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Team building

Footballing lions show how strong teams can hit their goals

Published 14 July 2021 in Team building • 10 min read

Italy showed resilience and mental focus to become European champions. Lessons from the locker rooms can set us all on the road to victory.

The UEFA European Championship captures the imagination every four years, dazzling fans with drama, athleticism, and unimaginable feats, and this summer’s recently concluded edition was no exception.  On Sunday, Italy bested England after 90 minutes of regulation time, two 15-minute periods of extra time and penalty kicks, 1-1 (3-2), in a nail-biting finish at Wembley Stadium in London. 

Both teams illustrated resilience in action. In order to train for a month-long football tournament, the Italian and English squads focused on requisite teamwork, but also how to perform for endurance, how to bounce back from setbacks, and collaborate to reach their objectives. Italy ended the first half without a goal, unable to convert their attacks and turn the momentum of England’s opener in the second minute. 

But the halftime locker room discussion reframed the game and enabled the team to devise alternative solutions to the difficulty their opponents presented. Manager Roberto Mancini coached his players to come back better in the second half with a 67-minute goal, to endure extra time, and, when two players missed their penalty kicks, how to rapidly reset their mental focus to close out the game. 

That halftime pause is perhaps a good metaphor for where the business world is currently in its march towards returning to some semblance of business “normalcy”  which feels at times like a marathon. In some countries, certain companies have reached Mile 24 while others are still at Miles 14, 19, or 23 in their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and reshaping how each enterprise can best perform. Worker mobility is stagnant and some global business hubs remain at 50% of their pre-pandemic worker mobility levels. The pandemic impacted everyone, and it is impossible in 2021 to pick up where enterprise left off in March 2020. Leaders thus need to be more resilient to cross the finish line to a “new normal” of post-pandemic work.  

They need to have a good halftime talk. But the sports world offers numerous other key lessons in building resiliency beyond apt analogies. Conversations with sports executive coaches and trainers reveal useful strategies for how to better forge endurance and performance in the workforce, ideas that the business world can adapt to aid colleagues. Notably, if leaders think more like a coach and train their squads like athletes, then their teams can be better equipped to compete like lions.  


Think like a coach 

Executive coach and advisor Jeannie Esti understands the sports field, thanks to an early career start in the National Football League (NFL) before switching career paths 25 years ago. But the sports metaphors have remained a constant, which allow her clients to reflect differently on their professional and personal lives. Lately, she’s working to get clients to think like some of the best American football coaches, who have a reputation of being stern but fair and empathetic, as they transition their workforce into the next phase of the pandemic and its recovery. “Businesses and leaders are no longer allowed to take a myopic view of the people that work for them,” Esti said of reality in 2021. “That’s why really good coaches give time to things that are not necessarily on the field.”  

She pointed to how New England Patriots coach Bill Belichek reacted to the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers last year. Suddenly, the issue of social injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement was part of the locker room, just as the conversations and activism it inspired infused society at all levels. According to her, “[Belichek] took a stance that said, ‘I want to learn more about this. I want to know what I can do about this. I want to protect my team around this’.”  

For Esti, this example illustrates how a coach focuses on community as a cornerstone for building the team and obtaining other end goals. Moreover, she notes, good leaders, like good coaches, recognize that “neutral is not reverse”. Many workers have been in neutral for the past 16-plus months, forging a precarious balance between telework, home life, and oftentimes childcare and school, too. Treating colleagues with humanity shows them that they matter, that they are part of the community. “People don’t quit companies,” Esti noted. “They quit managers. They quit workload. And they quit people. So, knowing that, how can we be better?” 

A good coach then helps his team succeed. According to Esti, who has worked with numerous NFL coaches, the most vital part of on-field success is the game’s half time.  The classic half-time game talk is crucial for resting players, resetting mindsets, reframing the game, and renewing efforts. It’s about coming back to the game differently, especially if the team is losing. This gameday approach translates to the business world, where leaders should think of how to use this time, the half time break of Summer 2021, to inspire their teams to come back to the field differently. “I think that businesses are going to make a catastrophic mistake if they don’t come back [from the pandemic] with some semblance of a half time [talk],” Esti said. 

Motivating teams during those half time talks translates to the workforce in two other ways, according to Esti. Working in the trenches, shoulder-to-shoulder, and letting teammates know that they’re important, both of which means understanding the generational gaps that exist and sculpt the workforce.  

Good coaches recognize that what they were motivated by coming up the ranks doesn’t necessarily motivate their team today. Business executives and managers should recognize that the same is true of their colleagues. The elements that motivated baby-boomers or Gen-Xers to compete aren’t the same ones that drive Millennials, or Gen-Z, for that matter.  “Leaders have to adjust their game to their players,” Esti said of recognizing this differential and working with it, not against it. “Not say to their players, ‘play like I play’.”  

When asking teams to get back together and train, it’s critical that leaders set up their teams for overall success. That means providing time to warm up, but also sometimes this means letting somebody fail. “That’s how you learn,” Esti said. But the key is to not treat them like a failure, she emphasized. “Stop saving them. They’ve got to be able to take on water.”  

