We’ve all heard of the miracle on icethe improbable victory of the American hockey team over the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics. However, there was another “Miracle” team of the 1980s – the 1984 United States Men’s Olympic Volleyball Team. In this case, American men had never won an Olympic medal in volleyball of any kind. In fact, they had never won a medal in a major international tournament. Two years before the Olympics, they finished 13e at the world championships. Yet they somehow went from an underachieving group to winning gold at the Games in Los Angeles. How could they do it? What can they teach today’s leaders about building effective teams?
Create the conditions to attract the best talent
In the 1970s, a national volleyball training center was established in Dayton, Ohio. The city was supportive and the head coach was from Cleveland, but there was a major problem: the best players were from Southern California and very few of them wanted to move to Dayton to train year-round. . After failing to qualify for three Olympics in a row, the decision was made to move the training center to San Diego. “If the players didn’t come to the national training center, the center would come to them,” head coach Doug Beal said at the time.
Immediately, a golden generation of talent, including Karch Kiraly – later voted volleyball player of the century – arrived in San Diego to join the team. The idea of relocating a talent center was not necessarily new, nor even limited to the world of sport. Perhaps the most legendary application of this idea has occurred in the business world. In 1969, Xerox established the famous research center in Palo Alto, California to take advantage of the abundance of technology talent in the region, bringing the company to the people who needed it.
Create a “meaningful shared life experience”
You can have the best talent in the world, but if they don’t trust each other and can’t play together as a team, you won’t win. This was the case in the early years as the team trained in San Diego. The coaches realized that building effective teams capable of winning at elite international level required more than talent. They believed that the ultimate competitive advantage was getting this group of individuals to play together as a team. Winning did not depend on the performance of each individual on the field; this was determined by how they worked together.
To create a sense of cohesion and confidence, the coaches signed the team up for a three-week Outward Bound course. There they hauled 70-pound packs and snowshoeed through Utah’s Abajo Mountains in mid-winter. The goal was to put the players in a difficult situation where they depended on each other for their survival. In the desert, players were forced to work together. Soon they began to appreciate the value and character of their teammates outside of the volleyball environment.
Chris Marlowe, team captain, then spoke about the experience: “It was an atmosphere that really stressed us out as individuals and as a team, and it was for the best. . The course allowed me to lean more on my teammates and get to know them better in a non-volleyball situation, which transferred to the court in subtle ways.
You can’t copy your way to greatness
When the team returned from Outward Bound, players and coaches took advantage of the confidence to experiment with new, innovative strategies. Most of the struggling national teams at that time tried to copy the “systems” of the best teams in the world. American coaches studied the Soviet system. However, as they tried to implement it, they realized they didn’t have the right kind of players to make it work. Likewise, the United States looked to the Japanese and tried to import their style of play. But again, it wasn’t a good fit.
The Japanese have produced beautiful training videos and freely shared their volleyball techniques with the rest of the world. This baffled the American coaches. When asked why they were so willing to reveal their secrets at the competition, Japan head coach Yasutaka Matsudaira smiled and said, “Only Japanese people can play like Japanese people.” He compared every attempt to copy the Japanese system to a Xerox copy, where each generation is slightly downgraded.
The message was clear: Americans could not copy their path to greatness. They began to experiment with a system of building effective teams that would take advantage of the unique talents of players who joined the team in San Diego. Most American athletes learned the game on the beach and showed some creativity and spontaneity in the way they played. What they created became known as the “American System”. It relied on specialization and freed up athletes to play to their strengths on the field. This allowed the team to reach their full potential.
The United States then beat Brazil for the gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It was the most lopsided gold medal game in Olympic volleyball history. The road to gold, however, was filled with valuable lessons that ultimately helped them achieve their goal of building an effective team.
Perhaps the biggest lesson the coaches of the famed 1984 USA men’s volleyball team learned from the long journey from mediocrity to greatness is this: it’s not the quality of the game of individuals on the field, but the quality of the game they play together. And it’s a lesson we can apply to our own organizations by building trust and creating the conditions for collaboration and creativity.
Sean Murray is the founder and president of Real-time performance, a Seattle-based training and organizational development company dedicated to helping leaders create winning teams and cultures. In July 2022, Murray released If Gold Is Our Destiny: How a Team of Mavericks Came Together for Olympic Glory (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group) to show firsthand how teams can succeed by deepening engagement, taking risks, implementing creative teamwork, and building trust and respect.
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