How to Build Tough Teams
“We believe that being elite is not about how talented you are. It is about how tough you are,” wrote Urban Meyer in his 2015 book Above the Line. Toughness has long been held as a fundamental key to achieving peak performance. Famed football coach Vince Lombardi called it “essential to success,” and NBA legend Bill Russell said it represents “the margin of victory.” Listen to just about any coach, leader, or even parent speak, and toughness, grit, or resilience will surely take center stage.
Toughness is one of those concepts that is easy to see, but hard to conceptualize. It’s the athlete who navigate pain and fatigue to come through in the clutch, the soldier who keeps a steady mind despite the chaos going on around him, the person who takes on cancer, the parent who works through the despair of losing a child. We know it when we see it. We all know it’s vital. But when it comes to instilling and developing it, we hold on to ideas that often backfire.
We harken back to the days of Paul Bear Bryant, trying to recreate our own version of the infamous Junction Boys camp. An authoritarian, disciplinarian, stoic resolve, maybe even a bit of yelling and screaming, all combined with seemingly random acts of running, jumping, and throwing; all in the name of pushing someone until they puke. That’s what tough coaching looks like. That’s what creates tough athletes. Except, it doesn’t. In researching and writing Do Hard Things, I quickly learned that the latest science and the best performers point us in another direction. That the dictating and demanding in the name of discipline and grit, actually leads to the opposite.
We’ve propped up the military model of tough teams. Leaders doing their best interpretation of R. Lee Ermey instead of Ted Lasso. Neglecting the fact that the military doesn’t even use that model anymore. We’ve been copying the 1940s version of the military, neglecting that the modern US military is the country’s largest employer of sports psychologists, with every branch having a pathway towards developing mental skills training in the classroom. The modern military provides the skills to cope with challenges. It’s training, not survival.
Our mistaken view of toughness has consequences. The rash of rhabdo cases in college athletics is a sad example. They largely come from punishment or conditioning workouts at the beginning of a season. Players are put through burpees, ‘suicides’, wind sprints, up downs, and other exercises that bear little resemblance or do much to actually condition players for the demands of their game. Instead, they are often seen as toughening, hardening, or punishing workouts. And the result? injury, death, and putting people’s health at risk. In the workplace, we push junior employees to grind, responding to emails at all hours, as a kind of right of passage. Neglecting that we have a workforce that is burned out and pushed to the edge.
And the tactics don’t even work. Yelling, screaming at a person while they are trotting down the field in their final wind sprint teaches the athlete to respond to external motivation. They finish the run because they are afraid of the punishment. They try not to drop the pass because they want to avoid running laps. They complete the report because they don’t want to get fired, instead of a desire to do their best. Decades of research tells us that when we perform out of a place of avoidance, instead of approaching and taking on the challenge, we perform worse and are more likely to choke.
Look at one of the toughest jobs on the planet; parenting. You may assume that an authoritarian style of parenting, where strict rules are in place, and punishment follows violations might lead to disciplined, well-behaved children. You’d be wrong. Research has found that parenting with an authoritarian style leads to lower independence, more aggressive behavior, and a higher likelihood for substance abuse and risky behaviors. Even in terms of discipline, the area that you would think a demanding style would be successful, it falls short. In one study of over 1,200 parents, authoritarian parenting was linked to a much higher rate of child misbehavior.[i] In sport, the controlling, demanding style also fails. On the athletic fields, it’s linked to lower grit and an increase in emotional exhaustion, burnout, and fear of failure. The controlling, demanding style creates the appearance of discipline without actually fostering it.
If the old model fails, then what actually works to create toughness? Coupling demandingness with responsiveness and care. In the decades of research on parents, psychologists have found that it’s not necessarily the level of demandingness, or expectations and control, that a parent has that is the problem. It’s whether or not it’s paired with a high level of what developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind termed responsiveness, or how supportive and responsive a parent is to the needs of your child. After they lose a soccer match, do you greet your child with warmth and support? Or do you go straight into criticizing their play?
