What Can The World Cup Teach Businesses About Developing High-Performing And Resilient Teams?

With the FIFA World Cup starting once more, many people are wondering how the Home Nations will fare in this year’s tournament. While only time will tell whether England and Wales will demonstrate the high performance or resilience needed to bring the trophy home, there is little doubt that sport and businesses often share common ground when striving for success.

But what can organisations learn from football - or even from sports in general - about how to build high-performing and resilient teams, and do the same principles apply in the business landscape as they do on the turf?

In business, high-performing teams are, undoubtedly, critical if organisations are to weather the challenges of a perpetually changing economic landscape. Being fortunate to have exceptional talent in your company does not automatically mean that your business will outperform its competitors: a few talented individuals does not necessarily make for a successful team. If by chance they do, you must consider the implications for your business’s success and survival if and when those employees move on to fresh challenges.

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Can The Underdog Prevail?

While underdogs who have won the World Cup are few and far between, there are some notable examples of teams progressing to the final despite being long shots at the bookies. France, in 1998, were 8/1 to win the competition but fought off the challenge from Brazil to win convincingly, while, in 1954, West Germany – comprising of part-time players who were also required by the football authorities to maintain a ‘real job’ – stunned the world by defeating one of the best teams in the competition, Hungary.

What set these teams apart and led them to World Cup glory, despite the odds being stacked against them? Undoubtedly, not just a team infused with raw talent – Zidane, Deschamps, Thuram, and Desailly in 1998, and Walter, Schafer, Rahn, and Morlock in 1954 – but one that was united with a common purpose and an unrelenting determination not to fail.

Sport is well-known for its clichés and often gawky quotes; sometimes, however, common sense logic prevails, and it’s as applicable in the boardroom as it is on the pitch. Having star players on your business team is one thing but, according to Peyton Manning, the US American football star, “The most valuable player is the one who makes the most players valuable.”

A Healthy Mindset

So, what are the components of a high-performing team, in business or in sports? 

The 1998 French national team were the lowest-ever FIFA-ranked side to win the World Cup, but their achievements at the Stade de France weren’t purely the result of a great team. 1998 was the country’s first World Cup for 12 years and the team entered the competition against a backdrop of acrimony after failing to qualify for the 1994 tournament. The French media was rife with demands for manager Aime Jacquet to be sacked after a ‘disappointing’ third-place finish at the 1996 Euros.

Despite this, resilience and self-belief provided a powerful engine for French success. Even with outstanding talent, teams lacking in confidence can stumble, and underperformance can become endemic. But, as David Beckham once spoke of his famous goal against Columbia in 1998, “That changed me - not as a person, but as a player. People have looked at me differently ever since. It gave me confidence and now I feel I can achieve anything.”

Resilience plays a key role in motivating teams and engineering a can-do attitude to achieve core business goals. Low resilience can have a damaging impact on health and wellbeing, particularly stress which is the most common cause of workplace illness: one survey reveals that 79 percent of respondents frequently experience stress. Yet resilience is known to be low in significant parts of the adult population, with only 22 percent of young adults considered to be resilient compared to nearly half of children under the age of 10.

Making The Links

So, how can we translate examples of sporting success, team development, and resilience into transferable skills and behaviours in the workplace?


Resilience is the ability to prepare for, adapt to, and recover from stress through emotional, mental, and behavioural flexibility. To gain and apply resilience, individuals and teams must adapt to emerging situations that are predominantly negative, in the same way in which a team facing likely elimination at the group stages of the World Cup must find some way to improve performance, even when the odds are stacked against them, and the pressure is on.

Improved resilience delivers multiple benefits in the workplace, such as a greater sense of control and ownership over challenging situations, a more positive approach to workload, and higher levels of productivity and efficiency. Crucially, resilience can also result in lower rates of stress and depression. With 13.7 million working days lost to workplace stress and anxiety each year in the UK, at a cost of £28.3bn, it is imperative to take measures to improve your team’s resilience.

