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May the best team win

May the best team win

As the America’s Cup gets underway in Bermuda this week, British hopes are riding on the PA-backed Land Rover Ben Ainslie-Racing team. In the third of his series of blogs, PA’s Adam Freeman-Pask, a former Olympic rower, looks at how teamwork will decide who brings home sport’s oldest trophy.

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Years of planning, training and competition have built up to what’s about to happen. The result depends on many things. Hardware, technology, split-second individual judgement. But most of all it depends on the team.

We can probably all name a great sporting team or two. My (admittedly biased) list would include three England teams: the 1966 World Cup-winning footballers and 2003 Rugby World Cup winners, along with the Ashes-winning cricketers from 2005. And of course from my sport, rowing legends Redgrave and Pinsent, who performed again and again at the highest level to land consecutive Olympic golds.

What do they all have in common? Individual talent, of course. Great leadership, either on the field (or water) or from coaches. A clear idea of what everyone brings to the team, what their role is and what’s expected of them. A shared culture, comradeship, or perhaps even a bit of friction. All these things add up to a great team that’s more than the sum of its parts.

If this rings a bell for you, it’s no accident. These are the hallmarks of successful teams at work, too, as Andy Katz, PA’s strategy and growth expert says: “It’s very hard for businesses to excel based only on what individuals do. Even celebrated individuals like Steve Jobs rely on teams of people to turn ideas into results. How well teams function will make or break big projects. And the reasons they do or don’t function well are similar across business and sport.”

Creating the right culture

There might be lots of different personalities in the Land Rover BAR team. But they’ve taken a lot of care to develop a shared identity. The team has its own ‘look’. Wherever they are in the world, effort will have gone into giving their environment some sense of that. It gives the team continuity, and it sends a message to rivals they’re unified and together.

In this sense, the team is taking a leaf out of successful businesses books. They tend to have strong, recognisable brands. These aren’t just visual identities, though those do matter. Brands express a shared set of beliefs and values – a sense of “how we do things”.

That goes not just for skipper Ben Ainslie and the five crew manning the boat, but to the host of others working for success. Nutritionists, technology specialists, fitness trainers, doctors, press people, psychologists, IT experts. It’s quite a list – more than likely, it runs to over 100 people. And then there’s the wider operation – the team will be watching young sailors from their early teens, looking for ones with the potential to come aboard next time, or the time after that. They’ll bring these emerging stars together regularly, instilling a sense of what Land Rover BAR is all about.

Land Rover BAR: Harnessing the best of British design and technological innovation to achieve unprecedented success

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Finding the right chemistry

For this and future line-ups, it’s not just a question of picking the five people with the most natural talent. It’s about which blend works best. I work with an Indian charity called Future Hope, which helps vulnerable children in Kolkata. They have rowing crews, which I help to coach, and both have just won schools championships. Undoubtedly that success has a lot to do with the children’s strong bond based on the tough background they all share, and the resilience that’s given them.

This togetherness really matters. At the 2012 Olympics, I was a reserve. I’d done as well as anyone in the assessments running up to the games. But our coaches decided to stick with the team who’d competed at the previous world championships. It wasn’t worth the risk of upsetting the chemistry in the boat by changing the line-up.

There’s no such thing as a totally safe seat, though. Part of the strength in the team is the knowledge that if you let your standards slip for an instant, someone else is waiting to grab the chance to take your spot. It’s pressure of the (just about) positive kind.

Success now depends on how Land Rover BAR handle that pressure as a team. We’ll be glued to the action, hoping they bring the trophy home.

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