The best teams play for one another. They don’t play for the coach or for awards. They want to win, of course, but that’s not what ultimately drives them. They don’t want to let their teammates down.

How do we create a team that plays for one another?

“Count on You”

We used this phrase all of the time within our program. If we can’t count on you to show up on time to class, do you think we are going to count on you to go on the road and win? It doesn’t work that way. If we can’t count on you, we can’t trust you. And if we can’t trust you, you can’t be a part of what we are trying to accomplish. This isn’t for you.

I would often say “the best ability is reliability.” One of the worst things you can be as a teammate is unreliable. It’s actually better to be mediocre than to be unreliable. At least we know what we are going to get every day. We know what we can count on. That is crucial to high-performing teams.

Constantly emphasize to your teams the importance of showing up. Being consistent. Competing at a high level every day, without compromise. Make sure they know that everyone is counting on them, and without the commitment of everyone, the team will fail. Create an atmosphere where reliability is expected and celebrated.

Connect the Dots

Finding ways to connect the dots with your team is an important step. Make sure they are aware that one weak link in the chain impacts the entire team. Being clear about how everyone is relying on each other will help your team start to think about their teammates. If you aren’t ready to guard, now we have to help you. Everyone else has to rotate. Someone is going to be left open. One player not doing their job impacts everyone.

A few weeks into practice at RIC we always asked our freshmen if the knew the name of the janitor who they saw every day, cleaning up their locker room and the gym. None of them ever knew his name, they never really thought about it. And he was literally cleaning up after them every day. He cleaned the floor before practice for us.

So what if he decided not to clean the floor before practice, and it was too dirty and too slippery to practice on? Or we couldn’t go hard because we were worried about getting hurt? Rafael was our teammate, and his job was just as important as everyone else’s in helping our program. If he didn’t do it, it had a negative impact on our program.

Not only was it a good way to show appreciation and eliminate entitlement, but it was also a good way to connect the dots for our guys. What one of us does affects us all.

Shared Experiences

I do think I was lucky in this regard when I first became a head coach. I took over a veteran, talented group that had been through a lot together – 3 different head coaches, lack of success, some challenging situations at RIC, long rides in cramped vans to games, etc… They were naturally invested in one another by the time I arrived. They didn’t play to win. They played not to let each other down. But it made me recognize the importance of those shared experiences to their investment in each other.

Are there ways for you to engage your team in shared experiences – away from the gym – that helps them come together/invest in each other unrelated to simply playing basketball? Get them away from the gym and let them get to know each other. Create an investment level where they simply refuse to let their teammates down.

Give Them Space to Have A Voice

There were inevitable times of confrontation and disagreement with my teams, and often I had to let them work it out. That meant some uncomfortable situations in practice – some arguments, intense disagreements, etc. But it created a clear feeling of “We all really care about this… it matters to us.” Even if we disagree. Sometimes when things get heated in practice, give them the space to work it out. Let them handle it.

For example, competing was always our most important core value/behavior. I would ask the team at the beginning of the year to rate every one of their teammates on how hard they played every day. One through 15. We would total it up and share it with the team. Who they thought competed the hardest, who they thought didn’t. Someone had to be last. They didn’t have to put their name to it, so it was shared as “This is what your teammates think about you.” It created some tension/anxiety and a little bit of confrontation that they had to discuss. But at the end of it was “We are in this together.” They had the voice, and they had to talk it out.

Challenge Them to Count On Each Other

This is something you can do intentionally in practice. We had a conditioning drill called 8-6-4-2. The team was grouped together in pairs – usually a faster player with a slower player. They would alternate running sprints (1 set of 8 lengths of the floor, then 2 sets each of 6 lengths of the floor, etc..) Your partner could not run until you had completed your sprint. So, he had to complete 8, then he would rest when you ran your 8, etc… If one guy was dogging it, he was letting his teammate down. The drill had to be completed in 9:45 as a team – so it was a long, tough drill.

Guys were dead tired, we would usually do it at the end of practice, so it was very hard. But if you gave in, you were letting your teammate down, because he couldn’t finish without you. Generally when I put them on the line for the drill I would hear some groans, but halfway through the sprints the energy would turn (as the sprints got shorter, going from 8s down to 2s). There would be a ton of positive energy in the gym at the end of the drill. They had to count on one another to complete a tough task.

We did another team exercise off the floor with puzzles. We’d group them in 3s, and give each group a puzzle. The only instructions I would give them was “We have to finish all of the puzzles as quickly as we can.” Naturally each group thought they were supposed to finish the puzzle in front of them. Some of the puzzles would be complete and be easy to put together. But some of the puzzles would be mixed – they’d be missing pieces, and the missing pieces would be with other groups. Teams would figure out that they needed help from another team and start asking and sharing pieces.

The team or two that had an easy, complete puzzle would just sit there – proud that they had finished first. Remember, the only instructions were “we have to finish all of the puzzles as quickly as we can.” Some groups would experience frustration and have to fight through it. Others would experience entitlement/privilege and feel like they had accomplished something – when in fact they were just given the easiest situation. Ultimately to complete the task of finishing all of the puzzles as quickly as they could, they would have to work to help each other.

Elite teams play for one another. They refuse to let each other down. They don’t play to win or to please the coach. They don’t play for themselves. They play for their teammates.

Create an environment where your team learns to be reliable and to count on one another, and you’ll increase your chances of sustaining elite success.

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