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One of the great benefits of sport participation is the opportunity it offers to share special experiences and build lasting friendships. Long after the playing days are over, the memories that stand out most are the ones involving teammates. Sidney Crosby, one of the world’s great athletes, said as much when recently asked to reflect on what he’ll miss most when his illustrious career ends: “… just hanging with the guys. All the laughs and stories. Everything that comes along with playing on a team.”
While playing on a team can be cherished many years later, it can also be an unpleasant episode in an athlete’s career, and in the extreme case a nightmare that extinguishes one’s passion for sports. The quality of the teammate experience often hinges on the coach’s ability to create a team culture that nurtures positive teammate behavior across the entire program.
Coaches often remind their athletes that TEAM stands for Together Everyone Achieves More. That’s a great motto for keeping a group unified, but it’s pretty vague when it comes to specifying behaviors that define a good teammate. So I suggest you add another acronym to your coaching arsenal, one that highlights the behaviors you expect to ensure each athlete will be a CREDIT to your team.
C = Cooperative
Becoming a good teammate starts with putting the needs of the team ahead of selfish tendencies. Well-known slogans in sport such as ‘there is no I in team’ and ‘play for the name on the front of your jersey instead of the one on the back’ reinforce the importance of being an unselfish player. Although it is human nature to be self-focused at times – after all it is essential for survival – it is particularly more pronounced in the current ‘iGeneration’. For many reasons, the world around us has become more isolated and divided, making it all the more difficult as a coach to teach athletes to trade selfish tendencies for cooperative ones. A good place to start is to teach athletes about concepts such as emotional intelligence and empathy. Consider watching as a team Brené Brown’s 3-minute video lesson on empathy. Then have athletes listen to each other share personal struggles and then try to summarize the key points shared by their teammate and how they can show empathy. It will quickly become clear where the gaps are in connecting with and showing sensitivity to others – keys to being a cooperative teammate. Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer, renowned for consistently building championship teams that thrive on collaboration, regularly connects team training sessions to lessons on cooperation. For example, after a film session she might have players listen to a symphony and question them about how the music produced by each individual instrument connects to the whole.
R = Respectful
Good teammates are respectful of others – teammates, coaches, officials, administrators, parents and opponents. University of Minnesota football coach PJ Fleck is well-known for his ‘row the boat’ analogy used to teach his players about respect and how to be good teammates. There are three parts to rowing a boat – the oar, the boat, and a compass. The oar is the energy you bring to your life and the team. The boat is the sacrifices you are willing to make for the team. The compass gives direction to your energy and sacrifices; you must be willing to travel in the same direction as the team. He ties his message together by reminding the players that to successfully ‘row the boat’ as a team they have to create a respectful family environment. When players show respect for one another it creates what is referred to as ‘psychological safety’. This frees athletes up to be themselves and speak their true feelings without fear of being embarrassed or ridiculed.
E = Enthusiastic
Good teammates are sources of positive energy for others. Athletes should be taught to ask themselves on a daily basis, ‘Is this team environment better right now because I’m here?’ When athletes bring positive energy they are contributing to a better, more fun experience for everyone on the team. The Positive Coaching Alliance uses the analogy of ‘filling an emotional tank’; Jon Gordon distinguishes between ‘energy givers’ and ‘energy vampires’ (those who suck enjoyment from the team environment). Anson Dorrance explains it to his players as being a ‘Positive Life Force’ or PLF, which he describes as bringing great enthusiasm to the team and making the training environment better because you are in it. Take time to recognize players when they bring enthusiasm and enjoyment to the team. This can be as simple as stopping practice to let a player know you appreciate the energy they are providing, holding a formal end-of-practice energy recognition ritual, or awarding an athlete for bringing the most positive energy to the team over the course of the season at the team banquet.
D = Disciplined
Legendary coach John Wooden used to like to remind his players that the best form of discipline is self-discipline. One of his often quoted maxims is “Discipline yourself so others won’t need to”. Similarly, when Nick Saban’s players approach him with promises and excuses, he reminds them that “Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear you”, a variation on a quote often attributed to the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. The most revered teammates are the ones who model self-discipline on a daily basis, not only by completing training and team responsibilities but also by showing initiative to do more. For example, players on the world’s most successful sports team, the New Zealand All Blacks men’s rugby squad, create a daily self-improvement map referred to as ‘things I do today’ (to get better). Coaches can test self-discipline – as a powerful way to teach it – by giving athletes some freedom to make training choices at practice. Set aside the final 8-10 minutes of a practice for athlete ‘self-directed training’ in which they decide, individually, what they need and want to practice in order to improve. Identify the ones who dive in and practice seriously as models for the rest of the team, and pull aside the ones who lack focus and intensity and use it as a teachable moment.
I = Invested
Teammates show they are fully invested in the team when they support each other. All teams experience dysfunction and what has sometimes been referred to as the ‘storming’ stage of team building. These are the moments that test each player’s commitment to the team and each other. When pressure and disappointment mounts due to losses or errors, will you regroup and focus on solutions that are best for the group or retreat and focus on self-preservation and blaming others? One of the most vivid examples of an athlete demonstrating what it means to be fully invested in the team is the famous post-game speech by college football player Tim Tebow. Following a heart-breaking loss he gave a brief press conference in which he apologized to the fans and his teammates and promised that he would work harder than any other player in the nation to ensure the team would be successful. The team didn’t lose another game and later that year won the national championship. The speech is now immortalized on a plaque posted outside the University of Florida football facility as a poignant reminder for all players how to be a fully invested teammate. Consider watching the speech with your team and having them create their own version of a ‘promise’ to be an invested teammate.
T = Trustworthy
The most successful teams operate with high levels of trust. Players and coaches trust that everyone else will do what is required to help the team succeed and reach their goals. Five-time Super Bowl Champion coach Bill Belichick uses the following slogan to reinforce the importance of trust, “Do Your Job.” Everyone in the New England Patriots organization is viewed as a teammate, and they all understand that a powerful force can be created when each single person can be trusted to do their job. Simply put, trustworthy can be described as embracing your role on the team, doing what you say you will do, and speaking truthfully. Trustworthy players leave no doubt or questions about their behavior or intentions. Doubt is a virus that can destroy a team, leading to selfishness and broken relationships. Many coaches attempt to build trustworthiness during the preseason with team-building activities. However, in-season offers excellent opportunities to teach trustworthiness by using adversity and setbacks as ‘teachable moments’ and prevent them from eroding team trust. The most effective way to build and nurture team trust is to foster regular and open communication. Set aside time after each practice and every game to debrief as a team. During a recent visit, coaching legend Vern Gambetta shared how a high school swim coach who has led teams to 31 state titles starts each week of practice with a ‘Winners Circle’. Each player shares one thing a teammate did well last week and one thing they personally will strive to do well in the coming week.
All great coaches help their players be better teammates. By consistently promoting and reinforcing those behaviors that characterize a good teammate, you can ensure each player will be a CREDIT to your program.
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