If you choose any saying and repeat it enough, it tends to take on a life of its own.  That was the case my sophomore year of college.  Barely a day would go by when I wouldn’t hear this phrase:

“A team is only as strong as its weakest player.”

Like all college athletes, I spent a lot of time with my team.  Practicing, watching film, lifting weights, traveling for games, eating together, etc.  And throughout all of these activities the same phrase seemed to come up almost daily.

“A team is only as strong as its weakest player.”

Emotionally, I could get behind the message.  It meant that everyone on the team had to work hard no matter if they were the first person in the game, or the last man on the bench.  I liked the spirit of the statement, so I went along with it.  Also, since everyone said it so often, it was almost impossible to disagree.

There was one problem though: Logically, I didn’t believe the statement was true.

The analogy everyone used was: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”  Now, that statement made sense to me.  Where I fell down was the connection between a chain and our team.  It just didn’t really feel like the analogy was a good fit.  A chain has pressure exerted evenly across its entire length, which causes the weakest link to be the point of failure.  On the other hand, out of the 30 people on our team, only 10 could play in a game at any given time.  It just didn’t feel like the pressure was spread evenly across everyone.

On top of that, we happened to have one player who was significantly better than everyone else.  Tommy – he was a true star.  He scored more than 30% of our total goals and by all accounts seemed unstoppable on offense.

Much of the time, we relied on Tommy to get the win for us.  We all knew we could count on him to score and he rarely let us down.  Just pass the ball to Tommy and watch him do his work.  Our team wasn’t really a chain at all; in fact, we were quickly becoming a one-man team.

The plan actually worked well for the first half of the season and Tommy earned us an excellent record.  That is, until one of our rivals discovered Tommy’s weakness, his Achilles’ heal.  When Tommy was marked by a left-handed defenseman that could throw an over-the-head-check – he was totally neutralized.

It took a while for our opponents to discover this weakness.  Left-handed defenseman weren’t that common in our league – and even less common was one that could throw a well-timed over-the-head-check.  However, once this weakness was discovered, it was detrimental, he was totally crippled by it.

Once one team figured it out, news traveled quickly.  Starting the second half of the season, all the other teams in the league had figured out how to shut down our leading scorer.

Now, with Tommy unable to score, we had to rely on our other players to carry the team.  The problem is, the rest of the team was used to passing to Tommy.  Because they gave Tommy the ball so much, they didn’t have the skills they needed to get to the goal.  We had given Tommy all of the opportunities to polish his skills – and it left the rest of the team unprepared to take the lead.

Only then did I realize the meaning behind our slogan: “A team is only as strong as its weakest player”.

At the time it seemed crazy, but now it seems obvious.  In order for us to be a great team, we needed a whole team of good players, not just one great player.  Even though Tommy was our best player and he was winning for us, he needed to pass the ball.  He needed to give others a chance to polish their skills, even if it meant he would have fewer opportunities to score; or worse, even if it meant we would lose a few games.

To some degree, real game experience is a zero sum.  Each game only has 60 minutes and 4 quarters.  For us to be a stronger team, Tommy – our best player and leading scorer – had to give others the opportunity to shine.  He needed to pass on opportunities to score and on opportunities to make himself better – but in exchange he would allow others to develop and he would help make the whole team stronger.

For a team to truly be strong it cannot be too dependent on any one person, it has to be a chain with pressure spread evenly across the length; each link supporting the next.

Today, I believe it wholeheartedly: A team is only as strong as its weakest player.

A Team is only as Strong as its Weakest Player
Tagged on:         
  • So… I agree with your fundamental point – that the strength of a team is defined more by teamwork than by star players, and that optimizing the subsystem (the individual player) leads to a sub-optimization of the overall system (the team).

    But I think you have a very, very creative interpretation of the statement “A team is only as strong a its weakest player.” That seems to map quite literally to the “chain” metaphor you mention and is, I think, simply incorrect.

    Why incorrect?

    Because if you ask the *so what?* question, then it becomes:

    > A team is only as strong as its weakest player.
    > Therefore, make a team of strong players.


    > A team of strong players is stronger than a team of weak players.

    Which seems to ignore the role of teamwork, or the existence – and effectiveness – of a team independent of the individuals that make up the team.

  • Hmm. I see your point. The message could just as easily be “get rid of your weak players” – which I don’t think is the goal. I suppose the sayings’ not perfect.