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  • Writer's pictureShari Bowles Gibbons

Extraordinary Teams. Extraordinary Results.

1980 US Olympic Hockey Team

I was recently taking a second look at Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and was reminded of the thrilling 1980 Olympic hockey match between the US and the USSR.

Arguably one of the most iconic sports victories of all time (Sports Illustrated named the “Miracle on Ice” one of the top sports moments of the 20th Century), US Coach Herb Brooks led a transformative shift in strategy and approach that created the opening for a true ‘David and Goliath’ win against the Russians that floored the entire world.

Using methodologies detailed in their book entitled Who Will Win the Big Game? A Psychology and Mathematical Method, authors Carlton J. Chin and Jay P. Granat calculated that the odds of the US beating the Russians going into the Olympics were 1,000 to 1. In fact, just a few days prior to the Olympics, Brooks scheduled an exhibition game for the US Olympic team to play the Soviets for the very first time and Russians pummeled the Americans, winning 10-3.

How did Brooks take a group of amateur hockey players, the youngest in the competition, and build a team in seven short months that could defeat the Soviets, who were the four-time Olympic defending champions?

Brooks had a clear vision as to how the Russians could be beat. He knew that the traditional US style of play wasn’t competitive, and they needed to adapt new methodologies by blending tactics and strategies from the top competitors in the world – the Canadians and the Russians.

He focused on conditioning, creativity, and most of all, team work. Brooks didn’t necessarily pick the best technical players, he chose the players who could best contribute to the team.

Herb Brooks, US Olympic Hockey Coach

Having studied psychology at the University of Minnesota, Brooks gave each of his players a 300-page questionnaire that detailed how they would perform under stress, so he knew exactly how far he could push each one of them.

Outside of talent, he knew each player was extremely open minded, coachable, hungry, competitive, focused, and mentally tough. He also knew that team chemistry would be the difference between success and failure, so he used this as the underpinning of a new hybrid style of play blending Canadian and Soviet methodologies focusing on superior conditioning, speed, and creativity.

Most people miss the brilliance of scheduling the Soviet exhibition game just prior to the Olympics. By then the team was at its peak condition, but they still had yet to experience the power of the Soviet team first hand and getting the 10-3 loss behind them before it really counted allowed them to enter the Olympic tournament with the proper mind-set.

The Soviets undoubtedly were the better team, but all the US team needed to believe was that they had the capacity to beat them – even if it was just once.

Fueled by this defeat, The US Hockey Team’s performance during the early part of the Olympic tournament delivered stunning results so that by the time they earned their way to the medal round where they had to play the Soviets, their chances of winning moved from 1,000 to 1 in pre-tournament stats to now 17 to 1 (per Chin & Granat’s model).

Brooks’ locker room speech to his team: ‘If we play them ten times they might win nine, but not this game. Not tonight…. Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.’

It’s meant to be. This is your moment and it’s going to happen.’

Either way, the point is the team needed to believe that they had the capacity to win – even if the Russians were the better team. They needed to have the mind-set of true champions. And they did.

If we were to look at this case study through the lens of Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, we would see that Herb Brooks created all of the elements of a truly successful team:

TRUST: The players that were brutal rivals from Boston University and University of Minnesota disregarded their grudges, relied on each other’s skills, putting the team’s needs above their individual preferences.

CONFLICT: Brooks created an environment of healthy competition and conflict to extract and exploit the contributions of all team members to the fullest.

COMMITMENT: Brooks aligned the entire team around the common objective of winning the gold and beating the Russians with clarity and purpose.

ACCOUNTABILITY: Brooks demanded respect among team members and they were held to the same high-performance standards

RESULTS: Brooks’ emphasis on team chemistry minimized individualistic behaviors whereby individuals subjugated their own goals/interests for the good of the team.

With these key building blocks in place, Brooks and this extraordinary team had the capacity to defeat the Russians and then Finland in the final Gold medal round for the most unexpected results in US Olympic history.

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