We’ve all heard of the Miracle on Ice, the improbable victory of the USA hockey team over the Soviets at the 1980 Olympics. However, there was another “Miracle” team from the 1980s – the 1984 US men’s Olympic volleyball team. In this case, the US men had never before won an Olympic medal in volleyball of any kind. In fact, they had never medaled in a major international tournament. Two years before the Olympics, they finished 13th at the world championships. Yet they somehow transformed from a group of underachievers to winning gold at the Los Angeles Games. How were they able to do it? What can they teach leaders today about building effective teams?
Create the conditions to attract the best talent
In the 1970s, a national training center for volleyball was established in Dayton, Ohio. The town was supportive, and the head coach was from Cleveland, but there was one 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, a decision was made to move the training center to San Diego. “If the players wouldn’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 the best volleyball player of the century—arrived in San Diego to join the team. The idea of relocating a center to the talent wasn’t necessarily new, or even limited to the sporting world. Perhaps the most legendary application of this idea actually occurred in the business world. In 1969, Xerox set up the famous research center in Palo Alto, Calif., to take advantage of the abundance of technology talent in the area, bringing the business to the people who needed it.
Create a “shared significant 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 that can win at the elite internationals level required more than talent alone. They believed that the ultimate competitive advantage was getting this group of individuals to play together as a team. Winning wasn’t dependent on how each individual performed on the court; it was determined by how well they worked together.
To create a sense of cohesion and trust, the coaches enrolled the team in a three-week Outward Bound course. There, they carried 70-pound packs and snowshoed across the Abajo mountains of Utah in the middle of winter. The goal was to put the players in a challenging situation where they were dependent on each other for survival. In the wilderness, the 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, the team captain, later reflected on the experience: “It was an atmosphere that really stressed us as individuals and as a team, and that was for the better. The course enabled me to rely on my teammates more 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, the players and coaches took advantage of the foundation of trust to experiment with innovative new strategies. Most struggling national teams during that era attempted to copy the “systems” of the best teams in the world. The American coaches studied the Soviet system. However, as they attempted to implement it, they realized they didn’t have the right kind of players to make it work. Similarly, the US looked to the Japanese and attempted to import their style of play. But again, it wasn’t a good fit.
The Japanese produced beautiful training videos and freely shared their volleyball techniques with the rest of the world. This baffled the US coaches. When asked why they were so willing to reveal their secrets to the competition, the head coach for Japan, Yasutaka Matsudaira smiled and said, “only the Japanese can play like the Japanese.” He compared each attempt to copy the Japanese system to a Xerox copy, where each generation is slightly degraded.
The message was clear: the Americans could not copy their way to greatness. They started experimenting with a system of building effective teams that would take advantage of the unique talents of the players who joined the team in San Diego. Most of the American athletes learned the game on the beach and had a certain creativity and spontaneity in how they played. What they created came to be known as the “American System.” It relied on specialization and freed the athletes to play to their strengths on the court. This enabled the team to reach its full potential.
The US went on to beat Brazil for the gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. It was the most lopsided gold medal match in the history of Olympic volleyball. The road to gold, though, was one that was filled with valuable lessons that ultimately helped them achieve their goal of building an effective team.
Perhaps the greatest lesson that the coaches of the celebrated 1984 USA men’s volleyball team took away from the long journey from mediocrity to greatness is this: it’s not how well the individuals on the court play, it’s how well they play together. And this is 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 RealTime Performance, a training and organization development firm based in Seattle that is dedicated to helping leaders build winning teams and cultures. In July 2022, Murray published If Gold Is Our Destiny: How a Team of Mavericks Came Together for Olympic Glory (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group) to show first-hand how teams can achieve success by deepening commitment, taking risks, implementing creative teamwork, and building trust and respect.
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