Written By: Hannah Saiz
At St Norbert College, we differentiate between team building and team bonding activities. For us, team bonding is powered by the team, run by the upperclassmen and is generally centered on time spent together in comfortable or interesting ways. Eating together, studying, hanging out - it’s all about hours logged, much like the aerobic conditioning side of team creation. Team building on the other hand is our quality work - the pace / power / lactic acid tolerance for our program’s culture. This is targeted, specific and frequently uncomfortable. Team building is run by the coaches, happens during team / practice time, and like many other aspects of our program, challenges our athletes to extend well beyond their comfort zones.
These snapshot narratives center around one particular team building exercise our athletes have taken to calling “One Good, One Bad,” that was simultaneously the most harrowing and rewarding single piece of work we did this season.
The exercise is simple enough: everyone sits in a circle with a pen and a list of team members. You write down one behavior from each individual that positively impacts the team. Then you write down one behavior that negatively impacts the program.
Simple, of course, doesn’t mean easy.
Part I: The Men
There was panic when the men understood what came next.
We have to share? What if I don’t want to say the negative thing? What if I hurt someone? What if it tears our team apart?
Dana, one of our team’s assistant coaches, was facilitating. You can do it, she assured them. Everything will be okay.
I was sitting right next to Dana, fluctuating between aggressive tunnel vision and hot/cold flashes while she tried to calm the group at large. I’d known this was going to be the project today. And as the head coach, I was going to be the first “under the knife,” so to speak. I knew they’d take their cues from me - and so even as I was internally melting down myself, I tried to look calm and collected; no idea how well it succeeded.
We’ll start with the positive, Dana said and nudged the junior sitting next to her. Just like that, we were off.
Even as the “thing you do well” commentary flowed in, I struggled to stay in the moment because I knew what was coming next. (Like swimming the pre-set but only being able to think about the pain to come in the main set.) I could name a hundred ways I failed the team on a daily basis. All the places I needed to improve, waiting to be laid bare, to hear it from all sides about how much of a failure as a coach I was… Am.
Do you want to respond? Dana’s voice cut through the haze and my brain pieced together all the critical bits I’d gleaned from the once around the room. All our men had said essentially the same thing: we know you care.
My desire to delay the inevitable warred with needing to acknowledge the present.
Th- my voice cracked. I tried again. Thanks, guys.
Internally fight/flight mode had cranked to absurd levels and the only thing keeping me from straight up bolting out of the conference room was the little desk top that swung forward over the chair seat. If I’d been in charge, there was no way we’d have made it to step two. Luckily, I wasn’t.
Dana nudged the junior next to her again. Now, where she can improve.
In the moment, it was incredibly sharp focus, almost painful how attentive listening to every voice was. But looking back, really just another day in the office. What did they want?
Can there be clearer communication? Do we look at the GroupMe or emails for schedule and recruit information? How closely can we stick to the original season plan, despite covid setbacks?
And very last - the beating heart under it all that surfaced around the room again...and again...and again: Push us. Ask more of us. We can do it. We want to do it. Show us how.
In its entirety, our men’s meeting lasted nearly three hours. At the hour mark (our “standard” time allotment for team building work at that point), I offered to get dinner for anyone willing / able to sit through the rest. The only people who left were those with study group commitments, and we read through their teammates’ commentary prior to them stepping away.
From a coaching perspective, it was hugely illuminating. Athletes called one another on things I’d struggled to address. They also recognized excellence and drive in one another in ways I don’t always see - especially in how they conducted themselves away from the pool.
At the end, we went to a local all you can eat pizzeria with the crew. As we strolled through campus, I got a chance to really see my team. They looked exhausted - but there was that same weary satisfaction that you’d see after a challenging workout. They’d faced fears and overcome them. Together.
Part II: The Women
In the weeks over Thanksgiving / Christmas break, our women’s program heard summaries of the men’s team meeting and balked at doing anything like it. (They were in exactly the same place I’d been going into the first round; they thought they knew what it entailed, what it would be like, and were terrified at being flayed alive by people they were around on a regular basis.)
We’re not strong enough as a team, I heard repeatedly. We can’t do what the guys did. It wouldn’t end well. We aren’t ready for it.
I was scared for the women’s meeting in a different way than I’d been scared for the men’s. Below the thrumming dread was a softer excitement - almost like getting ready for a tough set or your hardest race. I’d already been through the gauntlet and knew what strength waited for us on the other side.
Dana facilitated again. Going first a second time was just as nerve wracking, but I could actually listen to the positive round with more clarity. In some ways, I almost wanted to skip the niceties and get straight to the heart of the matter. But you can’t rush success.
