Benefits of Team Sports in the Workplace

People always say that playing on teams will help you in life.  My coaches told me that.  My parents reinforced it.  But now I believe it.  I’ve always felt like it’s helped me in numerous ways.  It’s helped me to work with others in a collaborative manner.  It’s helped build in me a drive to contribute to the overall goal, trying my best to make a big impact while observing the contributions of others.  And it’s helped me learn how to overcome obstacles and continue to tread forward, recognizing that these bumps along the road are not only inevitable, but necessary for growth.

But I’ve also begun to learn one key element that is part of playing on sports teams that is absolutely critical for success in the corporate or business world.  As a matter of fact, I’d venture to say that this skill is a must for anyone that is or will be in any team or group environment.  The ability- or inability, actually- to overcome differences, to look past disagreements, is perhaps the one trait that gets in the way more than anything else in the workplace.

I played football for thirteen years.  The size of my teams ranged from thirty or so at the youth level to upwards of seventy or eighty in college.  I developed some of the closest relationships on these teams, many of which I’ve held onto until today.  My dearest friends, as a matter of fact, are former teammates of mine.  But I also played with some guys I absolutely could not stand.  And others with whom I was indifferent.  That’s part of the beauty of sports.  I played with, joked with, ate lunch with, and traveled with guys with whom I would have never come into contact under any other circumstance.  Completely different backgrounds.  Entirely different likes and dislikes.  Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian.  Democrat and Republican- for the few who even cared about politics.  Nerds who happened to play football and those who could care less if they even graduated.

And yet for 60 minutes, I did not give a damn if our quarterback grew up in an upper class neighborhood with no minorities.  When he threw a touchdown pass, I was the first to slap his butt on the way back to the sideline.  And for three hours on gameday, the jackass who rubbed me the wrong way in that Calculus class we had, was side by side with me, trying to stop the opponent from getting into the end zone.  And I depended on him like he depended on me.  If he stopped the team from scoring, it was as fulfilling as if I’d done it myself.  I’m certainly not comparing it to war, but I can imagine it is not much different than what troops face.  Depending upon the guy next to you for survival (again, I recognize how exponentially more difficult an environment war is then playing on a sports team) can make you forget about everything else pretty quickly.

But in the workplace, that is much less common.  What people refer to as politics is often nothing more than people who are horrible teammates.  From my experience, most of them have no team sports experience.  That is not an endorsement necessarily of those who have played football or basketball or baseball.  It is just the reality I’ve noticed in my years of working in professional organizations.  When John feels like Nancy is too immature at work and resents how she acts around the boss, he takes it out on her by allowing her to struggle with an issue in Microsoft Excel with which he knows he can help.  That hurts the whole team, even though John feels that it makes him look better.  David, Glen, and Tom are all Engineers.  David and Glen both went to college in the Midwest, while Tom migrated from California.  As a result, David and Glen have a lot more in common and that manifests itself in the way they hang out and joke with one another.  They also collaborate on projects, helping one another work through programming hurdles.  They, unknowingly most of the time, let Tom figure out things for himself.  Tom predictably receives reviews that are consistently less positive than his two peers.  More importantly, the group as a whole suffers; the team is not as good.

I could spend an hour outlining examples where a lack of team spirit hurts organizations.  But, I think the point is clear.  How to correct for it is not nearly as lucid.  Having everyone join the local basketball adult league is probably not an option- although maybe not so bad an idea, if for no other reason than the laugh factor.  Building into the company’s culture periodic and systematic team building activities is more realistic.  And more achievable.  To be sure, these “feel good” activities have been given a bad name, painted as retreats into the forest where employees fall backwards blindly into what they hope are their fellow employees’ waiting hands.  But activities- however so corny in nature- that show employees that they are dependent upon one another is an exercise that will undoubtedly bear fruit.  Anything that shows employees that even amidst differences, there are many (usually more) similarities can do nothing but help a group be successful.

At the end of the day, though, we in business all need to do one of two things.  If we’ve played team sports, we should recognize that not all of our colleagues have.  This will help us understand the many forms of ‘politics’ that exist, helping us to deal with and work towards mitigating the impact (by mediating and reaching out even when others won’t).  If we have not played team sports, let’s recognize our deficiencies and hangups with those around us.  Let’s do whatever it takes- speaking with colleagues, reading books, self-analyzing- to grow into a better team player.  Frankly, we are all adults and need to get over it- whatever the “it” is!

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About bbluford
I am an executive finance professional with a love for process and application development (MS Access, Excel, Quickbooks), mostly as it relates to Accounting and Business Functions. I also love to write and share ideas with other people in this world. I'm an admitted Gym Rat who works out excessively. The best summation of me is that I love to teach and to learn.

3 Responses to Benefits of Team Sports in the Workplace

  1. Jeff says:

    Great post. A team in athletics or in the work place is only as strong as it’s weakest link. Too many times I have witnessed people in the work place willing to hang the “weakest link” out to dry, rather than help that person. Even though in the end it hurts productivity. But the most destructive behavior in the work pace that seems to be more acceptable these days. Is when John sets out to satotage Jane, who preceives to be threat. Both actions hurt an organization and makes getting from point “A” to point “B” much more difficult.

  2. Christine Bellin says:

    Another great post Bobby! I completely agree with you. I’ve found that some folks don’t seem to understand what being a team player is in the business world though. Helping out and pointing out errors and offering solutions for the good of the company/group seems to be misconstrued as sabotage rather than helpful. Other times some folks, myself included, get so bogged down in helping everyone they lack focus on their goals.

    Great topic, thanks for posting.

    • bbluford says:

      It certainly requires balance. Being a star player means you have abilities that will help others achieve. You must remember what makes you valuable to the team, though, and continue to perform at a high level. A very tough balancing act, to be sure. A CEO I work with and I actually sat down and discussed topics related to this last week. He reminded me of Stephen Covey’s 7 Laws- in particular, habits 4, 5, and 6; which address interdependence:

      4. Think Win-Win
      5. Seek First to Understand; then to be Understood
      6. Synergize

      If we can remember those three, we can get along a lot better with those we work with.

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