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What We Can All Learn About Teamwork and Overcoming Failure From Team USA Olympic Athlete Cheta Emba

What’s the secret to great teamwork, surviving failure, finding motivation, and dealing with outsized egos?

"A lot of things are fleeting in sports, and the thing that keeps me pressing on is finding out what I attach value to, and what provides meaning to me,” said Team USA rugby Olympic athlete Cheta Emba. [®Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images]

You don’t have much free time when you’re training with the USA Rugby team, getting ready for the Tokyo Olympics in July. But Team USA Rugby Olympic athlete Cheta Emba found a short window in an otherwise meticulously planned training schedule to talk about teamwork, bouncing back from failure, finding motivation, and dealing with big egos.

The 27-year old fullback ducked into a storage room between training sessions in Chula Vista, California. It was the nearest, quietest place she could find to talk about the ethos of sports. In it, there are valuable lessons for anyone in business or life. 

First, some background. She’s a multi-sport athlete who played soccer and basketball before becoming a soccer standout as a student at Harvard, from which she earned a degree in molecular and cellular biology in 2015. 

She only took up rugby midway through her college career as an opportunity to crosstrain for soccer. “I thought it looked really cool,” she said. “In college, you’re specialized with positions, and I was looking for another outlet.”

Teamwork, and managing big egos

Emba has always played team sports, and says being part of a team is “pretty special because every single person brings something to the table.” 

“Teamwork calls on you to be better every day, because when the team comes together there are better outcomes. When you’re part of a team, you have to ask yourself ‘what is my role and how am I contributing to the function or disfunction?’” 

It’s natural that some people — and this is true in sports and business — will be standouts while others are supporting players. That said, it can be hard to keep egos in check. Emba said her team has formally agreed on and embraced a cooperative culture and set of values they call BRAVE. 

  • B. Be a “good blueberry.” In general, this means be good to everyone and don’t let your ego get the better of you. 
  • R. Resilient and respectful. 
  • A. Authentic, accountable and aware of your actions.
  • V. Vulnerable. 
  • E. Enjoy the process. 

She said every person on the team had to agree on this set of values, identify with them, and commit to living them as part of the team. This helps maintain harmonious relationships on and off the pitch, and helps make disappointments a bit less painful. 

It’s debatable what’s a more powerful emotion, the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

“If you wanted to pick a team you thought would win you’d pick the one with LeBron James or Michael Jordan,” she said. “But both have said they couldn’t do what they do without everyone else on the team.” 

She says they want everyone (even the rockstars) to be their true selves but “not at the expense of each other.”

Dealing with failure

It’s debatable what’s a more powerful emotion, the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat (to quote Jim McKay and The Wide World of Sports). Of course, losses and disappointments are inevitable in every corner of life, and may not be totally in your control. What is in your control, Emba says, is how you bounce back. 

“It’s hard. There’s no way around it. I used to compartmentalize the losses but looking back, I was not as effective as I thought I was in doing that.” 

She’s learned, instead, to refocus attention on understanding where things went wrong, including her role in it, so she can walk away knowing what she may do differently next time. 

“Maybe it was a lack of showing up, or too much showing up. Maybe I missed the tackle, or didn’t communicate best before the pass. What feedback can I get for next time to reach my goal?” 

Finding motivation

Why do some people have the ‘thing’?’ That ever-present internal itch that drives them to constantly push themselves beyond what might seem achievable or possible? 

Emba is a perfect illustration. She succeeded academically in a rigorous program at an Ivy League school while simultaneously starting as a soccer goalkeeper, then took up rugby in her junior year. By the very next year, she’d been selected to the U.S. National Team for the Super Series in Canada, and was named a traveling alternate for the Olympic Games in Rio. 

“Sometimes people latch onto motivation as the end-all, be-all,” she said. “A lot of things are fleeting in sports, and the thing that keeps me pressing on is finding out what I attach value to, and what provides meaning to me.” 

The ability to serve others is a great motivator.

Team usa rugby olympian cheta emba

She said faith and family play a central role. “The concept of doing something for something bigger than myself is really powerful. If it was just for me, I’d wake up some days and say ‘ah, I just don’t want to do it today,’ or ‘that’s good enough for today,’ but I’m able to eke out more because it’s an expression of my faith,” she said.  

“Having purpose and a deeper meaning can make the longer days more manageable.”

She says her parents — mother a nurse, father a pharmacist — both had a “servant” mindset. “Not in a diminishing way, but in questioning what role they can play in serving others. The ability to serve others is a great motivator.” 

But, she says, others’ motivations don’t have to be that big or ambitious. “You just have to find out what you need to make what you’re doing worthwhile, because if something has value to you, you’ll be willing to do the work for it.” 

The parallels between successful athletes and successful business careers is well-established, and there’s little doubt Emba will be among those ranks. But right now, she’s a full-time rugby player hoping for a spot on the world’s biggest sporting stage. In whatever spare time she can find, she volunteers to build homes and at a local food service. 

“Anything,” she said. “I’m up for it.”

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