The value of teamwork in sport is clear.

Mike Krzyzewski, the men’s basketball coach at Duke University, led his team to five NCAA championships. He’s also coached the USA national team to three consecutive Olympic gold medals.

From Krzyzewski:

“Teamwork is the beauty of basketball. Five people working as one. You become selfless”.

But what is teamwork and how do you acquire it in youth sport?

The 3 Commitments of Teamwork

There are 3 commitments that characterise teamwork in youth sport.

The first, is the commitment to pursue competitive success. Regardless of how you define it, achieving success requires team members to combine their individual energy towards a specific goal.

From Michael Jordan:

            “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

I think this is particularly true in youth sport, where the bigger, faster, stronger early developer (often confused for talent) can dominate the hustle over smaller opposition, but often at the peril of long-term team success.

The second commitment is to a social contract that every youth athlete enters into when signing up for a new team, bound by the moral imperatives of respect and fairness. There is an implicit belief in the educational virtues of sport, but only when the competitive environment is anchored in the values of fairness and respect. Crucially, this second commitment, which characterises teamwork in a broad sense, has the power to override concerns about winning and losing, typically intertwined in the first commitment.

And third, is the commitment to aid and cooperate with others to help them become ‘independent agents’. This commitment is unique to youth sport, and has developmental and educational connotations. A crucial part of a child’s development is attaining agency. In other words, young people seek their ‘own voice’ in the world and to build the capacity to exert power over their decisions. This central component of development can, on one hand, contrast with the practice of teamwork. The good of the team might require a player to restrain their creativity or preferred style of play, leading to discomfort, frustration, jealousy or confusion. However, on the other hand, teamwork can allow a player to find their place in a team and, consequently, experience teamwork to be empowering and liberating.

How to Get Your Players Working as a Team

Youth athletes intuitively know what effective teamwork is and why it’s important. However, due to the nature of competitive sport and a young person’s intrinsic drive to be their own person, team sport can easily become a selfish endeavour. Therefore, it’s up to the coach to direct their player’s attention to what teamwork looks like within their specific environment and the behaviours required to uphold it. Crucially, this 3-step process should be a collaboration with your team, rather than something that is imposed upon them.

  1. Describe the 3 commitments of teamwork and define your common goal

Start by explaining the 3 commitments of teamwork to your players and their significance for a developing athlete. Then, have your team define what they want to accomplish and how they will know when they have achieved success.

  1. Describe team behaviours required to accomplish your common goal

How do we respect each other despite our cultural differences? What is a fair amount of game time for players and what isn’t? How do we communicate with another player when they do something we don’t like? These are a few of the questions you can use to prompt thinking amongst your players. Create a list of all the behaviours that describe how your team will work together to achieve your common goal and what happens when players act against them.

  1. Define each player’s unique contribution to the team’s success

Identify individual responsibilities within your team based on the strengths of each athlete.  For example, who makes the important decisions on the court, who invigorates the troops in times of trouble, and who ties the team together as one off the court? Consequently, players will feel like they can express their individual voice and contribute in their own unique way without compromising the team.

Be the best you can be,