Teamwork Lessons from Teenage Athletes

We recently had the opportunity to tour with the Western Cape U17 basketball teams. Whilst we know that in business we can learn a lot from top sports teams, we were amazed at what we learnt about high performance teams from these teenage athletes. Their focus, resilience and success in the face of adversity was phenomenal to experience.

Read on to hear more about the 4 Teamwork Insights they taught us

At Olakira our vision is to help our clients shape opportunity into success. So when we became aware that the Western Cape U17 basketball teams were unable to attend the 2023 National Championships because their funding had fallen through, we sprang into action! It was inconceivable to us that these committed young athletes would not be able to compete in a tournament that represents the ultimate test of their ability. Even more heartbreaking was knowing that if they did not attend they could not be considered for the 2024 U18 Springbok team which was to be selected at the tournament. If ever there was a moment for us to to ‘shape opportunity’ this was it!


After many hours of hard work together with the players, their parents and the Western Cape Basketball Association, in just two weeks we successfully raised the R300 000 that was needed to get the 24 girls and boys and their 6 coaches to Bloemfontein, prepared and equipped to perform. And that they did!


The girls team secured the Silver medal and the boys the Bronze medal. 8 girls and 7 boys were selected for the 2024 U18 Springbok Squad. A phenomenal achievement! We wish them every success as they move on to the final selection camp and then to compete for the country next year!


Apart from the privilege of being a part of this extraordinary achievement, for us at Olakira it was a vital practical lesson in what it takes to be a high performing team. These determined and positive teenagers demonstrated leadership and teamwork qualities that we and our clients spend our whole careers striving to master. We thought we’d share some of the insights we gained.


1. The Power of Diversity

Basketball is a sport that truly attracts the full breadth of our rainbow nation. The players come from enormously diverse backgrounds. Despite some coming from the humble dwellings of Khaylitsha, others from the leafy streets of Constantia, and some even further afield from the rolling hills of the Paarl Valley and beyond, they were united by their shared passion for their sport. 

Their origins and superficial differences were irrelevant to them. They were a team, and they needed to perform as a team to win. We saw how they automatically accepted each other, openly appreciated everyone’s individual skills, believed in their coaches, respected the rules of the game, and were committed to working hard. This provided a shared set of values that they all lived and breathed. It forged an incredibly strong bond that allowed each player to be the best version of themselves, unleashing their unique talent to the benefit of the team. Originas

Key Insight 

Diversity on its own is not enough to build a high performing team. The value comes when a solid base of trust and an environment of acceptance allows that diversity to emerge and flourish, grounded in a shared value set that guides common behaviours. 

2. The Importance of Purpose

Relative to the other podium winners, the Western Cape team arrived less resourced, less equipped and less practiced because of the lateness of their funding. But this didn’t factor into the mindsets or intentions of these athletes. They were deeply grateful to be able to attend the championship, passionate about representing their province well and determined to prove their capability. Despite their limited resources and humble arrival at the competition, their ambition was to secure a medal position! Which they convincingly did!

Even when tournament management and organisation issues resulted in prolonged delays and suboptimal playing conditions, fatigue and despondency had no place for them. The team never lost sight of their objective. Every match was treated like the final. Their positivity, energy and enthusiasm was hugely contagious, even attracting the support of many of the other teams and spectators as they clawed their way to the final rounds. Whilst they may not have secured the Gold, to the surprise and admiration of their competitors, they emerged as the most represented province in the national squad! 

Key Insight

Passion is essential on any team. It promotes commitment and ensures enjoyment, but it doesn’t guarantee performance. Performance emerges when passion is combined with purpose. Purpose provides the clarity, motivation and impetus to attain superior levels of achievement. It enables a team to seek and accept the harsh realities that inevitably arise and then to improvise responses that keep them on track. This focused nimbleness is a hallmark of top teams!

3. The Value of Tough Love

Despite the players’ innate talent and their will and determination to win, without top notch coaching their potential would not have been met.

We were especially impressed by the incredible role model the girls’ team’s manager provided. She was so committed to the team’s success that she chose to spend her school holiday touring with them (she is a school sports coach), which meant her 8 month old baby had to travel to Bloemfontein with her which included a ten hour bus trip both ways. Despite this additional responsibility, she was never distracted from her role as coach. With her infant on her hip, or in the willing care of team supporters, she encouraged and directed the team to victory after victory. Unfazed by the tournament chaos around her, she took charge beyond her remit to bring order and sense to proceedings while constantly communicating with concerned parents back home. She brought comfort, calm and focus to the girls which was a major contributor to their success. 

It wasn’t all softly-softly though! As teenagers will do, they pushed the boundaries. Staying up too late, being forgetful and sometimes forgetting their manners. Both the team manager and coach held a firm line on their expectations of the team. They clearly articulated the plans and timelines and explained the consequences for being tardy or unprepared. Discipline was meted out gently, respectfully and consistently so it only took one morning of consequences being felt for the team to adjust their behaviour and begin to hold each other to account.


Key Insight

Team members need four things to flourish: Know me, Value me, Focus me and Grow me. The first two come from the relationships and respect we build with each other. These form the bedrock to achieve the other two. ‘Focus me’ and ‘Grow me’ need ongoing coaching which often involves a healthy does of tough love. This requires a careful balance of encouragement, clarity, discipline and constructive criticism. This coaching is equally important when received from fellow team mates as well as from the team leader, coach or manager. 


4. Work, Eat, Rest, Repeat

One of the best things about being around teenagers is their zest for life. Despite the pressure, anxiety and hard work it took to compete it was a joy to hear their laughter and see the fun they were having together. But between matches there was a need for some downtime – napping, surfing social media, listening to music or just spending time alone. It was also helpful to blow off some steam when the pressure was mounting through bantering and goofing around. And a lot of refuelling was needed with a mountain of energy bars, water and fruit consumed!


Importantly, every evening was spent together as a team. They ate and relaxed together in their dorm rooms and a real highlight was an evening out at the Spur. Even though the coaches banned fizzy drinks and fried food to avoid lethargy on the court, it didn’t get in the way of their bonding, joking and reliving of the match highlights together. As the week wore on and the match intensity increased, it was inspiring to see them return to the court every morning refreshed and full of energy just hours after dragging weary limbs onto the bus each evening. 

Key Insight

To sustain their value to the team, great team players build in time to refuel and recharge. Great team leaders recognise the importance of investing time, and money, into creating opportunities for their teams to build relationships off the court. High performing teams enjoy spending time together and through their hard work they develop a real appreciation for each other as people, beyond the day job. 


Whilst none of these insights were completely ‘new’ to us, it was invaluable to have them reinforced in such an inspiring way by these impressive teenage athletes. What a gift it was to be a part of their success!

We would love to work with you, your leaders and your teams to help shape your opportunities into successful reality. Our work with executive teams provides a simple framework and a rich toolkit to raise your impact and effectiveness. Contact us to hear more about how our approach can help you and your business

For further information or support, please feel free to email us or make use of our contact us form..

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