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The Power of Purpose

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Surpassing our Limits

What is purpose? That implacable determination to keep moving forward. The view that an obstacle does not stop us in our tracks, but provides us an opportunity to surpass our limits. Peoples’ purpose comes from many sources. Our children, our dreams, selfish and altruistic desires, passionate mentors, the list goes on and on. Today I want to talk about a source of motivation and purpose that is common in sports, the power of the team. More specifically, why do some League of Legend teams seem to perform greater than the sum of their players’ talent, and why do Starcraft 2 players, who ultimately perform individually, chose to practice on and represent a team?

A Social Humanity

Groups are a basic phenomenon of humans. The only people who live apart from human society are hermits. Otherwise we all take part in groups of varying size from ethnic groups, nations and cities down to school friends and families. Groups can be digital as well, like the Team Liquid Starcraft community. Each of these groups captures different amounts of our participation, and share common characteristics such as having norms of behavior, roles, leaders, and sharing success and failure. But the ultimate rule of groups is that every single one is different. The dynamic nature of groups makes it difficult to pin down exactly why groups are so prevalent and powerful for human society.

Sports teams are a group that has been studied extensively by sport psychologists who want to determine why some teams succeed and others fail, despite their make up on an individual level. There are some special circumstances that make groups more than the sum of their parts, and because of this fact even individual athletes like swimmers and Starcraft 2 players practice in teams in order to increase their success. Michael Jordan hinted at this when he said:

Naturally, there are going to be ups and downs, particularly if you have individuals trying to achieve at a high level. But when we stepped in between the lines, we knew what we were capable of doing. When a pressure situation presented itself, we were plugged into one another as a cohesive unit. That’s why we were able to come back so often and win so many close games. And that’s why we were able to beat more talented teams.

Cohesion and Performance

Up to 1994 the many studies in this field yielded conflicting results. Studies usually measured cohesion and tried to correlate it with performance. Cohesion is complicated concept but it basically reflects the strength of the bonds that hold a group together. Championship teams were found that had extremely close bonds, but there were also examples of teams with infighting and strife, low cohesion, that conquered the world. In an effort to resolve these conflicting answers two scientists, Brian Mullen and Carolyn Copper, compiled many studies on teams and analyzed the results. They found overall a significant relationship between social cohesion and performance. However, there were two other interesting findings aside from this rather common-sense result. One of them was that it did not seem to matter if the cohesion was social or task related. In other words, teams that built bonds by practicing and teams that grew closer through social events and outings showed similar levels of success, although teams that had strong social interpersonal connections and were also very committed to their task were optimal. The second interesting finding was that among all the types of groups studied, (military, business, family, etc.) the sports teams showed the highest relationship between social cohesion and performance.

What this research means is that if you are winning already, then you are probably increasing your cohesion and will do even better in the future. If you are losing right now, then working on your team’s cohesion may increase your chance of success. As with all professional training, this is all about consistency. Your team’s goal should be to consistently perform at the top of its potential, continually improve, and succeed more than you lose.

Jason Lezak’s Motivation

My favorite example of the power of purpose to help humans overcome their limits of performance comes from my own sport, swimming, in the 2008 Beijing olympics. Michael Phelps was still on his way to collecting his world shattering eighth gold medal and the French 4x100M Mens Freestyle relay team was a huge roadblock in his path as the favorites to win the event. Jason Lezak was the anchor of the team and a 32-year-old veteran of the 2000 and 2004 olympics where the US team had lost its dominance in the event and been trounced by the competition.

This year they had prepared more than usual together and had promised each other that it was the year to take back the sprinting crown. However, the numbers stacked against them were staggering and when Lezak, who is often called a ‘professional relay racer’ jumped into the pool for the final leg he was .6 seconds behind Alain Bernard, the fastest 100M Freestyle swimmer in the world and who would go on to set a new world record in the individual event two days later. But it got even worse since Alain set a blistering pace and pulled ahead to finish his half-way turn at .82 seconds ahead of Lezak. Now Lezak was faced with 50M of pool against a man whom he had never swum faster than and who had a devastating lead on him. To put this swimming time gap into perspective, it’s like racing Usain Bolt in the 100m dash but giving him a 10m head start, and then aiming to beat him. It was an impossible feat.

Except for one thing. Alain Bernard was swimming for himself and to beat the Americans, but Jason Lezak had a higher purpose. He was fighting to recapture the pride of his nation. He was swimming for possibly his last chance to prove himself on the olympic stage, a place he had failed to succeed in Athens and Sydney. Most important of all, he was swimming for his teammates.

Do you ever wonder why swimmers scream and cheer when their teammates are swimming and can’t hear a word of what they are saying? As one who has been in the water before, I’ll tell you that we can feel it. We can feel the pressure and the will flowing out from the poolside passion and that desire to see a friend end victorious. And that day Jason banished his negative thoughts on the flip-turn, hugged the lane line to draft on Alain, and dug into to the water to swim the fastest relay split in the history of swimming. His time was a nearly 1.5 seconds faster than he has ever swum the event before or since. Incidentally it is also a second faster than anybody in history has yet to swim the 100M Freestyle individual race.

The mechanism between motivation and sprinting in the brain is well understood in theory. All humans have evolutionarily bred safety mechanisms embedded in our brains that monitor and limit our bodies exertion. Training the body to overcome those limits is as much a mental feat as it is a physical one, and every ounce of motivation and purpose help in that regard. In more complicated team sports like hockey, basketball, and League of Legends, it is less clear what the mechanism is that allows such dominate performance to be achieved. Many people liken it to flow state, but in my mind it owes to a myriad of factors such as the overarching desire to win for the sake of others that helps performers set aside their personal misgivings, fears, and doubts and focus completely on the task at hand.

Improving the Group

League of Legends is interesting to watch because it is a team game. Unlike individual sports like Starcraft 2, which epitomize pure, individual talent, the League of Legend player must play as part of a cohesive unit to be effective. To me, the most exciting moments of competitive LoL are when teams clash and the underdog triumphs through sheer coordination despite the momentum being against them. When I sit down to consider teamwork and how to enhance it for the average LoL team, several questions come to mind. What are the roles in the team? Is there a good compatibility, does everybody have a clearly defined role that they feel they can push themselves to fulfill, or are there members who are more lost about their place on the team. What are the norms? Does everybody agree with the culture and behavior of the group and understand how they transform those into success? And lastly, how does leadership flow during competition and practice? Is it fluid and well understood, or is there confusion about who is providing leadership in all the moments that present themselves?

There are many things in life that can give purpose. From religion to selfishness, from challenges and limitations to driving passions; all of these can motivate people to rise up and surpass themselves again and again. Teams are one of these purpose-creating environments. They gift us motivation from the desire to support one another and achieve a common dream. In my mind, the core attribute that a team gives us is that motivation. Sports teams always face adversity, but it is overcoming that adversity which makes them even stronger and more successful in the future.