While I feel formal teambuilding exercises are almost always waste of time, research (and not for the first time) doesn’t agree with me:
That runs counter to a series of informal studies I conducted over a number of years that found nearly every formal teambuilding exercise I participated in pretty much sucked. The best teams I worked on were built by shared experiences that forged genuine bonds.
Not by artificially-created situations like trust falls, ropes courses, or scavenger hunts.
But then I realized there is a happy middle: An intentional experience that can result in forging tighter bonds through shared vulnerability, and failure, and success, and the learning — and bonding — that inevitably results.
The key? Don’t call it teambuilding.
Sit in the stands at any motor race (or any professional sport as well) and you’ll eventually overhear the same conversation. “I could do that,” someone will say. “Put me on the track in one of those cars and I would be pretty quick, too.” Driving is driving; racing is just faster. Most never disabuse themselves of that notion.
But a small percentage turn the thought into a reality and try to become race drivers. A bigger percentage decide to see what it’s like. To learn a little more about the sport, and about themselves.
That’s the market served by Skip Barber Racing School, the longest-running and most successful race driving school in the country. The company was purchased (and reinvigorated and significantly expanded) by Demonte Motorsports in 2017. This year alone, Skip Barber will provide driving and race training instruction to over 10,000 people.
If your goal is to someday race, their three-day program is a prerequisite for obtaining a club or professional racing license. (Graduates include IndyCar and NASCAR drivers like Alexander Rossi, Jeff Gordon, Juan-Pablo Montoya, Michael Andretti, and Josef Newgarden.)
If you want to see what racing is like, the one-day program offers a surprisingly comprehensive taste of the real thing. Both programs involve driving race-ready cars that accelerate and handle and brake than any street-legal car you’ve likely ever driven, and on racetracks that you otherwise would never have access to.
Or if you “just” want to improve your skills — or help your teenager learn to actually drive, not just obey traffic signals and signs — the Hagerty Driving Academy program teaches emergency and defensive driving skills.
I like racing, so I decided to attend the one-day event at Road Atlanta, the legendary road course in northern Georgia.
The day started with a classroom session involved a number of “aha!” moments. How to control the car with your feet, not the steering wheel. How steering wheel position dictates gas and brake positions. How to develop sight pictures for each turn. And my favorite, because it applies to nearly every pursuit: When you’re clean, precise, and accurate, you don’t have to search for speed — speed finds you. I was excited to get in a car.
And that’s when it all fell apart.
The first exercise was simple: Accelerate to 35 mph, brake when you reach a specific cone, turn in to hit the apex of a turn marked by another cone, and accelerate through the exit of the turn. At 35 mph it was easy.
At 40 mph it was less easy.
At 45 mph I basically forgot how to drive. I started turning in too early, a habit I never completely broke over the course of the day. (We’re all taught to ease into turns when we drive a car.) Or I came off the brake pedal too abruptly and upset the balance of the car. Or I stabbed the brake, then stabbed it again. Or I started accelerating out of the apex too soon. Or, sometimes, all of the above.
After the eighth run I was a mess. I was thinking way too much and every movement felt unnatural.
“I need a break,” I told the instructor sitting beside me in the car.
“No, you don’t,” he said encouragingly. “Just do it in stages. Brake and lift smoothly. Turn and look at the exit, not the apex. Accelerate as you straighten the wheel. Just focus on each step.”
I tried again, and again, and slowly did better. Not perfect — far from perfect — but better.
Then it was off to the skid pad where a car with a special right tear tire awaited: Hold a turn at 15 mph and the back end slid. The goal was to anticipate the slide, catch it, control it, and keep rolling. Done correctly you could almost do donuts; incorrectly and you harmlessly spun out.
If that sounds horrible, trust me: It was really fun.
And it helped me develop a much lighter touch on the steering wheel. While your instinct is to grip the wheel tighter when the car feels out of control, the key is to relax. By the end, I was laying my palms and fingers flat on either side of the steering wheel so it could turn somewhat on its own. And instead of easing off the gas I had learned to accelerate out of the slide, which made it easier to control the car, not harder. (Like the classroom instructor said, your feet control the car.)
So I was feeling pretty good about myself while I watched other students take their turn when I heard a roar in the distance. I looked behind me and saw a car hurtling down the main track’s rain-swept front straightaway. As the car flew towards Turn 1 the man beside me said, “There’s no way he’s going to make it.”
Late — to me, way too late — the brake lights flashed, and almost as if by magic the car sliced through the turn, water spraying everywhere, and sped up the hill towards Turn 2.
We both shook our heads.
“There’s no way we’re doing that,” he said.
And we didn’t, because that car was driven by NASCAR driver Ross Chastain, who was receiving private coaching from a Skip Barber instructor. (Why would a NASCAR driver attend a driving school? Because highly skilled people never stop looking for ways to improve their skills; that mindset helps explain why they’re so talented.)
But, in our own way, we did.
Track time was broken down into three separate stages. One group rode in a van with an instructor who gave us advice on braking points, corner apexes, and racing lines. Another group went to a specific turn to observe students in the third group who followed an instructor, mimicking his braking points and racing lines.
Whether intentional or not, that method of instruction follows a learning principle called interleaving: studying related concepts or skills in parallel.
And it was surprisingly effective. While I never learned the track, I did develop a degree of rhythm. I got better at braking late. I got better at turning in late. I got better at accelerating out of turns, and thanks to my time on the skid pad at controlling the slide that sometimes resulted.
And I had a lot of fun talking to other students between stints in the car. We compared notes. We laughed about our mistakes. We celebrated our small victories. We bonded over doing something difficult, together.
And that’s when I realized, had we actually been members of a real team, that we would actually be “teambuilding.” Teams grow stronger when they do something new together, when learn together, when they fail and succeed together… and when they start to embrace the natural sense of vulnerability that results from doing challenging things, together.
So the next time you’re considering holding a teambuilding event, try doing it differently. First, don’t call it “teambuilding.” Enroll your team in something like a Skip Barber course, but frame it as a reward. As recognition for hard work. As a break from the normal day-to-day.
Make it something you’ve decided to do for your employees, not for your business. Do that, and no matter what the outcome, you win — because no one ever receives enough recognition or praise or reward.
Then stand back and let the teambuilding happen naturally.
Because that’s the only form of teambuilding that actually works, especially over the long term.