Teamwork: the amazing power of playing well together

This post was inspired by my experiences of taking my 5-year-old son to football practice once a week. Teamwork is important in both life and work and learning how to be a good team member is not always easy.

Teamwork: playing well together

Understanding how teams work and being a good team player is an essential human skill. Our society is built on teamwork and collaboration and our ability to cooperate has lifted humanity out of a rather bloody history.  

How teams work in life and at home

Teamwork is essential to success in every part of life, from parenting to sport, to engineering and beyond. But us humans are also very individualistic, probably more so than ever in human history. As a parent it’s clear that my son has to be taught to cooperate with others, share and be part of a group. He doesn't yet fully understand how teams work. This is not something that comes naturally to a child and even alludes some adults. Sometimes we all need a little coaching when we get stuck.

Coaching my son to be part of a team

This post was inspired by my experiences of taking my 5-year-old son to football practice once a week. Personally, I’m not interested in football in the slightest. It’s always fascinated me how obsessed we are with sport, especially team sports, from football to cricket and rugby. 

My early experiences of teamwork

Growing up in South Africa meant that rugby was the sport to play. But I had my own difficult/ambiguous relationship with the sport and the macho culture around it. The turning point was having a great coach who helped transform my relationship with the sport and myself. 

The dirt trackers

At the age of 12 I had a truly great teacher who helped me enter that delicate threshold from boy to man. He was also my rugby coach and he started a team for all the misfits and dropouts who never made the selection in any of the “good” teams. He christened our team “the dirt trackers”. He nurtured our mediocre skills and fragile egos as our bodies and minds flexed and stretched into the beginning of manhood, riding the wave of testosterone, acne and warbly voices.

Good coaching transforms teamwork

Our coach helped to unite us as a team that didn’t give up. We weren’t the strongest or the most skilled but we had grit and earned a reputation of being tough. We even had some surprising wins against other teams which further spread our reputation. At the end of the season we played a friendly game against the top team in our school in an epic battle that we ultimately lost. But we walked off the field with our heads held high, with a much closer score than was expected.  

Rugby versus football

Rugby is a much less individualistic sport than football and this is reflected by scrums, rucks and mauls. There’s nothing quite as primeval (or homoerotic) as 8 men wrapping their arms around each other in a tight embrace before putting their heads down and pushing with all their might against the other team. The picture below of South Africa versus England demonstrates perfectly.

Springbok teamwork in action

Sport or war?

I often wonder how groups of men chasing or kicking a little air-filled leather sack around a field can be so popular. I think it taps into our deep-seated inner violence as a species, our competitiveness and our desire/need to choose sides. Sports are epically binary. If you’re playing you have to be chosen to be part of the team and if you’re a fan you generally pick a team to support. 

Perhaps this duality reflects our deep need to belong, a need for identity and protection from the other or unknown. Organised sport is definitely a much more humane alternative to war.

Team of teams

On the topic of how teams work and exceptional teamwork in a stressful environment, I can highly recommend the book Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal describes how effective teams are built on trust and a shared awareness or group consciousness of the mission. 

McChrystal writes with clarity and humility about his experiences as a leader in the US military in Iraq. He and his team were getting their butts kicked by al-Qaeda and he had the courage to transform teamwork within the US military, to meet and overcome the enemy. Gripping stuff!

Coaching my son

I don’t have much interest in football or ball sports generally. I’d lean towards rugby based on my background, but I don’t watch any games or support a team. Weekly football training with my son represents an hour a week where he gets to practice being part of a group. I get to practice supporting and coaching him to deal with the difficult emotions that come up so frequently. The first few sessions were extremely frustrating and difficult for him. He spent most of the time in tears running back to me for hugs. In these first sessions he spent about half of the practice sitting in my lap.

"Dad, why do I have to follow these rules?"

At one stage he asked me why he had to follow the rules and why he couldn’t just run around kicking the ball. I explained that rules made the game and that without rules there couldn’t be a game because no-one would know what to do or how to play together. The other thing he really struggled with was learning the ball skills. This was so frustrating for him because the ball just didn’t go where he wanted it to. 

He would often collapse in a heap of tears and frustration. I would go over to him and offer him a hug and he would wrap his arms tightly around me, pushing his tearful face against my shoulder. Sometimes I’d remind him to try and breathe deeply and get him to calm down. Other parents looked on quizzically. 

Between a rock and a hard place

Why did I keep coming back with my son? Why didn’t I just choose to do something my son was good at and enjoyed? The thing is, that in between the difficult moments, he was enjoying the challenge of learning new skills and the unpleasant lesson that it’s not all about him: that he can’t always make up the rules, that he needs to be part of a team and help his teammates work towards a goal. Admittedly, none of the kids had figured out what the goal was or which team they were on, but it’s the beginning of the process. 

Character-building principles at work

Here are the skills that my son is learning while battling it out on the field with his feelings. It takes patience to learn new skills and the rules of a new game. It requires some acceptance that he can't just do what he wants and make up his own rules. It also takes a little humility to keep playing when others are clearly better than him. Finally, it takes courage to keep returning to the field of play despite the difficult and confusing emotions.

After each session, while I was cooking dinner, I would ask him how it went and if he was OK going back. One of the big plusses was that two brothers who've been his longest standing friends went each week. Even though he found it difficult, he was open to going back each week and gradually over the season he spent less time in my lap and more time playing with the others. 

Flowing with the team

One of the things I’ve noticed at the football sessions is that there are moments when my son is in a state of pure flow. He’s not thinking or worrying or doubting. He’s just fully immersed in the game. This state can also be achieved in other types of teams and situations too.

Happy teams are made up of individuals who understand their role and share a sense of purpose or clear goal with the rest of the team. They also cover for each other and help to support the goal, rather than focusing only on their piece of the puzzle. It’s a beautiful thing to experience. Successful teamwork adds meaning to our work lives and can be deeply satisfying.

The team animal

Great teams work by transcending individual skills and the team becomes a kind of living intelligent organism that is able to dynamically solve problems. Leading a high performing team is a careful balance between providing clear direction, some structure and allowing the team to problem solve together. 

The team leader should maintain a big picture understanding of the overall mission, while the team is focused on completing the tasks needed to achieve the next goal on the path to success. Sometimes a leader needs to step in and work with an individual, coaching them on some detailed aspect of the work. Being able to read the pulse of the team overall and where various individuals are at is a skill that takes time to develop. 


All of us play well when we understand the team’s mission and how our own skills and experience are valuable to the overall success of the project. As a leader, it's important to reflect on how teams work and how individuals play well together, and specifically how your own team works at its best.

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