Sometimes the biggest challenges sports coaches face have nothing whatsoever to do with physical side of the game. Team chemistry and player dynamics, on and off the ice, can make or break even the most talented team.

Most coaches overcome these problems with tried and true team-building efforts, but once in a while we run into a team that stymies even the most experienced leader.

This was the state of my Cranbrook boys varsity hockey team in late January 2015. In more than 35 years of coaching and winning 20 championships at the Junior Hockey, AAA and high school level, I had run into a talented team that I could not get to play like a team. They had a winning record, but in my opinion, that is not what determines overall success.

This situation was particularly frustrating because my coaching staff and I invest a great deal of thought and energy into building a strong team. For example, every Thanksgiving week, my teams engage in a multitude of activities, such as a "frostbite" golf outing, team bowling, serving food to the homeless and holding a team barbecue. It is a busy week of bonding, and it has always served us well.

Until 2015.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Faced with selfish play, disrespect for captains, and bickering and fragmentation on and off the ice, I decided to embrace a radical approach. I engaged a leadership expert.

Her name is Maureen Monte, and she had more than 10 years of experience in building winning teams at the corporate level. What follows below is an account of how we took my hockey team from talented but dysfunctional to talented and totally unified — in six weeks. They also won the state championship (a byproduct of the improved team chemistry).

What does success look like?

I was introduced to Monte when a parent recommended her. We spoke and she described her three beliefs about teams:

  • All teams are dysfunctional
  • There is untapped and undervalued talent on every team
  • Teams often lack a common view of success

She walked me through her process of fixing these problems and explained that she leverages a business tool — the Clifton StrengthsFinder to measure the untapped strengths of the team. I listened, liked what I heard and agreed to give her program a try. Two days later, we met with the players and began to tackle the human side of winning.

Monte asked, "What does success look like?" The boys answered, "Win the state championship."

She agreed, but then pushed them to dig deeper. "Does 'how' we win matter?" The players decided it mattered, and began to describe the behaviors required to achieve success. Within 20 minutes, we had fleshed out a draft statement. Here is the final version of my team's success statement:

"The 2014/2015 Cranbrook Hockey Team is determined to win the state championship by recommitting to unselfish play, discipline, focus, trust, respect, team chemistry, brotherhood, and by caring for one another, on and off the ice. We refuse to let anyone fail."

After this exercise, they were abuzz with energy. In addition to the success statement, we created a team trust bank. From that moment until the end of the season, everyone agreed the team trust bank was in effect. Deposits only.

In another exercise, the players yelled, "I refuse to let you fail!" to one another, a rallying cry that was later used to support one another and hold teammates accountable to commitments and roles.

Finally and most importantly, we addressed the elephant in the room: poor team chemistry that was a result of players putting "me" before "we." It may sound difficult to believe, but the team that entered the locker room was not the same team that left the locker room.

Then, we took the next step. We went in search of untapped talent.

Measure the holistic talent on the team

It was time to see what made these boys tick by assessing their strengths. The StrengthsFinder measures patterns of excellence in how people think to solve problems, execute tasks, build relationships and influence others. It is a deep dive into those intangibles we talk about in sports with words like gritty, unflappable, gamer, mentally tough, coachable and feisty. These are some of the qualities revealed when people take the StrengthsFinder.

The individual and team results help coaches put people in roles where they can succeed. It also rebuilds human glue worn thin by the desire to win. The assessment is a budget-friendly $15 per person and is available online at Gallup Strengths Center. It returns a person's top 5 strengths and provides a detailed, customized report.

Once we evaluated the team's strengths, we met again to help each player understand his results. It turns out the Cranbrook hockey team was especially gifted in the influencing strengths. This would be akin to having a couple dozen Ferraris in the room roaring at one another rather than using all that horsepower to pull on the rope in the same direction.

Everyone loved to compete, but then there were other qualities that, once revealed, could help the team. Some lived in the future (think of that "next play" mentality). Some adapted to the needs of the moment. Some could take charge. Others refused to give up when challenged. Still others could help the team focus during practice.

Everyone understood themselves better and had a new appreciation for their teammates. This simple exercise dramatically improved team chemistry. The impact on the team was immediate. They began to play like a team.

Align strengths, roles and success

After the team took the StrengthsFinder, I had a considerable amount of insight into what made each player unique. I realized the newly revealed talent on the team could be put to good use both on and off the ice, and I sorted out roles for each boy to play. Some were specific to on-ice roles. Others had "human glue" contributions that were active on and off the ice.

To make it real and personal for each player, I called a team meeting and went around the room discussing each player's role. I made it clear they were expected to play that role regardless of their status in the normal team hierarchy.

This was important because if the third-string goalie could dissolve friction and prevent team fragmentation, I expected the other players to listen to him like he was a team captain. Two short stories will serve as powerful examples of how this approach helped the team win.

Nolan Rogow was the third-string goalie. He pushed hard in practice, but was unlikely to help the team win during games. He had a strength called "harmony," which is the ability to find common ground and dissolve conflict.

When I got to Nolan in the team meeting, I specifically asked that if two guys were bickering in the locker room, could Nolan intervene? Nolan said he could. I pushed him further. Would Nolan do it? Nolan said he would.

From that moment on, conflict resolution was Nolan's territory. He owned that role. He prevented fragmentation and contributed to the team's success statement by building brotherhood, refusing to let anyone fail (and that included holding them accountable), and caring for one another on and off the ice.

Jake Nestell was one of the few players who had multiple thinking strengths in his profile. This meant he was quiet in the locker room (remember, it was filled with Ferraris roaring most of the time). His teammates thought he was a bump on a log.

I needed to find another role for Jake beyond his limited ice time. Jake's role was revealed when he caught a rounding error on one of Monte's charts. He raised his hand and identified the mistake. Monte celebrated it, citing the power of Jake's analytical strength (think data-driven and logical).

The team had a new appreciation of Jake's previously undervalued brain power, and Jake learned an equally valuable lesson. He thought everyone saw the error. This experience taught him that he needed to speak up about the things he was seeing on the ice how the other team was lined up for face offs, for example. Jake owned that "observer and navigator" role and became the thinking man for the team.


The thing I found most fascinating about our journey is this: When interviewed afterward, the players never spoke about the win. They talked about how great it felt to be valued for being valuable, and playing for a team that finally reached its full potential.

They were unstoppable because they felt unstoppable. They became unstoppable when we invested in the human system defining success, evaluating their strengths, and aligning strengths, roles and team success.

My assistant coach, Pat Ronayne, said it best: "In the beginning of the season, they seemed like a herd of young colts running around, sometimes in circles with no direction or focus. Later they were like a herd of stallions, running in a pack toward the same goals, not asking questions, just doing and achieving."

To be clear, success came from a common mindset created by the heightened energy of a team who believes in how good they are, values the strengths of other players, and aligns all that talent with a team view of success. Easy? No. Successful and rewarding? You bet.

The qualitative data is impressive, but this is more than a feel good story. Let's look at some numbers.

After my team completed the process, their win rate was 0.909. They outscored the competition 67 to 16 goals over 11 games. They dominated the playoffs, winning the quarterfinals by a score of 9-4, the semifinals by a score of 8-0, and beat Houghton in the state final by a score of 4-0.

This team reached their full potential, and because they were talented, that included winning the title. However, that will not be what I remember most about this team.

What I will remember is that we implemented a program that unified a fragmented group of high school hockey players so that they performed unselfishly, with brotherhood, respect and a true appreciation of the power of "we" over "me." These life lessons will serve them well as they enter college and become doctors, lawyers, business owners and fathers.

That's what success looks like to me.