Using Symbolism to Develop Teamwork – Aaron O’ Connell

Impact the Game

Using Symbolism to Develop Teamwork – Aaron O’ Connell

Coach Mike Krzyzewski guided the Duke University men’s basketball team to five NCAA tournament titles (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, and 2015) from 1980 to 2022, and also coached the USA Men’s National team to three consecutive Olympic Gold Medals (2008, 2012, 2016). In his book Leading with the Heart, Coach K, as he is affectionately known, compared a team to the five fingers of the hand. “If five talented individuals don’t perform as a team, they may not be as strong as five less-talented individuals who do” (Krzyzewski & Philips, 2000, p. 70). He painted a picture of five fingers coming together to form a fist as a tool to teach his players about the five fundamental values of teamwork. Values describe how we want to behave or what kind of team we want to be (Diment et al., 2020). Coach K’s fundamental qualities that were important to him at Duke were communication, trust, collective responsibility, caring, and pride. He described each of these values as a separate finger on the hand and explained that, as team members, we are all weaker alone than if we are together. Each of them individually is important, but when all of them join together they are unbeatable. The team that lives by those tenets becomes a great one! The purpose of this article is to discuss ‘The Fist‘ – an analogy borrowed from Coach K and that I have applied to the teams I coach.

My Own Approach to the FIST

For a number of years now, I have been using ‘The Fist’ analogy to develop teamwork in the basketball and hurling teams I coach from Under 11 to adult level. The values I use when introducing ‘The Fist’ analogy to my teams and players include: (1) encouraging each other, (2) always looking to improve, (3) respecting and caring for each other, (4) commitment to each other and our goals, and (5) we need each other (Figure 1). These are my own personal values and align with my coaching philosophy and coaching practice. They serve as guiding principles for my coaching and inform my everyday coaching practices and decisions while being evident in my actions (Kouzes & Posner, 2008). My core values serve as an embodiment of who I am as a coach and why I coach. I will now provide you with an explanation of each of the value elements of my ‘Fist’ and how I go about applying them in my teams.




The Thumb – We Encourage Each Other

Expressing confidence in people’s abilities, highlighting the positive, and recognizing their achievements are powerful ways to motivate people (Meyer & Meijers, 2018). When we receive compliments and encouragement, it reinforces we are doing well, and this in turn leads to greater self-confidence and a willingness to try out new things and learn. From a relationship perspective, encouragement strengthens people’s sense of acceptance and trust, and it’s this sense of inclusion, support, and security that allows people to relax and perform without fear of criticism, blame, and rejection.

With teams I coach, I promote encouragement by discussing what it is, its benefits, and ways we can encourage each other. With younger teams, we agree on simple gestures like a thumbs-up or a pat on the back after a good pass, great defense, or superb effort. Then at the end of the session, I ask players to identify who encouraged them, what it was for, what gesture their teammate used, and how it made them feel.


As an additional activity, I’ve used the “Secret Supporter.” All players’ names are placed in a bag and each player pulls a name from it (once it’s not their own name). They must then secretly support that teammate for the session or game without the teammate realizing who it was. In essence, they’re having to encourage others, but also give their intended target that little bit more. At the end of the session/game, I ask each player to guess who their secret supporter was. From my experience, players are excited to use this activity, and over time, encouragement becomes the norm both on and off the court.


The Index Finger – Always Looking to Improve

I am constantly learning and looking to improve my coaching practices and knowledge, and I encourage a growth mindset in my players. A growth mindset leads to a thirst to learn, a tendency to embrace challenges, persevere in the face of setbacks, and envisage effort as a path to mastery (Dweck, 2017). Athletes and coaches with a growth mentality reach higher levels of achievement and a greater sense of autonomy. That freedom to grow personally, to make mistakes and learn from them, and to be themselves should be the norm in every team.

I facilitate my athletes’ development of a growth mindset by using the acronym FAIL (First Attempt In Learning), and by helping them to understand that mistakes are a normal and needed part of the learning process (Gilbert, 2017). I also get them to add the word ‘yet’ to the end of any self-criticism or moments of self-doubt. For example, when an athlete tells me, “I’m not good at shooting the ball”, I remind them to say, “I’m not good at shooting the ball, yet.” I believe both these approaches lead to perseverance and a willingness to learn from failures. We also set mastery goals where athletes are focused on improving their ability rather than proving their ability (Gilbert, 2017), and are discouraged from comparing themselves to others.