As long as the responsiveness is there, children turn out to have better self-regulation, discipline, behavior, and self-control. You need warmth and understanding. If you don’t, bad things happen. It’s the same for the best coaches.
Organizational psychologist Erica Carleton teamed up with sports psychologist Mark Beauchamp to understand the impact of a coach’s style on the players they lead. They selected fifty-seven NBA head coaches who were in the league between 2000 and 2006 to evaluate not only the immediate impact of a coach on a team but also the long-term impact. They scoured newspapers, magazines, and interviews, searching for stories and reports of a coach’s leadership style. They dug for insight into each coach, addressing how they led their team and the methods they utilized before creating long scouting reports on each coach’s style.
Those who played under a coach who utilized an abusive leadership style saw a clear drop in performance, as measured by a player efficiency score. But the effects weren’t limited to the season in which they played under a coach who relied heavily on such tactics. The impact stretched to the player’s entire career. According to their model, when a player experienced a highly abusive leadership style, the player’s entire career trajectory was shifted a notch downward. Not only did their performance drop off, but the coach’s style rubbed off on the players. Players who experienced an abusive leadership style had more technical fouls, an indicator of aggression, throughout the remainder of their careers. The researchers gave away their opinion of such coaching styles in the title of their paper, Scarred for the Rest of My Career? Career-Long Effects of Abusive Leadership on Professional Athlete Aggression and Task Performance.
Toughness doesn’t come from screaming, yelling, or silly exercises. It comes from the same building blocks that help create healthy, happy humans. Contrary to decades of ingrained ideology, toughness isn’t developed through control or punishment; it’s developed through care and support. Research and practice tell us there are three key needs that coaches have to satisfy:
- Being supported, not thwarted: having input, a voice, and a choice
- The ability to make progress and to grow
- Feeling connected to the team and mission, feeling like you belong
Research shows that when leaders adopt a model that satisfies these basic needs of autonomy, belonging, and competency, their subordinates have better-coping skills, are more self-confident, and are rated as more coachable. When researchers at Eastern Washington University compared coaches utilizing either supportive or thwarting)styles in sixty-four NCAA track teams, the athletes under the servant leader scored higher on measures of mental toughness and ran faster on the track. Again, this isn’t just theory; it’s science-driven. When the same researchers looked at the leadership styles and performance of nearly two hundred basketball players and their coaches, they concluded, “The results of this study seem to suggest that the ‘keys’ to promoting mental toughness do not lie in this autocratic, authoritarian, or oppressive style. It appears to lie, paradoxically, with the coach’s ability to produce an environment, which emphasizes trust and inclusion, humility, and service.”
In the workplace, the story is much the same. In a recent study of over one thousand office workers, the strongest predictor of how well they dealt with the challenges of demanding work was whether they felt respected and valued by their managers. Their bosses simply showing they truly care led to increases in work engagement, loyalty, and resilience. When Google commissioned a two-year study on team performance, sitting atop their five characteristics of good teams was psychological safety. “Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?”
This isn’t rocket-science. It’s what the best leaders already do. They find their own mixture of demanding plus responsiveness, of setting high standards but also caring. John Wooden showed us this decades ago, and Greg Popovich and Steve Kerr are continuing that trend. Sure, you can try to instill fear to get obedience and control. But in a modern world where athletes have more choices, and aren’t simply stuck having to listen to their college or professional coach as they demean and demand, that often backfires.
It’s time to let go of our penchant for propping up old school coaches who rely on intimidation, power and control. We’ve got enough demandingness. It’s time to bring back some responsiveness. That doesn’t mean we are soft or weak, or that we don’t take on difficult challenges. Instead, it means that you may have high expectations and aspirations. But you are on this journey together. That you care. It turns out, that being a decent, caring human being is a performance and life enhancer, and the route to building tough, resilient people and teams.
This post is an excerpt from my new book DO HARD THINGS. It just came out, and is currently over 30% off on Amazon right now! This piece is derived from chapter 1 of the book. If you order this week, you’ll receive all sorts of bonuses, like a deleted chapter on the science of quitting, an online course on resilience, and much more! Check out the bonuses here.
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