There is something special about being part of a sports team. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about little league baseball or playing at an elite level, being a part of a team has this sort of magic to create bonds and cohesion that supersedes whatever else is going on in the moment. For a period of time, you forget about all of the differences and discontent and have each other’s backs, aligned for a common purpose.
In a world where this seldom happens, it is pretty remarkable to think about. A diverse group of people, with different backgrounds, upbringings, viewpoints, and beliefs all put that aside and come together as one. It doesn’t matter if you are friends or bickering off the playing field, once the game starts, you’re aligned as a singular unit. To be sure, it doesn’t always occur, but when it does it’s magic.
While the office isn’t a sports team, and some of these strategies come more natural on the playing fields and should not occur in the workspace (e.g., exercising to exhaustion to create space for vulnerability!), there are many lessons that we can take away from how sports teams bring a diverse array of people together and get them to put aside their differences for long enough to pursue something for the greater good. Let’s now go over four ways in which sports create cohesion.
1. A Goal That Is Bigger Than You
In a classic psychology experiment, researchers took a bunch of kids at summer camp and made them enemies. They created an us versus them environment, or in this case, eagles versus rattlers. The two warring groups resorted to stealing, harassing, and much more, simply because they’d been stuck on the opposing side. But the researchers were really trying to see if they could make them come back together after they’d spent weeks making them think the other side was vicious.
What ultimately brought the two groups together was what the psychologists called superordinate goals, or tasks that couldn’t be done by a single group, but needed mass cooperation to get done. For instance, in one challenge, the campers had to fix the main water faucet that supplied water to the entire camp. In another, the groups came across a truck that was supposed to deliver the camp’s food, stuck in a rut, and needed to work together to get it out.
As Brad and I outlined in Peak Performance, a self-transcending purpose lifts your game. It allows you to harness a power that you normally don’t have access to. When we have a shared goal, something that is bigger than ourselves, good things generally happen.
Sports come with this built-in. There is a championship every year. And the beauty is, it resets every year, with every team having a shot as the season starts a new. What we tend to see in sports is if you are in the hunt, this superordinate goal takes care of the rest.
It’s one of the reasons “The Patriot Way,” a firm coaching style of Bill Bellicheck and the New England Patriots, tends to work really well in New England, but not so well in any other city that a former NE assistant coach has tried implement it in. For two decades, New England has been in the hunt. They had a goal that was within reach. When you don’t have that, the hard-nosed coaching style can wear thin. That superordinate goal isn’t there to do much of the work in creating cohesion.
2. A Defined Period with Quality Feedback
A shared vision and goal aren’t enough. As I mentioned, it needs to be something that is tangible and within reach. As a goal drifts out of reach, we go through more cost/benefit thinking. We debate whether or not it’s worth it. This occurs in sport (think about what you do as your goal marathon time slips away) and in life (research shows an increase in cost/benefit thinking is a sign that romantic relationships are eventually headed towards breakup).
Any goal ought to be for a defined period of time that, in the grand scheme of things, is relatively short. If we had to wait ten years to have a shot to compete for a championship, the superordinate goal wouldn’t be as powerful. The relatively short time frame, in the case of sports, one that resets every year, has a focusing effect.
Furthermore, along the way we have numerous checkpoints and feedback mechanisms. We get to play in tournaments or test ourselves against good teams. These serve as either momentum builders, or an opportunity to course-correct.
3. Everyone Has a Clearly Defined Role
Great teams make sure that every person, from the superstar to the third string athlete who rarely steps out onto the field has a role. They know what their job is, what it entails, and how they are contributing to the team.
People struggle and get frustrated when they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing. You see this in the workplace all the time. A Gallup survey found that lack of role clarity was one of the top five reasons for employee burnout.
4. You Can’t Hide. It’s Real.
The other aspect of sports that is important for creating cohesion is it eliminates all the BS. When you work out together, you can’t fake it. You can’t talk a big game, put on a façade, and hope to fool people. In sports, whether after a tough workout or a disappointing loss you see your teammates in their rawest form: joy, crying, anger, all of it.
Authentic vulnerability creates the space for cohesion and belonging. It signals to you that this person on my team is a human being who goes through the ups and downs as you do.
Sports create an environment where seeing yourself in this raw state is normal. You can’t hide the exhaustion after a race, or the disappointment after a close loss. It’s there. It’s human. And it leads to connection.
Often, we create environments where putting on a mask is the default. We can’t be ourselves. So how in the world do we expect to connect with anyone else?
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