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Developing Team Culture for High Performing Teams

Many youth coaches get their start because nobody else was willing to take on the Team Cultureresponsibility, but youth coaches quickly understand that the position encompasses more than just running a few drills and rotating players at games.  The role of the youth coach is a considerable one.   The coach must take on the role of a leader, a teacher, a facilitator of fun, and a parent manager.  In this post we will explore the role of culture builder.

Although  a coach must have their vision of the team culture, team members all contribute to the characteristics of team dynamics.  There is an inherent culture that builds from the players, and if the coach does not set the culture of the program, the team will develop its own. A positive team culture is critical to a team’s success.  It takes patience and work to establish, and it is difficult to maintain.  However, your culture digs you out of a hole.  Your team culture gets you through the tough times as every season will see them.

Defining Team Culture

How do we define team culture?  The culture of the team is the driving force in how the group operates together.  It defines interactions and expected behavior within the group.  Team members understand what is important and why it is important.  In a post for Psychology Today, Dr. Jim Taylor, a professor at the University of San Francisco defined culture.

“A culture is the expression of a team’s values, attitudes, and beliefs about sports and competition.  The culture is grounded in an identified sense of mission and shared goals.”

The critical element of team culture is getting all members to buy in to a similar mindset. Providing positive reinforcement, creating a team first environment, and providing consistent and appropriate feedback are all important aspects to building a positive team culture.

Types of Team Culture

I believe that team culture is the difference between team success and team failure.  At some point we can get into a debate of how to define success and failure, but teams with positive team culture never seem to fail.  Not every team with a great culture will win a championship, but they will not consider their year as a failure.  On the contrary, teams with poor culture never seem to get the job done.  From my own experience, when my teams under achieve, the first place I look is the team culture.  Jeff Janssen, a leader in the field of sports leadership, does a great job explaining the 8 types of team culture on his leadership site.  As I read through each type of culture, I recognize teams that I have coached or coached against in each of these categories.  I strive each year to establish the Championship Culture as defined by Janssen, I have coached teams that have started in Championship mode, fallen as far as a corrosive culture, and everywhere in between.

Establishing Team Culture

Establishing the culture of a team can be a challenge.  As a coach, we must deal with many personalities, egos, and expectations that influence the attitude of players.  There are two methods to establish the culture.  The first is the “organic” method where players develop their own culture.  Although this can prove to give the team more ownership, I believe that with youth teams, the coach must drive the culture engine.  Coaches will take the leadership role in defining the team culture using these four steps.

  1. Define your values  – Team culture is rooted in values.  Defining values will unify your team as they will be your guiding light in all decision-making.  Although each team’s core values will look different, values hold your team to a higher standard and help your team to work more effectively towards your common goal.
  2. Model expected behavior – Culture starts with leadership.  The team leaders must model the expected behavior from each member.  As the saying goes, “you can’t talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk.”  The leadership group, consisting of coaches and team leaders, is responsible for teaching the team members the expected behavior by setting the example.  Positive interactions and wise decision-making are cornerstones.
  3. Accountability – A Championship Culture must have accountability.  Team members are not perfect and they will make errors in judgement.  Players will lose sight of the team values especially in the heat of battle.  The responsibility of the coach and the leadership of the team is to recognize those errors in judgement and hold team members accountable.  It could be as simple as a conversation or carry supplemental discipline.  These moments are teachable moments that will pay dividends at the later stages in the season.
  4. Feedback – Feedback is key to any successful team. They type of feedback and the delivery of feed back can reinforce or deteriorate culture.  Criticism and correction is part of coaching, but this can be done positively.  I have said many times that teams take on the personality of the coach.  Positive coaches build positive teams, and these teams are built through positive feedback.

Sustaining Team Culture

Once the team culture is defined and begins to take shape, the challenge of the coach is in sustaining the culture.  There will be moments in every season where your team culture will be tested.  If it is not strong, it will begin to crack.  Much like a crack in your windshield, if you don’t take care of it right away, it will spread.  If you let it go long enough, it will compromise the entire windshield, and it will collapse.

