High Performance Teams Are NOT A Family

Oh boy… (Going to get myself in trouble with this one!)

I know, I know…. For many of us, the sheer utterance that sport is not a family is sacrilege. Yet, when I listened to Jack Clark (UC Berkeley rugby coach) on Finding Mastery: Conversations with Michael Gervais say it, I sat up straight. And, to be honest, had one of those “Yessss!” moments.

It was honest. And, accurate.

Look, I get it. When these types of emotional moments happen, I’m all 😢 (the happy kind though).

I want my kid to experience that kind of bond. Who doesn’t?!

The commentator says, “they recruit to love each other.” Awesome. Finding a safe and positive sport experience is mission critical. That’s the salespitch—too.

And, at the same time, in high performance environments – be it in sports or business – your team is not your family.

In a family, the real kind, for the most part, your inclusion in it, is unconditional.

In high performance, your participation in it is, frankly, very conditional.

In college, at all levels, athletes get cut, recruited over, scholarships (which are not guaranteed!) get revoked, etc.

[Geez, just follow the FBI’s investigation into NCAA college basketball. It pulls back the curtain on the “underlying moral calculus of amateurism—the insidious, upside-down reasoning that labels a labor-exploiting, self-admitted cartel clean and the mere act of earning what you’re worth dirty.” Ya… doesn’t sound very familial to me. There’s more here, here, and here.]

I digress…

In the pros, players are released, waived, traded, offered below market contracts—all the time.

Same, same with national team athletes.

Coaches and support staff, in college, the pros and on national teams, get fired, hired over, hit glass ceilings, leave for greener pastures, etc.

Now, I know that there are quite a few parents who would happily package one – or some – of their kids in a sign-and-trade for a first-round pick in the upcoming Draft. Not happening. Sorry. That’s the beautiful burden of family.

Not so in sport.

Here’s a transcript of the conversation…

Michael Gervais: I’ve read that you don’t see sport as family. And that’s a misguided attempt to create bonding. And, I’m going to nod my head because it feels like a cheap way to tell people that they matter. Where in family it’s supposed to be unconditional. And, that’s not always the case but… Can you talk about that piece of team bonding? Cohesion. Relationships.

Jack Clark: I mean, I don’t want to overstate it. Because I do believe if you care about one another it’s pretty important.

Caring about one another is important.

If we genuinely care about one another, it’s going to help the team perform. It’s going to really contribute to the culture of the team – immeasurably. So I think it’s the right thing to do to have empathy for each other; to be kind to each other and care about one another.

It might just be semantics, but I roll my eyes sometimes at the notion that we [in high performance sport] describe ourselves so frequently as a family, when family, as you point out, is unconditional. High performance teams are highly, highly conditional. There’s a requirement to contribute to the middle… to do your job… to perform… to put your guts into it.

You can’t really research a high performance organization of any type where you don’t come to that conclusion; that there’s a lot of conditions here. And that it’s not right for everyone. That those conditions help this organization operate and succeed.

And, I think that’s how high performance teams are. I think they’re highly conditional.

That doesn’t mean they don’t care about one another. It just means that it’s not like you’ve got to ‘accept me for who I am’… or, if that means, ‘you can’t trust me or if I’m not punctual or if I break rules or if I don’t give full effort, you’ve got to accept that.’ That’s not true. You don’t accept that in high performance athletics.

Michael Gervais: Meaning that people get fired?

Jack Clark:  People get fired. People get cut. People separate from the team – coaches and players. There’s an expectation in a high performance team that every is putting everything they have into it.


We have a predisposition in sports to “take the positives” out of any experience. As Matthew Syed shares in his book Bounce, it’s “a psychological technique so universal that its become part of the lexicon.”

Simply put, it means that we have a bias toward focusing on the good aspects of a situation (performance or environment) and ignore the bad. Syed goes on: we have “learned to filter out unwanted evidence in order to sustain an exaggerated belief.”

We all do it. That’s why so many of us fall prey to doing things the way they’ve always been done. We choose to focus on the likes from past experience and disregard the dislikes.

Doublethink. That’s what George Orwell called it in his novel 1984:

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. … [T]o forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed.”

Two sides of the same coin

So, this is the rub… High performance teams are both caring *and* conditional. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and .

It’s all about establishing relationships. It’s about consistently and continuously taking small daily actions that say I care about you.

Relationships, built on a shared purpose, safety, honesty, and contribution, can as Daniel Coyle puts it in The Culture Code, “transform the way people relate, how they feel, and how they behave.”

When you establish that type of connection among members of the team, those relationships start to feel like a family. Yet, they’re (still) not. And, that’s okay. It’s a condition of the pursuit of excellence in any high stakes environment.

It’s okay to acknowledge the contradiction. In fact, it’s imperative—to be honest.


What do you think? Is it just semantics? Can high performance teams be a family (in the generally accepted notion of the word)? If so, how?

Talk to me: Agree, Build, Challenge, Disagree?

Listen to the full podcast…

The discussion on why high performance teams highly conditional starts at ~16min.

The *whole* podcast is worth the listen. It’s rich in coaching insights on:

  • The key to bringing out the best in his players: focusing on their strengths
  • The 70/30 Rule for focusing on strengths/weaknesses
  • The necessary discipline required for optimism
  • How he creates a strong culture for his players to excel in

Eat up. This one comes with big portions…