Tuesday Tips: 3 Character Traits to Cultivate to Boost Team Performance, Presented by Spin Ultimate

Follow the example of captains of the greatest sports teams in history.

Colorado Kali captain talks to her teammates in a huddle at the 2017 D-I College Championships. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

Sam Walker, founder of the Wall Street Journal’s daily sports coverage section and author of The Captain Class, studied sports teams for years with a goal in mind: he wanted to figure out what the most dominant teams in sports history had in common.

He started by first identifying the seventeen most successful teams using several criteria, calling that group Tier One. 105 other teams, who failed to meet some criteria, are grouped into Tier Two. Eleven years later, he determined that it was the team captains – and seven characteristics they shared – that explained the difference between all-time greatness and other good but not quite so excellent teams.

In his book, Walker describes the seven core qualities these captains had in common. In this article, I will share with you a few of these characteristics that, as a player, you can cultivate to help your team accomplish more than ever before.

1. Give It Your All, Always (And Make Sure Your Teammates Notice)

We often say that a team is greater than the sum of its parts. But have you ever heard of social loafing?

In social psychology, social loafing refers to the concept that people are prone to exert less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone.

In 1913, Maximilien Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, conducted an experiment in which he asked individual people to pull on a rope, while he measured the force they exerted. Then, he asked those same people to pull again, but with the help of other people. He discovered that as more and more people were involved in the task, each individual’s efficiency decreased. In 1979, scientists from the Ohio State University replicated the experiment, asking their students to shout as loud as they could while recording the decibel levels. They the students repeated their performance in group. During the group performance, their decibel levels decreased by 20 percent.

Can social loafing be overcome? It seems so.

In 1985, researchers at Fordham University grouped people in pairs and asked them to shout. But before they start to shout, they told them individually that their partner was a high performer. The result was very interesting: during the experiment, each person shouted as loudly as if he had been alone. They realized that the knowledge that a teammate is giving everything he or she has motivates people to give their best effort.

In The Captain Class, Walker talks about the concept of social loafing and says, “The Fordham study seemed to confirm my suspicions about Tier One captains: Their displays of tenacity could have positively influenced the way their teams performed.”1

With 24 teammates or more, in an ultimate team, we can easily feel we have no real power and our efforts are only drops in the ocean. In these moments, remind yourself that giving your best effort can make the difference and that it can raise the whole team intensity.

When you see a teammate pushing their limits, even with two minutes left at the game when you’re down by five points, it’s inspiring. You feel the energy. You want to be part of that. You want to support your teammate, and play alongside them.

You can choose to be that teammate. Set the example for your team to be a high-effort performer at all times.

2. Become a Charismatic Connector

In sports movies, coaches and captains are always delivering the right speech at the right time. But is it working that way in real life? In Walker’s study, are the Tier One captains the best speakers? Not at all. They were neither good orators nor motivators. They didn’t even like giving speeches.

You might think, then, that these captains were simply strong and silent types. Not so, according to their teammates.

Carla Overbeck, a retired captain of the US Women’s national soccer team and 2006 National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee, was very vocal the moment the match began. When a teammate made a good move, she immediately sang her praises. But when one of them did not work hard, she also let them know, while returning to positive feedback as soon as they did something great.

At halftime of the 1998 World Finals, France led 2-0 against Brazil. Returning to the locker room, Zinedine Zidane lay down on the floor, looking exhausted. Didier Deschamps, captain of the team, put his hands on either side of Zidane’s face and stared straight into his eyes while imploring him to tighten up his defense. That night, France won its first World Cup title. When he talked about the episode with Zidane, Deschamps said that he felt it was important to synchronize his words with his body language. “You have to match up what you want to say with your facial expression,” he said.2

To better evaluate the impact of communication on performance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s laboratory conducted a study with teams from twenty-one organizations. They distributed to every member of the team a wireless multimedia recorder which took digital images and audio recordings. The badges recorded the identity of each interlocutor, the tone of their voice, the way they positioned themselves, their gestures, and the time spent talking, listening, and interrupting.

The results showed that the level of energy and engagement of the team members outside of formal meetings was a key factor in productivity and performance. Teams that talked with intensity during breaks were more likely to perform better. Moreover, in the best teams, the speaking time of each member was relatively the same. Nobody monopolized the attention and no one avoided speaking.

The researchers identified four characteristics of the natural leaders of these units, which scientists have called charismatic connectors:

  • These people engage regularly and actively in short, energetic conversations.
  • They communicate with everyone equally.
  • They are not necessarily extroverted, although they feel comfortable approaching other people.
  • They listen as much or more than they speak.

