What your team can learn from huddles in elite sport
This is a guest post by Latanya Wilson, a Commonwealth Games Silver medalist and Jamaican international netballer. Latanya is currently playing in Australia's Suncorp Super Netball League for the Adelaide Thunderbirds.
Let me tell you a story
I vividly remember playing against the West Coast Fever and being down by six goals with only a few minutes left on the clock. Our vice-captain called for a timeout. During the pause, we were able to huddle together and regroup, refocus, and share ideas on a strategy for the final moments of the match.
Our vice-captain delivered a motivating speech, emphasising the importance of teamwork, trust, and support. With the new boost of confidence, we were able to execute well-coordinated plays that led to a winning goal and secured our victory with a one-goal lead.
The magic of a huddle
Looking back to that day, it really highlights how a well-executed huddle can be a turning point in a match. It helped us to course correct and instil the necessary drive to overcome our challenges and achieve success.
So what exactly is a huddle?
In elite sport, we see a huddle as a valuable tool for gathering players of the same team, as we come together in a tight circle, to discuss strategies, motivate each other and coordinate our efforts.
It serves as a brief moment of unity and focus before or during a game, allowing our team to align our objectives and communicate our ideas, insights and information.
But I believe its purpose has evolved beyond just that, to also help foster a sense of unity amongst team mates whenever and wherever we're together.
Why we love to huddle
The huddle in elite team sports is able to intelligently serve several important objectives that ultimately contribute to the team's overall success.
For example, I've found they provide a platform for us to:
- Take a brief pause from the intensity of competition
- Share real-time information and ideas for adjustments
- Discuss our tactics and align our strategies
- Ensure everyone understands what they need to do next
- Reorient our mindset and get motivated towards our goal
Let's have a look at these in more detail.
Through the huddle, players can convey essential instructions, game plans, and adjustments in real-time, ensuring that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities. Exchanging and discussing ideas within the huddle allows us as players to adapt to the current game situation as well as the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents. Just think back to that amazing West Coast Fever victory and how we were able to quickly course correct and put into action a new strategy to change the result.
The huddle also plays a vital role in building team morale and cohesion, thereby serving as an intelligent tool for unity and motivation. It brings us as players together in a close-knit circle, symbolising for everyone our collective commitment and shared purpose. We can then motivate and inspire each other, boosting confidence and fostering a sense of togetherness. This helps a team overcome challenges, especially during critical moments.
One benefit to a huddle that may often go overlooked, is how it allows players to mentally prepare ourselves before a game or during crucial moments. It provides us with a brief pause in the intensity of the competition, giving us a chance to refocus our attention and concentrate on the task at hand. By regrouping and centering ourselves within the huddle, we can block out distractions and reorient our mindset towards our goal, which is winning!
Types of huddles
Come game day, the crowd are in the stadium, the pressure is on and it's time to get a result. So teams will utilise various types of huddles with a slightly different approach for each.
Pre-game huddles which happen before a game or match, are typically held in the changing room or on the court and go into a higher level of well prepared detail. The purpose of doing this is to set the tone, focus the team's mindset, and reinforce the game plan. This is where the players deliver longer motivational pep talks, emphasise key strategies, and boost team morale. I love how it serves as a final moment of preparation and unity before stepping onto the court to play.
Halftime huddles on the other hand, occur during the break between halves or periods of a game. They provide a shorter opportunity for the team to regroup, assess their performance, and make necessary quick adjustments. Halftime huddles are essential for addressing any issues or challenges encountered in the first half and rapidly devising strategies to overcome them in the second half. I've seen our coaches use these to provide feedback, offer tactical suggestions, and motivate us to maintain or improve our performance for the remainder of the game.
Timeout huddles occur during a game when a team calls for a temporary pause in the game. They offer a brief chance for the team to gather and refocus, especially in critical moments or when instant decisions need to be made. Timeout huddles are valuable for discussing strategies, evaluating the opponents' tactics, making substitutions, and addressing any urgent concerns in real-time. It's amazing how our coaches and players can use this super short huddle to make all the necessary adjustments on the fly, so we can regain control of the game!
My 5 key elements of a successful huddle
From my experience playing netball all over the world for a variety of teams and coaches, I've found a successful huddle relies on 5 key elements:
- Transparent leadership
- Open communication and trust
- Clear objectives and focus
- A concrete action plan with accountability measures
- Praise and a celebration of the wins
Where possible, the leaders should regularly bring everyone together, while promoting open communication to foster collaboration, problem-solving, trust and mutual support.
Clearly communicating the huddle's purpose and establishing specific goals helps keep the discussion on track, maximising its efficiency and effectiveness, and avoids wasting time. The huddle should conclude with a clear action plan and assign specific actions or strategies to individual team members, fostering progress and accountability within the team. And don't forget to use praise and celebrate the wins, to further boost morale.
My 3 tips for running a successful huddle
Set SMART goals and expectations: Clearly outline Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART) goals and objectives for each huddle. Communicate the specific topics to be discussed, and the desired outcomes, ensuring that everyone is on the same page and helping maintain focus during the huddle.
Establish a routine and structure: Create a consistent routine for your huddles. In sport, that can happen pretty naturally on a game day for example, but for you that might need some more thought. Decide on the frequency, duration, and timing that works best for your team. Developing a structured segment for strategy, feedback, and motivation plays a major role. A well-established routine promotes efficiency and familiarity among team members.
Encourage open dialogue and participation: Foster an environment of open dialogue, where all team members feel safe and comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas. Encourage active participation, make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak and be heard. It underscores the value of diverse perspectives and creates a secure space for constructive feedback.
Speaking from personal experience, as an international player who moved across the world to join a new team, I was at first hesitant to really be honest with my coaches and teammates. I'd often found in my upbringing that speaking up could result in me losing my place on the team.
But after joining a team that use huddles in the safe, positive and effective way that I've described above, I finally felt confident to speak up without fear.
And I guarantee that my team is all the better for it.