At age 15 I found myself part of a team I had nothing in common with: people were at least 10 years older, they were a lot better at playing handball and we had nothing in common except for a love of the game. I felt very alone and inadequate, and just tried to hang in there practicing harder than I had ever in my life. It involved a lot of crying but I stuck with it because I knew that if I stuck with it, it would get me where I wanted to be, a professional athlete on one of the best teams in the world.
It can be tempting to remain a big fish in a small pond, in sports and at work, but sports has taught me not to do that. It is ultimately much more satisfying to suck it up, put in the mental and physical work and to take the most powerful route to learning. Looking back at my experience I realise that being the worst player was key to building my resilience and self-confidence.
Be the worst player on the best team that will still accept you
It’s the beginning of the New Year and many of us are making plans. Are you happy with your job? Are you developing as much as you want to? Are you part of the right team, the right organisation? Or is it time to move on?
When I decide which teams to join, my one fundamental guideline is to be the worst player on the best team that will still accept me.
Super-charge your learning
World-class performance in any sport or professional field requires deliberate practice and constant focus on improvement. We learn best when we hit the sweet spot of pushing our boundaries enough to grow while avoiding being so overwhelmed that we’re paralysed.
This is where being the worst player on the best team (that will still accept you) comes into play. The best teams have the best players, the best coaches and the best setup for high performance. The better the team, the more competent the coaching and the more professional the support. Also you will be surrounded by more high-performing colleagues to learn from and with.
Become the person you need to be
Being surrounded by a culture of mastery will affect each person who joins the team or organisation. When I joined the Austrian handball national team I was stunned about how professional and hard working people were. I remember thinking “Who are these people who get up at 6am to practice? Who does uphill sprints until they vomit? And then 5 more?” I thought they had to be of a special ilk, not like me or people I knew. But then, after a while, I realised that in this context this was normal and just how things were done.
I realised that my team colleagues were ordinary people who were part of an extraordinary culture. Everything that seemed so extraordinary to me was just what people did in this environment. And after some time in this world I too became the kind of person who acted like this. I had become part of a high-performance culture, and the culture had become part of me.
Normalise high performance
Joining a high-performance team helps you normalise high-performance. No one who is at an Olympic level wakes up every morning thinking “OMG, I’m an Olympian”. Everyone around you is at the same level, so everyone just gets on with it and acts accordingly.
What it does, however, is put world-class performance within mental reach. Lots of people around you are outstanding performers, so being a world-class athlete becomes something that seems achievable. Being surrounded by high performance simply pushes you into a world where excellence is expected.
Tolerate feeling inadequate
It is not “fun” or a “nice experience” though. Being the worst player on the team means you constantly feel inadequate. And the reason you feel inadequate is that you simply ARE inadequate. After all, you’re the worst player!
“… will still accept you”
This is an often overlooked part of the recommendation. Of course you can’t just join any team. A great team doesn’t just take anyone. There are trials. There are a limited number of spots. There are high standards. There is fierce competition. The more elite the team the more those standards are guarded.
So, you have limited options. If I declared I wanted to be part of the All Blacks (world champion New Zealand rugby team) they’d laugh in my face. And that’s a good thing, both for them and for me. I wouldn’t provide enough value to the team and I’d be so far out of my depth that my learning would be impeded by the sheer overwhelm of the situation.
Fortunately the system is self-regulating. Teams choose the best players they can get and athletes choose the best teams that will accept them. The limited options enforce that each athlete is stretched to their limits but not beyond.
The same applies to work teams and organisations. Sometimes you will get a “no thanks, you aren’t good enough (yet)”. And that’s okay, it’s an indication that you need to go somewhere else to learn until you achieve a level of skill and performance that would make you a great worst player on this team. There will ideally be support available to get you to the next level.
Choose your work team wisely
Most of us in our careers in knowledge work have a choice. We can choose which organisations we work for and often which teams we are part of within an organisation.
If you are lucky, you work for an organisation that already that lets you pick your team with self-selection.
If not, here are a few suggestions for how to make this happen:
Introduce self-selection; a proven, facilitated process that lets everyone in an organisation pick their own team in a safe manner (download the free pocket guide)
Engineer conditions where you can get yourself on a better skilled team and talk through a couple of options; negotiate with a supportive manager, offer to trade something in order to get it (salary, taking on another aspect of your role such as running a guild, do some side hustle project etc.)
Join professional groups and communities around conferences and events
Re-consider if you are part of the right organisation
The point here is to make sure to get yourself into a context where you can learn from others and where other people are so good that you end up learning from them and normalise high performance.
Today, many years after my active sports career, I apply the guideline to be the worst player on the best team that will still accept me to choosing my colleagues, clients and projects.
Joining a team that is just outside your current standard will help you get access to more competent colleagues, better coaching and more professional support.
Right now is the perfect time to think about which team(s) you need to be part of. Grab a notebook and block out a 25 minute Pomodoro to think about these questions:
Am I the worst player on my team(s)?
Which team(s) do I want to be part of?
What will get me closer?
Let me know what you come up with!
This article is part one of a 7-part series about applying lessons from my Olympic sports career to work and life. The next article in this series will be “Knowing when to go”. If you’d like to be informed when it’s released, sign up to our newsletter here.
If you’d like to hire me for an interactive online workshop “Olympic Tips to Be the Best You Can Be” get in touch about pricing and availability. It was the highlight of Swiss multi-national company, Zuehlke's, team event day.
“It was so inspirational to hear Sandy speak about her Olympic experience and relate that back to the work we do every day.”
“So much food for thought in Sandy’s workshop, we were still discussing it days later”
Categories: Personal Development.