Startups as well as corporates are creating sports leagues to encourage employees to participate and boost team engagement, find new leaders and fight stress
Vijay Sethi, a unit leader, joined a new team at Royal Bank of Scotland India, a year ago. All the team members were new, so Sethi, a sports enthusiast, signed them up for a forthcoming cricket tournament organized by the company. They played the whole season. “Our performance was average but what we achieved was bonding," says Sethi, 32. “By the end of the day, we had built a good relationship, felt fitter and were ready to achieve anything." The tournament, he adds, made the team members feel like they could deal with challenging situations together, as a team.
Keeping in mind the importance of sports in team-building, Indegene, a Bengaluru-based healthcare solutions company, has increased the number of sports played in its annual Indegene Premier League (IPL). It now includes badminton, football, volleyball, throwball, cricket and table tennis.
There’s ample research to support that sports activities can help in team engagement and collaboration. Companies, especially startups, which are always looking for fresh ideas to keep workers engaged, are now allocating their funds from corporate training to organizing sports leagues and events.
Besides team engagement, there’s also the upside of physical exercise that helps reduce stress, and channelizes energy in a positive way, says Sameer Malhotra, head of mental health and behavioural sciences, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Delhi. The other aspect is, of course, building team spirit. “That’s valuable as it creates a ‘we’ feeling. Individuals relate to colleagues much more, get to know each other and understand other sides of you."
Such push for activities also tell the employees that their company cares for their health and well being, he adds.
Shubha Madhusudhan, clinical psychologist at Fortis Hospital in Bengaluru, believes the rise in office sports leagues is due to the growing awareness that yet another in-office mental exercise will restrict the body and mind to a cubicle, a chair, while sports will enhance physical fitness and encourage lateral thinking.
“We need to move our body for better brain functioning," she says. Too much time in office, she explains, turns people into tunnel thinkers—thinking only in one direction—and slower in the execution of their job. It can also cause anxiety and a sense of sadness in the long term. Sports or physical exercise, on the other hand, counters this. “Sports reduces negativity, anxiety and that feeling of sadness and leads to quick thinking, action and a sense of confidence and fulfilment," she says.
What’s more, teamwork improves communication and cooperation, adds Dr Madhusudhan, who has a table tennis table in her personal clinic where she plays with her clients to establish a rapport.
Out in the open
There’s no downside to sports activities organized by companies, insists Dr Madhusudhan.
“Sports not only removes prejudice, but also releases fear. It also teaches us about accepting failure; that winning and losing is part of a match as much as it’s part of life," she says.
For Shaurya Singh, 24, associate manager at Jindal Stainless in Gurugram, it was an important lesson. Early November last year, Singh participated in the company’s annual internal tournament of Crickennis (cricket with a tennis ball). She was just a few months into the company, and ended up bowling poorly in a crucial last over. “We lost, but my team didn’t hold a grudge because of it and cheered me up. Even though defeat tasted foul, their support made it sweet," she says. As she settled into the job, the feeling remained with her, as did the realization that even under intense pressure, her team will support her through wins and losses.
“As a newbie, it definitely helped me make friends beyond my team and feel part of the company," says Singh.
Playing in sports leagues with teams, which comprise of employees from other cities or office teams, is a great way of meeting and knowing others within the company.
Mumbai-based Sourav Chatterjee, 44, senior vice president at DBS Bank India, uses the internal football league that the company has been organizing since 2015 to bond and interact with his colleagues, across functions, departments and cities. “It’s an opportunity to get to know your colleagues better and break out of silos," he says.
Ten per cent of DBS Bank’s total employee engagement budget goes into organizing sports activities. “The league has been going on so well that some of our former employees tune in to watch the live videos of the matches online," says Chatterjee.
Leaders on the ground
Some companies use sport leagues to find new leaders, while some use it to tighten bonds within existing managerial hierarchy.
As a new branch manager in sales at Ghaziabad with Pidilite Industries Ltd, Harsh Aswani, 27, enrolled himself and his team into the company’s annual cricket league in February 2018. “It was the best thing that could have happened to me," he says.
As he knew the sport well, he could guide his team and use the opportunity to bond with them. Though they lost initial matches, they were able to work hard together as a team and win the best branch trophy.
Within a few months, Aswani had not only shown his leadership skills by taking the team through the losses, he also developed strong relationships with his colleagues. “The informal sports setting helped me identify who in my team had what kind of a motivation and drive and use that to win in our daily work lives," he says.
Like Jindal Stainless, Mahindra Lifespaces cricket leagues have team managers as captains, to encourage trust and camaraderie between teams and the leadership.
Mrunal Dalvi, 36, a senior manager at the company, vividly remembers the enthusiasm and passion that his manager and team captain, Sunil Sharma, brought to the practices and matches. “This on-field camaraderie has permeated our daily interactions at work and has helped us work together as a team," he says, adding he’s already discussing the new season of the sports league with his boss and captain. For Sharma, the chief customer officer, it’s a great way to connect across generations and break the ice with associates who he has rarely spoken with, and understand co-workers.
Sports leagues can also help employees gain confidence in their work.
Sowmya Puttaraju, consulting psychotherapist at Bengaluru healthcare solutions company Indegene, says their sports league helped an employee who struggled with a speech disorder.
“He used sports to improve his spontaneous speech skills with regard to both loudness and content," she says. This helped him gain confidence and work in cohesion in office. Puttaraju believes group format sports activities bring teams together. She says in sports you have to depend or delegate, as that’s intrinsic to sports. It’s an important lesson in working together towards one goal, and companies are build upon this.
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