What the greatest teams in the world know about strengths

Having just returned from a crucial London 2012 Olympic basketball match between Australia and Russia, I feel compelled to share a most amazing moment in the match…a moment that had the crowd on its feet while the winning team mobbed their teammate…and a moment which absolutely demonstrates the power of productively applying team strengths and developing strong team habits.

For 39 minutes and 56 seconds of this 40 minute match, Russia and Australia had been within touching distance of each other in terms of scoreline.  So much so that during the last minute of the game, the lead had changed hands four times, with Russia coming out on top 80 points to Australia’s 79 right at the death.

With only four seconds to the end of the game, Australia called a ‘time out’.  For those uninitiated in the rules of basketball, a coach can call a time out at any point in the final quarter of the game, up to a maximum of three.  A time out last 100 seconds and allows the coach and the entire team to discuss tactics and agree their strategy and next play.  For the audience at a basketball game, these time outs provide ample opportunity for ‘kiss cam’ moments, dancing in the aisles, Mexican waves and various other forms of audience participation.  But for the teams, they provide a precious chance to refocus and ready themselves for the next assault on their opponents’ basket.

But really, what can you do with four seconds in a competitive sport of any type?  As the AustraIians went into their huddle, I leaned over to my partner and pretty much said those words.  But they were words that I was shortly going to have to eat.  The Australians had a plan.  They had decided that they would pass the ball quickly down the court, making space for one of their 3 point specialists to fire off a long shot in the hope that they would beat the clock.

Which sounds like a very reasonable plan, except that the 3-point specialist they had chosen had only hit two out of his previous nine 3-point attempts.  He had missed every basket he had attempted in the second half of the game.  But that’s who they chose all the same.

As the buzzer sounded to restart the match, like a well-oiled machine the Australians moved the ball left and then right down the court, and with 2.5 seconds remaining, the ball found its way into the hands of Paddy Mills, the selected specialist.  In seeming slow motion, Mills fired his 3 point shot in a perfect arc towards the target.  As the timer reached zero and the buzzer sounded for the end of the match, the backboard simultaneously turning bright pink, the ball dropped through the net.  The crowd roared and – as one – took to its feet in appreciation, while Mills ran towards us, arms aloft as if to say ‘how could you think it would finish any other way!’ while his teammates wrestled him to the floor.

A great moment at the London 2012 Olympics maybe, amongst maybe hundreds or even thousands every day, but one that’s worth some reflection – if only to try and pinpoint what led to Australia’s success in that vital moment.

Firstly, they genuinely believed that they could win with the final play of the game – a belief based on understanding their individual and collective strengths and being incredibly well drilled and practiced in all aspects of their game.

Secondly, they knew who to turn to for the ‘pressure shot’ that they believed could win them the match – this knowledge came from regular dissection of the individual strengths (and performance risks) of players, gained from hundreds of hours of experience of playing together.  They were not distracted by Mills’ apparent lack of form in the previous two quarters, they continued to believe that he was the man for the job.

And thirdly, they used their effortlessly slick, well honed teamwork, again based on months of practice and competitive play together, to tee up their teammate to deliver at the crucial moment.

What a powerful reminder to all of us working in teams: that we should understand each team member’s strengths and believe in them, even when their own belief is shaken; to make sure that we are setting our teammates up to succeed by supporting them with effective processes and behaviours; to take team ‘time outs’ regularly to step back and think about our next move and to regroup as a team around our common goal; and to ensure that when it all comes together, as it did for Australia today, that we take the time to celebrate our success – individually and collectively – and learn from it.

Dr. Paul Brewerton