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5 Key Principles in Building a Successful Team

Written by Pat Sullivan
Pat Sullivan is a speaker and the author of two books "Attitude-The Cornerstone of Leadership" and "Team-Building: From the Bench to the Boardroom"
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I believe there are numerous values in the athletic arena that translate well into many facets of life. Building a successful team in athletics uses concepts that can be used by a leader in any endeavor.

In this article, I will share five concepts or principles that play an important part in team building in athletics. I would appreciate the reader applying how each concept might fit into their leadership position in building a team.

Here are five key principles of effective team building.

1. Caring

In athletics, coaches must demand consistent hard work from their athletes every night during practices.

John Wooden, the iconic UCLA basketball coach preached that “There is no substitute for hard work.” His players bought into his teaching are validated by the fact that they won seven NCAA basketball championships in a row and ten in the last twelve years he coached.

Why will individual players and teams work so hard for their coaches? There may be multiple reasons, but I believe the most important one is because they know the coaches care for them beyond the narrow confines of a court or a field.

Rick Majerus, the outstanding University of Utah and St. Louis University basketball coach, would share with fellow coaches the famous John Maxwell quote:

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

I attended many of Rick’s practices, and the work ethic of his players was exemplary because the young men knew how much he cared for them. One of Rick’s Utah players, Andre Miller, had an outstanding NBA career.


We were together in Chicago one night when Rick had to take an early flight the next morning to Salt Lake City. When he recruited Miller out of South-Central Los Angeles, he promised him and his mother that he would be at Andre’s graduation.

We had to discipline one of our players and decide how many suicides—a tough running drill never enjoyed by athletes—he had to run. I had an appointment, so our assistant coach, Jack Hermanski, administered the hour-long punishment.

Years later, the athlete would call Jack periodically and curse at him for all the running he had to do. He ended all these calls by saying, “I love you, Coach.” He knew and appreciated how much Jack cared for him, despite the running.

2. Team Ego

The great Boston Celtic player, Bill Russell, said this about his teammates who won eleven NBA championships in the thirteen seasons he played in Boston. When they entered a building for practice or a game, they left their individual egos outside the door but brought in their Team Ego.

The Celtic teams believed that if an opponent were to beat them, they better bring a great game because they knew they were going to. They knew they would not win every game. They were not over-confident, but they knew that they would play hard, smart, and together.

A coach knows when his players buy into Team Ego. I coached a player who was leading our Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference in scoring. Needless to say, to finish the season leading such a respected conference in scoring would be quite an honor.


We were going to play the weakest team in the conference. This could be a game where he could have appreciably increased his scoring average and created more separation between himself and the player behind him in the standings.

Our player only cared about the team. He validated that by taking only one shot in the entire game. Instead of padding his scoring average, he passed the ball to his teammates for their scoring.

It is a great feeling for a team builder when their team is so proud of their team success that they sacrifice individual achievements for team accolades. This is key to learning how to build a team.

3. Listening

Successful team builders put great value in the art of listening, and learning how to listen well is an important concept on how to build a team.

Most of us are familiar with this saying emphasizing the importance of listening, “That is why God gave us one mouth and two ears.” Frank Tyger articulated the same sentiment in another interesting way when he wrote, “I never got into trouble with my ears.”

Athletics is a great venue for young people to learn the importance of listening. In all sports, coaches teach the fundamentals of their sport, followed by a system or strategy of play. This is a high or advanced way of teaching for the listener to absorb.


In the classroom, the teacher presents their subject matter. When the test comes, the students give back the knowledge they learned from the teacher. In athletics, the athletes must learn both the fundamentals and the system if they are to be successful.

The test is the game. During this test, there is an opponent trying to disrupt the players from executing their fundamentals and their system. So, the players must first learn the rudiments of the sport and the system of play, then execute their knowledge under duress. It would be analogous to someone taking an exam with another person moving their hand up and down in front of his eyes.

The second difference in athletic and classroom listening is that each player has the responsibility of learning in concert with their teammates. Therefore, I must listen to two entities—myself and the other players on the team. Whereas in the classroom, I learn only for myself.

