We live in teams. We work in teams. We learn in teams. But what makes for a good team? How do we create the types of teams that actually support each other and lead to learning gains? Well, at least of the answer starts with football.
The first football game took place on November 6, 1869, when Rutgers University beat Princeton 6 to 4. The game was different back then. Players couldn’t actually run with the ball. They could only kick or hit it. Tackling wasn’t as sophisticated either, and players would sometimes just throw themselves at each other in flying formations. Over time the game evolved. The rules were changed. New positions were added.
But for decades the sport emphasized strength over teamwork, and for many, the game remained a sort of organized mayhem. Give a player some instructions on where to go and when to do it, and if he had the physical prowess—and the raw desire—he would make it happen. “Coaches who can outline plays on a blackboard are a dime a dozen,” Vince Lombardi once explained. “The ones who win get inside their player and motivate.”
All of that ended with Bill Walsh. In the late 1970s, the coach of the San Francisco 49ers created a new way of playing football, one which required far more trust. In the past, quarterbacks would either opt for a bruising, rushing play, or wait in the pocket to launch long passes to an open receiver. But under Walsh, the 49ers developed a new type of offensive attack. Walsh claimed that he invented the approach for a Bengals quarterback named Virgil Carter, who couldn’t throw very far. To address Carter’s liability, Walsh created crisp, timed passing plays, and Carter would throw the ball to a place just beyond the line of scrimmage, assuming that a receiver would be there to make the grab.
The approach became known as the West Coast Offense, and Walsh used the offensive system to build San Francisco into a football powerhouse that included five Super Bowl victories. Football pundits dubbed Walsh “the Genius,” while players like Joe Montana and Steve Young became Hall of Famers. “The beauty of Bill’s system was that there was always a place to go with the ball,” Montana once explained. “I was the mailman, just delivering people’s mail, and there were all kinds of houses to go to.”
If you value one person’s contribution, you are not valuing someone else’s contribution.”
Take, for instance, what’s known to football obsessives as the Catch. The play marked the start of Walsh’s NFL reign and it took place on January 10, 1982. San Francisco was playing Dallas at the time. Some sixty seconds remained on the scoreboard. The 49ers were just a half dozen yards from the end zone, and if they scored a touchdown and a field goal, they’d be going to the Super Bowl.
The ball was snapped to Montana, and three Cowboys soon barreled down on the quarterback as he scampered toward the sideline. Montana then spotted wide receiver Dwight Clark moving across the back of the end zone, and he threw the football in a high, tight spiral.
One step, two steps, Clark launched into the air and snagged the ball. But here’s what might be the most surprising thing about the play: It turned out that Clark couldn’t even see Montana, and still he continued his route knowing that Montana would throw the ball if he was open.
As for Walsh, he believed that the process of building cohesion on a team began with expectations, and the coach would provide all of his employees with a memo detailing his goals and assumptions. In these missives, Walsh would describe proper staff attire (“shirttails in”). He would spell out how people should act (“your focus must be on doing things at the highest possible level”). He would delineate what sort of attitude people should have (“affirmative, constructive, positive”). Walsh gave these written lectures to everyone: players, coaches, even groundskeepers. The document for the team’s secretaries covered two pages. “Your job is not civil service or even big corporate business,” Walsh wrote in bullet seventeen. “We exist to support and field a football team.”
These lists seem pedantic, and frankly, they are pedantic. Walsh knew this. He understood, in other words, that culture was something that he ultimately could not control. It was something that happened among the players. It was something that occurred within the team itself. Of course, a coach could nurture certain norms. Walsh could try, for instance, to ensure that no one saw themselves as more important than anyone else. He once chastised a coach for having a vanity plate on his red Corvette.
But in the end, culture is a very human, very connective sort of tissue. It was something that Walsh could only try to foster. Coaches needed to connect with players. Players needed to connect with other players, and if people bickered, Walsh recommended that they grab a coffee and talk it out on their own. Or take how Walsh approached team practice. During training sessions, Walsh didn’t want full-contact tackles or blocks. He didn’t want the men showing how tough or fast they were. Instead, Walsh wanted the team to focus on working together. He was one of the first coaches in the NFL to have players run through practices in just shorts and a T-shirt.
