Moving beyond individual performance

From the Director of Health Studies

For nearly thirty years I have been a fan of the Boston Celtics basketball team.  They are the American National Basketball Association’s most successful team.  In the history of the NBA, no other team has won more Championships.  According to basketball writer, Bethlehem Shoals (2010), the Celtics teams that won sixteen titles between 1957 and 1986 did so with an “almost dismissive attitude toward individual glory”.  These teams had great individual players, any one of whom on any given night was capable of (and often delivered) an outstanding individual performance.  In the main though, the strength of these teams came from a wonderful intermingling of player and team identity.  It seems that the Celtics then lost sight of this, as their most recent (and seventeenth) title came in 2008, twenty-two years after their last.

This 2008 Championship was on my mind over the Christmas break because I was reading Top of the World – journalist, Peter May’s (2008) account of the season.  In it, he describes how the team’s coach, Glenn Rivers, came across a speech delivered by Bishop Desmond Tutu in which he referred to the Southern African humanist philosophy known as ubuntu (pronunciation: oo-Boon-too).  The word, roughly translated means “I am because of you”.  Rivers, looking for a way to unite his team, took the concept and the rest (as they say) is history.  From a sports psychology point of view, the Health, Physical Education teacher and Basketball co-ordinator in me was moderately interested in this approach.  I am aware though, that professional athletes (always looking for ways to focus and lift) will latch on to all sorts of psychological and pseudo-psychological principles whilst attempting to give themselves an “edge”.

It was the holidays, so I moved on to other books and didn’t give the concept any more thought.  I dismissed ubuntu as a pop cliché at worst and a pop curio at best.  After all, the name has been (mis)appropriated  by a soft-drink maker, a computer operating system and the U.S. Department of State (Ubuntu Diplomacy) to name a few.  Then we saw the devastating, inexorable rise of the flood water in January.  Along with the flood, came the volunteers — thousands of people willing to help others (many of them complete strangers) in a community laid waste by the water.  Here was the spirit of ubuntu (I am because we are) in real life and on a grand scale.

And so it was that I came to re-examine this philosophy.  Importantly, I was looking for a way to make the concept relevant to teaching in, about and through Health Studies at Brisbane Girls Grammar School. The answer was to be found in a conversation that had already taken place.

In the latter part of 2010, Scholar in Residence Professor Erica McWilliam led a discussion within the Faculty, out of which came the identification of one of the great strengths of the Health Studies Faculty as an “entity” — its ability to co-ordinate and work within a team framework.  It is something that those of us who teach in this discipline are comfortable with.  We share a common background of sport and physical performance; a background of shared experience that has led to an undeniable (and not unwelcome) conditioning.  This conditioning has developed in us a heightened sense of teamwork; a sense of teamwork that is both intrinsic and autonomous.  Each of us within the Faculty can recall team situations (experienced repeatedly over many years in sporting and non-sporting situations) wherein we have had to give of ourselves to ensure a better team outcome.

When looking to help people learn, it is often useful to work together (everyone leading, everyone following) – and when this is done within a team context (that is, a group of people working toward a common goal) the environment is created wherein individuals are able to achieve great things, all the while being supported by others.  It is about acknowledging strengths and weaknesses, and understanding that within a team there are “superstars”, “mid-level players” and “role players” – but that these labels are fluid.  They change, depending on the situation, and sometimes (importantly) from moment to moment within a situation.

Girls work well in collaborative environments (Deak, 2002).  The sense of team, togetherness and co-operation is a powerful motivator and often leads to highly positive outcomes and greater levels of understanding.  Sometimes however, it can be difficult to get girls to work in teams (as opposed to groups).  Often our most able students are the ones who are most resistant.  It is as if they are convinced that they will somehow be “short-changed” by the “weaker” members of their team.  Perhaps in Bishop Tutu’s (2010) expansion of the concept of ubuntu, wherein the philosophy expresses values which relate to the areas of Relationships, Attitudes and Behaviours, one can begin to see a blueprint for success when it comes to learning through teamwork.  Relationships are built around the notions of inter-dependency, community and belonging; behaviours around the notions of kindness, listening and honesty; and attitudes around the notions of dignity, respect and tolerance.

Teamwork is fraught with danger.  Nobody wants to get caught carrying a disproportionately heavy load.  When it works though, it is something to behold.

The coach of the Boston Celtics knows that great players (or leaders, or musicians, or students) make those around them better and, in doing so, add to their own greatness.

Professor Erica McWilliam knows this when she says, in a team environment, “everyone leads and everyone follows”.

Bishop Desmond Tutu expresses this more eloquently than most when he says, “I want you to be all you can be because that’s the only way that I can be all that I can be”.

The people of flood-affected Queensland (Girls Grammar students amongst them) have recent, first-hand experience of this.  For them the idea that giving is better than receiving is no longer an abstract concept — a generation of people who now have a sense of what it is like to give of themselves.

The educational possibilities are endless.

Mr S Fogarty


Deak, J. (2002). Girls will be girls – Raising confident and courageous daughters, Hyperion; New York.

May, P. (2008). Top of the World, DaCapo Press; Boston.

Shoals, B. (2010). The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball, Bloomsbury; New York.

Tutu, Bishop D. Ubuntu: Putting ourselves back together, Retrieved February 8, 2011 from

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