The Middle Finger – Respect and Care for Each other

As a coach, I am committed to treating people with dignity and respect, and also expect to be treated in a similar way. In a team environment, in particular, we cannot afford put-downs and disrespect among teammates. There must be a sense of respect and appreciation for everyone on the team, and I must model this in my role as a coach through my verbal and non-verbal communication and my behavior. In a similar fashion, I teach my athletes to respect the environment they train and play in by, for example, leaving their team benches as tidy as they found them.

Caring is also part of showing respect. It is a crucial aspect in the development of teamwork. When a player knows she has her teammate’s unconditional support in good times or bad, she’s less fearful of making mistakes and grows in confidence. To develop this caring environment, I foster individual relationships with my players, but also provide them with opportunities to get to know each other, not just as athletes but as people.


The Ring Finger – Committed to Each Other and Our Goals

In a team environment, the ring finger signifies players’ loyalty and commitment to each other and their goals. Players are committed when they feel competent, accepted, fulfilled, and follow their dreams (Orlick, 2008). Commitment to each other can be demonstrated by helping a teammate off the ground, attendance at training sessions, putting their best effort into sessions, and having a never-give-up attitude.

Similarly, commitment to the team and individual goals is shown by putting your heart and soul into doing everything you can to reach them. This grows when we set clear goals, are pursuing something that really matters to us (Orlick, 2008), and when we receive consistent feedback on our progress (Weinberg & Gould, 2011). Within our team environment, players become part of the goal-setting process by soliciting their input and letting them set their own goals, and we regularly monitor progress with the use of performance profile wheels and training journals.


The Little Finger – We Need Each Other

Our little finger is vulnerable. It needs the other fingers to provide stability, but it’s also vital because very few skills in sports can be achieved without the little finger. In a similar manner, we need each other in a team environment. Everyone on our team is important, no matter how small or less visible their role and their overall importance to our success. Our goal is to get each player on the team, in particular those with greater ability, to focus their individual abilities on the welfare of the group as a whole. Selfishness is not tolerated. For example, on a fastbreak in basketball, players are instructed to pass the ball ahead to open teammates to give them the opportunity to score, and this is irrespective of the latter’s ability.


How the FIST is Developed

A three-phase approach (education, practice, and promotion) is used to develop – The Fist.

Education Phase: I use an explicit approach to teach each of the components of ‘The Fist.’ Team discussions take place to inform and educate players on its benefits to the team as a whole. I’m looking to sell the idea and get buy-in from players. The usual way I accomplish this is by first introducing the concept of ‘The Fist,’ then exploring the importance of teamwork, and explaining the rationale for using it. With each ‘finger’, players are encouraged to come up with suggestions on how we might demonstrate the values, for example, how we might show respect to others.

Practice Phase: During this phase, we are learning the skills. I introduce one ‘finger’ at a time and we try to go with one or two of the suggestions from our players. Then we practice these in our sessions and debrief with the group or individual activities. We move to the next finger after a period of 2-4 weeks.


Promotion Phase: There are four particular ways that I promote ‘The Fist.’ Firstly, each season we design a chart that includes a figure of our ‘Fist’ as well as our agreed goals for the campaign. For every session, a player is nominated to take this chart and display it at one end of the court for all to see. Secondly, players place their fists in the huddle prior to heading out on the court. Thirdly, champions of each of the five fundamental values are rewarded at the end of the season. Finally, parents of the youth teams I coach are informed of our work with ‘The Fist’ and asked to champion it with their children.

To conclude, the word ‘teamwork’ is discussed quite a lot, and it could be argued that it is taken for granted. My view is that teamwork needs to be taught and developed, and team members need to be given an opportunity to practice it. ‘The Fist’ approach is a powerful and symbolic way to develop effective teamwork, built around the values you hold dear, that portray the kind of team you want to be part of, and how you want your athletes to behave.



Diment, G., Henriksen, K., & Larsen, C. H. (2020). Team Denmark’s sports psychology professional philosophy 2.0. Scandinavian Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2, 26-32.

Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset-updated edition: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Hachette UK.

Firlik, K. (2021). On the Cutting Edge. In: Afremov, J., (ed) The Leader’s Mind: How great leaders prepare, perform, and prevail. New York: Harper Collins, pp. 91-112.

Gilbert, W. (2017). Coaching better every season: A year-round system for athlete development and program success. Human Kinetics.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2008). A leader’s legacy. John Wiley & Sons.

Krzyzewski, M. with Phillips, D.T. (2000). Leading with the heart: Coach K’s successful strategies for basketball, business, and life. New York: Hachette Book Group.

Krzyzewski, M., & Spatola, J. K. (2006). Beyond basketball: Coach K’s keywords for success. Hachette UK.