When you’re not on the A-Team (and that’s OK)

Lessons from members of Team B (and teams thereafter)

Photo by Nick Jio

When I was in high school, I tried out for the women’s basketball varsity team and, by some miracle, got in. I was fourteen turning fifteen, and I was a mostly mediocre player — I could dribble around some, pass some, run some and, in those very rare times, even shoot some. At five feet, I was somewhat a fit for the point guard position, but I just wasn’t a playmaker. That task was for people with better nerves than I had. Truth was, I got nervous when stakes got real; on court, it was like watching a headless chicken try to cope with a ball. Needless to say, it was very painful.

If I were to be honest, I joined the team so I could be excused from PE and Music, which was a perk. Also, I did truly enjoy playing basketball and attending practices and doing drills and joining the MWF scrimmages after school-hours. On top of that, the Coach was in charge of giving your grades for PE and Music, which meant as long as you were on good terms, that was an easy 99 — a very important point for my Grade Conscious High School self.

You see, I was more the Acads Girl when I was younger, so my being on the varsity team has always been a curious blip on the radar; it did not seem to fit the usual roster of activities for nerds like me. But interestingly, that was what got me accepted in the first place — in addition to having my ass in practice regularly, Coach wanted someone on the team that the other players could approach for academic help.

This played out brilliantly — I liked being helpful, academically. A handful of times, I found myself sitting with my varsity friends and running through some Trigonometry and Algebra reviewers on afternoons we didn’t have basketball practice.

At the start of senior year, Coach announced who was going on Team A, and not surprisingly, I was not on it. I had to miss an entire summer training because I had chosen to go to an academic pre-college summer camp instead, that summer before senior year, and Coach said this was the trade-off.

The main differences between Team A and Team B were both in composition and competition.

Team A, composed mostly of juniors and seniors, competed in bigger tournaments, with Team A’s of other high schools.

Team B, on the other hand, was composed mainly of freshmen and sophomores, and competed in minor tournaments with Team B’s of other schools.

I was a senior on Team B, and for me, it was just what I needed.

Looking back, I realized that being on Team B afforded me learning moments without the stress of the Big League. Together, we were just girls at play — I loved learning on the court with my younger teammates, and being with them allowed me to focus on the sport at my own pace, sans the pressure of winning.

This meant that, while our practices were held with Team A and were thus just as hard (Read: We also got ‘punished’ with extra rounds around the gym bleachers whenever Team A lost a crucial game, because the bottom-line was that we were One Team), the pressure to eke out wins from our meetings with other Team B’s was considerably less, because the specific purpose of participating in Team B tournaments was to hone skills, regardless of outcome.

To me, that was such an important insight: That not all successes were anchored on traditional victories. Sometimes, scoreboards did not tell the entire story.

(Also a plus: Younger teammates who struggled with freshman/sophomore/ junior Math and Science subjects had a friendly senior-slash-tutor on hand for their assignment questions.)

tl;dr — Everybody still won, in the end.

I was reminded of the whole Team A/Team B setup one afternoon, while I was watching my supervisor put the finishing touches to a higher up’s major presentation due the following afternoon. She was in a huddle with our department head, another supervisor, and his veteran graphic artist.

This was a common sight: They were the known Strike Team in the department, meaning they could accomplish complex tasks (e.g. Crucial Presentations for Bosses) on a tight deadline. If anybody needed anything done, they took it to these guys, and these guys did them just as ordered, or even better. As a relatively new employee, I have always regarded them with a bit of awe and a dash of envy.

I say envy because by now I already knew how it felt to be on a Team A in a workplace setting.

I was in one for the better part of the last ten years.

A s I have written on here before, I recently left my job in journalism, where I worked as a researcher for roughly eleven years. Transferring to somewhere new mid-way in my career has been equal parts unsettling and exciting, and among the things I surely did not expect myself to miss was that feeling of expertise that doing something for a decade or so naturally afforded anyone.

One of the things I would never forget about my journalism job was how it let me work with a team that could deliver excellent results within specific deadlines. For a time, that team was known to be The Get Done Team — if anyone wanted anything done, well and immediately, they dialed our department head’s local and she took it from there. A common joke was, when the bosses said “Jump!” our response was always, “How high?” My boss remains to be among the hardest working people I have ever known, and I was her second.

I was co-captain of that A-Team, once upon a time. Though the stress levels were out of this world, the feeling of being trusted and depended upon was priceless, for a while. It felt great to be viewed as reliable, to be seen as that team that delivered at all costs, regardless of setbacks.

When I left, a deep feeling of relief came upon me. At that point, the trust had already become a burden, and what was once priceless eventually took its toll.

And so this was how I found myself back to Team B, after more than a decade. These days, I have been focusing on learning the ropes and learning from my peers and bosses. Being a beginner in an altogether new field after building expertise elsewhere is its own challenge: You tend to be easily frustrated and prone to impatience (“These things once came to me easily!”, “Why do things work differently here?!”), and also a bit shy because of age (“Aren’t I supposed to know this by now?” “Aren’t I too old for stupid questions?”).

Fortunately, my new teammates have been more than patient with me, introducing me to new people, showing me the way around the company’s admin work, and teaching me how to accomplish forms, to name a few. While also challenging, the core function of my current position — writing — has turned out to be the least difficult thing to get the hang of, surprisingly. It’s the softer skills — people, systems, forms — which were among the things I ‘mastered’ in my previous job over the years, that were a lot harder to wrap my head around.

At this point, I have found it useful to go over my Team B years and remind myself that while being on the A-Team is its own pride, the experiences that can be gained through the unique circumstances surrounding members of any Team B are their own rewards, such as:

  • Endless learning opportunities. When you are a designated back-up on anything, the primary expectation of you, apart from being there as support, is that you learn something out of every task/meeting/event. This is the best way to build expertise — learn by watching, then learn by doing. Bonus: Your expert/veteran buddy is there to answer your questions, too. (And if things get too tight or tense.)
  • Questions are always welcome. That said — when you’re new, you’re entitled to ask even the stupidest-sounding questions, and they will be patiently answered, most of the time. More than asking about the who’s and the what’s and the basic how-to’s, I also asked my new co-workers about their ‘work hacks’ and their work habits that have delivered the most value for them.
  • Failure is an option, and mistakes are not that fatal. Because more often than not the Big Ticket Items are assigned to the veterans, you are more likely assigned tasks that have greater leeway for experimentation. As long as you’re always aware of the deadline and the project’s necessary parameters, you can use these minor tasks to figure out how to optimize your work flow, for example, and pay closer attention to building your new work habits for this new workplace. And should you fail or make a mistake along the way? Not the end of the world. You get to try again.
  • Train like Team A, but play like Team B. Which is to say you exercise good work ethic and discipline, but when you do your work, you don’t have to keep your eyes glued to an invisible scoreboard: A quota, for example, or a budget. Those metrics will be relevant later on, certainly, but at the moment, you still have this Team B perk: You can focus on improving your methods, your skills, your response time. Take advantage of it while you still could.

That said, I suppose we all play for both Team A and Team B at some point in our lives, and each team has its own mission to achieve and lessons to impart. In the end, I suppose it’s not about which team you play for; it’s not even about winning, most certainly. It’s about learning what you must at each point, and getting the most out of the ‘training’ — whatever the team, the sport, the goal. #

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