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Lessons Learned on a Bad Team

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I always thought a team was something you were on, but I’ve since learned that team is a verb—something you do.

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Excerpted From
High Impact Teams
By Lance Witt

I always thought a team was something you were on, not something you did. I always operated as though team were a noun, not a verb. I thought team was an object, not an objective. I saw team as a social assignment, not a strategic achievement.

Maybe that’s because I’ve been part of some bad teams. I’ve been on teams where the only thing that made us a team was that we happened to wear the same uniform or work in the same organization.

One such team was my sophomore basketball team. I went to a large high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Albuquerque is known for its desert climate and green chile, but it is not known for producing outstanding basketball players. Because our school was large, we had not only a varsity team but also a JV and sophomore team. One hundred and thirty kids tried out for the team and only fourteen of us made the cut. That sounds way more impressive than it actually was. The fact that I made the team doesn’t say as much about my ability as it does about how stunted the basketball gene pool was at my high school.

Honestly, we were a group of misfits with a first-year coach from Abilene Christian University (not exactly a basketball mecca either). We were the petri dish in his laboratory of learning how to coach. He didn’t know what he was doing, we didn’t know how to function as a team and we certainly didn’t know how to win.

This was evidenced by the fact that through the first half of the season we had a perfect record of 0–11. I think when our coach wasn’t sure what to do, he just had us run more line drills. He would also make us do handstand push-ups against the bleachers. And we had a stocky kid on the team who was just heavy enough that he couldn’t do a handstand push-up. And every time he couldn’t do a handstand push-up (which was every time he tried), we had to run an extra ten line drills. We may not have scored many points, but if we were ever in a marathon race with another team, we easily would have won.

Another thing you should know about Albuquerque during those days is that it was kind of rough and tumble. There were lots of fights, pushing, shoving, elbows thrown and trash-talking. And that was just during warm-ups!

I remember one time when our game got delayed a couple of hours because of a bomb threat on the campus where we were playing. On another occasion, our driver pulled our team bus over to the shoulder of the road. He then advised us that once we entered the campus, he thought we would be safer if we got down and rode on the floor of the bus.

The games were so rough that our coach started training us in shadow boxing. Instead of practicing free throws, we practiced sparring with each other.

The sparring prepared us well for a game with one of our rivals, Del Norte High School. Surprisingly, we were hanging in there with them. They were playing dirty and taking cheap shots at our players when the refs weren’t looking.

Our coach kept complaining to the refs but with no results. Finally, in the third quarter, our coach walked down to the other team’s bench and told their coach that he needed to get his players to back off. They exchanged a few words that probably weren’t appropriate for someone from Abilene Christian University.

Our coach then called a time-out. When we huddled around him, he said, “Okay, we’re not going to let these guys push us around. I don’t want you to start anything, but the next time someone takes a cheap shot, you deck him.” Coach was so serious that he decided to put Mugsy in the game. I’m not sure how Mugsy got his nickname, but I’m sure he earned it. Mugsy rarely played, but he was very aggressive and had quite the temper.

After the time-out, I was bringing the ball up the court, and when I got past the half court line, I passed the ball. When I started to make my cut, the guy guarding me elbowed me hard in my rib cage. So, I followed my coach’s order and I decked him. I caught him off guard and he fell backward. But before I could jump on the guy, Mugsy was all over him.

Both benches immediately cleared. There was a lot of shoving and pushing, and the coaches almost got into a fistfight. When the refs finally separated the two teams, they ejected me and Mugsy. And then they made the decision to cancel the rest of the game. I may not have led our team in scoring, but I did have more technical fouls and ejections than anybody else on the team.

That night our coach took the entire team out to dinner and paid for everyone’s meals. We hadn’t won the game, but you would have thought we had. Even our coach celebrated that night like we had won.

We eventually did go on to win three or four games that season. It was certainly one of the more memorable and colorful team experiences I’ve had.

Over the last forty years since that infamous basketball season, I have been on a wide variety of teams. Sometimes I have been a team member, and at times I have been the team leader. I have been on some wonderful, life-giving teams, and I have served on some dysfunctional teams.

I have made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot of hard lessons. I have definitely hurt some people on teams by my poor leadership. I have come to the conviction that team is way more of a verb than a noun. It is active. It takes finesse and dedication and skill. Team is something you “do” rather than a label you wear. Excellent teamwork requires hard work and focused intentionality. But the payoff is huge. If you have ever had the privilege of being on a healthy and high-performing team, you know it is incredibly fulfilling. I have also come to realize that teamwork is more art than science. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for building great teams. But there are some universal principles and best practices that can help any team.

In the chapters that follow, I want to share what I have been learning over the last forty years about doing team.

I remember seeing the following quote on a poster: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

That, my friend, is the potential power of a great team.

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