What do High Performing Teams have in Common?

Olympians are back on our screens and these athletes are at the pinnacle of sporting excellence so what can we learn?

Whilst I love to watch the magnificence of human performance at its best and I’m in awe of the spectacular and insane tricks on ski and snowboard, I can’t help but observe through my lens of team development and the psychology of performance.

I started to observe what the most high performing teams have in common. Whether it’s an ice hockey team, a curling crew or the 4-man bobsleigh, the most successful teams have a focus on collective results. You’re probably thinking, focus on results, that seems obvious – what else would they focus on? Well, it’s often the case in a team (in business and in sport) that you have one or two individuals who are focused on their own results – their individual glory, their opportunity to shine, their career progression; in business we’ve all seen projects suffer because people put their own needs ahead of the team’s needs.

I have my own positive and negative experiences of this in my own sport and when I reflect on any successes that I had in crew boats (2 or 4 person kayak) there was a definite focus on the collective goal and when we failed as a team, I can see now how that was missing or there was a misalignment between individual and team goals.

Whilst I was training for the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008, having missed out on the Athens Olympics due to an illness that prevented me from training for 2 years.

Basically when I recovered, I was on a mission to compete at my second Olympic Games and I started working with a fabulous Hungarian coach called Miki and a young junior, Jess, who he was coaching and who would be my training partner – she was just 17 at the time and a precocious talent. Miki was tough and he was an inspiring leader with bold ambitions.

He suggested we should try to qualify for the Olympics together in the K2 (2 girls in a kayak). We were bit of an unlikely pairing, Jess was just seventeen and I was 31, but we figured our average age was just about right! We balanced each other out. It was a tall order for us not just to make the GB team but also to qualify a place for Great Britain at the Olympics at the European qualifiers.

It was imperative that we had an unrelenting focus on one specific objective – Olympic qualification in the K2 and this became our top priority. Really it’s the leader’s job to be a visionary, to create clarity of direction and inspire others to get on board with the vision. Miki did a sterling job of setting the tone for this focus on the collective results – it was all he talked about and that’s crucial because if team members sense that the leader values anything other than the team result then they will take that as permission to do the same.

It’s also crucial that the leader gives everyone time early on to understand how their own goals contribute to the overall goal. Jess and I both still had our individual goals, Jess was even going to compete at the Junior World Championships earlier in the year, but she was really clear about how her own individual goal would contribute to achieving the overall goal.

If you don’t do this, the team will fail to focus on collective results and then it:

• Rarely defeats its competitors
• Encourages team members to focus on their own careers and individual goals
• Becomes easily distracted
• Stagnates and fails to grow

Look out for those individuals who focus on personal results and ask: “What is the result and associated actions and behaviours needed for ME to be successful?”

Whereas what you really want are team members who are focused on collective results and ask: “What is the result and associated actions and behaviours needed for the TEAM to be successful?”

It made the crucial difference for Jess and I and we went on to qualify – Jess became an Olympian for the first time, just 1 month after her 18th birthday and I became an Olympian for the second time. I strongly believe that it was our mindset, our approach and focus on the collective results that gave us the competitive edge.

So enjoy the Winter Olympics and observe the highest performing teams and what they have in common and you might notice that individuals are prepared to sacrifice individual glory for team success. Be inspired by the Olympians and be intolerant of actions and behaviours that serve the interests of individuals and that don’t promote the common good.

If you’d like support on developing cohesive and high performing teams please get in touch, we’d love to help – high performance is our passion!



Published: Wednesday 9 February 2022
Written by: Anna Hemmings, MBE, OLY.