The noise was deafening, surrounding me on all sides so that my eardrums rang with the sheer volume of it. Thirty girls – my thirty best friends in the world – jumped and cheered and hugged each other. Tears welled in each of our eyes, but the smiles on our faces were the brightest they had ever been.
It was Saturday, the last of a four-day battle in the pool at Indiana University.
The meet: Big Ten Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships.
The competition: Michigan.
The goal: upset everyone’s predictions and win the IU women’s first Big Ten title since 2011.
As a senior on the swim team, I had seen Michigan win by a large margin my first three years. Their 300-point lead the previous year spoke for itself – the winning score was 1465 to Indiana’s second-place 1152.5. Though IU was predicted to lose this year by a much smaller margin of only 9 points, we were still predicted to lose.
From the start of the meet on Wednesday, we came out swinging. The thrill of the competition and the joy of putting all our hard work to the test diminished our focus on anything Michigan was doing. It didn’t matter how hard they were fighting, or how loud they were cheering. We fought harder, cheered louder, and, better yet, had more fun. And in doing that, we began to inch further and further ahead. By Saturday, as the meet’s end loomed, the scoreboard told us all we needed to know. We gathered around each other, celebrating a battle won. We didn’t need the final race to tell us what we had believed from the beginning: we were the champions.
Champion (n.) - a person who has defeated or surpassed all rivals in a competition, especially in sports.
At DistinXion, we talk a lot about champions. But what exactly is a champion? Does that dictionary definition really cover all of the bases? As champions of the Big Ten Conference, we defeated all of our rivals in the competition, yes. But we had been attempting to do that all four years of my college career – and truthfully, even longer before that. Why was this team so special? Was it simply that we had greater talent than the years before – or was there something else, something more ambiguous, that was in the equation?
There was no doubt that this year’s team was talented. We boasted Lilly King, two-time Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder in the 100 breaststroke. Of the remaining army of eight IU breaststrokers behind her, five of them had already qualified for NCAAs (a difficult feat). We had an incredible depth of talent in the individual medleys and a fast freshman class ready to unleash on their first championship competition.
It wouldn’t have been enough to just rely on these abilities, though. Michigan also had a talent pool that included members of the U.S. national team. IU had had talented teams before, and Lilly had been an asset for the past three years, yet we still hadn’t won a championship. Something intangible had to come into play – something regarding our team culture rather than just our raw talent.
We recognized this from the get-go, and began at the beginning of the season to search for this intangible secret weapon. In doing so, we came to understand three important things about developing a winning team culture:
A team environment is dependent on the character of the individuals that make it up.
Everyone must be invested in the common goal.
Each individual must be valued as a piece of the whole, no matter their ability.
A Team Environment is Dependent on the Character of the Individuals That Make It Up
Have you ever heard the saying “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”? This rings especially true in regard to team atmosphere. If a few people desire a culture of positivity, but their voices are drowned out by one or two negative ones, the team will not be as strong as it could be. Because negative attitudes usually make themselves heard more than positive ones, they can become the dominant voice on a team, spreading like wildfire to everyone else.
The key to developing a positive team culture is to focus on the development of each individual. If the leaders of the team set a precedent of investing in everyone individually, each person can grow to form a better, more complete picture of the team as a whole. Rooting out negative attitudes in a group of 30 people is much more daunting than working with one individual at a time. Having a key group of leaders to intentionally build up different individuals on the team is crucial to weeding out the bad attitudes and replacing them with positive ones.
Everyone Must Be Invested In the Common Goal
This sounds like a given – when a team wants to win a championship, why wouldn’t everyone be on board? The thing is – the whole team might say they want to achieve a goal, but in reality they won’t actually commit to the work it will take to get them there.
Championships are not won overnight, and goals are not achieved after one practice. It takes dedicated effort, day in and day out, on the hard days and the good days, with good results and poor ones. This is not work for the faint of heart, and absolutely no one would be willing to put in that kind of mental, emotional, and physical energy into something they don’t believe in.
The first step in overcoming this is allowing each teammate to be a part of developing the goal. Sit down and have a goal meeting as a team, prepared with your own individual goals and ideas for the team ones. The captains, team leaders, or coaches cannot come into this meeting with pre-determined goals and expect everyone to be all in. It has to be an open discussion about what each person believes the team should strive to achieve.
It also has to be mutually understood that once the team has committed to this goal, teammates must hold each other accountable. It is likely that in the hardest part of the season, when everyone’s nose is against the grindstone, members of the team will forget what they are working toward. It is the job of the rest of the team to remind them of the goals, and this must be received openly by the individual in order to get back on track.
Each Individual Must Be Valued As a Piece of the Whole, No Matter Their Ability
Though swimming is what we do, it is not all of who we are. This is true in basketball as well – you play basketball. This does not mean you are basketball. It is important on every team to value each teammate not only for what they can bring athletically, but for what they bring in personality, intellect, and leadership.
For the IU Women’s Swim Team, this meant two things. One: each girl, whether she won every event she swam or didn’t even qualify for the meet, was valued as a piece of our team. And two: the unique skills, talents, and personalities of each girl on the team were not only accepted but embraced.
Once we integrated this into our team values, it began affecting how we operated. The opinions of the fastest swimmers on the team were no longer the only ones that mattered. And because we embraced everyone’s differences, the environment was much more open for all opinions to be presented without fear of retribution. Whether a freshman or a senior had a new idea on how to grow the team, it was encouraged to be shared. When we were all given the freedom to fail, our innovation skyrocketed and we began to thrive.
After four long years of scratching tooth and nail for that Big Ten trophy, there was no feeling in the world like holding it up to the sky. But I truly believe no other team in my previous three years could have won it – it took these specific girls, with our specific goals and dedication and commitment to each other, to achieve that goal.
Now, I invite you to ask yourself – whether coach or athlete – is your team ready to achieve the goals you have set out? Are you ready to step up and dedicate yourself to the bigger picture? Do you have what it takes to be a true champion?