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5 Team-Building Lessons I Learned Playing Hockey That Have Made Me A Better CEO

Joe Gardner

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The one sport that taught me the most about leading teams and building companies was hockey––a game of tenacity, toughness, synchronization, and conflict-resolution.


I played sports all throughout my childhood and into college. And, like many people who grow up as athletes, the experience of improving through persistence, of holding myself accountable, and of working with my teammates toward a common goal taught me a lot about life and leadership. This was true of all the sports I played, and I still utilize many of those lessons learned today in my role as the CEO of VentureDevs

The one sport that taught me the most about leading teams and building companies, however, was hockey––a game of tenacity, toughness, synchronization, and conflict-resolution. In hockey—as is the case in company building—teamwork is crucial.  

That said, here are the five lessons hockey taught me about teamwork that have proven most impactful in my life to date—and what you can take away from them, too. 

1) Successful teams solve problems together. 

Hockey, which I played throughout college, is inherently difficult– requiring grit, skill, and, above all, cohesion. On the ice, you’re only able to outperform the other team if your team is working hard together. The same is true in the startup world. The best teams collaborate. They work together to solve whatever problem they’ve been tasked with solving. 

As is true in hockey, the importance of collaboration supersedes petty squabbles, differing opinions or putting oneself above the team. And as a leader, perhaps your most important task is to impress as much upon your team. You have to articulate why problem-solving is more important than always agreeing, convince everyone to buy in to that thought, and then lead the charge in collaborating effectively. 

This, of course, is harder than most think. Much like on the ice, in a fast-paced startup environment, things can get heated, and people occasionally get upset at each other. This can be a good thing, since tension often proves a positive force. But as a leader, you have to work more consciously than you might think to ensure everyone stays on the same page––to push employees above the challenges that arise so you all stay focused on solving the problem at hand. 

2) Hold your team accountable. 

In a similar vein, team leaders have to make certain not only that everyone keeps their eye on the prize, but also that everyone is—at any given moment—doing the thing that they’re supposed to be doing. This is a lesson you learn quickly in hockey, a sport wherein to succeed, every member of the team needs to be in the right position when you need them to be. It’s impossible for one player to beat the other team. Rather, everyone needs to work together in order to win. 

That means everyone needs to trust each other. 

To ensure this is the case, you have to foster within your team a shared commitment to never letting your teammates down. But that accountability starts, ultimately, with you. 

3) Challenge each other. 

As I mentioned above, in business, differing opinions and disagreements––so long as they’re purposefully channeled and managed––can often be productive. Striving to be your best, teammates pushing each other to work harder and go further: these things are positive. 

The benefits of challenging each other in this manner is a lesson leaders learn quickly in hockey, an intensely physical sport in which endurance and grit are critical; wins, so it goes, are often awarded to the teams that work hardest before their games. 

Yet, constantly pushing both yourself and your teammates to work harder and perform better is itself a challenge. For leaders, you risk team members butting heads and holding grudges. 

Often, your ability to push your team successfully comes down to the culture you create. Everyone needs to be clear on the why behind your hard work, and everyone must feel confident in the intentions of the person sitting beside them. To this end, encourage team members to voice their opinions and be honest with each other. Discuss the goals you’re working towards each day. And aspire more generally to create an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable holding each other accountable.

4) Make sure teammates have a life outside of the rink (or office). 

Back when I was still playing, my hockey coaches always encouraged my teammates and me to have some kind of life outside the rink, something which allowed us the chance to balance things like family, school, and fun and that reminded us that “winning” wasn’t the only goal we were living for. 

I try and do the same thing now with employees at VentureDevs. It’s critical, I believe, that we all have some kind of balance.

My hockey coaches also impressed upon me the importance of teammates being a sincere part of each others’ lives. They encouraged us to do good together for the community and to be friends with each other, establishing that sense of trust which is critical both in the rink and in the office. 

It’s, of course, important that everyone on your team is aligned and inspired to achieve your goals, but it’s equally important to be connected as human beings and to be connected with the community around you. 

5) You need to have a passion and spark for it. 

Finally, as a leader––no matter what realm you’re leading in, business or sports––you’ll only ever be able to truly inspire those around you if you yourself are inspired. You have to truly want the thing you’re pushing your team to achieve. If you want your team to give their all, you have to be giving your all, too. 

Which is to say, you have to really love and believe in the thing you’re doing so that you’re reasonably able to bring your whole self to work or to practice each day. That’s hard to do without passion or genuine investment, which is why the best leaders are motivated to the point of eagerness. They’re easy to follow. 

6) Lead with humility. 

It’s not enough, however, to be selfishly inspired. You need to want to win for your team’s sake as much as—or even more—than you want to win for yourself. 

In other words, you have to lead with humility. 

That’s a trait all the best leaders share: they’re humble. It’s why you see most hockey players crediting their teammates instead of themselves in post-game interviews. You can see the passion in their eyes, evidence of their hard work in the sweat on their faces. But in their words, you recognize genuine love and appreciation for the people that helped them succeed. 

And you can see why teammates will follow that leader again come next season. 

At the end of the day, as a CEO, manager, or team leader, that’s something worth paying attention to, as it epitomizes why each of the above lessons are so crucial for success. 

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Joe Gardner is the co-founder and CEO of VentureDevs, an award-winning software development firm with over 100 employees providing digital product strategy, design, and development services to top startups and global enterprises. He's also a managing partner at Advantage Ventures, an early-stage investment fund based in LA, and an investor in 9 startups with 2 unicorns (Fair.com and WheelsUp). Joe has founded 3 companies with 2 acquisitions (Modasphere and Surebilling) and is a contributing writer to Forbes, Entrepreneur, and similar publications.

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