Herb Brooks coached the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team to win a Gold Medal. That year, the Russians were highly favored to win; they’d won the Gold Medal in Hockey six of the last seven Olympic Games and were absolute masters at playing the game. The U.S. team was made up of a collection of really good (and young) amateur players and they weren’t nearly the seasoned professionals the Russian team members were. Yet, when the semi-final game between the U.S. and Russia was over, the U.S. had somehow (miraculously) won. Sports Illustrated notes this game as the greatest sporting achievement of the century, and it has spawned two movies and a number of books, all because an individual collection of amateur players figured out how to work as a team and win.
Coach Brooks is noted as saying to his players: “You cannot be a team of common men because common men go nowhere. You have to be uncommon.” But, what’s interesting about this story is not the end result so much as it is the journey of how they got to that end result.
In many ways, the Russian team was “the dream team,” each an absolute expert at his position as well as at the game of hockey overall. So, what can we learn from how a group of young men who were strung together at basically the last possible moment (relative to prepping for the Olympics) and were anything but “a dream team”? There are many lessons, actually, but here are a few that you might ponder as you go about your journey to building your own high performance teams.
Lessons for Building a High Performance Team
1. Brooks recognized the business value of being an inspirational leader. “You were born for this,” he told his players. “This moment is yours. You were meant to be here.”
2. He dealt with current reality. “One game; if we played them ten times, they might win nine. But tonight we skate with them.”
3. He led toward their vision, which was to beat the best team in the history of the game. “Tonight we stay with them, and we shut them down because we can. Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.”
4. When assembling his team, he didn’t look for individual superstars. "I'm not looking for the best players," said Brooks. "I'm looking for the right ones." Coach Brooks wasn't looking for individual superstars as much as he was looking for a team that could play well and win together. Which they did.
5. He coached his team toward being a team. When first trying to pull together this collection of amateur players into a cohesive team, Brooks went down the line of amateur players asking each one of them to share, “What’s your name? Where are you from? Who do you play for?” Each player dutifully answered all three questions. It was the final question that was the struggle. Each player would share his name, where he was from, and then the college or team he currently played for. After several grueling rounds of practice, Brooks kept asking this final question and getting the same varied answers. Eventually, one exhausted player nailed it: “My name is…and I’m from…and I play for the United States of America.” The grueling practice was then dismissed.
6. As a leader, he wasn’t a control freak. "The idea is to give the game to the players, not to suffocate them…not to treat them like a bunch of robots and say, 'You do this and you do this.' We want to try to provide an environment that brings out their talents." His job was to create the environment within which they could be successful while letting each of them do what they do best.
7. He held his players accountable for their performance. As they practiced and prepared for the Olympic Games, he’s noted as having said: “You have to play at a level that’s going to force me to keep you here!”
8. And, perhaps the most important lesson of all: He didn’t hand-pick superstar hockey players. Instead, he went about selecting his team based on skill, work ethic, and team fit. In later years, Brooks noted the struggle of the U.S. to win other Olympic games in (for instance) basketball, even when the U.S. was highly favored to win because of the handpicked superstar teams. Brooks commented that ever since the emphasis to build a “dream team” of superstars surfaced, they had rarely ever managed to achieve the dream.
The true Dream Team in the 1980 Olympic Hockey Game organically emerged because of great leadership on multiple levels, hard work, inspiration, and sheer determination to be the best at that particular moment in time.
Hire great people, blend them into an incredible environment and let them soar. Then, you’ll have your Dream Team.
Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images