You encourage. You want us to succeed. You push us to find the next level. You care.
Dana offered me the moment to respond. I thanked them for recognizing where I had been working on growing the past year. It’s nice to feel appreciated. Took a deep breath, and then we were off.
The qualms for our women were much the same as they had been with our men: clarity in and around communication. Email? GroupMe? Smoke signals? (Given my background as an English major, that’s going to be a sore spot on the ego for a while yet...but it’s good to know where to aim my next few months of self-improvement.)
My interest was more in how they’d respond to one another. In my experience, our women tend to have a little more “politics” to balance and I was acutely focused on their feedback for one another.
If anyone had wanted to, with underlying tensions, they could have pressed a self-destruct button right in the middle of that meeting. And yet, despite the potential to deal some real damage, no one did. At the end of another three hour meeting (this time actually planned and accounted for), I saw the same general exhaustion on the faces of our women as I’d seen with our men - but also surprise. They hadn’t believed themselves capable...but had come through whole anyway. For the good of the team.
The number of you who told me at one point or another that y’all weren’t ready for this… Well, it was a lot. There were some soft nods, still partly dazed. If you had all wanted to, you could have ripped one another to shreds just now, I pointed out. And you didn’t. Instead, you worked together - because y’all are bought into the idea that we can be that family that you want to be. That tells me everything I need to know about where we can go as a program.
Nods again, and more insistent this time as the realization of what they’d accomplished together began to sink in. Those words may not have been the greatest or most inspiring speech of my lifetime, but they got the job done.
In its own way, that summation of our Saturday practice opened the door for some of the heavier and harder conversations we’ve had as a women’s team since then. Having had the chance to say their piece, ask questions, realize what positive contributions their teammates see from them and where they can step up - that was the cultural shift we needed to make heavy forward momentum.
While not a “fix all,” or a “one and done” type deal, that morning’s work showcased to our women that they did want to work together, to find common ground and succeed. That was important for them (and me) to realize.
We’ll never be perfect. I wouldn’t expect it (or, I think, enjoy it). But we can continue to work in laying the bedrock and foundations for excellence. While incredibly taxing and uncomfortable, I think “One Good, One Bad” is the kind of exercise we’ll keep in our repertoire for years to come, much like a test set that everyone dreads but can be really proud of having completed.
Part III: The Present
Generally speaking, I don’t like to share “what we do,” in part because what if the competition sees??? and in part because I’ve always been a relatively private person. Sharing about my team feels an awful lot like sharing a bit of myself. And yet, I wanted to write this piece because I’m incredibly proud of the work that we did this season, and continuing to be more open and vulnerable is part of continuing that work for myself.
Also...I feel reasonably confident sharing this particular exercise and experience, precisely because I think the vast majority of coaches who read this will never attempt it. Either your team is too big (club), your time is too precious (high school / college), you’re afraid of what your athletes might say (everyone), or team bonding/building is “best left to the team.” I know I made every argument against this kind of thing myself (as both athlete and coach) at one point or other.
However, for those of you with the guts and gumption to break the mold, I can and absolutely do recommend this exercise (discomfiting and time consuming thought it is), and the book where I found it: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I know I am very, very glad to have taken the leap of faith and can say without hesitation or hyperbole that “One Good, One Bad” is the reason we are the program we are today.
Hannah Saiz completed her second year as the head coach of the St. Norbert College men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs in 2020-21. Despite challenges inherent in the year, the group downed three school records, reset a dozen pool records, and recorded 25 personal bests in their end of season time trial. In 2019-20, Saiz led the Green Knights men to a third-place finish and the women to a fourth-place showing at the Midwest Conference Championship. St. Norbert reset 27 new men's and women's combined school records during the season. Saiz arrived in De Pere after serving as an assistant coach at her alma mater, perennial NCAA Division III powerhouse Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. She spent most of her childhood in Plattsburgh, N.Y. and graduated from Kenyon in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing. Saiz’s coaching background also includes two seasons as the head boys’ and girls’ swimming coach at Mount Vernon (Ohio) High School, and two years as the head coach of SERF Swimming, a community aquatics program based on the Kenyon campus. As for her own athletics career, Saiz was the NCAA Division III national champion in the 200-yard butterfly in 2013 before continuing her post-collegiate swimming career at Schroeder YMCA in Milwaukee. Saiz finished eighth in the 200 meter butterfly at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials and went on to win the 2016 U.S. Open Championship in the event. In addition to being a member of the 2016-17 U.S. National Team, Saiz was ranked in the top 50 in the world in 2015 and 2016 and was ranked 67th in 2017.