How To Build High-Performance Teams More Consistently



”None of us is as smart as all of us.” — Ken Blanchard

How do you consistently build a winning team?

I think successful coaches are good to learn from.

After all, they have to build effective teams time and time again, while dealing with people issues and finding ways to make the most of who they’ve got.

In Social Psychology: Theories, Research, and Applications, Robert S. Feldman interviews Joe Paterno, head coach of Pennsylvania State University’s college football team.

In the interview, Feldman asks Coach “JoePa” about his secrets for building winning teams and group cohesiveness.

I think Coach Joe applies a lot of the principles I’ve seen work in practice.

5 Ways to Build High-Performance Team

Here are five key ways to build a winning team every time:

  • Technique # 1. Build pride in the team.
  • Technique # 2. Build successors.
  • Technique # 3. Appear to be fair.
  • Technique # 4. Emphasize team players over individual results.
  • Technique #5. Understand each individual.

Technique # 1 for High-Performance Teams – Build Some Pride in Being Part of the Team

This technique is about building pride.  There’s a big difference between being on a team you’re proud to be on and a team you’re embarrassed by. Joining a team that’s great to be on, can help set the tone ad pace that brings out everybody’s best.
The team has to be special. Feldman asks Coach Joe about how he molds individuals into a winning team:

  • Q. “Many coaches work with players as talented as yours, yet don’t win as many games … what’s your secret of success?”
  • A. “… I think it begins with the way you put your program together. You have to immediately build up some price in being part of the organization. We talk all the time about not being afraid of being different, being unique. We demand more of people, from the time when we first begin recruiting … You may have noticed we don’t have anything on our uniforms; they’re very plain — no stripes, no names, nothing on the helmets. We wear black shoes … There is a purpose for that. When our players put their uniforms on we want them to understand that they are part of a first-rate football team. Although they may not be better than other football players, they’re different, they’re unique — not because of their individual strengths, but because they are part of a special Penn State team … I build up a background in practice. We practice better than anybody; we practice harder than anybody; and we probably have higher pride than anybody. All this serves to create a kind of mystique about the situation which means that when they go out and play, there’s more at stake than just football. It’s the individual’s pride and the commitment that he’s made to the team.”

Technique #2 for High-Performance Teams –  Build Successors

This technique is about developing leaders within the team.  I’m a fan of growing others and learning in the process. I think on a team in today’s world this is particularly important. If you’re the bottleneck for everything that gets done, then you put a glass ceiling on yourself and on the team. I always try to work myself out of a job, by teaching others and improving the job itself.
Coach Joe says it’s not just about him; he develops leadership within the team:

  • Q. “I would guess that after being part of the team for a while, the football players would begin to internalize these standards themselves. It’s not just a matter of doing what you say, is it?”
  • A. “Not at all. I try to develop leadership in the seniors and upperclassmen. They keep an eye on their teammates. I tell them they’ve got to be proud of the football team, and proud of their teammates.”

Technique # 3 for High-Performance Teams – Appear to Be Fair

This technique is about appearing to be fair.   I think this is especially important. I’ve been on team’s where where everybody has a shot. I’ve also seen the opposite. There’s a big difference between putting the best player in a position versus playing favorites. Who continues to give their best, when the best it trumped by favoritism?
Coach Joe says it’s not about playing favorites:

  • Q. “Is there a lot of competition within the team regarding, let’s say, who’s going to start.”
  • A. “A tremendous amount. I think it’s one of the things that is most difficult in coaching. When it comes down to a youngster who really wants to play and feels that he’s really good, then you have a problem. I don’t know exactly how to solve it except to try to lean over backward to be fair to everybody. And I have a rule as a coach that it’s not enough to be fair, you must appear to be fair. I think if you can get an individual to think that you really are concerned, you’ve got a chance to keep that youngster motivated. But it’s a tough job.”

Technique # 4 for High-Performance Teams – Emphasize Team Players Over Individual Results

This technique is about emphasizing the collective team over individual results.  Beware of ball hogs. A ball hog can really get in the way of an effective team. There’s a big difference between doing your best at the expense of the team, and doing your best with the team.
Coach Joe emphasizes team results over individuals:

  • Q. “Do you ever have a problem getting especially talented players — the “stars” — to cooperate with the team?”
  • A. “Well, I have little sympathy for those people who don’t. The best players have the most to gain by being cooperative. Football is so much a game of dependency. No matter how good you are, there are a lot of other people you’re going to depend on.”

Technique # 5 for High-Performance Teams – Understand Each Individual

This technique is about focusing on individuals and knowing their strengths and weaknesses.  At the end of the day, a team is a group of individuals. Appreciate the individuals for how they are.
Coach Joe says it’s their team, not his:

  • Q. “How do you maintain morale — group cohesiveness, a social psychologist would call it — consistently?”
  • A. “You can’t create morale overnight, and once you have it’s not easy to maintain but it’s something you’ve got to work at all the time. You’ve got a bunch of guys involved in a program who have got to feel responsible for each other. But we also try to understand each one of them as an individual, with individual problems, and all those kinds of things. Finally, we make a point of being concerned about his morale and spend time to make sure he is treated fairly. I think it’s important for every member of the team to feel it’s their team. It’s no my team; it’s their team.”

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  1. i just love your posts, especially on team theme. It is most relevant to me these days!!

    great takeaways!

    please post more on team work!!


  2. Hi J.D.

    This is a great post, filled with lots of great life lessons.

    Joe Paterno is a very wise man, and I’m guessing anyone who has had him as a coach, leaves college a much better person.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Good post.

    It’s amazing that the same themes and principles keep coming through from the top coaches, yet they are the ones that aren’t taught and passed on at coaching clinics.


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