Using Sports to Teach Teamwork

Teamwork is an important skill for students in every major. But despite its importance, most students do not know how to work together as a team. Their individual objectives take precedence over group goals. They can tell you what they are expected to produce. They may be able to tell you what type of group they were intended to be, whether task, educational, or support. They may even be able to tell you the components needed for groups to be successful—such as communication, a strong leader, and a common purpose. But they cannot tell you how the group will operate as a unit or the roles and responsibilities of individual members necessary to deliver quality products.

My frustration with group work, including the multiple complaints about students who either autocratically assumed control or neglected to pull their weight, led me to look for examples of teamwork in action that I might use as models. I noticed that I used a number of sports metaphors to describe what I expected to see from the student groups, such as “everyone gets a turn at bat,” “pass the baton,” and “stop hogging the ball and pass it.” From this starting point, I have developed a collection of sports examples that illustrate how teams operate together to achieve success.

Baseball, or everyone gets a turn at bat, allows for varying strengths and levels of participation. Each team member is responsible for contributing something in preparation of the final project. For the presentation, team members take multiple turns presenting but in a predetermined order. The presentation may resemble innings of a game, with each inning covering a different aspect of the topic.

Basketball has two approaches, star players and man-to-man zone. The star players are the team leaders, who are allowed to ad lib as necessary during presentations. Other group members are support players who prepare and provide materials and assist the stars. The man-to-man zone strategy is more egalitarian, with each team member covering a particular area with limits on how much time a player has the ball and spotlight. There is cohesiveness and synergy as the “ball” is constantly changing hands during the presentation.

In football, or pass, run, kick, the quarterback is the leader responsible for calling plays, passing, or handing off the ball to other team members. The quarterback knows the strengths of teammates and plays to their areas of expertise. Kickers can highlight or quickly summarize key points. In addition, football allows for anyone on the team to recover the ball and score after a fumble.

In track (relay), or pass the baton, each team member has equal responsibilities, materials, and time. There are two possible strategies for presenting. 1) The presentation is split into equally timed parts, with each team member delivering a section and then passing the baton to the next member. 2) Timed round-robin stations illustrate the track model as well. Team members are stationary and the audience (or parts of it) moves from one team member’s station to another at timed intervals. Each station is interdependent, requiring all to be visited to get the full picture.

In volleyball, or keep the ball in the air, each team member must know the topic and quickly react when the ball “falls in their court.” They are expected to serve, volley, or “hit it over.” The presentation includes ongoing active interaction between team members and the audience, who may pose questions.

Wrestling, or take it to the mat, works best for groups that cannot reach a consensus regarding what to do or how to do it. A panel debate allows each team member to present individual views on the topic and to answer questions. If the group is split on an issue, it can use a “tag team” debate with each side presenting its views. If “stuck” or unprepared, team members may tag another to step in and make the points.

Two sports that people rarely view as team sports are golf, or my clubs, my rules, and NASCAR, or there can be only one driver. Golf has the golfer, caddy, and cart driver. Car racing has the driver, pit crew, and crew chief. In both, one team member is at the center of the action. The rest of the members provide the support and necessary resources like a ride to the next hole or fuel for the car.

Rowing and synchronized swimming require perfect harmony and simultaneous actions and are more appropriate for performance groups expected to move as one. In rowing, the coxswain keeps beat for the rowers who move together as one. In synchronized swimming, the movements are coordinated and matched to occur simultaneously and in harmony.

Students tell me they appreciate these teamwork models and are able to apply them when working in groups. They prefer baseball, track, and football, probably because those sports are well known and the roles and responsibilities are more egalitarian. Students identify with the sports more than I expected they would. Some groups “dress the part,” showing up on presentation day in coordinated colors, team jerseys, and baseball caps, and bringing actual footballs, baseballs, and bases to use as props. Others asked that I develop a rubric that lists penalties, outs, and fouls, and records wins and losses as part of the grade. Complaints about group members have been fewer, and I believe my students better understand why and how a group must function as a team.

Dr. Chantel Lumpkin is an assistant professor at North Carolina A&T State University.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.7 (2012): 7.