Up Your Game This Season: 7 Leadership Skills to Master As A Coach [Part 5 - Teamwork]

written by Erica Quam

If you are operating on your own without anyone else to consider then it's easy to focus in on your goals, needs, and wants.

You can't be a lone wolf AND a team player.

When you're part of a team (even a team of two) it changes everything.

Your goals, needs, and wants are only part the equation.

The way you behave when you're part of a team is a leadership skill. 

Some people naturally have this skill and are really good at it.  Other people struggle...and can improve.


I learned about teamwork on a backpacking course to become a NOLS instructor in the Wind River Wilderness of Wyoming.  

It was the day after re-ration.  We had just gotten 12 new pounds of food per person.  Our packs were 75 pounds each - the heaviest our packs would be.

We were traveling through snow in snowshoes.  The extra weight on our backs resulted in us post-holing our way through through each step - which meant sinking down into knee to waist deep snow...and then digging your leg back out. 

It was a long travel day.  We didn't go far.

To say it was frustrating was an understatement.

I was traveling with a group of guys who were younger, stronger, and moving at a pace that was faster than I could pull off that day. 

I made a critical error when packing for the travel day: I hadn't left enough snack food accessible at the top of my pack which meant my attitude and outlook began to dwindle. 


If you're traveling in a group of 6...chances are there are 6 different sets of goals going on inside of people's head's.  Our obvious goal was to get to the "X" safely each day to meet up with our other group.  

Your athletes have a lot of different goals. 

As a coach, it's important to get people to a) get clear on their goals and b) share what their goals are - instead of leaving it as a mystery to everyone.


The crux of the day came when the guys in my group offered to carry some of the weight I had in my pack - so my load could be lighter and my travel easier. 

This would've helped me speed up.  It was a nice gesture from my teammates.  It was a great example of teamwork. 

And yet, I was pissed!

In my mind...this was an instructor course.  This day in particular was a proving ground for me.  In my mind I HAD to be able to carry my weight if I was ever going to become an instructor. I felt like I needed to be prepared - mentally and physically - to carry extra weight in case my future students or co-instructors needed me to step up.

My group had NO idea what I was thinking though.  I hadn't ever communicated my goal.  All they knew was that I was upset.  And all they were trying to do was help me.


At a break, I was able to eat some food and muster enough courage to share what I was really thinking and feeling.  I let them know what this day meant for me.  That it was bigger than just getting to the "X".

My teammates were awesome.  They adjusted their goal of getting to camp faster to help me reach my personal goal that day.  They slowed down their pace, took more frequent short breaks, and kept the mood light until we rolled into camp later that night.

That day ended up being really important to me.  On future courses - when I was the instructor - I thought back to that moment with my team. Being able to persist - with the support of my team - gave me a lot of confidence.  


I had a great group of teammates that day.  They adjusted their goals and expectations of how fast we would travel and what time we would arrive at camp to help me through a challenge.

I learned how to be a better teammate by sharing what I wanted and needed instead of holding it in and getting frustrated so we could all work together.  

At the end of the long day we sat down to debrief what happened.  I realized how our goals may have needed to shift again - if weather or injury became a factor.  There are plenty of times where you have to give up your personal goal for the good of the team.

Expedition Behavior is NOT a zero-sum game: when you give it away, you gain more in response.
— Adam Grant

Paul Petzoldt- the founder of NOLS - referred to teamwork as expedition behavior.

Petzoldt went on climbing expeditions - with some of the most talented climbers in the world - that failed.  The biggest factor wasn't outdoor skill, equipment, or athleticism...it was the ability to get along and relate well to others.

You won't always have or be the perfect teammate. You will always have an opportunity to learn - that's a guarantee.  Being on a team requires you to remain open and flexible.  It's a dance!

Here's a list from *NOLS of what expedition behavior is all about:

  • Serve the mission and goals of the group
  • Be as concerned for others as you are yourself 
  • Treat everyone with dignity and respect
  • Support leadership and growth in everyone
  • Be kind and open-hearted
  • Do your share and stay organize
  • Help others and don't routinely do their work
  • Model integrity by being honest and accountable
  • Say yes and deliver or say no of you clearly cannot or will not do something
  • Resolve conflicts constructively

* NOLS Leadership Educator Notebook


As a coach, you walk the fine line of pushing your athletes to get stronger - physically, mentally, and emotionally.  And...it's important to try and provide an environment where they can also feel safe - physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Being able to push without pushing too far takes work. 

This kind of environment can't come from a coach alone.  It can't come from the players alone either.  It takes everyone - coaches and athletes - working together, sharing what you want, communicating what you need, and adjusting individual goals for the good of the group along the course of your season.

You can use the expedition metaphor with your team.

If you were to summit a mountain together you can't just have the fastest people going their own pace and driving the team from the front.  The rest of the group will fall behind.  You have to learn how to work together to get up and down the mountain as a group.

The word teamwork is a great descriptor.  It takes work.  It's not easy.


1) Talk to your team about how you will interact, cooperate, problem-solve, and support one another throughout the season. 

Teamwork is potentially the biggest challenge your team will face this season (and the thing that will most affect their personal experience).  Teach them the stages of team development: forming-storming-norming-performing.  Normalize conflict, teach your athletes skills to deal with it in a healthy way, and remind them how storming is a necessary stage all teams go through to reach higher levels of performance.

2) Allow your athletes to be part of creating their culture

  • What does teamwork look like? 
  • What does it NOT look like. 
  • What's okay and what's not okay on our team? 

Revisit this throughout the season.

3) Clearly define rules, roles and expectations from the beginning

Your athletes want to know the rules, their roles, and your expectations. 

The structure you set up at the beginning of the season creates safety.  If you're unclear on the structure or you change the rules as you go along...you'll see the anxiety and uncertainty ramp up on your team.  Your team dynamics will erode and interpersonal conflicts will pop up.

Structure isn't something to talk about once.  You have to re-communicate the structure again and again throughout the year.  Come back to the structure during times of conflict...to see where things are off.  What seems like a team problem can often be mistaken as a structure problem.

Wrap up

You are part of your team as a coach.  Model the teamwork you'd like to see happening on your team, first.  This can be the most challenging and rewarding skill to work on - because of all the learning and growth that takes place...each and every season!

Did you have any insights, ah-ha's or learning from this? Let me know. Then, get clear on one step you will take to improve your teamwork this season. Share it here!