Last night I had a smaller group than normal (it’s to be expected this time of year with the Christmas programs at schools and such; my son decided to support his sisters for their school performance program rather than attend the meeting last night, which I was OK with. The choice was greatly influenced by the fact that there would be cookies and punch at the school program (LOL!) ).
So with just a few boys (we had seven show up last night) I decided to borrow a page from Wood Badge and teach “a game with a purpose”. This game goes by many different names, but the version we played last night is what I refer to as “series ball”. It works like this. Each boy uses a number 3 sized soccer ball. There is a starter and a group of boys in a circle. The number of boys can vary, but you need at least five for a meaningful game, and more than twelve gets really hard to manage. Anything in between is fair game.
The game has three simple rules. Each boy can throw the ball to another player provided the other player meets two criteria:
1. the player cannot throw to a person to their immediate left or right
2. the player cannot throw to the person they just received the ball from
3. the player cannot hold the ball for longer than one second
The game has one objective; see how many balls can be thrown and maintained in the air at any given time. A “perfect game” would be the number of players being equal to the number of balls. Sounds easy? Let me assure you, it’s not (LOL!).
The boys warmed up to the game pretty quickly, but I wanted to see how long they would stay at it, or if it was a game they would tire of quickly. Turns out, they played the game for almost the entire meeting, from 7:00 PM until 8:10 PM. What we noticed as they played was very interesting. My goal was to talk to them about team building and the approach towards accomplishing a goal. To that end, we stared experimenting with how to throw the ball, and who would receive it. One ball, no problem… two balls, still relatively easy… Three balls… now we started to see some break down. Frustration started to develop, and the boys started to get a bit agitated with each other. Different ideas were coming into the picture, and sometimes the ideas were at odds with others. Some boys tried to keep a rhythm, while others tried to get rid of the balls as quickly as possible. Slowly, the boys started to see that they were not going to get “better” at the game unless they all agreed on some ground rules. The first was that they all agreed to a set throwing pattern. Some boys would throw the ball lower, and some would throw the ball higher. Some boys decided that using and counting out the one second (one-one-thousand) before throwing the ball helped maintain a rhythm. As each of the boys started using these methods that they communicated, they were able to increase the number of balls they had in play, at least for a little bit. While the “perfect game” was not achieved, they were able to sustain five balls between seven players for about eight throws. By the end of the game, they were able to maintain a pattern with four balls for even longer.
The point to this exercise was to show the boys that, in all aspects of life, teamwork is essential and building it is a non-trivial exercise. Many people expect that people with similar goals are going to just get in and get something done (even adults think this very often). The truth is, there are a lot of different stages of development in teams. Bruce Tuckman first put a set of names to these phenomena in 1965. He referred to this as the “Forming – Storming - Norming – Performing” model, and each stage is necessary to pass through before a group can become a well performing unit. My goal with the boys was not to frustrate them, nor was it just to occupy their time with a game. Ultimately, my attempts were to help them see how each individual contributes to a project, and how the group succeeds or fails can often be shown to be the results of one or more people who decide not to “play along” with the others. Just as there are times when being an individual is critical, being a part of a team that performs well requires all to get involved together and somehow “get in sync” with one another. My hope is that, last night, the boys that left the meeting had a little more to think about other than a semi-frustrating game their Scoutmaster threw at them. Time will tell, of course :).