When Creativity Matters As Much As Competition
As a Pomona-Pitzer student-athlete, I realized early on that success is not solely determined by how many hours you’re putting in on the field, pool, court, or weight room. Without a unified team identity, culture, and values, teams struggle to reach their fullest potential. And to dedicate training solely to competition without a focus on the individuals and dynamics that make up a team demonstrates the failure in understanding that success is rarely achieved without an intentional focus on team culture. Over the course of its four years, Designing Your Team — a culture- and team-building workshop series designed specifically for student-athletes — has made enormous strides in the number of teams the program has impacted, and even more so, what student-athletes are taking away from it. But athletics at large still feels impenetrable to breach in many ways.
In 2018, when Designing Your Team (DYT) was created, the Pomona-Pitzer Soccer team (PPS) was dealing with challenging interpersonal team dynamics. Among team cliques, there were differences among players about individual and team expectations when it came to the training and success of the team. As a junior on the team at the time, I felt as if many of my team members and I stood on different grounds, as our commitment to our training and untapped potential wavered among us.
Stepping into the Hive (formally, the Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity) as a team for the first time felt like meeting on neutral territory. Although we each brought a range of emotions and opinions, we were invited into a space that diffused tension and provided us with a unique range of tools to communicate and address our differences. With the help of Fred Leichter and Shannon Randolph, we were introduced to the wonders of human-centered design thinking and given the resources and opportunities to reflect and discuss some of the root issues we’d been experiencing as a team. We were also provided with new ways of thinking that allowed us to prototype and envision a team that we wanted, one that we each had an equal voice in creating together. During this first round of sessions, we utilized design-thinking tools from Designing Your Life, a book by Stanford d.school designers, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, such as an activity log for mapping the times we felt energized and engaged, a work view (soccer) reflection, and finally, a values map that allowed us to identify our five core values and create an accountability tool to continue measuring our values.
Following that initial session with PPS, it became clear that the opportunity to design your team had the potential to impact more than just one group of players. And in 2019, Peri Cuppens, a Pitzer College 2019 graduate and PPS alum, joined the Hive staff and began building out the DYT program into what it is today, ultimately focusing on three key areas of fostering a united team culture: identity, leadership, and team values. Peri’s work was extremely valuable in giving DYT a synthesized voice and paved the way for DYT to continue impacting sports teams, as well as allowing space for iteration and change. Read more about Peri’s role in Designing Your Team here.
When I returned to Claremont in 2021 after accepting a position as an assistant coach for PPS, I was immediately drawn back into the Hive and the untapped potential of DYT. I had witnessed firsthand as a player the immense impact DYT had on our team culture and chemistry, as well as the correlation between DYT and the success PPS was having in competition. I believed this program had much to offer and felt committed to making this resource more widely known. And with the experience as an athlete on a team that struggled through adversity and found success both on and off the field, I now had the opportunity to understand DYT from the role of a facilitator after eagerly joining the Hive staff in addition to my role as an assistant coach.
My favorite part of facilitating DYT was the opportunities I had to work directly with other teams. To be trusted in a space where they felt comfortable sharing vulnerable information, but also had the humility to try new things and learn from each other, was an immensely gratifying experience. And in most cases, I witnessed teams learn together, grow together, and share things with one another that may have never been shared before.
One of my most memorable experiences as a facilitator was helping a Pomona-Pitzer varsity athletic team navigate challenging communication dynamics mid-season. After being contacted by the coach, I gathered the team at the Hive. We began working through strategies and tools — embracing open and honest discussion around the alignment of goals, expectations, and actions. Through our work together, the team found ways to better communicate with each other and ended up identifying their core team values. Among them was the value of “mudita,” a Sanskrit word meaning vicarious joy, or the pleasure derived from delighting in another’s well-being. It was inspiring to witness this team work through conflict and ultimately leave the Hive having re-emphasized their commitment to one another. Following a session later that year, one player reflected: “I think these sessions reset the team dynamics in terms of finding common ground surrounding values. I feel as a team we’re more on the same page.”
While many DYT facilitation moments resembled this story arc — teams leaving the room stronger and more united than when they entered — not all sessions went as smoothly. In some sessions, I felt a tension in the room between teammates, those that had bought into DYT and all that it provided, and those who had reservations about the program’s methods and guidance. While I see great value in facilitating a team’s development through the lens of making and creating, not every student-athlete I worked with took the same delight in the chance to get personal or be creative. Regardless, most teams left the room with something tangible. After completing DYT for the first time, a CMS Cross Country player reflected that “[DYT] was clearly designed for athletes, but the focus was on us as people … The sessions at the Hive were a great way to get out of our comfort zones and engage in a way that team building sessions don’t usually have.” Best-case scenarios were similar to the story above, where teams left feeling invigorated, closer to their teammates, and had a better understanding of what they were aiming to achieve. The worst-case scenario was that teams had an hour to be creative and spend time with each other. All in all, even the worst-case scenario provided space for connection.
But despite its impact, for much of my time as a facilitator, engaging new teams through DYT took a great deal of legwork. Some coaches placed little emphasis on intentional team culture development, and the focus on creating that the Hive and DYT embody was a new concept to many coaches and teams. Yet, there were still returning teams, like PPS, who understood the uniqueness of what DYT has to offer. But having the opportunity to recruit and work with new teams only strengthened the program through new findings based on each team’s individuality. And with each team we worked with, DYT continued to grow in the number of teams and student-athletes impacted at The Claremont Colleges. Ironically, it wasn’t until near the end of my time at the Hive and as a facilitator that I felt the tides shift slightly, and was receiving requests from coaches and captains to participate in DYT, as opposed to me reaching out and offering.
It is my hope that as more teams participate in the program, they realize the uniqueness that DYT has to offer in terms of culture building and team development. DYT is a space designed specifically for athletes, that focuses on creating and making, both in a material and activity sense, as well as a holistic idea of what it means for players to be fully in control of designing the team they want to be a part of.
Designing Your team has impacted twelve varsity athletic teams (ten Pomona-Pitzer teams and two Claremont-Mudd-Scripps teams), four varsity teams who have participated for two or more consecutive years, four non-athletic teams, and over 400 student-athletes. You can learn more about Designing Your Team here and learn more about the Hive here.