Michigan Wolverines: Competence, Confidence, Community

When teams perform well, credit goes to their leaders, often at the team’s expense. Good leaders know that little gets done if team members do not coalesce around the mission.

A case in point might be the Michigan Wolverines, which captured its first national championship title in over a quarter century. This year was their first trip to the national game after two tries at the playoff series, which ended in losses. The team was committed to staying together and going for it all.

Overcoming adversity

Standing in the way were not merely their opponents, including the always formidable Ohio State and Alabama and undefeated Washington this year. A couple of cheating scandals marked this season; both focused on head coach Jim Harbaugh, who was suspended the first three games of the season as well as the last three games. This situation left the Michigan players relying more on themselves than the head coach. 

[It must be noted that two coordinator coaches, Jesse Minter on defense and Sherrone Moore on offense, led the team ably in Harbaugh’s absence. Moore served as head coach for the last three games, and arguably the toughest part of the regular season schedule.]

The late Pat Summitt, who won 8 NCAA basketball titles as head coach of the Lady Volunteers at Tennessee, told her biographer Sally Jenkins that when a team is cohering and playing well together, “you can hear it.” The players have each other’s backs and can be audible in how they interact. 

If such coherence were audible at Michigan, it would be a roar. Game after game. Time after time. Situation after situation, when adversity struck, they did not bend nor break. They became more robust, and as my colleague and author Eileen McDargh likes to say, they would be transformed – stronger, better, and wiser.

Leveraging resilience

One word to apply would be resilience, and from this team, we can learn that what matters most truly in sports is who is on the field, not who’s off it. Players count on one another to do their jobs. The lessons for those who do not play the game come down to three factors.

Competence. People know their jobs and do them. Competency can also be contagious, especially when new team members come on board. The veterans take them under their wing and school them.

Confidence. From doing a job well comes confidence, the feeling that comes from doing the job well. While immediate tasks are accomplished, the mission still needs to be completed. Fulfillment of the mission requires the continuation of functions and the commitment to keep working toward a common goal.

Community. When teams cooperate, they lay the foundation for collaboration, where individuals create something that emerges from the collective effort of people pulling together as one. Call it community, where individuals feel they belong because their voices are heard and their contributions are recognized.

One team. One goal.

When competence breeds confidence and creates community, the team operates as one. It can focus on the job without being distracted by the outside noise. Things may not always turn out right, but in the moment, the team is clicking, and in the parlance of Pat Summitt, you can hear it.

“It doesn’t happen unless all 11 are clicking,” said quarterback J. J. McCarthy summed up what it means to play as a team.  “The players, they really can’t make the plays unless everyone’s on the same page. So all credit goes to everybody out there on the field and the coaches.”

Blake Corum, who scored two touchdowns, said, “We’ve proven a point. We’re a good team… We went through a lot of adversity this year, but to everyone who said we shouldn’t be in the natty, or they shouldn’t have been allowed to be in the College Football Playoff. What are you going to say now? You’re just wasting your breath at this point.”

What the Michigan football team accomplished is laudable. Its sense of teamwork holds lessons for those who play the game as well as for those who work in teams.

First posted on Forbes.com 1.09.2024