Time to Light the Competitive Fire

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The best coaches, athletes and teams train and compete with a clear sense of purpose and a great amount of positive energy. A team comprised of such spirited competitors is tough to beat even if they are less talented than the opposition. Moreover, even in a loss they push their opponent to expend a great amount of energy and effort.

This I witnessed firsthand during a recent consulting tour with professional and world championship coaches and teams in Australia. Individual and team spirit were on full display in daily training and competitions. The best competitors balance joy and passion for their sport with a sense of purpose and personal commitment. The only thing worse than losing is competing with anything less than full effort and focus. Champions don’t just show up and win, they earn every title, in part, with their enthusiasm.

Conversely, a lack of personal and team spirit are signatures of underperforming teams. A recent visit with a highly ranked national team that was playing below its potential reinforced that point. The team rarely lost to lesser-ranked opponents, but almost never beat the few opponents ranked above them. In a lopsided loss to one of their archrivals, due to careless mistakes late in the game, the coach and I observed that the team seemed to lack the competitive fire that was so evident in their opponents’ play.

Much like a fire, personal and team spirit must be ignited (preseason) and cultivated (across a season). Coaches should build a toolbox of ‘fire starter’ strategies, individual and team activities that allow athletes to re-connect with their passion and purpose. Borrowing from the work of performance consultant Jerry Lynch, in the preseason ask athletes to respond to the following prompt: Who or what inspires you? Similarly, sport psychologist Saul Miller likes to ask athletes to respond to the following question: If you had to pick an animal that would give you qualities you want to have and would help you play a winning game, which animal would you choose?

Have athletes share their responses to these types of questions in a team session, and then challenge them to find an image that captures the essence of their inspiration. The images can then be collected and used to create a ‘team spirit icon’, a collage of inspiring pictures that ignite and invoke personal and team spirit.

An extension of this activity is to take a photo of each athlete on the team in a pose that they believe best represents their personal spirit. Ask each athlete to include a quote to accompany the photo. The photos and quotes can then be displayed in the team facility and/or online, much like the World Champion USA women’s ice hockey shared in their ‘meet our squad’ article.

Another effective ‘fire starter’ strategy is inviting successful people to visit the team and share their journey as a source of inspiration. One of the championship teams I spent time with in Australia shared how they brought former All Blacks player Richie McCaw, considered one of sport’s great captains of all-time, in to address the team. Although few coaches will have access to legendary athletes such as McCaw, the most inspirational speakers will share the qualities that made Richie great: demonstrated success, competitive fire, a deep respect for the game and the jersey, love for teammates, and humility.

All fires, regardless of how big or hot they burn at the start, will fade unless more fuel is regularly added to keep it burning. In competitive sport you also have the added challenge of keeping the fire alive while others – both outside and sometimes within your own team – are trying to extinguish it. Successful teams have many people tending the fire across a season, including other members of the staff, athletes, alumni and program administrators. Some effective ways to cultivate personal and team spirit across a season include:

- Regularly scan the media for inspirational stories that connect directly to the themes and examples used to re-ignite the fire during the preseason, and sharing these stories during team sessions (e.g., post-practice debrief, pre-competition meals, team meetings)

- Empower and enable athletes to tend each other’s fire by partnering them up each week. Partners are responsible for tending each other’s fire for the week (cultivating their personal spirit). When coaches empower athletes to be more active contributors to the team it has the added benefit of enhancing coach well-being across the season.

- Periodically schedule a joint fun training session with another team from a different sport. This is a disruptive activity that forces athletes out of their routines while feeding off the spirit of others outside of their own team

- As a team attend a competition in a different sport, ideally from the same school or club. The goal of this activity is to add fuel to someone’s else fire, which in turn builds collective pride and a united spirit through a shared experience outside of regular training or competition

- Regularly tell each athlete something you appreciate about them or their contribution to team spirit. Timely and genuine messages of gratitude are associated with enhanced pride and team performance. Keep track of your gratitude behaviors in a coaching ‘gratitude log’ to ensure you are providing gratitude messages evenly across your team

While tending to team and individual athlete spirit, it is common for the coach’s fire to fade or even burn out. Practice setting aside a few minutes each morning to ‘collect some logs’ you can use to cultivate both your personal and your team’s fire. Before going to bed put out something to read, download a podcast, or find a video that you will review when you wake up. The key to this strategy is to make it regular and digest the information in small chunks. Once you have woken up and located your material, set a timer for 15 minutes (I have found 30 minutes to be my ‘sweet spot’, but 15 minutes is a good starting point to build a habit). I have been practicing this strategy for years and find that it always triggers new connections and ideas, and launches me into the new day ready to cultivate the personal and team spirit of others.

Although all great teams demonstrate personal and team spirit, a few words of caution. Coaches should not expect to see one common outward manifestation of competitive fire across all of their athletes. Some athletes will demonstrate personal and team spirit by firing up their teammates, while others will be just as effective by quietly modeling discipline and work ethic.

Igniting and cultivating personal and team spirit, alone, won’t ensure a winning season. Having that spirit, though, is essential for reaching your potential and achieving competitive success.


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