UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


What you can learn from college sports coaches about building team resilience


Sports teams face obstacles like losing players to injury, falling into slumps and losing focus.

But some teams are good at dealing with adversity and bouncing back. Ben Rosen, the Robert March and Mildred Borden Hanes Professor of Organizational Behavior at UNC Kenan-Flagler, calls them resilient teams. Work team leaders who lose key team members and face unexpected customer demand can learn from these resilient sports teams.

To analyze what it takes to build a resilient team, Rosen collected data from almost 2,000 college coaches. Here are a number of lessons he learned from coaches that team leaders could apply in the workplace:

  • Recruit resilient players. Coaches suggest recruiting team members who have the maturity, mental toughness, work ethic and track record to stay strong in the face of adversity. Human resource managers and team leaders can assess potential team members to identify those who are conscientious, emotionally stable and open to new experiences and ways to learn. Rosen recommends using interview questions to predict which employees will be resilient. For example, a manager can ask, “Tell me about a time when you didn’t achieve your goal. What did you learn from it?”
  • Shape the team culture around values. Coaches know values guide team actions and can help you through good times and bad. Teams that value persistence in the face of adversity are more likely to be resilient. For example, one sports team’s motto, “No challenge is permanent, and no obstacle is unconquerable,” contributed to their team resilience. As a leader, you can instill and reinforce values. Some ways to do this include mottos, stories and rituals designed to celebrate values. Positive values help teams work through adversity and bounce back.
  • Focus on team and personal accountability. Teams must accept responsibility for poor performance and ask more of themselves during tough times. Work team leaders must also emphasize accountability, where members own and correct their mistakes, confront underperformers and commit to do better.
  • Practice responses to simulated challenges. Coaches created simulated problems in practice sessions to help prepare their teams for the real thing. For example, some coaches held out key players to simulate injuries, practiced in bad weather, simulated unfair officiating and created extreme time pressures for players. Work team leaders can use computer simulations or outdoor challenges to simulate problems like scarce resources, key members leaving the team or unexpected deadlines. Learning how to cope with simulated adversity should better prepare teams to respond to real-life setbacks.
  • Managing the external environment. Through interventions with outside stakeholders like fans, athletic directors and the media, coaches can buffer their teams and get more time and resources to help teams work through difficult times. Work team leaders may work outside the team to recruit new members, negotiate deadline extensions and get technological support to help the team work through difficult periods.

These lessons learned from sports coaches can help you build a resilient team and become better prepared to compete.