News & Views

Three Habits of a Successful Team - How to Build a Solid Team Spirit?

20 March 2019

Author: Silja Kanerva

The stereotypical image of Olympic sailing is casual cruising in glamorous coastal locations. How hard can in be to keep up a good team spirit in such conditions? The truth behind the beautiful sceneries is rather mundane, I am afraid. Spending 150–180 days a year travelling with your team, working together intensively during the day and sharing the bedroom at night, combined with exhaustive training routines, requires conscious actions and smooth cooperation to avoid clashes.

In my view, a strong team spirit builds on the elements laid out in the previous blog posts. Without the foundation, it is very hard to create a long-lasting team spirit. However, the foundation itself is not enough. Constant work is required to maintain a working environment where all team members feel accepted, enjoy their work, and want to stay in it for the long haul.

Communicate – A Lot and Openly

Talking about a culture of open communication and giving feedback is easier than creating one. In our project, there were two key factors in creating such a culture. Firstly, opportunities for discussions and feedback were arranged at a constant and frequent pace. As described in the second blog post, we had daily debriefs, and, in addition, monthly meetings with our mental coach. Without dedicated moments for sensitive matters, the threshold for honest discussion often becomes too high to overcome. Unresolved small issues can easily and subconsciously build up into big issues that will most likely blow out of proportion in the right mix of pressure and fatigue, in moments such as a tournament final or final stretches of a project.

Secondly, the culture was formed by the way feedback was received during the arranged discussions. If feedback is disregarded, belittled, or rejected, the subconscious message quickly becomes clear and information flow reaches a dead end. Creating a culture of open communication is, therefore, at least as much the responsibility of the listener as it is of the speaker. It takes a lot of effort to thank for unpleasant feedback, but if feedback is desired, it needs to be welcome. Open communication can, at its best, become an enormous resource, as no energy is wasted in contemplating on possible underlying issues and weaknesses – they are all spelled out. Furthermore, when all team members are heard, their full potential and point of view can be utilised for the benefit of the team, which in return shows the individuals they are a significant part of the process and success.

Enjoy the Ride

In order to have fun together, each individual needs to enjoy what they are doing. A coach of ours at the time, Jukka Partinen, summed up motivation into a simple equation. According to him, the motivation of an athlete is a product of meaningfulness, probability of succeeding, and enjoying every-day work. If any of the factors is zero, motivation will crash to zero. The same logic also applies to many other environments than sports, when you think about it. Having fun and an enthusiastic approach is vital to endure the hard work, disciplined routines, and constant travelling. On the other hand, motivated people contribute to the energy level and drive of the team and are simply better teammates.

Celebrate Achievements

An element our Olympic team took particular pride in was celebrating achievements. We marked every success, big or small, to remind ourselves and, undeniably, our competitors as well that we had progressed and were one step closer to our goal – medalling at the London Olympics. We had many opportunities to celebrate because we decided on several milestones. Celebrating is often forgotten in the midst of intensive work on a tight schedule. Stopping for a moment to take a breath, lighten up, and look back at where we started from gave us, in fact, more energy and self-confidence than it took time. It was also an opportunity to share the joy and the journey with our families, friends, and supporters, who in return supported us more in the coming days and formed a big and loyal supporter group that believed in our goal together with us. A virtuous circle had been set in motion and, ultimately, this positive spirit around and among us helped us reach the podium in 2012.

Our official goal was to medal in London, which we did, but the medals were quickly forgotten in our drawers. What has not been forgotten is what the working methods I have described in this blog series helped us gain in addition to the medal:  self-awareness, discipline, communication skills, and lifelong friendships. The process turned out to be successful, but also more valuable in the long run than the original target.

Silja Kanerva was a professional athlete in Olympic sailing, winning the World Championships and Olympic bronze in match racing in 2012.