Groupwork Centre Blog

Tiger hearts: How you win a flag with groupwork

Tiger eyes, ears and hearts need to be open for top performance. Photo by Trevor Paterson on Unsplash

I’m not a football fan, but over the last year, it’s been impossible to miss the transformation of the Richmond Tigers from a struggling team to achieving the pinnacle prize of their league.

Everyone wants to know how they did it – and there’s been analysis of their player list, game plan and on-field performance. I’ve been more intrigued by the club’s focus on building stronger relationships between the coach and the players.

Articles and interviews with players reveal “Hardship, Highlight, Hero” (HHH) sessions where players would share a deeply personal experience, as well as coffee catch-ups to get to know each other better, and joining in important moments in each others’ lives like birthdays and funerals. This is seen as a major factor in the Tigers’ success.

And that doesn’t surprise me at all.

I’ve learned a lot about what groups and teams need to work well together with the Groupwork Institute and in my professional experience. I’ve seen how building trust and emotional connection in my team improves engagement, wellbeing, collaboration and performance.

One of the most effective elements of Richmond’s approach is their sharing and listening sessions.

If we share something personal with a group, making ourselves vulnerable and revealing aspects of our whole selves, and if others really listen, it helps us feel safe and accepted for who we really are. It can bring relief and a sense of freedom. But it’s not easy to do.

Often a group will need someone with the courage to get things started.

If this is their leader, it can be a very powerful message: that even leaders are vulnerable and imperfect – and that we’re all in this together. At Richmond, it was coach Damien Hardwick who went first.

In an interview with Nathan Schmook for AFL News, midfielder Bachar Houlis described the team listening to each other during the HHH sessions:

“…all eyes and ears were open and I could see by looking around that their hearts were open as well.”

At the Groupwork Institute, this is called “heart listening” and it involves deep attention and compassion, honouring and validating the speaker’s experience and emotions so they feel heard and understood.

There’s a lot involved in this type of groupwork – it takes courage, commitment, self-awareness, skilled facilitation and leadership. I can imagine what a big journey the Tigers have been on, and it’s certainly paid off.

They are enjoying themselves, being themselves and performing at their absolute best – winning the grand final.

The old Tigers sounded empty in their interviews – media trained and “on message” but with no heart. Now my ears prick up to hear their authentic voices, full of passion and enthusiasm, and their sincere pride and acknowledgement of their teammates and coach.

I might be a fan after all.

For more about heart listening read Steve Ray’s post: Deep Listening: Going beyond the technique

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