And 2 Activities to Do with Your Team or Staff

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Activity 1: The Spaghetti and Marshmallow Tower Task

Simple and fun experiment to do with your team or coaching staff.

Break everyone into small groups and distribute:

  • 20 pieces of spaghetti per group

  • 20 small marshmallows per group

  • 1 large marshmallow per group

  • 1 foot of tape per group

  • 1 piece of paper

The objective of the project is simple.  Each group needs to construct a tower that will support one large marshmallow at the top.  The group that builds the highest free-standing tower wins the competition.

The Research

“Safety is the foundation on which strong culture is built.” -Daniel Coyle

Who would win If you were to give this task to two groups?

1) A group of business school students

2) A group of kindergartners

Some researchers actually did this experiment and studied the groups.

After close study they observed the business students to be professional, asking intelligent questions and generating different ideas and options.

The kindergartners barely spoke to each other, but when they did they spoke quickly. They were without a plan or strategy and appeared to just be trying a bunch of stuff out.

So obviously the business school students win this every time right?


Kindergartners averaged 26 inches tall and business school students averaged 9 inches tall.

In fact when the experiment was performed in other trials, kindergartners repeatedly score higher than groups of business students, lawyers, and CEOs!

How is this possible?


Business school students are focused on “status management”, worried about criticizing others, and focused on trying to find out where they fall in the group. They are not focused on the task, but on managing their status.

Kindergartners are willing to try new things, they are not competing with each other, and have great energy at the task. They work together in a smarter way, because they feel safe to do so.

Do you have a safe culture or one focused on status management?

Toyota, who has been the world leader in car making for sometime, has a culture of continuous improvement, “kaizen” , where anybody can stop production if they spot a problem. When things go wrong, people are not afraid to ask “why?”, and explore every solution.

Whether we are talking about a coaching staff, sports team, or business we need to reflect if we have a culture that people feel safe to question ANY problem they see. For a long time I thought people felt “safe” within my own team to speak up, but on reflection of my experiences, this was not always the case.

In fact, research shows 75% of people will give an obviously wrong answer to conform to a group’s preference! It is incredibly hard to build a culture where people feel safe to challenge the status quo, because people are naturally inclined to be focused on “status management”, even some of the best leaders and brightest minds!

So how do you create a safe culture focused on continuous improvement?

It starts with leaders being wiling to share their struggles and the problems they are facing.

It is never to late to start building that culture.

Many teams are near the end of their season and some are already done.

Regardless of the stage of your season the following activity is great and I think some version could be done on a weekly basis!

Team/ Staff Activity

  1. Get some notecards. One for every person.

  2. Everyone write down one problem on the front of the card.

  3. People pass around the cards and everyone writes down their solution to the problem.

  4. The leader will then read through each card with the team/ staff and they will discuss the problem and proposed solutions.

How can we do this better?

“A culture of asking and re-asking fundamental questions cuts away unhelpful beliefs in order to achieve clarity of execution. Humility allows us to ask a simple question: how can we do this better?” -James Kerr

Every solution should answer one of the following three core questions!

  1. What is something I or we need to start doing?

  2. What is something I or we need to stop doing?

  3. What is something I or we need to keep doing?

Some weeks leave it open as to the subject area of the problem.

Other weeks pick an area for people to bring up even the “smallest” of problems they observe.

Some suggestions of areas to investigate are:

  • Player roles

  • Playing time

  • Defensive Strategy

  • Offensive Strategy

  • Timeouts, Half-time Talks

  • Scouting Report

  • Film Sessions

  • Warm-Up

  • Team Meals and Nutrition

  • Coaching Behaviors During Game, Practice, and Off the Court

  • Player Behaviors During Game, Practice, and Off the Court

  • Referees

People often get caught up in debating the big decisions and as coaches we spend a lot of time focusing on strategy, the teaching points of a skill, or who will start in the next game.

But we need to be more focused on what we are willing and able to DO and NOT DO after we have made that decision.

Stay focused on the 1% gains.

The solutions do not need to be big sweeping changes, in fact small changes are most actionable.

Some examples of some simple solutions for coaches I have worked with have been:

  • Clearly defining where everyone should stand during a time-out so players feel close and engaged.

  • Removing a drill from the warm-up that coaches and players do not believe is beneficial.

  • Cutting the time down for a coach to present a scouting report.

  • All of your coaching staff taking the initiative to say an honest thank you to the referee(s) before the game.

  • The head coach building stronger relationships by spending 2 minutes before each practice to talk with players about something other than their sport.

Call to Action

Whether you do any of these activities or not you need to find ways to invite input. Daniel Coyle in The Culture Code makes these three points.

  1. It is really hard for people to raise their hand and bring up something controversial or challenging.

  2. It is just as hard for people to answer a genuine question from a leader asking for their opinion or help.

  3. When your players or assistants give you “tough feedback” you need to not only listen, but embrace it! Even if you do not end up agreeing, they need to feel safe enough to tell you the truth the next time they see an issue.

-J.P. Nerbun