  1. Drive the message home daily – Young athletes have short memories.  They will need constant reminders.  It is important for the coach to continually drive home the message through words and actions.  They must constantly be reminded of who they are and who we expect them to be.
  2. Find the culture drivers – Each team has its culture drivers.  They are a coach’s greatest ally.  We all know that peer pressure is one of the greatest challenges for a young person, but this is our opportunity to use peer pressure to our advantage.  The culture drivers will begin to hold the others accountable once they realize that they have a voice.  Coaches need to support that voice and give them the opportunity to use that voice.  Their message will carry more weight with their teammates.
  3. Take inventory – Coaches must take stock of their program on a regular basis.  Ask your staff, are we operating under the same values we established?  Are we modeling expectations?  Are the players still on board?  Are we providing positive feedback?  If you continually visit these questions, you will usually head off problems before they start.
  4. Follow through – As the leader, you must do what you say you will do.  It may take more work, but once you fail in follow through, the pyramid falls.

Recognizing Team Culture Killers

As I said earlier, I have coached teams that have started in championship mode and fallen to a corrosive culture.  The challenge for the coach is to recognize those players whose behavior is destructive to team culture.  Typically, player behavior is driven by external motivations.  In many cases (and my own personal experience), the coach can be the cause of this behavior.

  1. Neglect – It is very easy to lose touch with certain players especially if you have a larger team.  As a head coach, I have to constantly remind myself to stay in touch and find value for the players who are not considered the stars.  It is easy for a coach to direct his or her attention to the star players which unintentionally neglects the other players on the team.  What I have discovered after many years of this is that it’s the role players who are the most important culture drivers in the group.  Every player wants to know that they are valued, and the coach has the biggest influence on value.
  2. Double standards – Expectations must be universal.  All players must live up to the same level of expectations and enforcement of expectations must be consistent.  As soon as this changes, culture is weakened.  The most common mistake I have made is giving leeway to some older players because I have coached them for a while.  This is a big mistake.  They will be the ones to test us first because of their comfort level, but  they are the ones who should understand the expectations better than anyone else.
  3. Lack of Respect – A lack of respect for others is the quickest way to destroy a team.  Without respect, the rest doesn’t matter much.  Whether it is a player’s lack of respect for a coach, a coach for a player, or player for player, respect must be the first value on your list.  Team members will not agree on everything, but every situation must be handled with respect for each other.
  4. Focus on Results – Teams that focus on results typically find it difficult to stick together.  Results are important in life, but I believe that results will come if you focus on the process of achieving them.  Teams that focus too much on results find themselves ignoring team values to achieve success.  Distrust, negativity, and frustration creep in and become the new culture of the team.

Building and sustaining a positive team culture is not easy.  It may take more work than actually coaching the game.  However, team culture will make or break your season, and every coach should strive to develop a positive culture.  In a post for mindtools.com on Building a Positive Team, Elizabeth Eyre wrote,

” While there are countless benefits of building a positive team, one of the most significant is that people are most creative and productive when they’re part of a happy, healthy group.”

When players reach a level where creativity and productivity reign supreme, teams will achieve beyond any expectations that we may have set.  It is our responsibility as a coach to be the culture builder and the culture keeper.

How do you develop culture in your teams?  What type of culture are you trying to establish?  What are your values?  Leave a comment and begin the discussion.

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About Coach Printz

Jamie Printz has been a full time teacher/coach for over 20 years. Although the majority of his time is dedicated to ice hockey, he also coaches lacrosse and soccer. Coach Printz has had the pleasure of watching over 200 of his athletes move on to play collegiate sports. He works as a skills coach for local youth organizations, works in coaching education and player development at the state level, and is a parent of two young daughters who are beginning their journeys in the world of youth sport.
The 365 Coach © 2015
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