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Jackets' team-building exercise focused on communication, teamwork

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

Some teams go golfing, others organize a formal dinner. The Blue Jackets wanted to do something a little different this year when it came to a team-building exercise, so they turned to leadership expert J.B. Spisso.

Spisso is no stranger to the Blue Jackets and the NHL, having worked with Columbus in the past and also consulted with a few other teams.

Spisso, who spent 10 years at West Point, is now in charge of Elite Leadership Training, where he specializes in performance exercises and providing clients with “a unique and innovative program customized to build successful teams, skilled leaders and dedicated managers.”

The Blue Jackets flew out to California a day early to allow time to work with Spisso, who met the team in nearby Santa Clara for a day of collaboration, execution and leadership training activities. With the team about to play three games in four nights beginning Thursday against the San Jose Sharks, the team-building exercises were mostly mental challenges and critical thinking-based rather than physically demanding.

“You had to turn your brain on,” Blue Jackets forward and alternate captain Mark Letestu said.

The Blue Jackets were split into three groups to complete three tasks that took about an hour each. First, they had to find a series of cards scattered around the grounds, and each card contained a message written in code. Once they found the card, it had to be returned to the home base where collectively, they deciphered it.

The second task included a group quiz and also a “sketch test,” where a player had to describe what he was seeing through a set of binoculars while someone else sketched it out.

Finally, there was a leadership challenge in which one group took part in a 9-on-1 paintball mission. The objective was to take down a singular target using a defined strategy that came from one player who was identified as the group’s mission leader.

“It was all about communication and teamwork,” Letestu said. “The leader had to step up and lead his group, make sure the objective was met and communicate everyone’s roles to the group.

“The one thing I took out of it was the communication part. It’s all about using your teammates and trusting them, and not being the shy guy on the outside. There’s definitely a leadership side of that, too, that was driven home by J.B.”

It was a welcomed change of pace, Letestu said, and an exercise that opened the eyes of both the veterans and young players. Particularly for the rookies and newcomers, it was helpful to see their teammates outside the rink and in a different setting where personalities emerge and everyone gets to know each other better.

And even the wily veterans learned a thing or two from the team-building, Letestu said.

“For someone like myself who’s been in the league a while, it was really cool to do something I hadn’t really done before, and learn to be a leader outside of our normal element of wearing skates and playing hockey,” Letestu said. “It forces you to talk, it forces you to be assertive and communicate openly because not everyone knows what’s going on.

“It was light physically but you really had to commit to it, commit to the group and want to be part of it. All of the exercises had some value as long as you're willing to engage yourself. The things we talk about with leadership like reflection, communication, all that stuff…it helped not only the older guys like myself but also the younger guys because it forces them to not be shy right away and helps get to know us.”

Every group was evaluated at the end of the day and there was a competition element which helped drive the exercise, Letestu said. The focus was sharpened and the adrenaline was high, and “it forced everyone to bear down because they wanted to out-perform the other groups, too.”

Letestu said he had never been part of a team-building exercise like the Blue Jackets participated in this week, but it made a strong impression on he and the rest of the team. It did not have to be physically exhausting to leave a lasting impact, he said, and it built on some of the core Spisso principles they were already familiar with.

“Everyone’s done some sort of team building, but I’ve never done something that’s been a tactical, teamwork-oriented thing like we did this week,” Letestu said. “We’re all pretty familiar with J.B. and what he brings: that leadership driven, warrior mentality and thinking as a group is a big part of it.

“For the younger guys, this was a little different, too and it was good for them to see some of us outside the rink, get to know us and get to see our personalities a little bit more. I think all of us can take a lot of out it.”

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