College football is back! There is one team everyone is raving about: Colorado. The first game against TCU was an all-out brawl, but Colorado was the victor. Many headlines say that Colorado (the team that was projected to lose by at least 3 touchdowns) “shocked the world.” I believe that the cause of this “shock” wasn’t rooted in a pound-for-pound analysis of players on both sides. Rather, it was “shocking” to see how fast Coach Prime and his staff were able to build a cohesive team capable of withstanding the challenges that TCU presented throughout the game.
The new “Undisputed” co-star (and legend) Michael Irvin said it best.
I’m surprised at how that team kept fighting back…[with] 58 transfers coming in, that kind of union you have, that’s what surprised me the most. Every time TCU came back and scored, [Colorado] came back and scored again. That says that even though [Coach Prime] just got there, they are together.“Undisputed” Co-star, Michael Irvin
Coach Deion “Prime” Sanders was hired by Colorado in December 2022, and he immediately began a complete overhaul of the coaching staff and players. I’ve been following Coach Prime since he became the head coach at Jackson State University–a rival of my Alma Mater, Grambling State University. What piqued my interest was not only his ability to recruit talented players but his ability to build a cohesive team of people from disparate backgrounds and varying levels of experience.
Whether you believe the current press is baseless “hype” or documenting unprecedented success, Coach Prime has been building cohesive teams for years at the youth football and high school levels which, by his admission, is what prompted colleges to contact him. This fact alone warrants further analysis of his leadership style.
As I did in my original article titled, “Leadership Lessons from the Gridiron” about Coach Tony Dungy which was published in the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) magazine, I will examine how leaders are able to learn from and apply fundamentals from another successful coach. In this case, we will specifically focus on how to build a cohesive team.
The thesis in my original article remains true.
What is cohesion?
“Cohesion” is an extremely popular topic for leaders in all industries. I love the definitions that Oxford Languages provides. The first is, “the action or fact of forming a united whole.” The second is, “the sticking together of particles of the same substance.” I highlighted the key words (action, united whole, sticking together, and same substance) that create my definition of team cohesion. Building team cohesion is intentionally culturing an environment in which like-minded individuals collaboratively persevere to achieve a common goal.
7 Lessons learned from Coach Prime on how to build a cohesive team.
1. Establish and maintain a unifying belief system.
The first thing you should ask yourself is, “What are my team’s beliefs?” Establishing and maintaining a unified belief system is the only way to create a cohesive team. Coach Prime has probably said, “I believe” thousands of times. It’s a mantra for past and present players and fans. Along with the sub-beliefs (“core tenets”) Coach Prime highlights, “I believe” provides a single point that guides each player and staff member’s actions and goals. Unifying beliefs encourage each team member to fulfill his or her role in accomplishing the overall mission.
This “single point” also creates a bond that reminds team members that they are not alone and their actions impact the entire team. This works as long as each member remains oriented towards that single point. The below illustration of my “Unifying Belief Triangle” visually depicts this idea by placing the unifying beliefs at the top of the triangle. No matter where the little dancing team members are on the triangle, each member is dancing towards the unifying beliefs!
2. Recruit the right people
What qualities do I look for in a leader? Someone that’s willing to do it in the dark and not just in the light…I just don’t want them to work out when everyone is watching. I want them to be a leader when no one’s looking.Dick’s Sporting Goods interview with Coach Prime
Jim Collins got it right in his book Good to Great when he said, “first who, then what.” In other words, you have to recruit the right people and place them in key positions before you can attempt to lead your team towards successfully accomplishing the mission. Coach Prime highlights that he doesn’t simply search for talented players, he searches for the intangible qualities that align with his team’s belief system. The same is true for all leaders. A person’s talent may catch your eye, but you must develop a list of intangible qualities with which you’ll analyze how each aspiring recruit aligns with your belief system. If there’s a mismatch, move on. Mismatched team members break cohesiveness and detract from the overall mission.
