I’ve been a runner my whole life, so I had a lot to learn when my daughter declared she wanted to play volleyball for the local league. It only took a few months of watching practices to get my mind in the game and notice many parallels to work teams.
When you look at the research, it’s clear that sports teach values and skills needed for the workplace, such as initiative, social cohesion, self-control, persistence, and responsibility. In a more general sense, it’s well documented that sports build self-confidence, reduce stress, improve concentration, and enhance mood. Sports have also been linked to leadership traits. Why? Those who play sports have the opportunity as a group to train, try, win, and lose together. This “team mindset” in the workplace leads to strong leadership skills.
What does leadership have to do with volleyball? First, let me explain how volleyball is played, in case you’re not familiar with it:
- There are six people on the court at one time for each team.
- On each side of the net, three people are positioned in the front row, and three are positioned in the back row. The teams are separated by a net, over which a ball is hit back and forth with the arms only.
- Each time the ball is on one side of the net, that team can only have three contacts with the ball while trying to get it over the net to the other team. No player can make contact with the ball twice in each play.
- The ball cannot be caught or carried over the net.
- Teams score points when the other team is unable to get the ball over the net, or hits it out of bounds. The game is played until 25 points are earned, and the winning team must win by two points.
Now that you have a basic understanding of how volleyball is played, here are four lessons work teams can learn from playing volleyball.
Four Work Team Lessons to Learn from Playing Volleyball
1. Call it “Mine”…Then Get Out of the Way
When the ball is hit to one side of the net, someone needs to ‘call it’ by shouting “mine”. This strikes me as a powerful practice for three reasons.
First, if no one calls “mine”, usually one of two things happen:
- Either no one hits the ball as everyone is waiting for someone else to hit it; or
- Two people collide into each other as they both run to hit the ball.
Either way, the team often loses a point because the ball didn’t get hit over the net.
When it comes to work teams, make sure everyone knows their goals, roles and what is expected of them. If everyone is waiting for the other person to take responsibility for a task, it’s either not going to get done, or more than one person will do the task, wasting resources and possibly causing conflict.
Second, when someone calls “mine” in volleyball, they don’t whisper or mumble it. They shout “mine” loudly, so everyone can hear it. They are claiming, “I got this. You can trust me,” and are implicitly asking for space to do their job and hit the ball.
Speak up and claim your power at work! This is especially important for women who, according to a study by Princeton and Brigham Young University, speak up less than 75% of the time that men speak when working in group collaborations to solve problems. If you’re good at something, confidently let others know.
Third, when someone calls “mine”, the others quickly move out of the way to make space on the court. They don’t ask if the person really can do it; they don’t jump in and do it for the person. They trust the person who called “mine” does indeed have it and supports them. They don’t back off the court and abandon the person, either; they are there, ready to help if necessary.
Don’t micromanage others in the workplace. If a team member feels empowered to do something, support them while they do it themselves.
2. Shake Off a Mistake and Keep Moving
Volleyball is a fast game, with balls coming at players non-stop for up to 45 minutes. It’s easy to miss a serve, hit a ball in the wrong direction, and/or misgauge how far to jump up to hit the ball.
The novice players tend to freeze when they make a mistake, which impacts their fluidity when running for the next ball. In addition, they often carry that mistake with them into the next play.
The experienced players shake off a mistake and keep moving forward, not letting the past mistake impact their next play. They know they need to debrief the game and learn from their mistakes after the game; however, during the game, they keep focused on the next move without letting a mistake impact them.
How do the teams you work with handle failure? Do they fail fast and move on, using it as an opportunity for creative solutions? Or do they freeze up, let the failure interrupt their workflow, and hesitate to more forward out of fear of failing again? I’m a fan of failure; it’s an important part of the innovation process.
3. Do Your Drills to Learn Agility
Volleyball drills are mind numbing. To learn how to hit the ball, which is just one skill needed to be successful on the court, the players repeatedly squat down, put their arms together in front, and push up on their legs to hit the ball. They do this again and again and again.
Yet, mastering this basic skill allows the players to be nimble and agile when the ball comes to them from an unexpected angle. I’ve seen some incredible backward shots, and 45-degree angle shots because the player mastered the basic shot and then applied it nimbly to what was happening in real time.
When we learn a new skill on or off the court, we are changing how our brain is wired. Science has shown our brains are incredibly plastic and there is evidence that even older adults can transform their neurocircuitry. When we introduce a new task, we activate various portions of the brain and our brain then coordinates a complex set of actions involving verbal language skills, motor language, visual and audio processing and more. If we perform this new task over and over, we are training our brains to take all of these actions more comfortably.
Knowing and practicing our basics in the workplace is also important. For example, listening is a basic skill that most of us need to practice. If we have that basic skill down, along with other basics like communicating, we become more nimble in the interpersonal relationships that make up the backbone of our teams.
4. Use the Setter Well
A team is allowed three hits to get the ball over the net. Each player can only hit the ball once per play, which means three different players may hit the ball each time. Sometimes, it’s tempting for a strong player to try to hit the ball over the net using their power, in one shot. Yet the best teams use the setter well.
What’s a ‘setter’? You can compare the setter to the quarterback of a football team, or a point guard in basketball. She is in charge of offense and ultimately decides who gets the ball during the play. When the ball comes over a net to a team, the setter will “set up” the ball to be successfully hit. Even if she can spike it over the net herself, she instead tries to work with the team to create the best possible shot.
By letting the setter ‘set the ball’, the team has a better chance of successfully getting the ball over the net and scoring a point. In addition, the setter helps control the flow and speed of the game, so it doesn’t turn into a frenetic free for all.
Who is the setter in your team at work? Is it your manager, your project manager, your administrative assistant? Is it you? This person needs the space and respect to create the right conditions in order for your team to succeed. The “setter” on your work team is setting you all up for success.
Next time you’re in a team meeting, take a minute to imagine you’re all actually a volleyball team and apply the rules of the game. I don’t mean grab a ball and spike it, but think about stepping back and supporting people when they take initiative on a project, avoid micromanaging, don’t sweat it when you fail, keep your basic skills on point, and let the setter do her magic.