It’s Saturday, May the 5th, 1956. Manchester City is playing against Birmingham City in the final of the 1956 FA Cup. 100,000 spectators fill the seats of the Wembley Stadium in London, England. 75 minutes into the game, Bert Trautmann, Manchester City’s goalie, dives at an incoming ball, but gets knocked out in a collision with Peter Murphy, a forward for Birmingham City, who hits Trautmann’s neck with his right knee. Understandably, Trautmann is dazed, reporting after the game that he was “in a kind of a fog”. No substitutes were permitted in the game at the time, so Trautmann was forced to carry on. For the remaining 15 minutes of the match, Trautmann makes several spectacular saves, and his Manchester City team ends up walking away from the final with the winner’s medal.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, the truth was that that Trautmann was actually walking away from the game with much more than the winner’s medal – he was walking away with a broken neck from his collision with Peter Murphy.
So what could possibly give this man the resilience to not only continue to play the game, but to make game-winning saves, despite the devastation of a broken neck?
Pain Tolerance and Teamwork
In a 2009 study published in the UK’s Biology Letters journal, researchers from the University of Oxford recruited a team of 12 male athletes from Oxford’s rowing team, to take part in two separate training sessions, in which they rowed continuously for 45 minutes. In the first training session, the rowers would train alone. In the second session, the 12 rowers were divided into two groups of six who rowed together on a virtual boat that required them to row in synchrony.
The rowers’ pain tolerance was then measured using a blood pressure cuff 5-10 minutes after each training session. They then compared the athletes’ pain thresholds following the individual and group training sessions.
What they found was fascinating: the rowers’ pain tolerance was significantly greater after training together than when they went through the same training session alone.
Could these results be due to the fact that they were working harder in the group condition? Nope. According to the researchers, the rowers’ power input were not significantly different between the individual and group training session, suggesting that the intensity with which they rowed was similar between the two conditions.
Alright, but could the results be influenced by the order that they completed the sessions in, or other contextual factors? The researchers also say no, as the experiment was replicated a week after the initial training sessions in order to validate their findings, and they came up with the same results.
So what exactly caused the rowers’ pain tolerance to be higher after training with their teammates compared to training individually? The researchers are unsure, but the results point to some kind of effect that working together as a highly coordinated team can have on individuals.
They suggest that individuals working in synchrony with their team experience a surge in endorphins, a hormone released in the brain that suppresses pain and produces a sense of euphoria. A similar sense of euphoria and joy occurs when we laugh together, walk together, or listen to music together. It’s those moments when we can tolerate the most pain and are the most resilient, according to these researchers.
Teams: The Key to Resilience
So the research paints a clear picture – there really is something about working in synchrony with those around us that gives us a boost in our ability to tolerate pain and discomfort. Think about the days of pulling all-nighters working on big assignments in college – was it easier to do so alone, or in the company of others? Or, in the case of Bert Trautmann, do you think he would have been able to makes his triumphant saves with a broken neck if he wasn’t playing alongside his teammates and fans?
When we think about the corporate world of work, though, what usually happens when we go through the worst of times? Think about the economic downturns that we’ve experienced in the past decade, and the years of budget cuts and mass layoffs. In most cases, employees retreat to their own desks and do all they can to prove their worth to the company, and among the first cuts that companies make are team development initiatives.
When we consider the power that working in teams can have in helping us stay resilience despite pain and discomfort – as the Oxford research so brilliantly illustrates – it’s quite clear that what companies should be doing when faced with tough times is counterintuitive to what most companies will actually do. The more difficult the season for an organization – the more employees will need to lean on their teams to weather those tough times.
So if you’re looking to build an organization with resilient employees who can tolerate discomfort and achieve success despite challenging times, you may want to start by building strong and well connected teams.