How and Why You Need to Develop a Sisterhood with your Teammates

By: Toni Armstrong, Leadership Educator with Baltimore Leadership Guides and LEAD Sports Summit

“Did you hear about the new girl who showed up to practice the other day?  She just moved to town from out of state and was wearing the goofiest looking shorts! I heard that her best event is the same as yours and that she is really fast.  I wonder if she will swim in your lane…  I wonder if she will take your spot on the relay…  I wonder what the boys will think of her… “

This dialogue was a conversation I overheard about me during my freshman year of high school when I had just moved from Miami, Florida to Louisville, Kentucky.   Traversing the rough waters of a new swimmer is not an uncommon experience in this sport.  The impact of a new person to a group’s dynamic can be challenging and is always followed by that five-letter word that we love to hate and hate to love:  DRAMA.

Why does this happen?


A psychologist by the name of Bruce Tuckman spent his entire life studying how groups form identities and what separates dysfunctional groups from functional ones.  He theorized that all groups travel through these 4 stages of development:

  • Forming: Superficial conversation and politeness run this stage.  You are getting to know one another and your role or identity in the group.  In Example: Learning who is the default lane leader.
  • Storming: Conflict arises and personalities clash.  In Example:  You want to start leading the lane during a kicking set, but the girl in front of you won’t let you.
  • Norming: The group has established group norms and behaviors. In Example:  Who typically runs conversations, leads the lane during kick sets, what coach’s expectations are from you any given day.
  • Performing: The group functions at a high level in collaboration with one another.

A fellow psychologist by the name of Joy Karriker added that the stages are cyclical, not linear, and that they are highly sensitive to reset during any changes—new swimmers, new coaches, new experiences, etc.  In the story outlined above, the introduction of me as a new team mate reset the group to the forming stage, and shortly after, we all experienced the storming stage.  And boy did it feel like a lot of storming. 

So, what does this mean and why does this matter? It means that the terrible D word—DRAMA—is unavoidable and is actually a necessary step in the process toward group success.  This also means that as a leader and a member of a group, you need to possess skills to be able to travel though it effectively.  We have already spoken about assertive communication styles in an earlier post, and this is definitely step one of overcoming conflict, but there is a bigger tool you can use:  developing a sisterhood.


A sisterhood is defined as “the feeling of kinship with and closeness to a group of women linked by common interest.”  Why a sisterhood without the guys?  Because as women we are typically more relationship driven leaders and individuals, and we need to learn how to more effectively collaborate.  We need to support one another, know one another (likes, goals, motivations, and values), and spend time together outside the pool.  We need to see one another as more than just team mates or athletes.  We need to understand and respect one another so that when conflict/drama arises, we will see the real story more clearly, not jump to conclusions, and be receptive to negative feedback.  With a sisterhood, we will have established a platform to more efficiently traverse the rough waters together. 

How to Traverse the DRAMA:

  1. Address the conflict in a timely manner.  This means before the conflict increases, in an appropriate location, at an appropriate time, and without an audience. 
  2. Start the first 30 seconds of the conversation creating a safe space.  Remind them that you have mutual respect for one another and mutual intentions for your relationship as teammates.  Do not confront the conflict head on or their defenses will rise.
  3. Address the conflict assertively with “I” statements—I feel… I experience. 
  4. Be specific with specific examples—when you did this I felt…
  5. Listen. Listen. Listen.  Hear their thoughts and perspectives.
  6.  Create a solution together.

Reaching success together is much more rewarding (and easier) than reaching it alone.  To effectively lead, you must build a community and make a connection with everyone; you must develop a sisterhood.  That’s not to say that everyone should like everyone, that’s unrealistic, but you must know and respect one another to have a healthy group dynamic.   Conflict is unavoidable and necessary to the process, and a sisterhood will provide the best tools for establishing group norms and heading down the path towards success.