Years in the military; years playing sports; years coaching sports at the developmental, high school, collegiate and professional level; years advising professional and collegiate teams, as well as businesses. You would think that those experiences would equate to a pretty decent understanding of what being a good teammate looks like. However, we can always learn more, and if you look, you can find those lessons in places you least expect them.
At a recent sporting event, I had the opportunity to witness what being a good teammate really looks like. The sport, the circumstances, and the level of competitiveness are really immaterial. What matters is what we can learn from watching great teammates work together, and a coach who was more concerned with coaching than winning.
This team was “light,” meaning they didn’t have much of a bench. In fact, they only had one substitute to give players a break from the action. They played a team that had so many substitutes, they didn’t have enough bench for them. This didn’t seem to affect the lighter team very much, as they kept it close throughout the game, never falling more than one or two scores behind, and once being tied for some time.
It was clear that the team with the “heavy” bench had better athletes than the lighter team. They were quite capable, and honestly, should have easily beaten the other team. But that “light” team, was actually a better team. What made them better? Probably a bunch of things: they were well coached, they were invested in each other, they seemed to like each other….and one specific player. The player was not the best athlete, he wasn’t the leader, he wasn’t what most people think about when they think of athletes, but it was clear this player made everyone around him better. His name was Mark.
Mark was intellectually disabled. At first glance, he appeared like all the other players, but as you watched him, it was clear that he had cognitive disadvantages the rest of us take for granted. While he could participate at a neophyte level, it was evident that that wasn’t what made him an asset to the team. You see, though Mark COULD play, what was amazing is that he DID play. And more amazing was how he behaved when he was and wasn’t playing.
The first two things I learned were not directly from Mark, but they are lessons every team, in sports or business, could use in their culture.
First, Kudos to the coach. Mark had a regular rotation, and he played. Not a little bit, but the entire game. He rotated in and out with teammates as any player without challenges would. And the coach always made sure he was in a place to succeed. This was a coach that wasn’t as worried about winning, as creating winners.
Second, his teammates were awesome! Always supportive, always positive, always working with him, not in spite of him. But here is what made them special as a team, they weren’t treating Mark any differently than they treated anyone else on the team – everyone on that team treated each other in a way everyone wants to be treated. They were a cohesive group, that clearly cared about each other.
But Mark…Mark reminded me what being a good teammate looks like in very tangible ways. Some things I learned from Mark:
1) He was invested in the game. Throughout the entire game, whether he was in, or on the bench, Mark was paying attention. He was learning the entire time, both from his mistakes and from his teammates.
2) He was coachable. Mark listened and responded to his coach and his teammates, and adapted immediately.
3) He was present. Mark was exactly where he had to be, when he had to be there. He was always in the right place at the right time.
4) He was humble. Mark never celebrated himself or his own successes, but he was the first to celebrate every one of his teammates and the team’s success.
5) He was there for his teammates. Whenever one of his teammates was down, physically or mentally, he was the first one there – lifting his teammate up.
So, a simple reminder, that being a good teammate doesn’t take a supreme amount of leadership, ability, or even skill. It means you try to be the best you can while making those around you better.
Thank you, Mark, for reminding me, and all of us, what right looks like. I hope you know the impact you make every day.
JC Glick served in the U.S. Army as an infantry officer for 20 years, primarily in special operations and special missions units with more than 11 combat tours. Since retiring from the military, JC has brought his innovative and unconventional thoughts on education, leadership, and resiliency into the private sector, consulting with Fortune 500 companies, the NFL, and professional sports teams including the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. He is the author of two books: A Light in the Darkness: Leadership Development for the Unknown with Sarah Ngu, and Meditations of an Army Ranger: A Warrior Philosophy for Everyone with Dr. Alice Atalanta, both published by Hatteras Press.