform someone from good to great, but you couldn’t take a Sunday league footballer and suddenly expect him to score in Liverpool’s next Premier League fixture. You couldn’t take the three-time Rugby World Champions New Zealand’s culture, behaviours, training sessions and selection policy, transplant it to Latvia and expect the same result. You need the right people to start with.
The best teams are composed of wonderful individuals who are able to maximise the efforts of themselves and those around them. It sounds simple but it’s much harder to actually do.
In my career as an international rower, encompassing seven World Championships and two Olympic Games, it took me a long time to figure out how to ‘do’ teamwork. How to work with others so that all of us got better.
Some people are more natural team players than others. I enjoyed the individual work more than the crew rowing – I had to work hard to learn teamwork, in the same way I worked hard to learn better rowing technique. Roger Federer once said that one of the reasons he chose tennis as a youngster was that he didn’t enjoy the team element of football, his first love. He was frustrated when he had a good game but the team lost. He wanted to be in control. And there will be countless examples of sportspeople who went the other way: that they struggled on their own, but being in a scenario where others are relying on them is where they shine.
So how did I learn teamwork from scratch, and what rules universally apply when building a team?
First off: communication. You can’t have world-class performance without having world-class communication. It needs to be honest, clear, personal and brief. Accept that everyone will communicate differently: some will love a rousing eve-of-battle speech, others will prefer text or written documents.
Secondly: clarity. Is your process stupidly obvious? If you can’t explain the ‘how’ of your performance to a ten-year-old, then it’s too complicated. Keep it simple and remember that success invariably comes from doing the basics well.
Thirdly: get to know each other. Who are you, as people? What motivates your colleagues; upsets them; excites them and worries them? How do they like to work and what are their reasons for being there? You don’t have to spend an hour per day discussing your kids but consider each person on the team as individuals.
The word ‘culture’ is ubiquitous in today’s world but I believe the culture is the outcome. If everything else is in place, then the culture will reflect that.
Kinetic PD associate Annie Vernon is a two-time World Champion and Olympic silver medallist rower. She has written a book about the psychology of elite sport, exploring how the world’s top athletes train their mental skills. Mind Games is published by Bloomsbury and is available from all major booksellers including Amazon: https://amzn.to/2GzCLZw