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There Is No “I” in Team: An Olympian on Nurturing Teamwork in Challenging Times

Tips for weathering any storm -- together.

As we navigate through this deepening sea of uncertainty, it can be easy for those of us who are not health workers or involved in other essential fields to slip into survival mode by putting our own priorities first. Especially when the workplace has gone remote, our colleagues are not by our sides and goals might seem like a moving target. Yet now more than ever is the time for all of us to put individual needs aside for the good of the team, at work and in every realm of life.

I learned the unexpected power of taking the “I” out of teamwork several years ago, at a sailing world championship. As a 2004 Olympian, my team of four was considered one of the favorites to win that regatta. On the windiest day, we came up against an unexpected challenge. 

We had rounded the final mark in second place and were thrashing upwind to the finish when we all spotted another boat lose control and broach while still sailing downwind. They were far enough away that we were in no danger of colliding, but close enough that we had a front-row seat for the next calamity: because the boat heeled over so unexpectedly, one of their crew members lost her footing and fell overboard. 

It’s impossible to stop a boat quickly when sailing downwind in such stormy conditions, so we all instantly realized that we could pick her up much sooner than her own team. We also knew (without any discussion) that rescuing her was the right thing to do, even though it would hurt our own race result to divert from our fastest course. One moment our top priority was racing; the next, it had shifted to possibly saving a life. 

I quickly communicated the plan; I would steer the boat into a position just to leeward of the swimmer. Once we got close enough, I would slow down the boat as much as possible to give my teammates time to hoist her onboard. Fortunately, thanks to a combination of physical strength and coordinated teamwork, that worked. We finished the race with a new friend, and even though one other boat had passed us during the rescue, we were confident that we’d receive redress for doing the right thing. 

It wasn’t until we got ashore, though, that I discovered the full power of taking the “I” out of teamwork—a major theme in my new novel Ferry to Cooperation Island. As sailors, we’d all learned seamanship skills that made those on-the-water decisions (and execution) pretty straightforward. What was less clear was how to react when the competitor who’d passed us challenged our request for redress, saying that we might not have finished second even if we hadn’t stopped to render assistance. That turned the expected rubber-stamp jury decision (awarding us the second place, and sending them back to third) into a lengthy hearing. So much for our evening plans, which had included a quiet dinner and early bedtime.

Only one team member could present our case to the jury, so I was the only person who really had to stay until our business was concluded. But when I suggested to my teammates that they go home as planned, they instantly refused. “We’re a team, and we’re staying here until it’s over.” We awaited the verdict together, digging out a few silly jokes to lighten the mood as the evening dragged on. They had my back, even when I didn’t know I needed their help.  

Eventually we were awarded our second place, and a few days later we finished fourth overall. Winning the regatta would’ve been a better storybook ending, but instead the memory that’s survived the passing years was the comfort of that late-night support group; the calming certainty that my team would be there, no matter what happened in the jury room.

Here are some tips to help you create and nurture a team with no “I”:

Surround yourself by people who bring out the best in each other

When that sailor fell overboard, we all understood that race results were not as important as human life. Less clearcut was the choice to stick together through that long hearing. I needed teammates to remind me what our top priority really was.

Choose strong leadership – and respect it 

We had less than a minute to coordinate an unexpected rescue, so it was important that I communicate the plan quickly and effectively. Hear out other ideas if time permits, but then make the best call and move on.

Remember: deeds speak louder than words

My teammates could’ve said “we’ve got your back” a hundred times during that four day regatta (and they probably did), but it is the simple act of standing by me until we could all leave together that I’ll never forget.

Let your teammates surprise you

To pull that swimmer out of the water, it was pretty obvious that we should put our strongest teammate in charge of lifting. But it was the quietest member of our team who first announced, “we’re staying here with you.”

When priorities suddenly shift, we learn the true value of teamwork and cooperation. One thing the pandemic hasn’t changed is that facing challenges together is a lot better than trying to do everything ourselves—whether those challenges are related to home, business, or the ever-tightening intersection between the two. 

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