Olympic Calibre Teamwork--My Conversation with a London-bound Team

Sometimes fate sends you a gift.  For me, it was a seat in front of the Canadian Olympic synchronized swimming team on a flight to Montreal. 

Decked out in their gear and laughing easily as they switched seamlessly between English and French, I just couldn't resist approaching them. After all, there are few better examples of teamwork than synchro swim routines.

I waited for the seatbelt light to go off, got up, and crouched in the narrow aisle surrounded by the team. I told them that I wrote a blog about teamwork and asked if they’d be willing to share their secrets. They were so gracious in talking with me.

I asked them what teams in organizations should know about being a high-performance team. They told me that when you're upside down, underwater, and without oxygen for four minutes you need communication, alignment, and trust.

They started by talking about communication. They made it clear to me that issues must be addressed as a team and nothing left to fester as gossip. They are in the pool for 45 hours per week, so there's no time to waste beating around the bush. If there's an issue, they get it on the table so that they can move on.

This is certainly not the case with most teams in business, where passive-aggressive behavior is commonplace.

Alignment is tested in the pool, where it's a game of millimeters in precision. Not only do they have to know exactly how high each leg is out of the water, but how to create complete synchronization in competition as adrenaline is changing the entire feel. 

"We practice for that. We practice what it will feel like with the adrenaline pumping." Knowing how you fit into the whole and staying in formation under stress means the team performs well. Maybe we need to help individuals and teams practice being effective in stressful situations.

Next they turned the conversation to the topic of trust. Underlying it all is profound trust in one another. The team has been training together for 4 years. They describe themselves as sisters. 

That trust is critical because of their interdependence in the routines. Each girl needs to be executing her piece without worrying that her teammate will be exactly where she is supposed to be.

One of the roles on the team is called the "flyer." Canada's flyer is Stéphanie Durocher. Stéphanie is launched into the air by teammate Valérie Welsh. They described the trust between them...that Valérie will get the "throw" right and that Stéphanie will execute the flips and land back in the water in the exact right spot. They literally put their safety in each others’ hands. Minuscule margins separate perfection from a collision and injury. That takes a high degree of trust. In some cases, teams in organizations are responsible for the physical safety of their teammates. But even if you aren’t ensuring their physical safety, you are certainly responsible for your teammates’ psychological safety. Are you making your teammates feel completely confident that you “have their backs?”

These athletes, these teammates, were amazing to talk to. They certainly have got teamwork figured out.  I will be watching and cheering them on in London.

What would your team be able to execute if you had this degree of alignment and trust? What if you just knew that your teammate would do exactly what you're counting on them to do?  How much better would you be able to do your job?