Cracking the Code to Building an Elite Team

This article is provided by Coaches Toolbox, a collection of free resources for coaches of all sports

By Cory Dobbs, Ed.D., The Academy for Sport Leadership

“A team is not just a collection of individuals.  When everyone clicks into place, a team is truly a community, a tightly knit fellowship.” 

Many coaches are expert tacticians, strategists, and teachers of techniques.   Few are adept at building teams.  I mean high-performing teams.  Think Seal Team Six.  The elite fighting force, the team that captured Osama Bin Laden.  Sure, your team may master an offense or a defense, but it’s a fact that most teams don’t reach an elite level of teamwork.  To do so requires a deliberate and intense effort to building the team.  As a researcher I’ve studied hundreds of teams and can only conclude few teams, won-loss records aside, ever achieve an elite level.  Study after study of elite teams, like Seal Team Six, continue to reveal it’s not the personnel but processes that lead to an elite level team.

Take a moment and re-read the quote above.  I’ve purposefully left off the name of the author.  I did so out of respect for his work, but I do find this quote to be lacking in terms of action-ability.   Most coaches and players unknowingly live by a “click or clash” framework of relationship building.  That is, some people just click together while others clash with one another.  And it’s rarely explicit, but very implicit—teammates prefer to go along to get along.  Not in elite teams.

At its most dynamic level a team is a system, a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system architects.  This differs from the most basic level of a team as a collection of players.  When the process of team building becomes more strategic, the calculus changes.  A laissez-faire approach changes to a more direct and deliberate approach.  Relationship building becomes the central focus.  Relationship is everything.  When you see the process of team building as social system, then the integrity of every interpersonal interaction is essential to developing an intensive teaming capability.

I’ve uncovered, through wide-ranging research and practice, twenty principles and concepts and isolated eight “roles” that are necessary for building elite teams.  Yes, I’ve cracked the code to building high-performance teams.  High-performing teams make deliberate teamwork their focus.

The Teamwork Intelligence approach is a disciplined way of thinking about and building a high-performing team; it involves discussing teamwork as both a system and a set of processes.  This allows us to explore the context in which teamwork occurs, the characteristics of the coaches and players, individual and team values, experience, the timing of events, the history in which teamwork is embedded, and how teamwork intelligence plays a role in individual and collective successes and failures.   Teamwork intelligence delves into team work as a process and as a way to understand the person (both players and coaches) embedded within a system.

To think about teamwork as a system, we need to consider the inputs, such as training for teamwork intelligence, the process, which we can describe as the system and the context in which the players and coaches interact, and the outcomes, which are the levels of motivation, performance, and well-being of players and coaches.   To leverage the process of teamwork intelligence I have designed five building blocks that must be operationalized:  (1) the four dimensions of team building and the associated eight roles of teamwork; (2) the three mindsets of a team player; (3) the three layers of a team player; (4) the five core concerns of every team member, and (5) the five forces of performance-enhancing relationships.  By optimizing these five components—the teamwork intelligence system—we are able to enhance each individual’s vital force and, in turn, the collective force of the team.


Teamwork Intelligence is the purposeful and intentional relational process of team members together raising one another to higher levels of motivation, collaboration, compassion, and performance.  It’s deceptively simple: in order to build a high-performing team you have to create the conditions for team members to commit and unify—to coalesce into a single organism.  Such oneness is not inevitable; it is forged methodically and deliberately.

A significant aspect of teamwork intelligence is knowing the expectations one should have of one’s teammates.  One of the most significant expectations is that of high-level ownership with the purpose of each player investing in the development of a high-performing team.  Through expectations and collective achievements, identification, loyalty, and trust are built.  The goal and expected outcome is the development of the team’s full potential.

Extreme Ownership is a central concept of Teamwork Intelligence.  Teamwork Intelligence is not only about teaching student-athletes how to comply with a set of rules and procedures; it is about recognizing the profound difference between compliance-based behavior and values-based performance.  Extreme Ownership is about creating a culture in which every team member is committed to performance excellence and team member wellness based on personal commitment to the best interests of the team.  Extreme Ownership occurs when student-athletes own their personal learning and performance as well as team learning and performance.

Teamwork Intelligence generates higher levels of autonomy, extra effort, commitment, performance, and satisfaction.  High performance is what the student-athlete wants to do, not because it brings personal glory, but because they feel a sense of extreme ownership of the team.  The extreme owner is all in as a team player and willingly goes all out for the team.

I’ve seen enough to validate the claim that knowing what to do can lead to higher levels of doing.  However, I’ve also observed far too frequently a high degree of learned helplessness.  Student-athletes have, for the most part, grown up in a sport system in which they prefer to wait for the coach to take corrective action, to “instill” motive and values, and basically avoid taking responsibility for the building of the team.  This is why elite teams are emphatic about deliberately building a team and insistent on teamwork intelligence.

Teamwork Intelligence provides a framework for seeing interrelationships of the elements of the team system rather than static “snapshots” that tend to distort the differences between a mediocre team and a high-performing team.   Teamwork Intelligence provides a set of principles and includes a set of specific tools and techniques (such as role clarification provided by The Eight Roles of Teamwork) for building a high-performance team.  Investing in the development of relationships will pay off.

Okay, so are you willing to invest time, energy, and resources into developing an elite team?  If so, get started as soon as possible.   Explore the principles and practices The Academy for Sport Leadership has discovered and developed and teach in our Teamwork Intelligence Workshop.

To find out more about and order Sport Leadership Books authored by Dr. Dobbs including Coaching for Leadership, click this link: The Academy for Sport Leadership Books

About Cory Dobbs, Ed.D.

Cory Dobbs is the founder of The Academy for Sport Leadership and a nationally recognized thought leader in the areas of leadership and team building.  Cory is an accomplished researcher of human experience. Cory engages in naturalistic inquiry seeking in-depth understanding of social phenomena within their natural setting (visit

A former basketball coach, Cory’s coaching background includes experience at the NCAA DII, NJCAA, and high school levels of competition.  After a decade of research and development Cory unleashed the groundbreaking Teamwork Intelligence program for student-athletics. Teamwork Intelligence illuminates the process of designing an elite team by using the 20 principles and concepts along with the 8 roles of a team player he’s uncovered while performing research.

Cory has worked with professional athletes, collegiate athletic programs, and high schools teaching leadership and team building as a part of the sports experience and education process.  As a consultant and trainer Dr. Dobbs has worked withFortune 500 organizations such as American Express, Honeywell, and Avnet, as well as medium and small businesses.

Dr. Dobbs has taught leadership and organizational change at Northern Arizona University, Ohio University, and Grand Canyon University.

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