Succeeding together is a team ‘sport’

The Tour de France covers around 2,200 miles over 21 day-long stages and the winner collects a prize of around £400,000 after an epic piece of human endurance.chris-froome

But the thing is – they don’t keep any of it.

Each team splits the money it wins – not just between riders, but mechanics, masseuses and even the bus drivers.

This tradition recognises the nature of the sport and the vital interdependent roles played by the whole team in putting the single cyclist on the podium – something echoed by the 2015 winner, Chris Froome – “Without you guys I would not be standing up here: this is your yellow jersey as much as it is mine”.

Sporting touch

So can we learn from how sports teams succeed together? And which sport is closest to the way you work as a team?


In rowing the role of the team member is very simple – sit in the boat and row as hard as you can. In the words of the O’Donovan brothers, the famous Irish silver medal winners at Rio 2016, “Close your eyes and pull like a dog”.

rowingThe highest expression of teamwork in rowing is synchronisation – making the boat lift. The coach does their work in advance, in physical preparation of the crew, and the tactical decisions are left to the cox who is the only one who can steer the boat. The achievement is focused on the boat – there are no individual winners.

Only limited communication is required and this is largely one-way from the cox. It’s what’s known to sports psychologists as a “co-active” sport.


In a game like cricket, the role of the team member is different. Team members have specialist skills (bowler, wicket keeper) and activity flows predictably from one individual to another according to their roles. The play is “reactive”, with individuals acting in response to the flow of the ball.

Communication is more necessary than in rowing but generally follows a predictable flow between certain team roles, following a repeated pattern.

The achievement is not solely focused on the team – while there is no individual winner, individual achievements stand out and are recognised.


Sports like football, basketball or the latest addition to the Olympics, Rugby Sevens are described by sports psychologists as “interactive”.


Image: Tim Hipps/ Wikimedia

The crucial difference is that any individual player can create the next piece of the action – they are not dependent on the ball, or the captain.

Skills like cunning, creativity, problem-solving and having an eye for the next opportunity can be more vital than technical game skills.

In “interactive sports”, communication is essential to team success and can be instigated by any player at any time as they sense an opportunity.

Your sport, your team

So how does that apply to your team ? What type of team are they ?

Start by identifying your “team” – that might be a formal organisational set of direct reports or the more informal grouping of people who you tend to work with most.

Now reflect on how you as a leader/manager/coach engage with them.

  • Which type of sport is closest to your work?
  • How aligned are the needs of your work and the type of team playing it?
  • Do they “play for each other” or just “sit there and row”?
  • What sort of interactions do you have with them as a group?
  • How often do you meet and under what circumstances?
  • What’s the typical flow of conversation? – Like a cox in a rowing boat?
  • What proportion of the conversation are questions?
  • How much of it is about the past?
  • How much is about the future?
  • What is a typical agenda?

In an age where creativity and problem-solving are increasingly required for a team to stand out and succeed, and applying knowledge to new situations is critical – is your team set up correctly?

Are they ready for the demands the activity will place on them or will they just close their eyes and pull like a dog?

If you’re interested to explore how to engage with your team to encourage and support them in being more interactive and dynamic have a look at our new Conversation Map for Empowerment.

Richard Sullivan
Senior leadership development manager

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Like this, very thought provoking !



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