Huddles Are Not Group Hugs

Posted by jlubans on August 22, 2012

(Nothing against group hugs, I’m happy to engage, but they are no match for the power of a team huddle when the game’s on the line.)
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Seeing a women’s basketball team’s huddle (above) – no coaches, only players – is what drew me into writing about that team. My year with the team turned into Chapter 8 of my book: “More Than a Game: A Season with a Women’s Basketball Team”
As I watched the USA men’s Olympic basketball team’s huddle at the start of the fourth and final quarter against Spain – with a one point lead - it summoned up for me that women’s huddle: out on the court, circled up with arms around shoulders, heads up, eyes and words giving encouragement. The tight circle symbolized what’s best about teams – mutual support, physical and verbal, and each participant fully engaged in the real work of the team – no holding back – in pursuit of a clear and desirable goal.

Caption: “Members of the United States basketball team talk before the start of the fourth quarter, Aug. 12, 2012”. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
The above picture is the only one I could find of what to me was the game's pivotal event. The photo comes close to capturing the intensity of that moment. The men’s huddle was a gathering of force, of energy in the gold medal game. It appeared to set things off towards winning. What went on in the huddle? It was LeBron James, I think, who called it. Here is what he said shortly after the game:
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy. We didn't want it easy,”.... “We're a competitive team, and we love when it gets tight. That's when our will and determination kind of shows."
I’d wager a few of those sentiments were part of the back and forth in that huddle.
Spectators tend to forget the fatigue that comes to a team when it goes full tilt. It is, of course, a factor kept in mind by coaches. While a few players stay in for the entire game, most rotate in and out, conserving energy for the final effort. The huddle is a physical way for players to connect and to draw energy from each other.

Caption: “Book Ends” by Béatrice Coron, 2002.
This melding among athletes, this sharing of strength, appears in an interpretative artwork done by Béatrice Coron shortly after my season with the women’s basketball team. I related to Béatrice my image of two injured players sitting out a practice. They were on a sideline table, mid court, leaning against each other, back to back, in support. Each had a bag of ice taped on an injured leg. Sidelined, they’d rather be playing. Hardly disengaged, they shouted encouragement to their teammates flying up and down the court.

Caption: A player tells the coach he wants to take the last shot.
Another huddle, in “the best sports movie ever made,” is noteworthy for how it sums up the growth of the team through a rocky season.
While fictionalized, the Hickory Huskers in “Hoosiers” are based on a real small town high school basketball team (Milan High School, 1954) in the middle of the USA. Over the season the players, coaches, and fans learn about themselves and help each other through adversity. An esprit de corps develops. The state championship game comes down to the last shot. The coach calls a time out and huddles with the team.
I teach about this moment through a film clip of the end of the game and I ask the students to tell me what they see happening. In this huddle, the coach’s strategy gets little support, but he has the courage and confidence to recognize a better idea, the one offered by a player! Of course, this film clip helps launch class discussion around what has to happen in any organization for staff to speak up.
I think work teams with high camaraderie probably would benefit from some version of a team huddle, just like the best sport teams do. At the least, stand up and talk to each other, eye to eye.
Huddle up!

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