Cory Dobbs, Ed.D.,Founder, The Academy for Sport Leadership

A maxim of team building is that the biggest wins start small. This too is true of the biggest losses. Recently, I was called in by a successful coach to help him save his season from becoming a complete disaster. At the time of the call the team was five and fifteen. And four of the five wins came from beating perennial losers. Essentially this team won only one competitive match.

No matter how hard you try it takes the greater part of a season to pull together a group of young student-athletes. Cohesion is never a given. Unfortunately for the distressed coach who called me for help, the pulling together had yet to take place. Rather, bit-by-bit the players built relationships that pushed them apart, a gap emerged from player to player. Conflict avoidance and superficial harmony were the unwritten rules of relationship building. The result was a downward relational spiral in which morale deteriorated gradually at first, then a tsunami of ill-will permeated interpersonal interactions.

Finally, the team woke up and realized that there was no sense of unity or authentic camaraderie on the team, which translated into a team of selfish and uncommitted players. Luckily for the coach, most of the players admitted fault (as did the coach) and willingly accepted working side-by-side with the coach to create an engaging and inspiring environment.

Over the years I’ve come face-to-face with the reality that something big always comes from something small. Small causes are so often the start of something big—both on the positive and negative side of the ledger. Yet too often we only attend to something after it has already become a hefty problem requiring a massive undertaking.

For the coach and the player to recover the season they realized change was necessary for survival. The time had come for all team members, coaches included, to shed the illusion that they were building right relationships that would take them where they wanted to go.


To inspire the team to quickly adopt changes—those the players proposed and others put forward by the coaching staff—they decided to look to Hollywood. Yes, tinsel town!

Screen writers tell us that there is really only seven or so master plots from which all stories are developed. These story structures are called archetypes. An archetype offers the audience a relatable back-story with a familiar pattern that taps into the mental models of the viewer. The classic archetypes include: rags to riches, overcoming adversity, the quest, comedy, tragedy, voyage and return, and rebirth.

The idea was for the team’s members to create a story that they wanted to “write.” All participants agreed that to transform the team required a story that would fit the team today and acknowledge its current realities. The goal was for the team to agree to adopt, enact, and live the story daily. The team agreed to undertake the challenge of change by employing the archetype of Disastrous Voyage and Fortunate Return. This was fitting because this archetype is about progression from naivete to wisdom, from disparity to triumph. In typical Hollywood movies the protagonist stumbles across obstacles and challenges with the mistaken notion that they know where they are going. In this real-life voyage the players sadly were heading in the wrong direction to creating a competitive team with a sense of well-being for its participants.

Beginning with the team’s current realities it seemed fitting to “title” the change story Turning the Ship Around. The student-athletes discussed together their story with candor and enthusiasm—how they got to where they were and how they wanted to go about changing their course. By agreeing to the archetype they went about living a shape-shifting story of resurgence and resurrection based on building durable and enduring relationships.

Fortunately, the path to turning the season (the ship if you will) around began with small victories. Not victories on the playing field, rather small wins in building right relationships. Day-by-day living the narrative of Turning the Ship Around the team did come to experience a successful change of course. After one more loss the dedicated team lived to tell the tale of a seven-game win streak to finish out the season. By righting the course the team is now ready to set sail for an exceptional season next year.

To find out more about and order Sport Leadership Books authored by Dr. Dobbs including Coaching for Leadership, click this link: The Academy for Sport Leadership Books

About The Academy for Sport Leadership

The Academy for Sport Leadership is a leading educational leadership training firm that uses sound educational principles, research, and learning theories to create leadership resources. The academy has developed a coherent leadership development framework and programs covering the cognitive, psycho-motor, emotional and social dimensions of learning, thus addressing the dimensions necessary for healthy development and growth of student-athletes.

The Academy for Sport Leadership’s underlying convictions are as follows: 1) the most important lessons of leadership are learned in real-life situations, 2) team leaders develop best through active practice, structured reflection, and feedback, 3) learning to lead is an on-going process in which guidance from a mentor coach helps facilitate learning and growth, and 4) leadership lessons learned in sport should transcend the game and assist student-athletes in developing the capacity to lead in today’s changing environment.

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