How to Build and Lead High Performance Teams – A Lesson from the NFL

NFL Patriots High Performance Team

How to Build and Lead High Performance Teams – A Lesson from the NFL


As leaders, it is only natural that we want to build and lead high performance teams. But do we truly understand what it takes? When we think or talk about high performing teams, what teams usually come to mind?

Think of the most successful NFL teams in history. What makes them so successful? What’s their ‘secret’ to success?

Is it…

  • the best quarterback player?
  • the players’ strong (yet sometimes envious) physique?
  • the inspiring and leading coach?


Whilst these principles can contribute to success; they are only a small sum of the greater whole.

NFL is more than a great sport. It provides a classroom for learning and instilling self-development. The sport teaches a variety of positive attributes – loyalty, character, discipline, teamwork, and leadership among others. These attributes guide us towards being the leaders of tomorrow.

Whether it’s building and leading a high-performance football or workplace team, the same basic fundamental principles apply.


Let’s consider this further.


1. A Common Purpose

NFL players play with purpose. It is the identity of the team. Not so much what they can do, but who they are, what they stand for, and why they exist. Do your team members know WHY they exist?

Leaders connect personal meaning to a higher purpose to create belief and a sense of direction.

You need to impart a clear vision of where your team should be headed. In the words of US Psychologist Arnold H. Glasgow,


In life, as in football, you wont go far unless you know where the goalposts are.


Bill Walsh, San Francisco’s 49ers coach transformed the worst performing team of its era to the best performing team, through setting realistic expectations from the onset and conveying a strong commitment from leaders and team members to achieve their goals.

Do you do this within your own teams? Do you set regular realistic SMART goals that flow from the common purpose? You as a leader, are responsible for leading your team down the field to success.


2. Understanding Team Dynamics

In comparison to some other sports such as baseball, football is the sport whereby teamwork is essential to success – every player has a key role. Bill Belichick believes,


It is not the strength of the individual players, but it is the strength of the unit and how well they all function together”.


This is also true for your own team. To build and lead a high-performance team, you really need to know each individual team member to strengthen team dynamics.

The specific role that a football player takes on the field is called his ‘position’.

  • What is the ‘position’ of each of your team members?
  • What are their strengths and areas for development?
  • How do they like to be led?
  • What makes them tick?
  • How do they like to receive recognition?
  • How can they ‘play’ well together?


3.Open Communication

I remember somebody telling me once, “Communication is the glue of all personal and professional relationships”. I genuinely believe this. If there are clear and open communication channels, this can build trust and stronger relationships.

In NFL, communication is key both on and off the pitch. All NFL teams ‘huddle’ to communicate vision, provide clarity and demonstrate unity, before, during and after a game. A team cannot maintain a unity of purpose without exceptionally good communication amongst team members.


“Big ears are better than big egos Listen, Learn, Lead”.  Bill Walsh


Do you perform ‘huddles’ within your own teams on a regular basis? Today, teams enjoy recognition and often leaders take too long to recognize their star performers. Huddles provide an opportunity for recognition, support, mutual understanding of team dynamics and direction.


4.Dedicated Coaching

Just like sports teams, high-performance work teams require dedicated coaching – a coach that does what it takes to improve team ability.

The best leaders, like the best NFL coaches, focus on forming a team to not only accomplish a goal, but to help individuals to improve and develop. Great coaches like Vince Lombardi, brought out the best in their team through goal setting, gaining the buy-in, identifying individual strengths and weaknesses, learning from their experiences, fostering humility and trust, and most of all – they never stopped learning.


What can you learn from the greatest NFL coaches to lead your team to perform at their best?

What’s important to remember is that NFL teams can’t win every game. Not every project or idea can be successful either. The question is, ‘What was learnt? What can be improved next time around?’.

So, what is the NFL ‘secret’? There is no secret really. It is simply applying the basic fundamentals to build and lead any high-performance team. However, the great teams do it that little bit better than everyone else.

Find the inner NFL coach within you and begin to lead ‘star players’; and remember, your role doesn’t end when the whistle blows.


Shauna Pancott

Shauna joined OMT in 2017 and has over 4 years’ experience in Learning and Development. She specialises in design, development and delivery of both front line and managerial level management. Shauna comes from a retail family background and has over 4 year’s retail management experience with a multinational retail chain. She has extensive expertise and a true passion for Retail.

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