What does Ping Pong have to do with Packers team building?

It seems like a yearly thing that one of the NFC head coaches with a paucity of Lombardi trophies sitting around the facility finds it necessary to take a cheap shot at Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s team building activities. During the McCarthy era, the team routinely forgoes one of its minicamp practices for an afternoon of something more laid back and fun. In the past the team has played dodge ball. Last year it was bowling. This year, the team headed out much like they did after their Super Bowl victory and shot clay.

It took all of a day for the the latest childish comment to echo through the NFC North. This time it was from Vikings coach Mike Zimmer who said, “We could have a team building day, and we could go play ping pong and stuff like that.  But we need to work, and we need to get better. You team build by winning.”

The snide comment echoed the same juvenile remarks that former Lions coach Jim Schwartz said the last time the Packers headed out to shoot clays:

We had no sporting clays today or no amusement parks or water. Work day of minicamp. … We take a lot of pride in the fact that we play for a blue-collar town and we try to reflect that kind of work ethic, and we have very few opportunities to practice this off-season. Ten OTAs, one minicamp and we talked in the beginning, every one was crucial and couldn’t afford to waste any of them. … But they have plenty of time to enjoy the rest of their summer before they get to training camp. Today was a work day for us.

So obviously not all believe in McCarthy’s strategies  to build a team. And has he countered yesterday, of course no one ever learned the Lombardi Sweep or the nuances of the pistol formation while playing ping pong. But Mike McCarthy’s methods don’t need the rest of the NFC North’s approval. But something about that formula works as the Packers have been in the playoffs every year since that last Super Bowl victory.

What is it about silly games or an afternoon of shooting at clay pigeons that McCarthy seems to like enough that it has become a yearly tradition?

Team building exercises are lampooned to no end in the media. It’s something that the corporate world has embraced as something that strengthens a team. And yes, I tend to cringe when forced into ice-breaking exercises like every one else, especially when the seem way to contrived.

Yet the business literature cites these types of exercises as something that can bring a group together to help it become more cohesive. And what better time than minicamp? It’s were the newly minted rookies and recently signed free agents really start to knuckle down and start working side by side established members of the Green Bay Packers. Of course there will be a natural pecking order that will occur through the regular training camp. But in those first weeks of becoming a Packer, new players will be feeling out there role within the team while trying to absorb the offensive and defensive schemes.

Obviously McCarthy values the strength that a cohesive unit forms, and definitely sees merit in such exercises, and I suspect he has researched the value of it by exploring business models that embrace it.

Team building exercises first and foremost help build trust within a group. No, I’m not talking about those lame trust falls you see all the time on television. John Castro, the CEO of the Merrill Corporation has gone on the record and stated, “Trust is critical in business because it can make or break a team, and business can no longer survive without teams.” Mutual trust fostered by team-building activities can allow your employees to depend more on one another and be more productive and efficient as a result.”

These exercises help facilitate better communication within a team and help break down boundaries. For a young rookie, it may be intimidating when first interacting with an MVP quarterback or All Pro receiver. These type of bonding and team building activities are great ice breakers to move beyond titles and reputations and help new teammates get to know each other in a less structured and more informal way.

Rodgers has gone on the record in the past that the rookies have called him sir, likely deferring both to the age and experience differential. Playing along side one of the faces of not just the franchise but possibly the entire NFL may be a bit daunting for a 21 year old. But what if the coaches gave that rookie permission to not only pelt the starting quarterback in the face with a yellow rubber ball or go head-to-head in bowling with someone like a Julius Peppers? The hierarchy breaks down a bit and new team members are quickly brought into the fold.

Team building activities may seem trivial and mock-worthy at first glance. But for the Green Bay Packers, they have become a way to celebrate the end of minicamp. The time between minicamp and the grueling routine of training camp is the closest thing NFL players have to summer vacation. Who’s willing to begrudge them a fun “field day” just like they hold in schools the last week. The team will have all of training camp to get ready for the season. There will be four months of fine-tuning the offense and defense.

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Kelly Hodgson is a writer for PackersTalk.com and you can listen to her as a Co-Host of Out of the Pocket. You can also follow Kelly on Twitter at @ceallaigh_k

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