It amazes me how often we throw around the word “team.”  Some people think that just because you’ve formed a group, you’ve formed a team.  In sports, our teammates are often others who were selected from a pool of players, but the moment we show up, and are handed a jersey, we are labeled a team.  Are we really a team?  Go to work for a company, and often it’s one of the first things we will hear: “Welcome to the team!”  Our teammates might simply be strangers with cubicles near ours, but based on proximity, and perhaps job assignment, they magically become our teammate.  Does that make us a team?

I’ve always felt there was more to it than that.  I loved playing on teams, and when I was twenty-one, I coached my first team.  It was an awkward group of seventh graders from Sligo Junior High School, in Maryland.  They learned a lot from me, and I learned a lot from them.  The players played for themselves, and I coached for myself.  All I wanted to do was win, so I could show these parents what a great coach their kids had.  We lost our first game, and then our second, and our third, and our fourth.  The parents were frustrated with their young coach, and their young coach was frustrated with himself.

I decided to take them all out to dinner and talk about our predicament.  For the first time, the players actually socialized with each other, smiled, laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company.  We never talked about our predicament; we just started to care about each other.  We won our next ten games in a row.

Over the next thirty-two years, I went on to coach fifty-two more teams.  I never held a first practice without a dinner together, and we usually added multiple social events throughout the season.  The players cared about each other, and the wins seemed to just keep coming.  My theory has always been a simple one: If people, who are brought together to complete a task, care more about the success of the team than they do about their own personal successes, the team overachieves.  Always.

Recently, I saw my theory play itself out again, only this time I wasn’t coaching; I was competing.  My University of Maryland dormitory, Garrett Hall, decided to reunite and enter a race together.  It was a 200-mile, twelve person relay race from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C.

Forget the fact that no one on the team was under fifty-four years old, and half the runners (including myself) hadn’t run for decades, we made a commitment and saw that commitment through.  One of the requirements was we had to provide an accurate reading of how fast each of us could run six miles.  In this race, each of us was responsible for running about three times that distance, over a thirty-three-hour period of time.

Master's Division Winners Garrett Hall Terps

What happened was astonishing.  Oddly enough, there wasn’t a single person on the team who did not exceed every expectation they had set for themselves, and break every record they had set in practice.  Every single person!  Surely that must have been some sort of anomaly?  I say no.  In fact, I think in hindsight, it was actually predictable.

During my senior year in college, I lived with an extraordinary group of people. We took trips together, laughed together, cried together, and most importantly, cared about each other.  Even though we each individually had to train to get ready for this race, there was a shift when we saw each other and began to operate as a team.  When we met to run this relay race and we broke into two vans, we were no longer running for ourselves; we were running for each other. When we handed the baton from one to another, we realized that we were a team.

The experience once again reminded me of the remarkable feats a true team can accomplish.  Being called a “team” is not a phrase that should be taken lightly, or merely used to describe a group of individuals thrown together by circumstance.  It takes work.  Strangely enough, it takes work that usually has nothing to do with the actual task the team must undertake.  When people truly care about each other, they become a team.  A real team can motivate teammates to do great things.  That’s because the success they seek is no longer for themselves; it’s for those around them.

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