March 26, 2019

10 Simple Strategies for Awesome Team Spirit

There is so much more that goes into creating and sustaining a great team than just technical training and game plans. The inherent value of being part of a team is that the teamwork makes everyone important. Some teams can get lucky and naturally have great team spirit, but most teams - coaches and players - need direction to get to that point.

These ten strategies can be broken down into four main areas: vision, basics, inclusion, and consistency.

The leadership's vision takes time to build, and is an actual visualization of how the team will interact and perform from the beginning to the end of the season. The most important key to the leadership vision is that it is complete and communicated to players in a way that creates buy-in. Without player buy-in, this vision will not become reality. Leadership also needs to be prepared to shift the vision as the season progresses, players change, and situations call for adjustments.

The basics are all about communication, organization, and appearance. These things may go without saying in some teams, but when these factors are missing, team spirit struggles to survive. Better to be proactive and make sure all the details are taken care of and everyone knows what is happening.

Inclusion is the most difficult area to maintain. This is all about making sure the worst players on the team feel just as important as the best players on the team. It's even more important when the worst players get zero playing time, and maybe even don't play the entire practice. It's not about only paying attention to the bad players, but, rather, creating an environment where the players care about each other as people and want to help everyone improve.

Consistency can be tricky or simple, depending on leadership personalities and styles. But the bottom line is that players and coaches need to be consistent in their feedback, consistent in their respectful communication, and consistent in what they bring to the team.

10 Simple Strategies for 

Awesome Team Spirit

1) VISION: Leadership + Planning + Branding 
A good leader will think about their team as much as possible in advance to prepare a plan for the season. There should be a plan for the actual sport, but then also a plan for the social, emotional, and mental aspects of the players. It is our job to take care of the player as an entire person, not just as an athlete!

The branding comes with finding a motto, nickname, or keyword in which the team can identify themselves as individuals and as a whole. This is easier in the USA where every single team has a branded mascot, but every team still needs some focus words on how they should act and be.

Over the past few seasons, I have been shouting, "GO DINGOS!" every chance I had, and it eventually translated into the team cheer. This season, our focus question was, "What's the most important thing?" and we all knew the answer was in capital letters: "TEAM."

2) VISION: Performance Identity Integrated with TEAM Standards
Now that the team identity has been described in a title, then the next step is to choose three to four key performance definitions that we want our team to understand and build upon. These definitions should also be evident to complete strangers and especially to opponents, because this is the team system foundation.

It's so important to keep the standards basic, but also high. This season, we stood on three main points. These points were part of every training and we could lean back into them when we struggled in practices or games.
1. We go for the ball.
2. We attack the 3rd ball over the net and into the court.
3. We team block together.
Players knew that if they didn't give effort for the ball, they had to dive afterwards...for no ball. Players knew it was their responsibility to be ready to attack in all situations, and then to make a great play, no matter how the ball that came to them might be. Players knew that blocking was not a solo job or just an individual skill and everyone needed to find each other and work together to really team block.

We were not perfect, but these standards were easy for everyone to understand and hold each other accountable to every time we were together.

3) VISION: System Foundation
This may sound extreme, but it's true: if you don't have a system, you are not a real coach. Another step further: if you let your players wonder and wander around without instilling the system in the first few weeks of preseason, you are wasting everyone's time.

Some coaches will implement the individual technical skills before team systems, and this can work, as long as they are building the individual skills into group skills that will eventually translate into the system. Hopefully, there is enough time to prepare the team in system work before the first scrimmages and games.

However, the team system should act as the foundation and skeleton of everything the team will do for the entire season. Allowing a team to exist and pretend to function without their foundation is a huge waste of time and can create unwanted habits, interactions, and confusion.

Why wouldn't you want to be yourself from the very first moment? Why would you want your team to haphazardly become something else when you have the opportunity to show them who they are from the very beginning?

Know and teach the system. Learn about your players within the system and correct their technical and individual issues within the framework of the team. The TEAM is the most important, and the team's performance as a whole will always go much farther than the individual's technical skills.

4) BASICS: Plan & Communicate
It's a basic because it seems obvious. But I cannot begin to tell you how many coaches do not respect their players' time! Our world has a calendar that is literally always the same. Once we have the game schedules and know our designated practice times, the team should have as much of that information as possible! Of course, random conflicts can come up, but, in general, knowing when and where the team is supposed to be in advance creates peace and confidence.

This is a really easy area to eliminate anxiety for players, and also helps players understand the bigger picture of the entire season. It's also important to note on the calendar possible team events outside of the sport, whether for team bonding, sponsor dinners, interesting events, etc.

Finally, about respecting time. Even if players come to practice late and do not respect your time, when practice is supposed to end, it should end. If you want to keep going, and the gym is free, ask the players who can stay as an option. Whatever time you say practice will end, that's when practice ends mentally for the players. Going longer just creates stress and dissatisfaction. When a player asks for extra reps, that is fine, but the player should be monitored during these extra reps for when it's still helping and when the player is no longer focused or energetic enough to continue improving.

5) BASICS: Communicate Roles & Goals
Secrets do not make friends. Be a mature leader and speak to your players as adults. Some players will not like what they will hear ("you are not going to play unless you drastically improve"), but they need to hear from the coach what their job is ("your job is to make practices great by getting up all the balls on defense and serving well"). Every player in the team has something important to do, and it's up to the coach to communicate that the player is important, and how they can stay relevant to the team.

