Building a winning team: Lessons from the world of sport

In pushing for excellence, most organisations will face setbacks. Olympic gold medallist Alex Danson draws parallels between lessons in sports and in business.

A business’ employees are almost always its most valuable asset. However, while the attraction of talent is a priority for most, firms must focus on promoting team synergy and creating a supportive environment where individuals can flourish.

Although business leaders often develop and adhere to their own personal management strategy, implementing the right team structure, training regime and culture must remain a focus, and often holds the key to longevity, prosperity and growth.  By examining and learning lessons from the world of sport, businesses can build a team with the ability and motivation to gain an edge over competitors.

Establish core values

The first and most essential step in creating a strong team is establishing a sense of identity and ownership.

Many sports teams do this by forming a set of common objectives or values. For the gold medal-winning Team GB hockey team, this took the form of three central mantras; ‘be the difference’, ‘create history’ and ‘inspire the future’.

These principles were devised within an open forum, taking into account the motivations and objectives of the whole team, and each squad member bought into and agreed with the statements. For businesses, involving employees in shaping the culture of the organisation is instrumental in encouraging active engagement in its goals, principles and long-term strategy.

Embrace individual differences

When communicating with and motivating a large team, it’s crucial that each individual’s differences are taken into account and harnessed in a positive way to maximise their performance.

Whereas some employees may be confident to voice their concerns in a group environment, others may prefer to do so anonymously, or in a less pressurised setting.

In professional hockey, junior team members are actively encouraged to contribute new ideas or strategies, and often prove invaluable as they bring a fresh sense of perspective and focus to the team.

Similarly, business leaders should look to create an environment where staff are able to provide feedback or access support from colleagues in a way that is comfortable for them. This could benefit the team by opening up previously untapped ideas, talents and insights and could ultimately improve aspects of the wider business, too.

Keep an eye on the competition

In the lead up to a big game sports teams often watch back footage of the opposing team and identify their tactics to help shape their own approach.

This type of competitor analysis is usually confined to the professional sporting world, but the principle of having an awareness of your competition’s strengths and weaknesses should be a focus for businesses as well.

Encouraging the workforce to monitor campaigns, projects and marketing activities adopted by competitors will afford firms an edge when going head-to-head with them in the future , for example when developing new products, streamlining pricing strategy or creating the perfect new business pitch.

Training is key

Continuous positive development is an ethos that should run through any successful organisation. In sport, the most effective training schemes help refine team members’ existing skills through a series of ‘drills’, alongside ‘technical sessions’ which allow individuals to hone new capabilities.

This is a model that could be replicated in the workplace, with time dedicated to both developing core skills and tapping into the strengths and interests of the individual to help them acquire new ones.

Allowing employees to have input into their own training, and doing so within a positive, supportive environment facilitates increased wellbeing, ownership and professional development.

Don’t fear failure 

After each game, tournament or season, sports teams review their performance, regardless of the outcome.

If they have ‘won’, they still identify areas for further improvement and progression to ensure they maintain a competitive edge.

However, for many, it is the response to a loss, or ‘failure’ that matters most. Any team striving to reach the top must take risks, and in pushing for excellence, most organisations will face setbacks. Business leaders must avoid perpetuating a ‘blame culture’ and ensure that hurdles are responded to and overcome in a positive way.

Alex Danson, is an ambassador for law firm Shakespeare Martineau, and a member of Team England, she won gold as part of the Team GB Olympic hockey team in Rio.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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