LeadershipTeam Culture

In my daily conversations with coaches of every level, from grassroots to the professional ranks, we often talk about a topic that is near and dear to our hearts: what makes someone a valuable member of the team. What are the qualities that make an athlete recruitable? Is it speed? Strength? Skill? Some combination of all the above? Or is it something more? 

The answer to that question, at least according to all the coaches I speak to, is yes, there is something more. Ability – what we see in front of us – is very important. Of course you must have the technical and physical skills to perform. But when I ask coaches the question “what is one thing that is very hard for you to learn about this kid that you wish you knew the answer to?” they almost always say the following:

“Will he/she be a good fit with our group?”

In other words, will he/she be a good teammate. This is something every coach wants to know about you, athletes. Being a great teammate is a quality that will always make you recruitable, always make you desirable, and almost always get you included when selections happen. But what makes one a great teammate?

This week I was listening to an amazing interview with Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander and author of two amazing books on leadership, Extreme Ownership and Discipline Equals Freedom. Willink was asked what is the number quality of a great Navy Seal? What is the one thing all SEAL’s want from their teammates? After all, it is combat, so one might think that the most desirable traits are a great shot, fast, strong, a great swimmer, or something along those lines. But no. According to Willink, the #1 quality of a great SEAL teammate:

You look out for your teammates first, you put the needs of your teammate above your own needs, and you take of the team before you take care of yourself.

“A great SEAL,” says Willink, “ is asking ‘what can I give my teammate. How can I make their situation better right now?’”  

How different is this than the message we get through popular culture, or through every social media channel that bombards us with the message “look at me, look at me get mine!” How different is this than the message so many of our youth athletes are told, in terms of scoring points and getting the stats at the expense of their teammates and their team? How many athletes go through youth sports being completely selfish only to end up on a college team where selflessness is valued? How many are told to ask what can I get, instead of what can I give?

As I have written about before, far too many athletes bring the attitude of “what do I get” to practice and games. They want to know how they can:

  • Get to start
  • Get more playing time
  • Get to play my favorite position
  • Get to score all the points/goals
  • Get to work hard when I want to
  • Get to show up (physically and mentally) when I feel like it
  • Get to give less than my best because I am an upperclassman
  • Get attention as the star player

Coaches at the next level are not looking for these things. This will not make you a successful member of a new team. Instead, they are looking for athletes who ask “what can I give?”  Athletes who ask themselves what they can give bring “I can give/I can do” attitudes and actions to the table for their teams. The can actually “get” everything they are looking for simply by starting with the following service oriented ideas:

  • I can give my best effort in practice and games
  • I can give my team a positive attitude no matter what the circumstances
  • I can give my team a boost no matter how many minutes I play
  • I can give my team a better chance to win no matter what position I play
  • I can do the dirty work so my teammate can score the goal and get the glory
  • I can sacrifice my personal ambitions for the better of the group
  • I can lead by example
  • I can be an example of our core values in action

In the interview, Willink also spoke about the truly exceptional performer, the one who might be the object of a lot of jealousy because he or she gets a lot of accolades, or happens to score most of the goals or points. So often these athletes are the subject of a lot of parental and teammate jealousy. It is easy to become selfish when you are the butt of a lot of snarky comments and back stabbing. Yet it is important for this athlete to look out for their teammates first. Why?

Because now my teammate who possesses exceptional ability is an asset to my team! The athlete who is stronger and faster and more skillful than me is actually looking out for my best interests! He is actually making me look good. She is actually helping us be successful! Who wouldn’t want that person on their team? “If I put the team before myself,” says Willink, “and by being a good team player and lift up my teammates, eventually I am going to win!” Ultimately, if you take care of people, you will win in the end, likely surrounded by people who are thrilled to death that you have won, and helped them win too!

There is a lot of jealously in youth sports, especially during tryout season and during the recruiting process. Some of it is totally unjustified, and some of it is probably deserved because of athletes who are self serving. But over three decades of coaching, as I reflect on this concept of serving your teammates first, and of the players I have coached who have always put the needs of their teammates over their own needs, I cannot think of any examples of jealousy. Instead, I can only think of teammates who were more than willing to celebrate the success of their teammate who gave to them day after day. I can only think of athletes whose teammates were willing to sacrifice to get them everything they wanted, because the exceptional athletes were willing to sacrifice to get all their teammates everything they wished for as well. 

“Before I check myself, I check you” says Willink. That is real leadership. That is the type of teammate every athlete wants, and every coach wants to recruit. So moms and dads, boys and girls, the next time you are in a situation where you have a choice to get or to give, make the choice that will make others want to be a part of your team. 

Put your team and your teammates first. It works well in sports, and it works well in life.


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Tagged under: Coaching, leadership, teamwork