Headed into the 2004 Olympic Games, the Men’s USA Basketball team was 110-2 all-time. They were 24-0 since the introduction of the 1992 “Dream Team”(NBA-era).
The team consisted of current and future NBA stars. The best of the best. The greatest players from the greatest league in the world. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, and others graced the roster.
These were the royalty of their time. It was a collection of the very best players placed on one team and set for another round of world dominance.
At the Olympics, they were embarrassed by Puerto Rico 92-73 and also lost to Lithuania and Argentina before they stumbled to a Bronze medal. By historical standards, it was a disaster.
How could a team so talented, selected from the world’s best league, from the country that invented basketball, not win gold?
On paper, this was another “dream team”. In reality, it was dubbed the “nightmare team”. They were the best we had, but somehow they could not function at their highest possible output. Instead of a perfect team, they were a perfect disaster. What happened?
The answer may be as simple as turning to Google…
Not in a Google search, but in some Google research. Team USA may have assembled the world’s top players on one “Dream Team” but the recipe for success calls for more than the most skilled.
Recently, Google wanted to know how to build the perfect team. They found the best and brightest researchers to cull through data and evaluate teams. They reviewed volumes of research. They also evaluated 180 Google teams through more than 200 interviews to discover the skills and traits of the best teams.
Google found 250 traits. They had a library of data collected and analyzed by sociologists, organizational psychologists, and statisticians. From this data one important revelation became clear: building the perfect team had little to do with finding the best people.
Let me repeat: building the perfect team had little to do with finding the best people.
In youth sports, we have a complex system of “selection” to choose our sports teams. We look for the best of the best and put them on one team. While we are, of course, trying to identify the best talent, what Project Aristotle teaches us is that collecting talent is not sufficient. Building great teams is not only about selecting the best people. Their research found that there are five ingredients that take talented groups of people from good to great. They are:
- Dependability – Every successful team is built on a foundation of trust and it can arise from doing what you said you would do on time and effectively. Great teams have dependable members. As a coach, do you deliver what you promise on time and in the way you promised? If you’re dependable, they’ll trust you and, in turn, learn from your example. As the New Zealand All Blacks would say (borrowing from Rudyard Kipling), “For the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack”. Players who work hard for each other, and trust and depend on each other build a formidable bond. Teach your players to depend on each other and to be dependable. Choosing players for skill and ignoring their dependability is the first step to missing the boat. All the talent in the world doesn’t matter if a player isn’t dependable and doesn’t build trust.
- Structure and Clarity – Great teams implement this ingredient with as much fervor and intentionality as they would a proper training regimen. If you want to create the perfect team be vigilant about working together to set very clearly defined goals. Be adamant about making sure everyone has clearly defined roles. Take two of the NBA dynasties – the Jordan Era Chicago Bulls and the Curry Era Golden State Warriors. One thing was obvious with both – everyone had a clearly defined role in order to achieve their collective goals. Dennis Rodman was not brought to the Bulls for his scoring acumen and he knew it. In fact, when Kerr and Jordan would put in extra work he’d join them to rebound. He said rebounding them taught him each shooter’s spin, roll, and bounce. He began to “know instinctively” where a ball would go based on who shot it. That’s a player with a clear role and he was staying in his lane and fulfilling his role.
- Meaning – Great teams have a “why,” a greater purpose. A very clear personal significance in work can engage, empower, compel, unite, and transform a group of people into an unstoppable unit. Work with your team to create significance. Help each member find a why. Why are they there? Why do they do what they do? Why are you there? If you want to help them discover meaning, be willing to be vulnerable and share your why. People who have a why are willing to endure the suffering. They’re willing to sacrifice. No matter how young, each kid has a reason to be there and you have to know it and help them embrace it. Here’s a hint: for every kid FUN will be a significant factor in why they play. They are there to have fun, so if you keep fun as a meaning for the group they will be fully engaged.
