I was coaching a client recently who asked me, “what can I do to improve my team’s performance?” In my experience as a coach, this is a very common question.  It’s ubiquity as a question doesn’t make any less important, in fact, it emphasizes how relevant it is to the modern professional.  While we spent the session exploring his own experiences with teams and various models to boost team performance, I hung up that call wanting to give my client more. This is when I become inspired with a question that had formulated in my mind…”what was the best team that ever existed and what can we learn from it?”

After a few minutes researching the question on Google, it didn’t take long to find the answer.

On February 22nd, 1980 the US men’s hockey team beat the reigning world champion Soviet team with a score of 4-3.  This event has been called the single greatest sports moment in the 20th century and went on to inspire countless books, interviews, documentaries, and articles.  Disney made a movie titled “Miracle” starring Kurt Russell.  You can watch HBO’s documentary on youtube called “Do You Believe in Miracles?

What the US Men’s Hockey team did was not just a fluke.  They had previously beaten the Checz’s ranked as the #2 team in the world and went on to other victories to win the gold metal.  Herb Brooks, the team coach, had taken a bunch of college kids and in seven months built a world-class team that made history.  What can we learn from Herb about building team excellence?  While many books and movies have been made, none address this question (as far as I can tell).

Team Selection – In order to execute his strategy, Brooks needed players that were able and willing to be molded into a new style of play.   During the tryouts in Boulder Colorado, Brooks wasn’t looking for the most talented players.  “All-star teams don’t win games,” he once famously said.  He wanted players that could skate hard and fast and showed an ability to learn and commit to his system.   A little-known fact is that he asked each candidate to complete a 300 question assessment that presumably allowed the coach to assess learning agility.

Team Cohesion – Playing together as a team was not an afterthought, it was a strategic necessity.   It becomes apparent in the many books and movies recounting the players’ experience that Brooks pursued team cohesion and unity with hyper focus and tenacity.  He knew that the team members held bitter collegiate rivalries.    There was bad blood between some of the members that were holding on to past injustices.   A team would not form until they gave up their regional identities and became a unified US team.

His methods to unify the players were somewhat controversial, however.   To get the job done he made himself their enemy.  “I’m not here to be your friend,” he proclaimed.    He played “bad cop” by repeatedly threatening to cut members from the team.  No one ever felt secure.  He even threatened to cut the team captain Mike Rezonne at one point.   After playing the Norwegian national team in which he felt the team under performed he punished the team with exhausting drills nicked named “Herbies.”  These drills lasted into the night with the rink manager turning off the lights, locking up and going home.  These mind games continued until a week before the Olympics until a few of the team members including the captain confronted Brooks.

Individual Performance – He singled out players regarding their performance.  He demoted Jim Craig the goaltender for underperforming during the months leading up to the Olympics.  He would say “your play is getting worse every day and your playing like it’s next month!”  Ultimately Herb got Jim to play the best hockey of his life.  The Russians made 39 shots on goal (the US only made 16) with only 3 getting through Jim’s defense. Jim Craig by far was the team’s most valuable player.

What can we learn from this?

Assuming that you are either on a team or leading a team at work you may be wondering how this applies to your experience?  While winning a hockey tournament is very different than bringing a new product to launch,  entering a new market, or delivering a service to customers there are many similarities that easily translate.  For example, you may not feel like your team is comprised of world-class performers.  Let’s face it how would you ever know?

Herb Brooks, as a coach for the US Men’s Olympic Hockey Team, offers many lessons for just this scenario.

Team selection-  How robust is your selection process?  How much are you focused on potential?  coachability? adaptability?  For example, some organizations are now asking candidates to join the team for a day (paid) in order to see judge these aspects.

Team Unity – What are you doing to improve the coherence on the team?  Do team members express appreciation for other contributions?  How willing are team members to put down their own agenda to help the team?

Individual Performance – How well do you understand what uniquely motivates and drives each person on your team?  How well do understand their strengths?  How invested are you in their individual development?

Herb Brooks’s methods were controversial.  He was willing to challenge his players in a way that made them exhausted, upset, angry, resentful and as hoped, unified as a team.    Some of these tactics are reminiscent of the early days of Apple Computer and Steve Jobs who also had a demanding reputation.   It is unclear if this is the price of admission to world-class status.  I would hope that such teams performed in spite of such negative inputs.   With that said, how often do you challenge yourself or your people to stretch beyond the comfort zone?  When was the last time your performance or team’s performance exceeded your own expectations?  How focused are you on team unity and cohesion?  What are you doing to strengthen it?

Lastly, I would love to hear from you.  In your opinion, what was the best team that ever existed?  Is there anything else that we can learn from the 1980 US Men’s Hockey Team?