Winning As a Team – by Sean O’Neil

This was written a few short years ago by Sean O’Neil

I played in a wiffle ball tournament with my 13-year-old twin sons this past weekend. The tournament was set on an artificial turf field on a soupy end-of-summer day. Team O’Neil decided it would play in the tournament’s “competitive” division. We were excited. We’d played plenty of wiffle ball in our day, and considered ourselves quite good.

We agreed that I would pitch (yes, the old lefty still knew how to make wiffle balls dance), my boys would play in the field, and we would all bat.

We noticed with some concern that our first three opponents were strapping high school boy teams – all bursting with testosterone, biceps, and facial hair. We weren’t nearly as imposing – my boys were scrawny, pre-pubescent middle schoolers, and I was already sweating out whatever testosterone still remained in my 42-year-old body.

But we managed to scratch and claw. Each contributed in his own way. I pitched like my arm was young and strong. Ryan made diving plays in the field. Matt used his smooth swing to string together timely hits. We didn’t hit bombs like the high schoolers, but we were a team in sync, and it was going to take more than brute strength to take us down.

Team O’Neil qualified for the semi-finals, where we finally met our match against yet another high school squad. These opponents proved too much for us. Our bats never heated up. My left arm, after 4 games of pitching, felt as if it might fall off. We were spent. Our tournament was over. Our shot at wiffle ball glory would have to wait at least another year.

As I watched the championship from a hill with a smile on my face, a hot dog in one hand, and an ice-cold beer in the other, my wife saddled up alongside me.

Erin: So what happened in that last game out there?

Me: I don’t know…I guess we just ran out of steam.

Erin: I’m surprised you’re still smiling.

Me: Yeah, me too…But I’ll tell you. I had one hell of a time with our boys today. We played so tough. It was a total team effort. The whole of us was truly greater than the sum of our parts. We had no business being on the field with some of those teams…So yeah, I’m smiling. Maybe I’m growing up. We’ll get ‘em next year.

Erin: Funny…

Me: What?

Erin: Nothing.

Me: No, what?

Erin: Well, when I asked the boys what happened in the semi-finals, each of them, separately, told me, “Mom, Dad single-handedly cost us the tournament.” When I asked why, they said, “His pitching really slowed down…and, well, he didn’t really hit that well.” In fact, Matt said, “Mom, he’s only getting older. I think we’ll need to replace him if we want to have any chance at winning this thing next year.”

I stared straight ahead as I took in this news, my smile slowly draining from my face. My wife was staring at me intently, wondering how I’d react. After a moment, I said, “Hmph.”

Erin: What?

Me: Funny…but throughout the tournament, I kept thinking that I was carrying those little shits. When you came up to me just now, I was smiling not because of our great run, but because I was thinking to myself, “Damn, I still got it.”

Erin: So all that stuff you said about being a team and being greater than the sum of your parts. You didn’t really mean any of it. You thought you were the reason you advanced as far as you did. You were really just proud of yourself.

Me: (my smile returning to my face) Yes.

Perhaps we weren’t as flushed in team unity as I initially thought. Each of us privately exaggerated the importance of his own contributions to our team. We didn’t possess any real team magic. We played hard, leveraged our respective strengths, and did our best to hide our weaknesses.

Would we have won the whole shootin’ match if we weren’t so selfish in our thinking? Maybe. But maybe there’s a place for a little private selfishness among successful teams. Maybe people, by their nature, place the value of their own contributions above those of the people around them. And maybe that’s ok…but if it’s not, maybe I’ll just grab some other under-appreciated 40-somethings, dump the twins, and win the whole damn thing next year!


Sean O’Neil is a workplace and team dynamics expert. He is also Principal and CEO of Bare Knuckle People Management (, a sales and management training firm with clients that include the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer, News Corporation, First Data, ADP, Royal Bank of Scotland, and the Oakland Raiders. Sean and John Kulisek co-authored Bare Knuckle People Management: Creating Success with the Team You Have – Winners, Losers, Misfits and All, which was published in May 2011. Sean has contributed to or been featured in, among others, The New York Times, the Wall Street JournalSelling Power MagazineCNBC.comLeadership Excellence MagazineTraining MagazineThe Dallas Morning News, the Sports Business Journal, and Incentive Magazine. Sean appears regularly on radio and television programs, including Fox Business Network and Imus in the Morning, mostly about workplace communications and management issues. Sean is a nationally-recognized speaker on everything concerning people and the way they interact with each other. He can also frequently be seen pacing the sidelines of a youth team he’s coaching.


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