Success belongs to everyone.” - Bill Walsh
For those of us in the learning space, the key point here is that teams are about togetherness. They run on a culture of cohesion. In his book The Score Takes Care of Itself, Walsh describes how crucial it is for a team to build up a sense of trust. “Combat soldiers talk about whom they will die for. Who is it? It’s those guys right next to them in the trench, not the fight song, the flag, or some general back at the Pentagon, but those guys who sacrifice and bleed right next to them,” Walsh writes. “I nurtured a variation of that extreme attitude in our entire organization, most especially the players: ‘You can’t let your buddies down. Demand and expect sacrifice from yourself, and they’ll do the same for you.’”
There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that learning in teams is some of the most effective types of learning. One upcoming paper argues that “creating an instructional video” for others is one of the most effective homework activities.
Walsh gives us another insight in this regard. Because when it comes to building teamwork, especially learning teams, there’s a second take away, and that’s the importance of communication. Teams require discussion and debate, contact and connection.
Take Walsh again. For years, he made all of his staff work together in a crowded office in Redwood City, California. He wanted everyone to be able to listen in on everyone else’s calls. He argued that the small space fostered communication, and later, when the team moved to a more spacious facility, he worried about the lack of openness. He thought that a “country club mentality” might erode the team’s ability to discuss important issues. “The minute there is a difficulty,” Walsh once explained, “you have to be ready to attack the problem and find a way to communicate about it without being difficult. It’s part of building leadership throughout the team...[Players] are always talking with each other and always listening.”
Walsh’s focus on communication was new. At the time, football coaches were all about command-and-control authority. One of Vince Lombardi’s star players, defensive tackle Henry Jordan, once joked that “when Coach Lombardi says, ‘Sit down,’ I don’t look for a chair.” And when someone asked Jordan if Lombardi treated his best players any better, Jordan said, “No. He treats us all the same—like dogs.” Walsh took a different approach. He encouraged players to speak up. He promoted collaboration. He saw communication as a way to promote trust and community. The 49ers coach even put together some rules on the best ways to foster dialogue. Walsh’s first law? Be a great listener. Walsh’s second law? “When you’re not listening, ask good questions.”
When people are learning within a group, they want to be sure that they’re learning for themselves--and for others.”
The problem is that communication is hard, and talking to someone else doesn’t mean that you’ll become friends or teammates or protect the quarterback on game day. When it comes to groups, though, the even bigger problem is that communication needs to both build cohesion and promote dissent. Cohesive teams can become insular. They can become too trusting, and, in some cases, communication can make a person’s views more extreme than they already are. In one experiment, a team of researchers had two groups of voters—a group of liberals and a group of conservatives—go into separate rooms and talk for a few hours about hot-button political issues, like affirmative action. The effects were unmistakable: The discussion made each of the groups more politically rabid. The “liberals became more liberal,” the researchers wrote, and the “conservatives became more conservative.”
The point here is that when it comes to small groups in any environment, the devil’s advocate might not be much of a devil. Writer James Surowiecki argues that “one of the most consistent findings from decades of small-group research is that group deliberations are more successful when they have a clear agenda and when leaders take an active role in making sure that everyone gets a chance to speak.” What’s important, as Surowiecki makes clear, is that group leaders listen to the people who are most likely to disagree. A crowd can become wise, then, but only if the crowd has a chance to speak. “The confrontation with a dissenting view, logically enough, forces the majority to interrogate its own positions more seriously,” Surowiecki writes.
Bill Walsh worried about this issue a lot. Many of his plays were deeply complex. His offense depended on the receivers executing a play “down to the inch,“ and during practices, after games, and between quarters, Walsh wanted his players and coaches to speak up if they thought something wouldn’t work. Would the opposing cornerback be too fast? Would the receiver not be able to spot the ball? Would the other team plan to run a different defensive formation? How should they respond to a new type of onside kick?
Walsh built an expectation that players and coaches should give him feedback. He wanted everyone to weigh in. He wanted to make the communication about learning, about creating expertise. “I tried to remove the fear factor from people’s minds so they could feel comfortable opening their mouths,” Walsh once explained in an interview. People “have to be comfortable that they will not be ridiculed if they turn out to be mistaken or if their ideas are not directly in line with their superior’s. That is where the breakthrough comes.”
Walsh’s other solution to the communication problem was simpler. It was a matter of more communication. So once a week, all of the team’s coaches, along with Walsh, would eat lunch with the players in the locker room. They would talk over tuna fish sandwiches and sodas. Walsh saw it all as a way to make sure that people across the team knew each other, that the defensive line wasn’t isolated from the receivers or special teams squad. “The person most familiar with a topic—you, for example—can get myopic, in need of an outside perspective,” Walsh once wrote. And you can “learn a lot while eating your sandwich.”