So, what are the essential skills that improve resilience in the workforce?

  • The ability to bounce back: Mistakes happen, but it’s how people respond that determines how strong the tremors will be throughout the business. A positive mindset and self-talk strategies will enable your team to focus on what they can control, instead of procrastinating about the things that they can’t. Mistakes become learning experiences, rather than accepted pitfalls, with quicker workarounds when things don’t go to plan.

  • Being open to advice: Effective teams are honest with each other. This doesn’t mean the weekly team meeting becomes a free-for-all for staff to vent their frustrations, but open communication means individuals can express their feelings without fear of retribution or colleagues being personally offended. When staff can accept constructive feedback, they are more likely to reshape their working practices.

  • Resourcefulness: When problems arise, it is vital that your team pulls together to find rapid and long-lasting solutions. Resourcefulness is a key element of resilience, as it promotes perseverance instead of defeat. Resourceful teams can innovate and problem-solve together, even under pressure, thinking outside the box to find effective and innovative solutions.

  • Commitment to shared resilience: Like the most successful World Cup teams who understand that a demoralised squad fuels low self-confidence, and slashes the chance of success, winning business teams appreciate the importance of supporting each other’s resilience. Emotional intelligence is a vital quality that builds collaborative working relationships, adds value to everyone’s roles, and stimulates new thinking and creative approaches. Helping each other to strengthen resilience and learning to identify when colleagues need support is crucial and will help to foster a community spirit that prioritises personal wellbeing and business success in equal measure.


Sport is one of the most pertinent examples of how effective teamwork can result in successful outcomes. When players collaborate, they work in unison towards a desired goal, so teamwork is an essential foundation for success at any level.

In sports and business, effective teamwork depends on:

  • Shared values and goals: It’s true that there is strength in unity, so shared values and goals are fundamental for effective teamwork. Understanding the organisational and team vision and the values by which everyone stands, motivates people to perform to their best ability, and enables them to benefit from their colleagues’ experiences. The result is what will define any team, not the performance of any individual.

  • Clear and consistent leadership: There is nothing more confusing than a manager who constantly changes direction and strategy. Continual changes in team formation prevent players from settling into their roles and discourages unity and consistency, therefore effective leadership is vital if you want your team to perform well. A good leader provides support and delivers a clear and consistent vision for the team, so that all members understand their common goals and their roles and responsibilities in working collaboratively to achieve them.

  • Effective communication: In all teams, communication is essential to collaboration, interdependence, and camaraderie. The more freely that colleagues can talk to each other, the more comfortable they will be in exchanging ideas, sharing insights, and negotiating changes to working practices. Excellent communication also minimises the risk of mistakes by ensuring all avenues are considered when taking strategic decisions – as well as supporting experimentation and a positive approach to change management.

  • Mutual accountability: Within effective teams, each member must deliver on their professional responsibilities and commitments and, when shortcomings occur, be accountable to each other. Like a professional football team, a business team comprises many individuals with complementary experience, knowledge, or skills which, when harmonised, accomplish their shared goals. Each member of the team must respect their colleagues’ contributions and accept their own role as one component of a complex ecosystem.

  • Trust: Colleagues who trust each another will rely on one another to make the right decisions for the good of the team and the business. Trust isn’t possible without believing in each other’s integrity and accepting that every team member has earned their role on merit. And, where trust is established, individuals can take calculated risks, confident that their colleagues will provide a vital safety net should the expected outcome not occur.

Build Your Winning Team With Grahame Robb Associates

At Grahame Robb Associates, we offer bespoke development training to help organisations create high-performing and resilient teams, focusing on the key skills they need to achieve success. GRA are also the Official Partners of the Football Association (FA), with an Outdoor Leadership Centre at St. George’s Park, the home of England’s teams.

For more information, please call us on 01962 779911 or send us a message, and we will be pleased to arrange a time for you to speak to a specialist.

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