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I’ve played water polo for most of my life, and still do. I’ve had the privilege of playing on some truly excellent teams, and I’ve also played on some, well… not so excellent teams.

I’ve also been involved with groups of psychologists who thought they knew how to be part of a team or build teams. I was always surprised at the lack of understanding among them.

Today I want to talk about some of the things I’ve found over the years that make for an excellent team… and a not so excellent team, whether it’s for work, play, or marriage.

This is by no means exhaustive. There is so much that goes into team building that I can’t put it all in one article. But I want to focus mostly on doing away with one great big flawed cliché: "There is no I in ‘team’."

Anyone who plays sports knows darned well that there is a great big "I" functioning within everybody involved. Being part of a team is not an act of self-sacrifice any more than being a great mate or parent is an act of self-sacrifice.

Being part of a team is a deeply meaningful experience, and part of the meaning is the sense of glory and pride that comes with performing to the very best of your personal abilities.

To sacrifice is literally to trade something of greater value for something of lesser value. When we play or work on a team – or grow a family – the success of the others becomes part of our greater values.

When we are part of a great team, our personal goals are not somehow given up to different and more important goals of the team; they are integrated with the goals of the team. What we want to accomplish can only be accomplished by our team doing well. So we bring our very best to the game, which includes bringing our very best to our team and our teammates.

All for One, and…

I don’t know if I can get this across as clearly as I’d like: An excellent team has excellent players, each one of whom is there for his personal achievement and for the team’s collective achievement. There is no contradiction between the two.

When either of these two elements is missing, the magic just won’t happen.

A perfect example of this happened at the World Cup on Tuesday (7/01).  While the US suffered a heartbreaking loss to Belgium despite goalie Tim Howard’s 15 saves, the other game that day was Argentina vs. Switzerland.

Playing for Argentina is the world’s best soccer player ("footballer" to the rest of the planet), Lionel Messi.  The Swiss strategy was to devote most of its team to bottling up Messi, which they did for the entire 90 minutes of regular time and 27 more minutes of overtime.  Then, in the 118th minute, he struck. 

He danced with the ball solo halfway down the field leaving Swiss players sprawled in his wake and got to within a few yards of the goal.  Everyone watching in the stands and all over the world expected him to take his shot, knowing how much he’d love to stick it to the Swissies – and of course that’s what the Swiss players in front of him were expecting as well, poised to block his shot.

At the last instant, Messi faked taking the shot and deftly flicked it over to teammate Angel Di Maria, who booted it in for the win and the glory.  The whole soccer world is hailing Messi for the "selflessness" of his "magic assist."   

But it wasn’t selfless at all.  As Messi is fully aware, when we have team members who are only there for themselves, and who don’t know how to work together as a team, then we end up with a few stars, but we’re not likely to get very far as a team. The team will not have the cohesiveness that it needs to succeed.

On the other hand, if we have a team where nobody is thinking of their own personal exceptional performance, then we lack that individual drive that has to be there for the chemistry to work.

We need both elements for a team to function at its highest level.

We cannot remove the ego from a goal. We cannot pretend that the individual can somehow just abandon his or her self to the group. If we try to do that, we get a big mushy mess, with nobody accountable, nobody performing at their best, and nobody paying attention to the real world consequences of this dynamic.

For a team, a work group, or an organization to function at their best, everybody needs to take full responsibility for their role; and everybody needs to see how that role integrates with the group’s vision and goals. We need to feel that everybody involved is an ally.

When we have that combination of individual drive and ambition integrated with awareness, connection and an ability to work well together collectively, we create something that is truly exceptional. There’s really nothing else like it.

The Most Important Team

Well, there is one other thing like it: marriage and family life. As a couple, if we can cultivate that sense on the deepest of levels, that we are for each other, that we are each other’s most profound allies, so that each of our personal goals are integrated and supported by our vision and actions as a couple, then we will have created a truly exceptional marriage.

We also, if we want to have a great relationship, need to be the kind of person that can make a great relationship. We need to bring the best that we have to our relationship.

This doesn’t mean that we spend our time judging whether our mate is bringing his or her best to the relationship. That’s just blaming and projecting. It is the easiest and most common attitude that people bring – and it destroys relationships.

Bringing your best to the relationship means that you focus on what you are bringing.

None of this is some idealistic, perfect vision. There will be arguments, missed opportunities and regrets in every relationship. But to have as a general spirit and an overarching vision and commitment, this kind of individual drive integrated with a collective goal or vision is one of the greatest experiences we can generate.

To bring this kind of understanding of how a team can work together into a business can be tremendously satisfying. It’s a creative and purposeful act that requires everyone involved to join in and be on board with.

If you can create this together with others, on a team, in business, or as a family, it will boost your sense of joy and give you a quality of deep, gritty satisfaction that is well worth everything it takes to build.

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website,

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