This learning curve helps to set up and strengthen accountability, the third element that constitutes good coaching and is essential for strong teamwork. Esti pointed to the example of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady throwing the ball down the field, even if he doesn’t see whether a teammate would be there to make the catch. He knows that his teammates are accountable, that someone will be there because they’ve fostered the community, forged the teamwork, and built trust. “Accountability creates community,” she said, “because I know even if I’m not feeling my best, I’ve got to give my best because you’re counting on me.” 


Train like athletes 

Another approach that leaders can crib from the sports world is how to prepare themselves, and their teams, like athletes. Christa Pryor, a California-based neuro-performance coach, has worked with sportswomen and men around the globe to optimize on-court successes for the long-haul, not just for shorter-term gain. For her, playing sports gifts individuals numerous abilities to be resilient and businesses can benefit from similar training techniques.  

One of the first steps is to shift the focus from outcome-based to performance-based objectives, according to Pryor. The shift to a performance-driven mindset enables leaders to focus on set goals and specific tasks, which turns the emphasis  to workforce growth and to  expanding to fulfil potential with what can be controlled. “If we’re worried constantly about the outcome, that sets ourselves up for failure,” she said, for there are factors that are beyond control.  

“If we’re constantly drilled with the mindset that you have to win, that everything is based on scores, you have to hit benchmarks, that compromises our resilience because it focuses on one dimension. But we’re multi-dimensional humans and we have talents and skills in different spaces.” 

That’s why Pryor trains clients to work on a growth mindset that focuses on individuals’ learning curves, exploring and discovering their strengths, and reflecting on perceived weaknesses and failures.  “Opportunities to build require resilience,” she pointed out. And building resilience on and off the court look similar: learning how to be more cooperative and learning how to recognize and strengthen your own skills within a team environment to better compliment the collective. “Learning how to play your game within the team while still honoring your team helps to improve decision-making skills and build confidence,” Pryor said.  

But focusing on performance alone isn’t enough. It should be coupled with a holistic, multi-dimensional approach to training. With her athletes, Pryor focuses on what she calls “the five Ds,” the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual/social, and financial. If one of those elements are out of kilter, it will throw the others out of proportion. The same can be said of work teams. Problem-solving stress management, managing emotions, and mentally preparing are all part of holistic training regimens that develop mental tenacity and resilience in athletes, executives, and teams alike. That’s why Prior helps clients develop strategies for stress management and identifying paths to performance-driven success through neurocognitive training.  

“[It’s about] building resilience because you push the mental fatigue threshold,” she explained. Learning to move beyond things that would ordinarily irritate or trigger an individual’s emotions or actions is helpful to build mental tolerance and tenacity. Over time, this turns into mental and emotional resiliency, enabling individuals to bounce back better. It also enables the brain to process information more quickly. As Pryor noted, “through brain endurance training, you can push the physical fatigue window, because mental fatigue is a precursor to physical fatigue.”   


Compete like lions 

Good coaching and training techniques can then better aid teams to compete. French physical therapist and osteopath Fabrice Gautier helps international athletes strengthen their bodies in order to perform at their most optimal levels. Perhaps most important for Gautier in his work, as well as in life, is to maintain a positive mindset. “There’s always something you can do to get better,” he said, pointing to the character of Sarah played by Linda Hamilton in The Terminator. “She’s going to face the Terminator, but she’s in jail so she does push-ups to prepare” for their next confrontation. For Gautier, this speaks to how to mentally prepare for the next fight, the next match, or for businesses, the next challenge or opportunity to perform.  

An equally important ingredient for Gautier’s recipe for success is reinforcing the community so readily found in the sports world. This was something he witnessed first-hand going through the testing protocols in and around different NBA teams, as well as the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, last summer, where he was on-hand to help clients. “Everyone had to do a little something to help,” he noted of the process. “That brought people together.” 

Another tactic he uses with clients is listening, an often overlooked, underdeveloped skill. When clients lay down on his treatment table, Gautier understands that they need to verbalize what they feel. “You can feel it on their body, they’re more tense,” he noted of clients, especially since February 2020. But listening isn’t just to help him better target treatment, for the mental and physical are impossible to disassociate in the sports world. “Most important is to listen to them and give them the opportunity to verbalize,” he said.  

Listening is also critical for being able to adopt to changing conditions and adapt new strategies in the face of the inability to control certain outcomes or scenarios, another key strategy that translates well to the business world. One of the first things Gautier learned in his own training was how to learn the basics of player physical evaluations and assessments. “Whatever you learn, you’re going to have to adapt it to every single individual, because it’s going to be different from person to person,” he noted, for no two treatments are the same.  

Finally, the experience gained from these strategies or training regimens, can be deployed into practice. Whether on the court or in a more corporate setting, the opportunities to enact lessons in resilience from the sports world can help team performances over time, strengthen them and enable them to thrive. Gautier watched players do exactly this during last summer’s WNBA bubble in Florida. “They were competing like lions,” he marveled at how such athletes had the mental tenacity to perform and flourish in spite of the pandemic and all of its tangential concerns.  


Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian and author of The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France 1958-2010. She is a lecturer at New York University and a Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy, SOAS, University of London.


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