In the athletic arena, if one player fails to listen, he can destroy the entire play. Games often come down to the last possession of the game, and the difference between success and failure ultimately is listening.

Coaches must also model listening for their players. Our volleyball coach convinced me to use plyometrics to enable our players to jump higher and quicker. I made the mistake of implementing them at the end of our practices.

Our two captains came to me after a week of this workout saying they feared injury when we did these drills at the end of practices. They were our two best workers, so they had to be listened to.


They were right. Our practices were very demanding and at the end of practices, our players were fatigued. Plyometrics are very strenuous exercises and, when tired, could lead to injuries. We listened and made the adjustment to doing them during our initial conditioning drills.

Great team builders are active listeners and develop teams where listening is preeminent throughout their organizations.

4. Credit

Two outstanding coaches have something to say about credit. John Wooden said, “Give all the credit away.” My college coach, Gordie Gillespie, whose teams in football, basketball, and baseball won 2,402 games and who was inducted into eighteen Halls of Fame in his illustrious career, would tell coaches at clinics, “It’s not about you.”

I was fortunate to be with Coach Wooden on numerous occasions and worked with Coach Gillespie for twenty-five years. I never once heard either of them talk about their extraordinary coaching careers. It truly was not about them. It was about their teams and their players.

If you are the leader who built the team, accolades will come your way. At the same time, you know you could not have achieved success on your own. You needed the people you built the team with, so give them the credit they rightly deserve.

There was a coach in college basketball who was famous for letting everyone know he was the one responsible for his team’s success. His arrogance was obvious at coaching clinics. The great coaches remained available after their presentations to interact with their fellow coaches.

The above coach presented as if he invented the game and when he finished speaking, he had no time to visit with the lowly coaches. He did produce some good teams but had little respect from his coaching peers, and I am sure his team members were tired of his conceit.


Successful, admired coaches credit their players, with special emphasis for those on the team who receive little recognition. In basketball, the players who score get most of the credit, so these coaches give credit to the players who passed them the ball enabling them to score. They give accolades to the players who receive little or no recognition from neither the media nor the fans.

In coaching or in any organization, leaders must be surrounded by talented people to achieve success. It is most important for leaders to credit their contributions and efforts.

5. Culture

Finally, learning how to effectively build a team means knowing how to create a positive culture. I once read where a business leader wrote that when you take a new job, you want to immediately think about the legacy you want to leave behind you. I disagree.

I don’t think the successful team builders I have known thought about their legacy. They did, however, give much thought to the culture they wanted to build.

Once you determine the culture you want to establish, then you can bring people to your organization who fit that culture. Coaches who build successful teams know the expectations they have for the players they recruit. They study their character, their academic commitment, and their athletic work ethic.

When Gordie Gillespie and I arrived at the University of St. Francis, our president, Dr. Jack Orr, presented the culture he wanted us to build in the athletic program. It had four components:

  1. Use athletics to improve enrollment.
  2. Run the program with integrity.
  3. Recruit athletes for graduation.
  4. Create an activity for every student.

We believe we were successful in realizing this culture because we were able to hire coaches who fit and believed in the culture.

When we came on board, there were forty-five student-athletes in three sports. At our zenith, we had three hundred and seventy-seven athletes in fourteen sports. We never broke neither NAIA nor NCAA rules to win. We did unknowingly break some rules but immediately turned ourselves in. Integrity was an absolute must.

When our teams played a senior athlete, we expected that athlete to graduate. We were not perfect in this regard, but 92% of the seniors who played for us over a twenty-five-year period did graduate.

To establish an activity for every student, we established a comprehensive intramural program.

When Jack gave us this culture, he finished by saying, “Winning will be a bonus.” Due to the culture and the coaches who fit into it, we did win. When our conference had participated in ninety national tournaments, we had sixty of the ninety appearances.


Successful team builders remember these five principles of effective team building:

  1. Caring – “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  2. Team Ego – Do not bring your individual ego to the venue. Do bring your Team Ego.
  3. Listening – “I never got into trouble with my ears.”
  4. Credit – “Give all the credit away. It’s not about you.”
  5. Culture – Know the culture you strive to build at the beginning of the journey.

Featured photo credit: NeONBRAND via unsplash.com

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