As an ultimate player, which of these characteristics do you already express?

Here are a a few tips to become a charismatic connector:

  • Get in touch with a few teammates you don’t know well and do an activity with them.
  • Connect with a teammate you don’t get along with, take some time to talk, ask them questions and really listen to the answers.
  • Organize a team activity during the off-season, outside of trainings and tournaments.
  • Be open, honest and non-judgmental in your conversations. This will encourage everyone else to do the same.

3. Be Relentless

Mireya Luis, volleyball player and captain of the Cuban national team, attended her first world championship in 1986, three weeks after giving birth. Called “the spiker with wings,” she spent so much time practicing her leaping that her kneecap cracked open with a separation angle of thirty degrees. Yet, just three months later, she was competing in the 1990 World Championship. At five foot nine, she was told she was too small to be an attacker, and she was not considered the team’s all-around best player. But she was tenacious.

In 1946, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra began his first season in Major League Baseball. Although he could handle a bat, the problem came from elsewhere: Berra was not a very good catcher. He was benched in his first season. In his second season, he was only dressed for half of the team’s games. In 1949, the Yankees’ manager decided to send him back to school. Berra worked tirelessly every day for hours with Bill Dickey, a legendary former catcher. He even moved to another neighborhood with his wife to get closer to three of the Yankees veteran pitchers who had decided to help him. As a result, the improvement of Berra was spectacular. In 1958, he played 88 games without making an error. In 1962, at thirty-seven years old, Berra remained behind the plate for 22 consecutive inning against the Detroit Tigers. In 1972, he was selected to the Hall of Fame.

These stories make us wonder how these athletes could accomplish so much more than people could have predicted, given their natural ability. What enabled them to set aside their limitations and just go straight without looking back?

The Two Types of Mindset

In a study conducted at the University of Illinois in the 1970s, the psychologist Carol Dweck and her team tested about 60 children aged ten years on average. They first presented the children eight easy problems to solve. Then they gave them four “impossible” problems, which were too difficult for their age. While they solved easy problems, most children were positive and confident. But as soon as they faced difficult problems, their mood changed. When they were then asked why they thought they were not feeling well, instead of attributing their mood to the difficulty level of the problems, they blamed their lack of capacity.

In the face of adversity, the problem-solving skills of most children deteriorated. However, a small group of children continued to work. Instead of believing that they did not have the required abilities, they thought they had not found the right strategy yet. Yet these children had not demonstrated above average abilities when solving easy problems. Quite the contrary: they seemed a little less skillful than average.

But when the challenge became bigger, 80% of these children kept the same level of problem-solving ability as for easy questions, and 25% improved their level.

According to Dweck, both types of children had different goals. Children who gave up on difficult issues were concerned about their performance. They wanted to look smart, even if it meant avoiding difficult problems. The children who outdid themselves in the face of impossible problems were motivated by the desire to learn. They saw failure as an opportunity to improve their skills.

In her book, Mindset, Dweck talks about two different mindsets:

People who have a fixed mindset consider that their abilities can only evolve very little. They believe they can always change the way they act, but the main elements of their personality can not be changed. They consider that their abilities are a reflection of who they are. They tend to avoid difficulties and hardships, they do not want to end up with failure and give the image of a loser.

People who have a growth mindset think that their abilities are the muscles they can develop while exercising. They believe that no matter what type of person they are, they always have the opportunity to change. They are ready to face challenges, despite the risks of failure. They see critics as a way to move forward and think first and foremost about long-term benefits.

In Walker’s study, every Tier One captain had a growth mindset that allowed them to take on huge challenges without fearing the outcome.

Which one is yours?

In a game, are you the one who is always ready to play on a universe point?

  • Do you feel excited, seeing it as an opportunity?
  • Or do you feel anxious, not wanting to be the one who messes up in a critical moment?

When you get feedback from your coach or teammates:

  • Do you feel grateful for people to help you find areas of your play that you can improve?
  • Or do you have a tendency to take it personally and think you failed?

Working on ourselves and cultivating character traits for the sake of our team is not easy. However, the team’s success depends mainly on how we as individuals act, how we interact, and how we face challenges and failure. The offseason is a great moment to reflect. Be clear about your intentions, decide what kind of teammate you want to be, take action and make real changes that will produce real results in the next season.


  1. pg. 107 

  2. pg. 163 

  1. Guylaine Girard

    Guylaine Girard is the former head coach of the AUDL's Montreal Royal. She lives in Montreal and has been coaching for 25 years. You can download her free ebook for coaches, check out her blog and follow her on Instagram.

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