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Will You Try This Coach’s 3H Exercise to Build a Strong Bond?

What do you do when you have twenty-two talented individuals who need to hit the ground running, work together, and anticipate each other’s needs as if they’ve known each other their whole lives? UFL head football coach Mike Nolan answers this question at the beginning of every preseason.

For thirty-three years, Mike has been forming camaraderie and gelling players so they can think and play as if they’re one unit for more than one hundred fifty plays a game. He’s learned that sharing who we are with one another can build an unshakable bond.

The power of three Hs

Many of you know that in my book, I talk about the importance of a 3H-Core of honesty, humility, and heart when it comes to positively influencing others. Well, Mike has his own three Hs when he’s creating chemistry on a team. That chemistry is conjured by having each player share a hardship, hero they admire, or highlight in their life. “And if that doesn’t inspire any ideas,” Mike chuckles, “they talk about their tattoos.” And why not? There’s usually a personal story behind why someone chooses their tattoo—why it is meaningful to them.

While the objective is to get each player in front of the room to talk a little bit, they often end up sharing for thirty minutes to an hour. When the coaches come back from each of the respective rooms where they met by player position, the staff is always amazed by the stories they hear, the trajectory of each player, and how they arrived at this level of play.

Let’s unpack the power of Mike’s coaching exercise:

Connection through shared experiences

When every player shares their story, their teammates have the privilege of bearing witness to the hardships that person in the front of the room has experienced, to what inspires them, or to what is personally meaningful to them. Now the teammates are connected through their shared stories and understand what experiences brought everyone to this point in time, to this team.

Building blocks of trust

While the transparency of the player is important, listening on the part of their teammates is equally critical. You’re saying to the speaker, “I hear you; I see who inspires you” or “I know what you’ve been through to get here.” That exchange between the person who is sharing and the players who are listening forms the building blocks of trust. And that trust is what serves the players when they have to lean on each other for more than a hundred plays in a game.

Creating a feedback climate

When Mike tells me about this exercise, he reflects on what a positive ripple effect his 3 Hs have on the fifty-plus players. “It really starts to build some bridges between people … and you get closer, and closer, and closer. It also makes it easier for everyone to communicate about things that someone might typically be quiet about,” says Mike. Constructive criticism is part of a coaching environment, so without this foundation of trust, offering feedback on a daily—sometimes hourly—basis might cause players to feel insecure or fearful about their status on the team. Thanks to the team building they’ve done, players are more likely to accept that the feedback they receive is coming from a positive place rather than a negative one.

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The importance of creating a positive climate for feedback on the field is not unlike the culture leaders need to cultivate for the office. Coworkers on a team need to feel a connection of trust with their colleagues so that when mistakes are made, offering constructive feedback will result in a desire to improve rather than a need for self-preservation or denial. When leaders engage employees by sharing with them incrementally over time and they feel comfortable to reciprocate, leaders build a foundation of psychological safety.

Next time you have the opportunity to meet with your team, consider engaging in an exercise similar to Mike’s. Remember that sharing begins with the leader—don’t expect your folks to do the sharing first. Set the tone with your own vulnerability so others feel comfortable to follow. While you may not have one hundred fifty plays to execute in a day, you certainly will deliver on that many and more over time. It’s worth cultivating a connection your team can turn to, especially when you’re grooming your staff to learn from their mistakes and channel their resilience for the next challenge.  

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