Great teams aspire to play hard, play smart and play together. Achieving these three goals is not a part time job — the objectives must become part of a team’s identity.

Good teams may possess edges in skill, athleticism or tactics but great teams will also have consistent Intensity and Quality. The ability to play hard, smart and together over the course of a season is tough to develop but can pay abundant rewards.

At first, coaches and players may seem miles apart. One step at a time, coaches guide players as they meet and surpass the standards of great teams.

Three Qualities Any Team Can Possess

Playing HARD

Teammates model the way, the bench provides encouragement, five players become a defensive unit, generating the turnovers that fuel the fast break. Coaches can motivate players but extrinsic motivation is a fossil fuel that cannot be sustained. The intrinsic motivation that is generated when every player comes to practice focused and ready to work hard is a renewable resource.

Balancing Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation: In the short term, an extrinsic event – coaches at all the levels have benched the starters in order to raise the team’s energy level over the years – can generate the motivation to play hard but over the course of the season that drive must consistently come from within. Gregg Popovich has done this with the San Antonio Spurs but that is also a team that derives motivation from within, inspired as much by veteran leadership and each other as the coach.

Elite teams work hard every day because they buy into the team and the individual goals. Beyond playing every possession until the whistle, they make the most of every repetition in practice. Losing time between drills (or when line-ups change on and off), cheating the drill by not playing good defense or wasting the rep by ignoring the details can be eliminated. Great teams realize that it is not only the responsibility of the coach but each team member to hold others accountable.

Playing SMART

Individual decisions determine team destiny. Successful teams understand each other’s strengths and limitations. They know that it’s not the mistake that matters but the reaction to it. The game plan maximises the talents of all team members and everyone buys in. Positive reinforcement maintains confidence and focus. Some players innately make intelligent decisions; others learn by experience.

Mentorship develops the discipline that turns winning games into winning championships. Astute players may learn some pointers by observing role models or watching games or television but most young athletes need guidance from the coaching staff and those who have been there before. As much as Popovich had to instruct Tony Parker about shooting and ballhandling, he had to devote time to express how he wanted the point guard to call players and leader the Spurs.

Coaches should elaborate on the How and the Why of their systems, instead of merely the What, because sharing this reasoning facilities understanding and promotes read and react decisions that are so prevalent in sport today. It is not enough to be smart as if there were two hours to write a final exam; it is imperative to be smart in a dynamic situation that is constantly changing. Incorporate split-second decision making in practices and incessantly give feedback so the player can make adjustments. Debriefing the decision-making process can also prove beneficial. Asking a young player why they made a certain play in the heat of the moment will not result in learning but calmly reviewing the situation in detail afterwards will lead to changes.


No team meets the first two objectives consistently without epitomising the third. In practices, true teams push each other to get better — in games, they pull together and overcome adversity. Little things that bring players together and forge teams include: physical contact, acknowledging good plays (for example pointing to the player who threw an assist) and constantly talking. Like a team would warm-up their skills and athleticism, they should warm-up their energy and teamwork by practicing these factors before gams and workouts.

Managing Conflict

Conflict is perceived as a scourge by many. Most of the time, a positive environment is critical to team performance. Nevertheless, seashells and balloons lose their attraction when one leaves the beach and enters the real world. Conflict is not a scourge but a force that is integral to improvement. Conflict is not a problem (although excessive conflict and irresponsibility are problems) and coaches can teach all team members how to use it as a tool. Once conflict is kept in perspective, the team can focus on achieving its common goals.

Playing together entails constant on-court communication. It is unlikely that a player will take issue with “screen left!”, “outlet!” or “double down!” because those words are meant to contribute to team performance. However, cross words may be exchanged over events on the court and hard feelings have arisen between teammates. Teenagers need to understand the value of body language and tone of voice and rehearse giving non-judgmental objective feedback.

Conflict exists in a spectrum, ranging from silent resentment to passive-aggressive behaviour to an all-out Itchy and Scratchy rivalry. In the short term, it can inspire people and create energy that promotes achievement. In the long term, it becomes an obstacle to progress. Conflict resolution is an essential skill ignored by the school system so coaches must often intervene to mitigate player interactions on the team. Practice mindfulness and coping skills as if it were a shooting drill. Coaching is based on relationship so when those have been properly built during times when there is less stress, they are more likely to last if there is some conflict under pressure.

Handling Adversity

Playing hard, playing smart and playing together is an effective method to overcome adversity but it is not easy. When times are tough, young athletes may stop working and freeze, rush decision-making or point the fingers at others. When the Los Angeles Clippers faced adversity from the team ownership, tough opponents and injuries, the team and coach Doc Rivers credit trusting each other and focusing on the task at hand with their success.

Sports provides a litany of chances to work with adversity: completing a drill, gaining playing time, guarding a tough opponent, working with officials and dealing with defeat. Afterwards, there is a chance for a coach to ask the player “how did they feel about that?”, “what can be done differently if this happens again?” or “what are the next steps to resolve this problem?” This reassures a player, establishes a positive relationship and cultivates life skills. Coaches who pay attention to how players deal with adversity in practice or in school will gain a better sense of how to act during games.

A powerful method to deal with adversity is to move on to the next play. Coaches should not be consumed with what happened because players will follow suit; a coach who cannot move on from a referee’s call will encourage players to do likewise. Always think of the game in terms of “Okay, now what?” The team’s philosophy does not change but the specific strategies might: “this is what we want, this is why we want it and here is how we will act now.”

Elite Teamwork Personified

Steve Nash was an ideal teammate in many ways because he epitomized playing hard, playing smart and playing together. Nash worked intently to better his skills (dribbling a tennis ball around the Santa Clara campus, countless workouts) and recover from injuries. He thought about the game intelligently and his passing demonstrated a keen instinct anticipation. Nash would reassure teammates (he was instrumental in the improvement of Goran Dragić) and led the league in high fives and fist bumps. Nash’s attitude and pace of play also modelled the concept of “Next Play” throughout his career.

Teams are owned by the players. Successful teams self-evaluate and push each other to get better throughout the season. Occasionally, teams fall into crisis and when this occurs, the players are ultimately responsible for the resolution. Coaches can recommend actions but players must execute these actions. Steve Nash’s success was earned because he took ownership of himself and the team and took actions which allowed everyone to succeed.