Last Friday night, beneath the lights on the Bowen island football pitch, my co-ed soccer league team won our Cup Final 5-0. We played the best team in the league for the Cup and although were prepared for a tight game. we were rather stunned with the result. What happened far exceeded our expectations of what was possible. We played unbelieveably well.
Football (I use the global term for “soccer” here) is a team game that is much like other team games in life. It features constrained action, bounded and with a purpose. It requires different people to perform different roles, sometimes at a distance from each other and it requires tremendous levels of improvisation to deal with the flow and constantly changing conditions. At the best of times it is an easy game to play but a hard game to play well, and it is an incredible game when your team plays out of its skin as we did on Friday. In my work life I work with some pretty good teams, especially with my friends in the Berkana Collaborative with whom I have tight and deep relationships. But playing on a football team for an hour or so gives one a clear and bounded sense of the possible, and I have been harvesting some of the key elements that went into making up my peak experience.
1. Train and learn together. It should go without saying that a team that does not train or learn together is not going to create an incredible experience right out of the box. A foundation of basic skills is essential. You have to know how to do the elementary things that you are being asked to do. None of us on the team are professionals, although some of us have had good coaching in the past. And because this is a recreational league we didn’t do much in the way of training together apart from on game days. But on game days we always arrived quite early and worked on skills, worked on patterns and ran some basic passing, shooting and team drills to get us in the mood for the game and to learn a little. Practicing and training together, in a positive spirit of encouragement and curiosity is a fundamental basis for good collaboration. We were never critical with each other, and always helped each other learn to do things we hadn’t been able to do before. In this way I think we all grew a little during the season.
2. Be friends. You are not going to perform anything near well if you don’t like each other. A case in point is this year French World Cup footbal team. A team of incredible invidiual talent, they ended up imploding, picking nfights with each other and going on strike with the result that they clattered out of the tournament’s early stages. When he was interview on CNN about what was wrong with the French team, German great Jurgen Klinnsman said simply “they don’t like each other.” You may think that being friends is a kind of kindergarten approach to getting things done but trying doing incredible work with people you dislike, distrust or haven’t forgiven. Good luck with that.
3. Have an obvious purpose. My friend Toke Moeller says that “purpose is the invisible leader.” So it is. On Friday our purpose was to win the game and the tournament. That was what we were there to do. We didn’t need a mission statement or a set of objectives. We had a simple set of measureables, the most obvious of which was the difference in goals scored. To acheive our purpose, we needed to score goals in their net and keep goals out of our net. But as clear as our purpose was, it would also be fair to say that we had a clear plan, although it was not a very precise one – it was rather based on principles. Basically we decided to attack on the wings, get past their midfield to where their defense was weakest and collapse our defenders on their forwards, denying them the centre of the field. Given these straightforward tactics, which were concrete and easy to remember, execution was easy. As a defender if I was playing too far outside, I could make a mental check in and move towards the middle. If my partner was passing the ball up the middle I could remind her to get it up the wings. We were able to adjust on the fly and feedback was welcome. We played dynamic football, but committed to our roles and responsibilities. We were able to be creative and supportive and flowing.
4. Communicate well and often. Football, like basketball and hockey and other flow sports, moves and changes quickly. Communication is essemtial. In fact it may have been the difference between our two teams on Friday night. We are chatty and talkative, communicating information to each other to alert players to threats, openings, available support, opportunities and options. Sometimes the communication is subtle – a hand waving to indicate that you are open – and other times it is panic laden and full of passion and roar. First and foremost it is clear and factual; second it is encouraging of stuff that is working; third it is helpful criticism to shift strategies or play a little differently.
5. Be aware of the whole field. This is another subtlety that separates good team from poor ones. In collaborative activities there is very little room for people to collapse their focus down on invididual needs. This awareness is a tricky thing to cultivate in an individualist culture, where we are rewarded for personal accomplishment. On Friday I was spending a lot of time tightly marking Team White’s striker, a tough playing and talented Brazilian named Gelson. For a lot of the match my focus was on him but the moment the ball was away from us, I could literally feel my awareness expand to contain the whole field. It helped me to be able to suggest options to our midfielders as I was seeing things unfold from my back line position. This total team awareness was perhaps the best indication that I was in a flow state all night.
6. Do your job and trust others to do theirs. Football is a great sport because you cannot do everything. The division of labour means that you have to focus on your job, figure out ways to connect to others and trust them to run with what you offer them. In football as in improv, the idea is to make your partners look good. A well weighted ball from the back helps midfielders chase it down the pitch. A good recovery from a rebound keeps your goalkeeper riding a clean sheet. On Friday I chose the job of marking Gelson, which meant that I was not going to be anywhere near the opposing team’s goal. No glory for me on the night except through the fact that we weren’t scored on. If I could keep Gelson and the other strikers from having any chance on goal, it would be easy for me trust our strikers to slot goals, and that was just what they did. It’s a relief not to have to do it all. It conserves energy, allows me to focus and takes advantage of the good relations we have.
7. Be generous. I think more than anything else on Friday night, I learned that football is a game of generosity. For the vast majority of the time, your job on a football pitch is to give and create. In the improv world we call this “making offers.” Generosity on the pitch means delivering useful passes, creating space by pulling your markers away from the action, helping support the play going forward by providing options so that we don’t give the ball away. In football, greedy players are vilified unless they are of the absolute highest talent. And even then, when they miss, especially when they had better options open, they are shunned. A shunned team member is impossible to play with and in fact becomes a liability as they create a hole on the pitch and bad feelings that pervade the relationships on the team. So generosity, gifting, creates the best teams. A gift economy of attention, resources, and opportunities creates the conditions for shared glory and accomplishment.
These little learnings are perhaps elementary, but think about how difficult they are to execute in daily life. In your organization, have you got these all right? Is there something you AREN’T doing? Are there elements of collaboration that you aren’t paying attention to? And what other lessons should we glean from peak flow experiences in collaboration and team work?