- Impact – Google wants their team members to work for something greater than themselves and to be vehement about supporting the greater good. In terms of your team, sometimes the impact has to do with the team itself as being greater than the single player. The All Blacks talk about being good ancestors and “planting trees you’ll never see”. All team members are focused on something greater than themselves. They want to extend the legacy passed to them and plant the seeds of that legacy for future generations. That’s impact. Great coaches have learned to use words like brotherhood and sisterhood to elicit this impact response. Youth coaches can also find a charity to support through an organization such as Go Play Better where they can set technical goals which trigger charity donations if achieved. There should always be a higher purpose than winning, especially in youth sports.
- Psychological Safety – This is the most important, and rarest ingredient of the perfect team. Creating a place of psychological safety requires us to be willing to provide our players a place to take risks, to have a voice, to ask judgement-free questions, and safe to be vulnerable. This is elusive and it my require you to model it first. If you want to create a psychologically safe environment, the easiest way is for the adults to be vulnerable. Open up, share, and be willing to be judged by your own players. Are you willing to risk mistakes in front or your athletes and admit when they happen? Are you willing to ask “stupid” questions or admit you don’t have all the answers? Are you capable of sharing something personal with your players so they know it’s okay to be open? When I taught kindergarten, we’d do a morning circle. The rules were simple, whoever had the talking stick could speak without judgment, laughter, ridicule, etc. During the year we asked questions, we shared dreams, we discussed vulnerable issues in our lives. It was a safe space for us. If a kindergarten class can do it, you can do it with your team.
The research is pretty clear: teams and leaders that instill and cultivate these five ingredients will see a profound impact on team performance, because they raise the standards of the collective. These standards are what is known as “group norms.” This is where creating the perfect team lies and may help us understand what happened to the US Olympic team in 2004.
Group norms are traditions, behavioral standards, unspoken rules, mantras, and habits of excellence that regulate the interactions and functioning of a team. These norms are often unspoken, yet understood through observation and interaction .
Some groups, for example the New Zealand All Blacks, have clearly stated norms. They give each new member a “black book” that contains the sayings, the advice, the rules, and the accepted values of the team. Players from generations before remind the new player what makes an All Black and how an All Black behaves. They even have spoken mantras to remind teammates of these norms – Sweep the sheds, for instance.
This is a team that best exemplifies the power of group norms. They win. Year in year out. They win as a byproduct of the team culture. Though talent plays a role, the All Blacks adhere to a strict code in order to maintain the team culture. It’s not about the hardware. It’s about the software. Not coincidentally, they possess all five of the secret ingredients.
Does this translate to youth sports? You bet it does.
You might argue that Google has technology teams, not a youth sports teams. True, but team dynamics, behavioral psychology, and sociology don’t know the difference. The underlying dynamics between the participants remain constant. Human interaction is human interaction no matter where it occurs.
Secondly, you might say that Google studied teams of adults. Yes, we shouldn’t treat children like mini-adults. Behavioral dynamics of adults may have gotten a little more nuanced, but they are still based on human emotion and response. We mature in our behaviors, but the emotional responses to stimuli are still similar whether we are 8 or 88. In addition, teams are living organisms. Whether that team is a group of adults or a group of children it will develop methods of interaction and behavioral patterns. Visit any Kindergarten classroom on the first day of school and then again on the last and you’ll find a clear “culture” developed. Children are capable of team culture just as much as adults. Human interaction is human interaction no matter the age.
Finally, people may argue if great teams require five primary ingredients, why have we never heard of this? The truth is we have, but many coaches never focus on the “soft skills” of team dynamics. We focus on the “hardware of the system” – the skills, talents and tactics of teams. These five ingredients have nothing to do with hardware, but here is the kicker: the magic is NOT in the hardware. The magic of success is in the software that governs how the hardware functions. Instilling these five dynamics makes all the Xs and Os that much more powerful.
It’s our obligation to choose and to develop teams that have these five ingredients as the foundation. We have focused way too long on the hardware of our teams, and like the 2004 USA Men’s Basketball team taught us, the best hardware on the planet cannot function if it doesn’t have good software installed. Go out and put some more time into your operating software. You will quickly see a difference.