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Making Your Team Work: How Coaches Can Transform Groups into Teams

Ryan Hedstrom
Manchester College

Whether it is on the field or in the locker room, effective coaches need to understand the strategies to turn a group of individuals into a cohesive and successful team. Not all groups of individuals are teams. Successful teams have distinct characteristics such as shared leadership, fluid responsibility, accountability to the group, and shared goals (Lussier& Kimball, 2009). To understand this sense of shared vision and teamwork, one only needs to look to the sky. As geese fly south for the winter, they fly in a distinctive “V” formation. This yearly task is the epitome of teamwork:

  • Flying in this formation increases the flying range compared to flying individually. What’s the lesson?..working together towards a common goal helps the entire team finish more efficiently.
  • Falling out of the formation causes the birds to feel sudden resistance. As a team, they continually adjust to keep initial formation. What’s the lesson?..there is power in those who travel together.
  • When a bird becomes tired, s/he rotates to the back of the formation. What’s the lesson?...everyone must take turns doing the difficult jobs.
  • Birds at the back of the formation continually honk in order to encourage the front. What’s the lesson?...effective teams provide constant encouragement to its members.                    (Lussier& Kimball, 2009)

So what makes an effective team? There are several characteristics that determine team success, outlined by Yukl (2006).

  1. Commitment to Shared Objectives. All team members must agree on what the team is trying to accomplish. Teams work much harder if members have a say in team goals and focus. Having team members discuss and decide on team goals would foster this sense of team commitment.
  2. Accurate, Shared Mental Models. As a coach, one of the ways that teams can work effectively is have a shared sense of what is to come (a mental model). Understanding, as a group, what to expect and how the team can respond develops this sense of teamwork. Coaches can foster this mental modeling by practicing different competition scenarios, discussing logistics of an event, and providing as much accurate information about upcoming opponents as possible. Through this preparation the team develops this shared mental model.
  3. Role Clarity and Acceptance. All team members must understand that they have a role on the team. At times it may seem insignificant and can be hard to accept, but everyone must know their role is vitally important to team success. Coaches can promote this team characteristic by stressing the importance of each athlete to the team. Team members need to see how their actions genuinely affect the team’s objectives. Teammates also need to show that each member’s contribution is important.
  4. Mutual Trust and Cooperation. Each team member must trust and cooperate with the team as a whole. While this is an obvious ingredient to team success, it is also a very difficult one to cultivate. Coaches need to stress trust and cooperation from the very start of the season. Whether it is through team-building activities (such as ropes courses or challenge games) or shared experiences (both social and sport-related) the team must have a solid foundation of trust and cooperation.
  5. Collective Potency. Call it the swagger, confidence, or belief…teams must believe they are capable of team success. This sense of confidence translates into a belief of team effectiveness. All of the above mentioned team characteristics play into this belief of potency. Teams that know what is to be accomplished and can cooperate in order to get there have a sincere belief in team effectiveness. Coaches can impact this sense of collective potency by staying positive and focusing on team success. Coaches need to remember that the mood and confidence of the leader has a major impact on the collective mood and confidence of the team.

Effective coaches know that turning a group of individuals into an effective team takes a keen understanding of team characteristics. By incorporating the above team characteristics into coaching strategies, coaches will help guide individual players into adopting a team vision and commitment. Just like the geese that work together every year to accomplish a monumental task, effective teams develop a shared sense of responsibility and accountability that maximizes success.

Lussier, R.N.,& Kimball, D.C. (2009). Applied sport management skills. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Yukl, G. (2006). Leadership in organizations (6th ed.). Upper Saddle, NJ: Pearson Education.