Whether you're trying to boost the morale of your squad or foster leadership in young players, here's a simple guide to organizing and running effective team-building activities that'll develop young athletes into a cohesive unit.
It is best to plan an entire team-building session in a progressive manner with each challenge building on the next and organized around key themes for your team.
For example, if you want to foster better communication among group members, then your activities should include initiatives that call for various combinations of players taking a leadership role in giving directions, commands or ideas in both verbal and non-verbal mediums.
If you want to develop team trust, then initiatives should include activities that ask teammates to relinquish control and power to another teammate in a safe, non-threatening manner.
Beyond the thematic focus of the event, your team-building session should also include progressions from individual and partner challenges to small group and eventually to full-team initiatives.
The complexity should also vary on a continuum from simple (fewer rules, less-demanding challenges or shorter times to complete tasks) to more complex (more rules or restrictions, greater demands on the individuals or the group based on length of time to be successful or level of difficulty).
Getting Started With the "Ice Breaker"
Like any good practice session, team building should also begin with a proper "warm up" to prepare athletes for the day's events.
Warm-up activities can be thought of as simple "ice breaker" type experiences that encourage athletes to transition from physical training, competitive mode to a more relaxed and open spirit of engagement.
Laying Down the "Ground Rules"
At that point, the ground rules should be given to your team including the goals for the activity, any team rules you want to encourage (for example, "Only positive verbal comments are to be shared," "Let's all respect individual differences," or "Let's foster a safe environment both physically and emotionally").
Let players know that there is a purpose to these games and while they may be having a great time laughing, having fun and enjoying themselves, there is a deeper meaning, if you will, that will be explored and that is embedded in the activities. Let them know that these messages will be addressed at the end of the day.
It's Not Over Until the Debriefing
One error that many team leaders often commit is to focus almost exclusively on the initiatives themselves and neglect the debriefing session at the end of training with the entire group. At the final debriefing, lessons extracted from the day's activities should be explored.
Players' opinions should be drawn out and they should be asked to explain what they saw, heard, learned and felt during the team building actives and what potential applications could be derived for the team or for the season.
In many ways, the debriefing sessions are as important, if not more so, than the activities themselves. With experience, team leaders will increase their skills in both the art and science of leading activities and in discussing their use, value and application for the team in the weeks and months ahead.
Finally, it is essential that coaches follow up the event by highlighting the themes unveiled and revealed in the team building sessions in subsequent practice sessions e.g. on the court, field, pool, arena, etc. as part of a traditional practice).
In other words, the lessons should be revisited throughout the year and not simply left at the site of the team-building activities.
Colleen Hacker Ph.D., is a Professor of Movement Studies and Wellness Education at Pacific Lutheran University, as well as consultant for the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team.