When you’re not listening, ask good questions.” - Bill Walsh
In learning teams, the final key is the shared purpose. There needs to be a sense of mission, that the team overall will benefit. For a learning team, this is central. The learning isn’t just for one team member. It’s for all the team members.
In the late 1960s, Bill Walsh worked as an assistant coach to Paul Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals. During the games, Walsh would sit up in a booth above the field and recommend to Brown which plays to run. But as the head coach, Paul Brown wanted it to look as if he was the one actually figuring out if the team would go for a short throw or a strong-side run. For Brown’s ego, for his sense of control, for the crowds that filled the stadium, he wanted to be seen as the man calling the shots.
So Walsh would have to phone the play to an assistant coach down on the field. That assistant coach would then run over and give Walsh’s decision to Brown, and Brown would grab a player and inform him of the play. The process was slow and laborious, and it taught Walsh a key lesson for building faith within teams: “Share the glory.”
In a way, the issue is a matter of fairness: If we work — and learn — with others, we want a share of the spoils. Plus, the cold logic of the Prisoner’s Dilemma haunts every cooperative activity. When it comes to a team, each individual is constantly faced with a choice: Do we betray the other person for a short-term gain? Or do we work together for a long-term profit? Or consider an NFL wide receiver: During practice, should he run faster, or ask his quarterback to throw better? During a game, should the receiver take the time to congratulate the quarterback, or get himself a quick moment’s rest? During the postgame interview, should the receiver give credit to his teammates, or should he take the glory for himself?
The issue is that if people are working for the good of the team, they want to know that everyone else is working for the good of the team. When people are learning within a group, they want to be sure that they’re learning for themselves--and for others. Put more exactly, if someone feels like their contribution is not being valued, they’re less likely to contribute.
For leaders, though, there’s a catch: If you value one person’s contribution, you are not valuing someone else’s contribution. For Walsh, part of the solution to this problem was emphasizing the importance of the team. During team meetings, during games, and after practice, he constantly underscored the importance of the group. He didn’t allow any post-touchdown dances. There was no jeering of other teams. When Walsh saw a rookie hollering at a woman during training camp, he cut the man from the team
At the same time, Walsh worked to make sure each person was valued. He prohibited the bullying of rookies. He recognized individuals. Yet he did so in a way that showed that it was all about the group’s overall success. “The offensive team is not a country unto itself, nor is the defensive team or the special teams, staff, coaches, or anyone in the organization separate from the fate of the organization. We are united and fight as one; we win or lose as one,” Walsh once wrote. “Success belongs to everyone.”
Teams require discussion and debate, contact and connection.”
When it comes to teams, it’s hard to understate the importance of Walsh’s point about success belonging to everyone, and even the simplest of gestures—a word here, a pat on the shoulder there—makes a difference. They remind people that they’re working together, that everyone is recognized.
A few years ago psychologist Michael Kraus had a team of researchers categorizes every single example of physical touch between players during a single NBA game. If there was a fist bump or a head grab, Kraus’s researchers made a note of it. Kraus then used the data to predict the team’s performance, and he showed that if players touched others more frequently, they performed better both as individuals and as a team. “If I was a coach, I’d focus on starting a culture that is about these real sorts of cooperative actions,” Kraus told me.
Trust, then, can become virtuous only if everyone gains. This matters for teams. This matters for society. But sometimes we need prompting. Sometimes that prompt can come in the form of a chest bump. Sometimes it can come in the form of a yell. Quarterback Steve Young was inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame some years ago, and during his acceptance speech, he recalled some of his early days with the 49ers. Young explained that when he first landed with San Francisco, he would not throw to a receiver unless he could see him.
After one of his first games, a coaching assistant named Mike Holmgren yelled at Young on the sidelines.
Wide receiver “Jerry [Rice was] open. Why didn’t you throw it to him?” Holmgren called out.
“I couldn’t see him,” Young responded.
“Well, you better start seeing him,” Holmgren replied.
At that moment, Young realized that the 49ers were a very different sort of football team.
“Go on faith and knowledge,” Young explained. “You can believe that I have learned that lesson many times.”
This text is adapted from my book The Leap. Over the coming months, I’ll be running a series on the social nature of education — and learning.