Teamship – an inside look at Team GB’s preparations for London 2012

I was expecting Sir Clive to tell us about some of the psychological techniques he uses to get the very best out of his players. Maybe also a bit about the tactics used in rugby and what we business people can learn from them.

What he actually said was nothing to do with sports psychology or rugby tactics. In fact, he talked a lot about the relative importance of hard work as opposed to talent and emphasised that sport (just like business) is a knowledge base activity and the winners tend to be the ones who have a higher level of knowledge. For this reason when he was appointed England manager he gave every member of the team a laptop. The English press had a field day when every man in the English squad got off the team bus carrying a handbag. “What our boys need is more raw meat etc etc.” But that was before they won the World Cup. 

I could go on for pages and pages, but there’s one area that Sir Clive talked about that I’d like to home in on. This relates to Sir Clive’s role as Director of Sport for Team GB at London 2012. London was the first Olympic Games where social media was an issue. At the time of the Beijing games twitter was a relatively new phenomenon and the sports media hadn’t really latched onto it. But by the time preparations for London 2012 were under way it was clear that managing social media was going to be a big challenge for the athletes and their teams.

In many ways this wasn’t a new issue. For years all high-profile sports teams, particularly the English national team whether in rugby, cricket or football have found their behaviour off the field subject to close scrutiny by the press. We’ve all read newspaper headlines about our sporting heroes getting carried away in hotels and nightclubs and even jumping off car ferries into the sea…

Sir Clive had successfully managed this during the 2003 World Cup but that was with a squad of 22 or so players. As manager of Team GB Sir Clive had to control the tweets and social media utterances of over 500 team members. And that was after the selection process. During the qualifying stages there were around 3000 UK athletes competing for places in the Team. From his experience as England Rugby Coach Sir Clive knew that any ill judged tweet by any of our athletes during the Games could have caused a media maelstrom and thrown the whole of Team GB off-balance.

What was needed to deal with this problem was a common set of values which all the athletes wear prepared to sign up to. Sir Clive recognised that the only way that all the athletes would accept and adhere to a common set of values would be if they came from the bottom up (i.e. they’d been developed by the athletes themselves) rather than top-down.

So he used a concept called Teamship he’d developed with the English Rugby Squad. In brief, the system works like this. If there is anything sensitive to discuss, the team discuss it on their own and agree if what they’re going to do. They then report back to the Leader and if the Leader likes it, he adopt it. If he doesn’t like solution the team have come up with, he asks them to go back and discuss it again. In the case of Team GB each sport had its own Performance Director so in business speak there were multiple layers of management (a bit like most businesses) but the essence of the system remained the same. The Team agrees the rules. The Leader endorses them.

After a number of iterations the team (all 3000 of them at that point) came up with a complete set of values around five key areas:

  • Performance (the most important)
  • Responsibility
  • Unity
  • Pride; and
  • Respect

In each of these areas there were rules and behavioural standards which every athlete in the team was expected to live up to. As far as social media was concerned the rule was that there could only be positive communication.

Sir Clive and his team then cemented this in place by communications at various levels

  1. A really top presentation which went out to all athletes
  2. They put it online
  3. They got team members to make 15 three-minute videos around “this is what it means to me.”
  4. They put it on all Team GB’s branding
  5. They got every team member to confirm their commitment to the rules by signing a wall at Loughborough University when they went up to collect their kit.
  6. To reinforce the importance of team membership they gave each team member a number out of 542 and had this etched on a medallion. For example, Rebecca Adlington’s team number was 222/542.

The system worked. During the entire games not a single athlete stepped out of line. It worked because these were their rules not the coach’s rules. Contrast that with the Australian team which seriously underperformed at London 2012. They were brought down by a number of ill considered tweets which resulted in some athletes being sent home.

There is no reason why you couldn’t adopt this system in your business.

Of course, the London Games did not go off entirely without incident. In fact, they got off to a very bad start in Women’s Football when an official at Hampden Park inadvertently displayed the wrong Korean flag causing a diplomatic incident. One UK company managed to exploit this opportunity to get round restrictions on Olympic advertising – click here!  What a brilliant piece of ambush marketing! Don’t you wish you’d thought of this?

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