What Sports Can Teach Us About Leadership and Teamwork

Why yelling “yours!” isn’t nearly as useful as yelling “mine!” and more.

Humpty Bumpty.

That’s the name of the co-ed volleyball team I’ve a been part of for years. Our current roster includes folks with ages that span five decades, and none of us work in the same industry, but every Tuesday night we come together as a team.

Over those years, teammates have come and gone, but along the way, I’ve made some keen observations on what’s contributed to making us successful as a team, and what leading a team is all about.

1. Yelling “yours!” isn’t nearly as useful as yelling “mine!”

In a game situation, communication is key. But it’s wasted energy (and frankly, annoying) to shout at your teammate to take it (the ball) when A) they’re already going after it or B) it really should be your ball, but you’re being lazy were caught off guard.

As a business team, the same holds true. Assigning blame helps no one. But being proactive and eagerly taking ownership helps strengthen the team. The more you can anticipate your opponent’s next move — and let your teammates know that you’ve got it covered — the better.

2. You can’t score if you can’t get it over the net.

In volleyball, you’ll never have a chance to earn a point without a successful serve over the net.

In business, you can have the best strategy in the world, but if you are unable or fail to execute it, it’s useless.

3. Showing up is important.

Typically, indoor volleyball is played as a 6-person team. There have been times when we’ve had to play with only 5, and even struggled to get 4 of us there for a game. Is it impossible to win? No, but it is harder. On every player.

It’s vital for the leader of a team to be clear with expectations. Everyone needs to pull his/her weight, and that includes coming together, even when you have lots of other commitments.

Often, just showing up is the difference between a win and a forfeit.

4. The more you play together, the better you play together.

It goes without saying that in sports, practice makes perfect. For anyone that’s ever suffered through countless skills and drills exercises, and never-ending scrimmage matches, the payoff was always better performance, not just individually, but as a team.

The only way to achieve that fantastic team dynamic where everyone is in a state of flow is to work together. A lot. Practice until it becomes second nature.

5. Know your role, but be prepared to fill in when necessary.

When I was younger, I was considered, in volleyball parlance, an outside hitter. This distinguished me from the middle blockers, setters, and back row defenders on my team. Each of these roles had a purpose and a specialty, and all were necessary for the team to win.

Even though I was an outside hitter, there were times that I’d need to instantaneously become the setter for a play, or fill in for the middle blocker. And on my team today that’s even more pronounced. I’m one of the primary setters, but I also have to be able to switch gears and become an outside hitter when the situation calls for it (or when one of my hitters decides to set me the ball).

As a team leader, you’ve probably assembled a crew of diverse specialists that know their jobs pretty well. But sometimes circumstances (missed flights, illness, etc.) can throw a wrench in the works, and one team member will have to fill in for another. As the leader, do your best to make sure that everyone knows what needs to happen to be successful — and that they may have to step into a new role to achieve that.

6. You need to have a good offense AND defense.

As I mentioned previously, in volleyball you can’t score a point if you can’t get the ball over the net — your offense is key to winning. But you can’t underestimate the power of your defense, either. There’s no way a team can be successful unless they stop the other team from scoring, and that comes back to a strong defense.

Think about your team, and who is responsible for your business’s offense and defense. Your outward-facing folks who handle sales and marketing are your offense. They have the highly visible plays and wins. But they couldn’t do what they do without strong support from your defense — operations, finance, and IT — which protects the business and ensures that they have what they need to make those plays and wins. Try to recognize every stage of your business process, and those who contribute to it, as important.

7. Nobody likes “garbage.”

In volleyball, there’s always that team that will resort to what we call “garbage.” It’s that slightly sneaky, half-assed way of trying to score a quick point, often accomplished by not fully executing and committing to a hit. Worse, your team often ends up playing down to that level.

This is frustrating at best, condescending and insulting at worst. Playing “garbage” sends a message that you don’t respect your opponents (or your teammates) enough to give it your all. It also makes you appear overly confident and pompous. When you and your team are facing a competitor during a pitch, don’t get caught up in their “garbage.” Always put your best foot forward and play your game.

8. Don’t let a lousy call ruin your day.

It happens nearly every week. The ref will make a lousy call. And being somewhat competitive (okay, very competitive) you are not pleased. It’s tempting to let it consume you, but holding on to that anger and resentment doesn’t help you — or your team.

In business, there are times that your board, your manager, or your corporate office will make a questionable call. Rather than let it bring you down, you need to find a way to shake it off and keep going. And by modeling this behavior, you send a clear message to your team that this is just a temporary setback.

9. Being a leader is great; being a know-it-all isn’t.

I once had a teammate that took it upon himself to offer unsolicited advice to the team about how to improve. Saying things like “what you need to do is…” or passive-aggressively asking “you know where to be on the court when X happens, right?” wasn’t winning him any friends. He also positioned himself as somewhat superior since proclaiming he reffed volleyball games on the side. Trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, I hoped that his intentions were good, but his execution was poor.

By contrast, another former teammate (that had coached volleyball for 20+ years) took a different tact, consistently offering positive reinforcement to his teammates. He also asked for their feedback on what he could be doing better.

Guess who the team liked playing with more?

10. Don’t forget to have fun.

One of the reasons I enjoy playing on my volleyball team is that, while competitive in nature, it provides me with a fun outlet. In fact, instead of shouting “win!” in our huddle at the start of a game we’ll often yell “fun!” to remind ourselves not to take it too seriously.

When you and your team are putting everything you’ve got into a project, event, or pitch, it’s easy to get caught up in it all. When the craziness finally subsides (or better yet, amidst the craziness) be sure to carve out time with the team to let loose and let off some steam.

Winning (and losing, for that matter) feels much better when you’ve had fun along the way.

by Amy Blaschka