I have never been a big fan of what I would call “contrived” team building activities. Taking a team to do a weekend retreat of some kind never really did much for me - either as a player or as a coach. But, I am a huge proponent of “organic” team building. In my experience, the best team building activities are ones that athletes get to share a fun experience together. The quintessential team bonding experience in minor hockey is the mini sticks game in the hotel hallway when you are on the road with your nine year old teammates. No coaches, no written rules, just good old fashioned competition in the “school yard”.
I think the same idea was being cultivated by Herb Brooks when after some very tough weekend losses at the University of Minnesota had his players put on the running shoes to go and play pickup basketball at Monday practice rather than having a hard workout. In some ways it was more about team building and team bonding than getting a day off (because you know his players are so competitive that they were playing tooth and nail!).
Working hard together is also a great way to team build. Depending on the age group, doing some community service work at a local food bank or Habitat for Humanity is not only a day of hard work together, it helps the community as well, and athletes are going to feel good about themselves at the end of the day. Even just organizing a card tournament or a game night can be a terrific way to create community and team build. Again, it’s about having fun together and sharing experiences. Shared experiences become the stories of the season, and that’s what creates “team”. Sometimes making these experiences more organic and less artificial can be much more powerful. Hiring a facilitator to run through team bonding exercises can be a little contrived. Throwing a ball in the middle of the field and letting them have at it is truly organic.
Getting to know each other is also another way to create cohesion within the team. I had the good fortune of being able to shadow the coaching staff of the Detroit Red Wings two seasons ago on a game day in Toronto. After the morning skate, the team gathered in the dressing room in front of a screen and projector to hear one of the players tell everyone about his family with a slide show. It was meant to be no more than five minutes but it was very meaningful and it was very cool to see that even at the NHL level, team building is something that needs to be attended to and not just expected to happen.
Everyone wants to be a part of something. We still have a somewhat tribal attitude to having that need. As coaches, we need to find ways for our athletes to be willing to “commit gladly”. We want to create an environment of interdependence where “team” and teammates are central to our athlete’s sense of self. A few seasons back I provided everyone on my team with a wristband that was waterproof and durable, one that would make it through a hockey season. It was plain blue with nothing written on it and I set it up to be emblematic of our goal that year to be provincial champions. I told my players, “Every time you look at that wristband you are going to remember and think about what our goal is this season.” The wristbands became a “shared experience” within the team. It was like every player was in on it and all the players belonged to the “tribe” and wanted to belong - willing to commit gladly.
Billy Doherty, Director of Hockey at the Banff Hockey Academy in Alberta, once said to me that “there is no better team building exercise than breaking bread.” In other words, don’t underestimate the power of the team meal.
I do believe that it is absolutely true and needs to be highlighted. And you can learn a lot from who sits with who and who talks to who during team meals.
In my experience, most of the teams that I have been associated with do a tremendous job of sitting with different teammates at different meals. In other words, there are no cliques that seem to evolve and pretty much anyone will sit with anyone. But, if as a coach you notice that the team seems to be a little segregated, maybe by age or by skill level, this is a very good time to step in and start doing some things to make sure everyone is being a little more diligent at getting to know all of the athletes on the team. It could be a lottery for who sits at what table. Maybe players have to fill up one table before they can start another. Alternately, players can be asked to sit with someone different at every meal. Whatever the tactic you can take this is a great opportunity for team building.
One of my former players had the opportunity to play for five seasons with Western University women’s hockey team and was fortunate enough to be part of their National Championship season in 2014-15. Their team had a routine whereby each player’s parents were responsible for a post-game meal after one road game each season. So, some parents who lived at a distance would make sure there was a meal waiting for the players before they got on the bus to return home, but others, who lived in towns where the team played their road games were able to have the team over for a meal at their home. This truly created great team building as players got to know the families of their teammates as well.
Finally, team building isn’t finished in the week after you have picked the team. Cultivating “team” is a crucial part of your season plan as the season progresses. Don’t miss out on great opportunities during the season to have your team have terrific team bonding moments.