Research at AIIT

Dialog with an Uncertain Future / Excerp (Irregular updates)

The 56th Installment“Application of sports team strategies in PBL”

by Toshiyuki Murao,
Assistant Professor, Master Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering

Application of sports team strategies in PBL

The year is almost over and another year is about to begin. A customary event at the beginning of the new year is Hakone Ekiden. I enjoy watching the university relay marathon, and I have not missed a single race ever since I was an elementary school student. Waseda University won all three crowns from last year's Izumo Ekiden, National University Men's Ekiden Championships, and Hakone Ekiden. Waseda's Ekiden team seems to have vastly different ultimate goals for each runner. The team consists of students who entered the university from powerful teams through a recommendation system and those who joined through regular admission. Although they have diverse backgrounds and skills, they all have the same passion to win the crown of the Hakone Ekiden. In fact, elite runners and those who worked their way up to reach the frontline exhibited a synergistic effect together and led the team to win the championship with the fastest time in history at the Hakone Ekiden the past New Year's holidays.

On the other hand, the Master Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering provides Project-Based Learning (PBL) education for sophomore students and adult students and undergraduate students form mixed teams to engage in the year-long project. However, when asked if the achievements made by the teams are not only the sum of each student's achievement but also the maximized achievement achieved through a synergistic effect among team members, I doubt that the entire teams would agree good naturedly. The PBL teams in this program consist of working people and undergraduate students with diverse specialties and backgrounds. In this respect, those teams have some similarities with the Ekiden team I mentioned earlier. In this column, I would like to introduce some of the team strategies [1] of the Waseda University Track & Field Club, which we can integrate into the PBL project as an approach taken from the sports field. The key words are sharing of goals, leadership, and a sense of unity, and I will describe each respectively.

Let's talk about the sharing of goals first. When it comes to the sharing of goals, it is essential to set up team goals appropriately. In the method of PBL, it defines final achievements in an appropriate way (although there should be some teams that do not define final achievements at first, they should set up some type of goals and directions at the beginning). In terms of generating motivation among members, appropriate goals seem to be on the edge of levels that they can achieve depending on their efforts [1]. However, although team goals are properly set, it is extremely difficult to share goals in the real sense of the term and work toward achieving them. Besides achieving goals (deliverables) as a team, PBL also provides a goal to increase the skills of team members that vary widely from one person to the next. There might be some members who understand their team goals but stay on the sidelines and secretly expect other members would do the job for them. To solve this problem, when team goals are determined specifically, it is important to consider the association between the goals and their own skills and explicitly link them together as well as to define a specific path to improve their skills. If they could certainly see that their skills would also improve at the time of achieving team goals, the entire members could accept the team goals as their own problem and truly share them within the team. In addition, if each and every person of the team starts advancing toward the same goals with a will of their own, the entire team should start moving vigorously.

Next is the leadership. In PBL, many leaders act as project managers (PM) across a team. Leaders need the ability to organize his/her team and look after team members while heading toward the goal of delivering a final work product. According to the literature (1), there are three types of leaders. One is an engine leader who is equipped with the most skills. The second is a steady-handed type who is ambitious and diligent and pays attention to the entire team at all times. And the third one is an attentive type who has great adjusting power to pull a team together. Leaders can be classified into various types but the bottom line is that a good leader must be observant of his/her surroundings and respond flexibly depending on the team members. It is also important to step back and see the team with a rational mind. It is, of course, preferable that many members behave in the same way as leaders on a routine basis. In this PBL, not a small number of teams replace PMs (leaders) per quarter. This method could be ultimately effective in generating a good team that members can encourage each other if all team members can experience a leading role and observe the surroundings closely.

The last keyword is a sense of unity, which is directly connected to how much they communicate. Teams that have a strong interest in each other and devote a good amount of energy toward communicating can develop a sense of unity naturally.1 Since members share the same team goals while each member aims at individual goals with their own individual feelings, communication helps to confirm the team goals but on the other hand, it also helps to understand each other's feelings and motivation. In this way, a sense of unity increases within the team. In addition, a scale that is difficult to quantify, for example, when determining the degree of effort, communication manifests its power. Even though you feel that you are doing everything in your power, the efforts may be not enough when compared to other members. Although some things can be identified in core meetings, there are some things that cannot be identified specifically, such as how much time has spent on certain things. Communication is the only way to measure the degree of such things. If team members become more aware of efforts towards daily tasks and communicate with each other more often, it would also help raise awareness for themselves. Using regular communication tools such as emails to share information and maintain a good communication will also increase a sense of unity if there are some busy people in a team because it might be difficult to see each other on a daily basis.


A synergistic effect among team members will increase if these three items are increased. Come to think of it, it could be true but it is difficult in practice. There are less than a few months left until the PBL program ends this year. Each team is putting out a last spurt and they can do the above naturally to some extent. Rather, it is difficult to get off the ground. If there is a team meeting with a setback and having troubles in the next year's PBL, I encourage them to use the actual practice of team sports as a reference and proceed with their projects.

1: Yasuyuki Watanabe, Ekiden coach of the Waseda University Track & Field Club. Total power ? Team strategies to win the game. Management strategies of the Waseda's Ekiden team. JMA Management Center Inc. 2011

Back to index page