We all can use goals to stay focused on where we are heading. Every player should have their own personal specific goals, and everyone should also have input on what the team goals will be. These goals can be based on statistics for performance (i.e., "I want to attack above a .300 for the season"), and actions for social, mental, emotional goals (i.e., "I will write an encouraging note to a different teammate before each game"). Team goals should be realistic and attainable, while also encouraging improvement and success (i.e., "Finish in the top four," "Having more aces than misses in serving").

Again, SO basic. But coaches fail this in the small ways. Ideally, there are matching practice t-shirts for any given practice day, but not all programs have this convenience. Instead, what we did this season, we had designated shirt colors for designated days. We came to practice together, and we were blue. Or black. Or even on #WildWednesdays, when we wore whatever we wanted, it was like a rainbow team day. LOOK like a team.

Springing from this, the team warm-up is the basis for everything that happens in practice and the game. Not enough coaches take the warm-up seriously. Warm-up should foster the togetherness of the team. It is the moment when the team comes together and agrees to start working together. It may not have co-dependent activities, but even individual stretching can be made a group event by making sure everyone is doing the same action for the same amount of time. A great warm-up also shows how well players pay attention to each other spatially and can apply that skill later in game situations.

Use the details and seemingly unimportant moments to create your team. What they see is what they will believe!

7) INCLUSION: Team Water
Another detail we can use to foster togetherness. How many times have we seen a coach shout out to collect the balls and then get water - and a few players just drift away without collecting balls to drink water while their teammates do all the work? Some teams do a water huddle/cheer (like I do with my little kids teams), but simply stating, "Team first, water second," really hits home. Players are expected to high five every other player on the team before they get their water.

This reminds us regularly that the TEAM is still the most important, and that the water breaks are not a time to check out from practice. It is really important for younger - and even some older - players to learn to be a little tougher and that they can wait a whole two more minutes to get water. This is also a teachable moment that hydration starts at home, and the gym shouldn't be the only place a player drinks water.

8) INCLUSION: Spotlighting & Stretching
Just like we begin practice as a team, we end practice as a team. Whether you prefer static circle stretching or dynamic cool down, this should be done as a team together. If an individual player really needs a customized cool down, they can usually do it after the final team huddle.

The key to this end of training activity is the spotlighting. I learned how to do this as a young teen at sports camps, and quickly understood that it had the power to change people and teams. It's basically "praise-tag," where one person directly compliments ("You worked really hard in the defensive drill today") another on something they did well or they appreciate about them ("Thank you for setting a great example of communicating in our team"). This continues until everyone has been spotlighted and the last person spotlights the person who started.

I. Cannot. Emphasize. Enough. How. Important. Spotlighting. Is.

This is, by far, the BEST way to make sure the worst players feel appreciated, and that the better players don't get too snobby. I have seen player relationships literally healed by spotlighting. I have seen rude players turn into grateful players by spotlighting. I have been told by players who never saw one moment of playing time that it was their favorite season ever...because of spotlighting.

I have also seen the flip-side of teams where I wasn't trusted with input (their loss!) and teams with selfish players who didn't want to make the effort to care about their teammates. Spotlighting would have been hard with those groups, but with careful implementation (i.e., starting with just a few spotlights instead of the full team, making sure they got to spotlight their friends, etc.), it could have really transformed some of those players, and for sure made those seasons much better.

One more thing about the magic of spotlighting. I 100% believe that leaders should be training leaders. Public speaking is not a natural skill for many people. Neither is being nice to others. Creating opportunities for every person to have the floor and be listened to in a safe environment is gifting your players with incredibly crucial life skills that they will be able to use forever. It is important for every person to find their voice in a group, but especially for young people, and even more so for young women. Please, please, please, if you implement anything from this article, choose spotlighting!!!

9) CONSISTENCY: Feedback with Facts
Video makes giving feedback lightyears easier. Practice videos aren't a bad idea either. Video helps everyone understand what happened without all the emotions of the moment involved. Feedback needs to be as factual as possible, but also consistent. If footwork is corrected in a certain way one time, and in a different way another time, it creates confusion. Another consistency to work toward is sounding the same while giving feedback during practices and games to avoid different responses. It's important to be the same coach in practices and games; otherwise, players get confusing impressions of what's important and how to process the information.

10) CONSISTENCY: Full Circle
So we've all worked really hard, planned things in advance, and gotten everyone on board. Now the real consistency has to come into play, every day. Stay true to being consistent with communication, how activities and exercises work, standards, schedules, and continue to circle back to what matters the most. Even the end of season team event should circle back to the beginning and what everyone has worked on all season. If spotlighting has been incorporated, it can come full circle by doing "spotlight papers," where each player writes two to three sentence spotlights on specified player papers that the players can keep from their team/season.

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Creating team spirit takes extra work. It takes extra hours of planning, extra conversations, extra energy, and a whole lot of extra focus on the details.

What's the reward? Hopefully a lot of success and happiness, but the real reward is in how we will have impacted each other's lives for the better. You can read exactly how my team processed these efforts in what they wrote to me for our final team dinner this season.