When was the last time you climbed on a bus, sat in the middle of a group, actually wearing the uniform instead of sitting up front with your coaching clipboard in hand? When is the last time you had to adapt to 20 strangers taking the field for the first time together, barely knowing each other’s names and charged with the duty of “playing together?”
It’s been a long time for me. I’ve been on the coaching side for quite awhile. Maybe I jump into a drill, or a scrimmage. Typically, it’s with the confidence that I’ve had a lifetime of playing in my past, and the ability to bend the rules around my own excuses as the coach. The fact that my players are much younger than me becomes and instant justification for my mistakes, my less than perfect athletic condition and bad habits.
I try often to put myself in my athletes’ shoes, to understand what they need from me and from their teammates to relate and thrive in their athletic experience. But much like playing, we lose touch with the game and the relationships when we spend all of our time as the director and forget the very real challenges of just getting along and on the same page.
On June 17th I boarded a plane for Berlin. When I turned 40 this past October, I made a promise to myself to experience as many new things as possible. When an opportunity arose to go abroad and play in the Prague Cup Lacrosse Tournament, I knew it was the adventure I was looking for.
With a few friends already going I felt less intimidated, but most of the team consisted of strangers from across the United States with different backgrounds. The lacrosse community is small and tightly knit, I knew that despite being older than the other players that we’d all find commonalities in many areas.
This trip, epic and incredible, also came with a reminder I needed. That there are stages to bonding a team and we can’t ignore them as coaches. We can help them push through it, navigate it, and thrive but we cannot simply demand they bond and throw some activities at them. We must step up and lead, build a vision and create a structure that can hold many levels of skill and types of personalities. There is a process that has to take place, and without a leader that process becomes a vicious cycle of conflict.
Stage 1: Apprehension
This is where players come together for the first time. Unsure of their place in it all, unsure of what’s coming at them, how it’s going to go, wondering if they will fit in. It’s the stage where you can lose people or pull them in. It’s where players can either develop fear, or anticipation.
Stage 2: Elation
OMG These people are my kindred spirit, I love them, we are having a blast! We have so much in common and are laughing and having a great time!
Stage 3: Selection
This is where cliques can start to form, but also meaningful friendships. Players begin to choose certain other players to talk to, hang around with and partner up with based on finding commonalities in their lives and similar ideologies or experiences.
Stage 4: Pressure.
Put these players on a field, at the start of a season and see how everyone has their own ideas of how things should be. Different coaches, experiences, strengths in personalities all come to the forefront. The vocal players step forward and the quieter ones sit back and watch the drama unfold. This is where teams can fall apart if clear leadership has not been established.
Stage 5: Mission/Resentment
This can go in two directions.
Direction 1 – Mission
When a team has a vision and a mission, leaders to unify the tasks and set everyone on the same page, and an open environment and opportunity for communication, then the pressure is going to help mold relationships and bring players together for a unified and greater purpose.
Direction 2 – Resentment
Without a unified mission, each player seeks comfort in themselves and their goals and the rest of the team becomes pawns to help them reach those goals. Anyone who counters known ideologies and has differing playing and communication styles becomes labeled a roadblock to each other. Conflict often starts under the surface here. Left alone, these conflicts become verbal attacks on and off the field, and destroy relationships within the team unit.
This trip was a reminder that the struggle is very real. That tolerance, openness, clarity of vision, bonding, and getting through the initial process of team building is not going to be accomplished in a one-time team bonding event. It’s often going to look ugly, feel uncomfortable, and sometimes implode in the heat of competition- but it cannot be left alone. We must, as leaders, consistently bring the team back together and unite them in vision and purpose. We must face conflict, get to know each other beyond the surface and more than anything we must feel connected. When the connection is strong, the conflict feels weak, and on the other side of conflict there can be an unbreakable bond that propels the team through competition in the hardest of circumstances.
To my teammates from the past weekend, to our awesome player coaches Meghan and Christina from The Lax Box, thank you for the reminder, the opportunity to be a part of something amazing, and most of all, thanks for the memories.