One of the reasons why sports has been so good for me is that the sports world has many parallels to other parts of life. If you play a sport and really get the values you should from doing so, you are ready for a lot of things that happen in life. The latest evidence of this for me came in a Harvard Business Review online article I read recently.
When I coached a teenage baseball team, the biggest things I tried to impart to the kids had nothing to do with baseball alone. One is that the most important aspect of playing is not your talent, but rather, your approach to the game. Another is that if you don’t have your life together off the playing field, you will underachieve on the playing field. Neither is an accident; the same basic things that make you a good athlete make you a good student, employee, family person, etc. Additionally, if something isn’t right off the field, it’s that much harder to do well on the field because we’re human, not robots.
To that end, the article goes on to talk about the importance of teams, not individuals, in forming innovative teams. It even cites an article from a couple of years earlier about that very subject for some additional background reading. It makes sense: no matter how much individual talent you have, a team must be greater than the sum of its parts if it is to succeed.
Think about the teams in sports that have been loaded with talent, but did not win a championship. There are many ready examples, from the Lakers with four future Hall of Famers over a decade ago to the Warriors two years ago, as well as “The Greatest Show on Turf” being upset in Super Bowl XXXVI. There are also examples of championship teams that didn’t have as much individual talent; the Pistons of 2003-04 stand out in this regard, as a team that may not have a Hall of Famer. And in covering college basketball for well over a decade, I can find countless smaller, lesser-known examples of teams that had plenty of individual talent but were not greater than the sum of their parts, and plenty of teams who won precisely because they epitomized being greater than the sum of their parts.
As I read the article, I was struck by how much of it applies to the sports world as well. From fostering an environment where everyone can thrive to psychological safety, all the way to where they mention that you don’t need the best individuals, but the best teams, it’s all there. And all too often in sports, the truth is that a team has what they need to win, as intimated in the next-to-last sentence – “The good news is you already have these people in your organization.”
So while having great individual talent is nice, having a great team is better. Great individual talent(s) can be part of a great team, but it is not a prerequisite most of the time (although I must say that in many sports, it is – in basketball, it’s really hard to win with a bunch of Robins and no Batman). And like many things, this holds true both on and off the athletic playing field.