I’ve written a lot about teams over the past few years. Sadly, a lot of my experience with teams has been disappointing. I’ve been a member of many teams that, frankly, were never actually teams to begin with, or in other cases they simply never lived up to their potential. There has been a lot of frustration and more than a few sleepless nights. There have also been a lot of lessons learned.
I don’t intend to rehash all of that in this post. Been there, done that, removed most of it.
What I want to talk about today is a successful team.
Five years ago I joined an ultimate frisbee league. I was overweight, out of shape, and hadn’t ever done more than just toss a frisbee around in gym class once or twice. But it promised to be a fun, spirited game and how hard could it be to throw a frisbee around anyway? Well, five years later I can tell you that it’s an exhausting and complex game. But it is also FUN. And it requires a well-coordinated team to be successful. So that’s what I want to write about today.
I played my first two years on the Red team. Awesome group of people, I remember making the playoffs in my first year but ended up not playing much of the second year. I do remember not being very good. I got winded very quickly, so my role on the team was usually as the deep guy – just run to the other team’s end zone, and they would throw me the disc if my defender drifted too far away. I think I scored two or three goals in those first two years. And let’s not even talk about defense. On the whole, I really didn’t get much out of the experience other than some new acquaintances, which I am very grateful for.
I came back for my third year in a bit better shape and I was drafted to the Black team. Same game, same me, but this time around things were a lot different. Expectations were higher – this was a team that had won multiple championships in recent years. In terms of talent I was still age a huge disadvantage, but with the Black team I started learning more about the game. Strategy, in particular. My team captain and teammates would explain various things to me – if I had cut here or there I would have been open, if I had come toward the disc I would have been in a better position for a score, etc. I was very open to the feedback. I started noticing things. We had a great first half the season only to falter in the second half, but we still made the playoffs. This is where things really came together for us. We lost our first playoff game, but it’s a double-elimination tournament so we had one more opportunity against a tough opponent. And we won. So here we were, advancing to the quarterfinals in the loser’s bracket…and we won again. So we wind up in the loser’s bracket semifinal. A really hard-fought rematch with a team that had beaten us earlier in the year. And I found myself in the end zone…saw the disc start to swing to my side of the field…saw my team captain catch a pass and look to my side…I was already breaking toward the corner of the end zone because I had learned to anticipate the swing pass…he hit me in the corner. Game over. We were going to the finals. We came up just short in the finals but I had never, to my recollection, been in a championship game of any kind before. These guys were amazing – my teammates. It was a tough defeat but…what an experience. And it was a breakout year for me, personally. My overall play improved dramatically. I felt like I was contributing. I felt like I was understanding the game and our strategy.
Now, you might say that of course I would think that team was successful because we made it to the championship game. Sure. Winning is certainly one aspect of success. But I would counter that it was the way we won that made a larger impact on me.
I think every team in our league had the talent to be competitive. But not every team had the spirit. Not every team had the leadership. Not every team had the vision, the hustle, or the communication. There were so many things that went into that successful season…things that contributed to and in many ways directly led to the wins, especially those playoff wins after a rough second half of the season. We could have flopped. We were a game away from elimination. But our team captain – I really think it all starts with him – set an example. He showed us that he was willing to put it all on the line to win. He showed us what it meant to win and still show the other team respect, to honor the spirit of the game that we play. He dealt with negativity. When things didn’t go our way and a player would get upset he pulled them back in and refocused them. When things went our way he recognized individual contributions while emphasizing that this was team success. Even though we didn’t win the championship, I felt like the team was successful. We ended up shocking everyone just by being in the championship game.
My second season with the Black team saw another trip to the postseason, but no championship game. Still, I consider the year a success – I learned more, grew more, performed better, and became more confident as a player. I worked on my game outside of the regular season so that I could throw backhand and forehand. I took a few more chances than in the past. And yes, our team won games. There were bumps along the way but we were resilient. Our team captain’s leadership and example held us together again.
This year is my third season with the Black team. We finished the regular season 13-1 and have advanced to the championship game. This team is more complete than the past two. We have the talent and we have the intangibles. Our team captain continues to keep our focus on fundamentals, sportsmanship, and hustle. We communicate. Players on the sidelines call out when they see cuts that should be made or defensive positions to take. When things go wrong we address them in the huddle and we own our mistakes. I’ve learned more this year than in any of the past seasons.
This is what a successful team looks like. Whether we win the championship game or not, this will be another memorable year of fun and growth as a player and teammate. And I think the lessons I’ve learned from membership on this successful team can be applied to my other personal and professional ventures.