The new ancient discovery that has companies thinking about team play – minus the human sacrifice

Moira - Marketing Associate

It’s not every day you find an Aztec temple buried underneath your city center. But in June of 2017, archaeologists in Mexico City discovered what they believe to be a 500-year-old sacred space, hidden underneath a pretty nondescript 1950s era hotel.

Photo of the archaeological dig near Zocalo plaza in Mexico City. Photo by Henry Romero.

Dedicated to the Mesoamerican wind god Ehecatl, the temple area included a ceremonial court where Aztecs played a ritual ball game. The cool thing? (JK, this whole thing is super cool!) Five centuries after this game was last played, companies can use it to learn a lot about teams and group dynamics.

Of course, there’s a big difference between corporate teamwork and the sacred origins of the Mesoamerican Ball Game. But if you understand the fundamentals of the oldest team sport in the world, you can start building stronger and more communicative teams.

What was this ancient game?

The Aztec ball game, the archeological find from above, was actually a version of an ancient Mesoamerica sport known simply as Ball Game. Ball Game was played on massive stone courts and soon became a staple in many Mesoamerican mythologies and politics.

Players of the game could be professional or amateur athletes, or even captives from war who were forced to play.

Depiction of Mesoamerican ball game via WordPress

For the Aztecs, Ball Game was #priorities. Whenever the Aztecs arrived in a new place, construction of the ball court would start ASAP.

There’s also a legend that one infamous ball game foreshadowed the downfall of King Motecuhzoma. According to legend, the elderly king of Texcoco made a bold prediction that Motecuhzoma’s kingdom would fall. The ball game was set up so that Texcoco’s king could back-up his prediction. The young Motecuhzoma did, in fact, lose to the elderly king, solidifying the belief in the prediction.

Often built in an I-shape, ball courts were between 100 to 200 feet long and had outer walls around eight feet tall. Right in the middle of the outer court walls, one on each side, were two highly placed stone rings. Large stone markers were then set in a line down the entire length of the court.

Photo of Ball Court at Xochicalco via Wikimedia Commons.

In this majestic arena, the idea was to get this:

Rubber ball used in ball game. Photo by Dennis Jarvis

into this:

Stone hoop at the Ball Court at Chichén Itzá, Mexico by Kåre Thor Olsen

Not suitable for a game of dodgeball, the ball was made from hard rubber and could often weigh up to nine pounds – definitely a weapon in itself.

The ball could never touch the ground and players were not allowed to touch the ball with their hands. Only elbows, knees, hips, and head (ouch!) could be used.

What this ancient practice teaches us about team building

Throw your employees in a court with a hard ball and watch them suffer. JUST KIDDING.

Ball Game was a literal representation of being a team player. So, we can actually learn a lot from it on how to build stronger and more communicative teams.

Here are 3 team-building lessons to learn from this ancient practice:

    • Trust is priceless: Some Mesoamerican societies, like the Mayans, viewed the game through the lens of fertility and death. Scholars believe that when a team lost the game, the captive players were sacrificed. Sometimes, only the leader was decapitated (gives a whole new meaning to the term “department head,” doesn’t it?) Your team may not face such high stakes, but if your employees don’t trust each other, or their leadership, you could have a problem on your hands.
    • Collaboration helps the long-haul: Given the rules of the game, getting the ball through the stone hoop with only your hips and other body parts could be super difficult, so a game could often rage for an hour or more. When you need this kind of stamina to win, all players play an integral role as you reach your goal. Collaboration is the core of many tasks your employees will encounter during their work day. It’s beneficial to have them develop and hone that skill.
    • Body language matters: When you’re playing a game where a nine-pound rubber ball is being thrown at your head, the body language of your teammates may be critical to you not getting a concussion. In the office, effective body language, especially in high-stress or low-morale situations, can be a defining factor of what happens next. This goes for managers, too. But sometimes reading body language can be challenging, so try a simple exercise to help your team with this skill.

Make your team play into a work of art

Creative problem solving is one of our absolute favorite team building tricks at Museum Hack. Inspiring your team to think outside the box and look at problems from different angles does amazing things for productivity and projects. Whether it’s a museum tour centered around ancient sports or playing a game to learn key skills, we offer customized experiences for companies that love to win.

We’ve talked before about how team games can inspire friendly competition and encourage teamwork (see our favorite Lord of the Rings team building moment). Yes, we mean playing an actual game. You’ll find your teams not only feel refreshed but they’ll learn new and unique ways to work together.

One example of games we create for our corporate tours is “Make Dat Messerschmidt,” the brainchild of our tour guide Nate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Messerschmidt, the most famous sculptor of 18th Century Vienna, did not name many of his busts so they were given odd titles after his death. The titles connect to feelings and emotions, so we give our game players an opportunity to create new names based on the body language of statues throughout the collection.

A tour guest talks about a piece in the statue gallery at the Met.

The exercise helps team members connect what they’ve learned to nonverbal cues in the workplace, helping improve the way they communicate on projects big and small.

Want to learn more about unique ways to bring your teams closer together? Learn about our Corporate Team Building tours in NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia & Washington DC.

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