Team building is the systematic and deliberate actions you take to promote closeness, connection, unified purpose, and shared commitment to team goals among your athletes. All-time winningest American college baseball coach Augie Garrido molds his players into championship teams by adhering to what he considers the five universal truths of effective team building:
- It's amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.
- Every role is important, but finding the right person for the right role is critical.
- On a fully functioning team bonded by mutual respect, anyone can take the lead at any given time.
- Constant and clear communication is essential to a team's welfare.
- The greatest achievements are the result of united efforts, not individual performance, because you have someone to share success with.
Coaches commonly implement formal team-building activities early in the season as a way to bring a team together. The process of setting team goals, or target outcomes, is a highly effective team-building activity. Teams that participate in preseason team goal-setting exercises are more cohesive if the initial goal-setting activity is followed up with regular checks on the team goals. For example, an effective strategy is for coaches to evaluate team goals and adjust them if needed with their athletes and teams at regular intervals across a season. Breaking the season into smaller blocks of time, such as blocks of three games, is one such approach that has proved effective in research with high school teams.
A common example of a preseason team-building activity is a team camping trip. Coaches schedule and plan the trip, but when the team arrives at the campsite, athletes are responsible for setting up camp, preparing meals, and cleaning. This transfer of ownership and responsibility forces the athletes to work together and often removes them from their comfort zone. Many coaches who have used this strategy report that most of their athletes have never been camping, and even if they have, they weren't the ones responsible for setting up tents and cooking outdoors.
This simple cost-effective activity also has the added benefit of removing some of the noise from athletes' daily lives by putting them in a quiet, isolated environment in which they have no choice but to collaborate and learn about each other.
This team-building activity is an excellent way to identify team leaders and the various roles that each athlete naturally feels comfortable playing on the team. For example, who gathers the team together and maps out a strategy for distributing the workload? Who immediately accepts her or his assigned role and quietly gets to work, and who reluctantly adheres and perhaps even challenges or confronts her or his teammates? A preseason camping trip will naturally create the conditions for a team to work through the forming, storming, norming, and performing stages of team building.
Although preseason team-building activities are common, the most effective coaches understand that team building is an ongoing everyday effort across a season. Successful coaches set aside regular time in their weekly schedules for team-building activities in an effort to improve communication and interpersonal relationships. Scheduling team-building meetings, or at least setting aside some time during other types of regular team meetings, is recommended.
Some coaches recommend starting these meetings by having athletes respond, either orally or in writing, to team-building reflection questions such as the following:
- What have you done today or this week to help or support a teammate?
- What have you done in the past week to improve team cohesion?
Coaching scientist and team-building consultant Jon Hammermeister shares the example of team Tuesdays that he helped create with the United States ski team. Time is set aside on Tuesdays for team-building activities, but athletes are responsible for leading the session. Some activities that athletes commonly devise include inspirational storytelling, showing motivational movies, creating team highlight presentations, and even writing team chants or songs.
Another team-building strategy increasingly used by effective coaches is engaging in community service activities. Every community has needs that provide countless opportunities for volunteering and serving others. Volunteering a few hours each month at a hospital or assisted-living residence, tending a community garden, participating in community cleanups, or assisting with local food drives are all team-building activities that have the added benefit of making a positive contribution and building goodwill in the community.
Regardless of the specific team-building activities used, the full value of teambuilding exercises will not be realized unless the activity is followed by a formal debriefing. Immediately following a team-building activity, athletes will be in an emotionally vulnerable state that presents coaches with a golden teachable moment.
Team-building activities serve the same purpose as priming an engine. The activity creates an optimal state of athlete readiness to learn about team cohesion, team core values, and their own strengths and weaknesses as team builders.
Coaches should use the time immediately following a team-building activity to lead the team in an open discussion about the meaning and lessons that can be derived from the activity. The goal of the debriefing period is not to solve any team-building issues, but to stimulate self- and collective-reflection about team dynamics.
Wade Gilbert, PhD is the author of Coaching Better Every Season and Human Kinetics' coach education advisor, “The Coach Doc”. He writes articles and conducts webinars on a variety of coaching issues. Wade is an award-winning professor in the department of kinesiology at California State University at Fresno.
Dr. Gilbert holds degrees in physical education, human kinetics, and education and has taught and studied coaching at the University of Ottawa (Canada), UCLA, and Fresno State. He has more than 20 years of experience in conducting applied research with coaches around the world spanning all competitive levels, from youth leagues to the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games. Gilbert is a coach education advisor to USA Football and a regular contributor to coaching seminars for Olympic and national team coaches in the United States and Canada.
In addition, Gilbert is editor in chief of the International Sport Coaching Journal, published by Human Kinetics in conjunction with SHAPE America and the International Council for Coaching Excellence (ICCE).