Taking One for the Team

Team play is beautiful. There is nothing more rewarding than when a group of individuals submits their self-interest for the good of the team, embrace whatever role they have, and strive for shared success.
Taking One for the Team
In: Column, Teamwork

April 6, 2010

As the sports commentators have said, if you are a basketball purist and love team sports, you must love this year’s NCAA men’s tournament. Sportswriters noted the teams in the final four had no superstars or elite guards. Tiny Butler, with an enrollment of 4,200 and a budget of $1.5 million, took mighty Duke, with a huge student body and $14 million budget, to within one possession of a championship. Located near Indianapolis, Butler plays in the fieldhouse where the final game in Hoosiers was filmed—and they almost pulled off a Hollywood-sized upset when Gordon Hayward’s last shot rimmed out.

I felt Duke, with an extra scoring threat and a lot more size, would win by double-digits. I was wrong. The score was 61-59. Butler’s philosophy of team first flies in the face of the NBA’s commercially-driven, in-your-face, sneering, strutting, chest-thumping “superstars” who may be tremendous athletes but seldom great teammates or role models. Duke has a great track record of graduating their student-athletes and, under Coach K’s leadership, also exhibits team play. I only wish this year’s example could rub off on the NBA, where refs coddle and pet the leagues chosen superstars and the game’s rules are bent to feature spectacular individual plays—because in today’s world, personalities, no matter how distasteful, sell TV ad time and t-shirts.

Team play is beautiful. There is nothing more rewarding than when a group of individuals submits their self-interest for the good of the team, embrace whatever role they have, and strive for shared success.

In sports, there is a saying: Taking one for the team. It means to sacrifice personally for the good of the team. The clearest example is the sacrifice bunt when the superstar slugger abandons his quest for the home run record, obeys the sign from the third base coach, and lays down a bunt to advance a teammate-runner into scoring position. The hitter intentionally makes an out and sits down for the good of the team.

I remember reading a children’s book when I was young about a kid who was battling for the scoring crown in his league and, in the end of the last game, passed to an open teammate under the basket to win the game rather than take the open jump shot. He loses the scoring title, but his team wins the game, and he is celebrated as a true champion. Today he would be regarded as a fool. I can hear his agent berating him: “Think of the potential endorsements you’re passing up. Plus, you’ve got a scoring bonus in your contract—you just cost you and me a lot of money. You’ve got to think of yourself first, man!”

We should always use wisdom and especially think about what is best for our family, but here are some ways great players take one for the team:

  • Embrace the philosophy that the team is more important than any one individual; use it as a guiding life principle;
  • Embrace any role, no matter how seemingly insignificant, if it contributes to the success of the group;
  • Enthusiastically work to make a group decision successful—especially if you don’t agree with it!
  • Take a back seat sometimes, don’t always try to drive the bus;
  • Commit intellectually to the team, not just with emotions and feelings. You will preserve unity in the hard times.

As the greatest college coach ever (with an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships in 12 years), John Wooden said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit. It is also amazing what you can accomplish when everyone strives to take one for the team. I hope Butler wins next year.

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