3. Teach and mentor.
Continuing education and personal development is critical to retaining the right people. There are numerous videos of Coach Prime educating his team and “priming” them for life after football. I highlighted how continuing education creates successful organizations in “Culturing Success (Part 2): Developing healthy relationships.” Therein, I explain that prioritizing individual growth and development “encourages critical thinking and problem solving [and] instills confidence to take action.” These factors keep each team member sharp and strengthens trust in the other members’ abilities.
4. Total dedication: Sacrifice for the mission.
“The sacrifice must be greater than the gift.”Coach Prime
Ask yourself and your team this: What will you give up to accomplish the mission? In an attempt to influence the culture, Coach Prime had a frank conversation with his staff upon arrival at Colorado. “It’s a spirit that’s riding in this facility that we gotta get out,” Coach Prime exclaimed. “And it’s not a spirit of success. It’s a spirit of losing and it’s a spirit of failure. You must be willing to give it all you’ve got while you’re here.” This challenge may seem brash to some, but this type of direct leadership is necessary to change a culture and unite a team.
The idea of “sacrificing” is rooted in our willingness to trade immediate and/or individual comfort for long-term success. It’s a selfless approach to achieving team goals, sometimes at the expense of personal goals. Sacrificing is about serving others and finding ways to make other team members better. Ultimately, we give something up (e.g. time, resources, etc.) to achieve the team’s assigned mission.
5. Enforce a standard.
There is a lot of leadership material that describes “the winning formula” to achieve success. I believe that the creators of these formulas are referring to the repeatable processes or “habits” that lead to success. As leaders, we should develop and enforce regulations that, if consistently followed, will lead to successful execution of the mission. These regulations establish clear character and performance standards that each team member must maintain to be productive members of the team. As leaders, we must enforce standards and encourage team members to hold each other accountable. Here is an example of the regulations Coach Prime laid out for his team while at Jackson State University.
- Get 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
- Eliminate distractions.
- Show up prepared.
- Be consistent.
- Do your job.
- Play with purpose, passion, and love.
- Empty yourself (leave it all on the field).
- Look in the mirror every day and ask yourself, “Did I give it all I have?” (Reflection).
What regulations will your team consistently enforce?
You don’t have to be great or successful to be consistent, but you need to be consistent to be great or successful.Coach Prime
6. Create realistic training and challenge each other.
After his phenomenal game against TCU, Shedeur Sanders said, “I’m practicing against the best [cornerback] in the world…My margin of error against him is very small.” This is one of the best examples of why it’s important to create realistic training scenarios for your team. Humans rely on intuitive behavior when we are faced with pressure or an extreme shift in emotions. In my “Decision-making basics” article, I explain that improving our knowledge (continuing education) and experience (realistic training) improves our ability to orient on a problem and subsequently take action.
Thus, our role as leaders is to create a controlled environment where our team members can build this experience. This is where team members learn from failure and refine their skills. Inevitably, they begin to rely on each other for personal growth which, in turn, makes them want to challenge each other even more. Develop a plan to create realistic training scenarios and help your team refine their skills.
7. Maximize the moment and dominate.
Coach Deion “Prime” Sanders has always believed in maximizing the moment– whether it was capitalizing on a quarterback’s ill-timed (or ill-advised) throw, playing in a MLB world series, or choosing to take over a youth sports team when the coaching was inadequate. We all must lead and encourage our team to perform with that same gusto.
The “moment” I’m referring to isn’t just the next big game, project, training evolution, or deployment. It’s today. Ask yourself and encourage your team members to ask themselves, “What am I doing today to help my team achieve its goals?” Then ask each other the same question. Introspection and accountability fuel our ability to maximize each moment.
Don’t get stuck overanalyzing the situation or making excuses. Instead, dedicate every bit of your time, skills, and energy towards achieving your team’s goals. This attitude of total dedication and sacrifice throughout the team will ultimately create a cohesive unit determined to dominate every circumstance and opportunity.
Lead well and win!
Leadership Lessons from the Gridiron (Part 1)
My original article was published on September 8, 2022 in the MOAA Magazine. Super Bowl champion and Hall of Fame coach, Tony Dungy is the focal point. Click the image below to read the full article!