Who Do You Play For?

Inspired by the ongoing Stanley Cup playoffs, we share the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Their example reminds us that accomplishing something bigger than ourselves requires us to see beyond ourselves.

By John Sumner, Senior Manager, the Arbinger Institute | May 17, 2018

“Who do you play for?”

With this simple question, Coach Herb Brooks inspired a shift in mindset that ultimately resulted in one of the greatest moments in sports: the U.S. hockey team’s victory in the 1980 Olympics, now known as the “Miracle on Ice.”

When Individual Talent Isn’t Enough to Win

Prior to the 1980 Winter Olympics, the U.S. team knew they faced a daunting task: competing against the Soviet hockey team, who as four-time defending Olympic gold medalists represented the pinnacle of the sport for decades.

In the 1976 Canada Cup, the U.S. national team, comprised of the nation’s top professional hockey players, suffered a total defeat to the Soviet team.

In contrast to the 1976 all-stars, the 1980 U.S. Olympic team was a pick-up team of college hockey players formed shortly before the Olympics. How could they even begin to conceive of competing at that level, much less winning?

Who Do You Play For?

Herb Brooks knew he had to quickly achieve a unified team effort to have any hope of winning and tasked himself with shifting his players’ mindsets. If each player only looked out for himself, winning would be improbable if not impossible. Instead, each team member had to focus his efforts on playing for the team and the nation.

So Coach Brooks began by asking the players, “Who do you play for?” He knew this would be the key to shifting the team’s mindset.

In a famous scene from the 2004 movie Miracle, Coach Brooks runs the team through conditioning drills following another lackluster performance in a game leading up to the Olympics.

Exhausted, the team captain, Mike Eruzione, shouts out to the coach. In response, Coach Brooks asks, “Who do you play for?” The Captain replies, “I play for…the United States of America!”

Coach Brook’s question and Eruzione’s response helps the team come to a realization: To accomplish something much bigger than themselves, they need to see beyond themselves. They need to adopt an outward mindset.

Playing with an Outward Mindset

By asking the players, “Who do you play for,” Coach Brooks was essentially asking them what their mindset was. In Arbinger language, did they have a self-focused, inward mindset? Were they playing for themselves? Or did they have an others-inclusive, impact-focused outward mindset? Were they playing for something more than themselves?

With their new perspective, Coach Brooks and the team were able to be more than the sum of their individual capabilities. Instead, they learned how to coordinate and collaborate, applying innovative strategies and synchronized efforts.

At the 1980 Winter Olympics, not only did the U.S. hockey team win, but they also lifted the spirit of a nation!

In Our Organizations, Who Do We Play For?

Coach Brooks’ question can apply to us in our organizations. Like the U.S. hockey team, we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves…but we don’t always see it that way.

Sometimes we approach our work with an inward mindset. With this mindset, how might we respond when asked, “Who do you play for?” We’d likely respond that we’re really only looking out for ourselves. If that’s the case, it understandably becomes difficult to coordinate efforts, focus on organizational results, or remain engaged.

But what if our response to the question “Who do you play for?” was that we play for the organization and its mission? Just imagine what would happen (to silos, culture, performance, results, retention) if everyone were invested in the success of everyone around them and the organization overall! Like the U.S. hockey team, victories, large or small, would be much more probable.

So ask yourself, “Who do you play for?”