“I know it’s not ALL about winning … but we want to win!”
(Part 3: Conclusion)
In Parts 1 & 2 of this series, I covered two key strategies for giving your team the best chance for victory while still developing all the players on your roster. The Triangle Method and Fostering a Competitive Spirit are both key to success, but without question the most important and most powerful, game-changing, season-changing, LIFE-changing thing you can teach your team is UNITY.
Do my players love each other?
Do they lift each other up when things go wrong?
Do they respond well when the other team makes a back-breaking play?
Do they quickly move past terrible calls by the officials?
If you said “no” or “not sure” to any of these, you may have an opportunity to create a new level of unity for your team. And that may be the difference you need to get out of the losing habit and start tasting victory.
Unity Is A Culture, Not A Moment
Creating unity among a group of kids takes time and intentionality. It doesn’t come from a speech or a single exercise. It must be taught through instruction, repetition and reward. You have to plan it into your practice and game schedules just like everything else. I submit to you it is the most important element of what you are doing as a coach. It’s also the most effective in terms of creating a winning program. In a 2010 nationwide survey of championship teams conducted by Winning Youth Football, the overwhelming majority of the 100+ respondents cited “Team Chemistry” and “Team Character” as the most important things that helped them win the title (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nf4d5indShc).
From day one, talk about it. Let the team know your standards for how you will all treat each other. An inspirational book that will challenge you to create a culture of unity is Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx. The TV Series “Band of Brothers” is another, more extreme example. There are many, many others. Let those and other examples inspire you and get started right away with an intentional plan to develop unity.
The first step is to alleviate the anxiety of interaction. Or, put simply, to break the ice. Often players don’t know each other outside your team context. If you jump right into teaching and drilling, they don’t have a chance to get to know each other. Give them that chance. Look up “team building exercises” on the internet and find one that fits your team’s situation. Take the idea and “rebrand” it with your team mascot so the kids feel like this is something “the Bears always do.” I used ice breakers I learned in summer camp and rebranded them “Bear Passing” and “Bear Buddies” because we were the “Bears.” This serves to legitimize the activity in the minds of the kids as well as build their identity as a team.
Raise The Bar
Once they are comfortable around each other, you can start to raise the bar. One way to do that is “Player Affirmations.” Gather the team together and challenge them to say something positive to a teammate, in front of everyone. It might go like this, (maybe during a water break in an early season practice): “While you are drinking your water, I want you to look around at your teammates. As you do that, think of what you have witnessed today. Did someone work hard? Did they encourage someone else? Did they do something that impressed you? When you can think of something, raise your hand.” Then you call on players one at a time, encouraging them to speak “words of affirmation” over each other. It may be awkward at first, but I promise you once the kids get used to it, and expect it, they will be prepared and bold. They will melt your heart is what they’ll do. And they will fill each other with confidence and love – and your team will grow in unity.
Establish A Unity Economy
In most of their lives, your players are being taught an economy of individualism.
Transactions govern their interactions:
“What have you done for me?”
“I did something for you, now you owe me.”
“I did my part, now you do yours.”
If you want to build a team that will fight for each other no matter the circumstance, you need to teach them a new economy. It’s not about transactions, where “you owe us one, Johnny” is the echoed refrain when Johnny jumps offside. It’s about unconditional love, where “we got your back, Johnny – don’t worry, we’ll get those five yards back right now” is what he hears while he’s beating himself up inside for making a mistake. Failure doesn’t mean you are in debt to your team – it means your team will rally around you, support you, challenge you and carry you if needed.
Players who believe their teammates accept them no matter what are not afraid to play loose, fast and hard because they know if they make a mistake it will not change their status. When players play like that, they are hard to beat, regardless of skill level, size or speed. When players want desperately to do their jobs to the best of their abilities out of love for their teammates, rather than fear of failure, you have unity. That kind of unity is hard to beat. And even when you score less than the opponent, when players are unified like that every game is a W.