The term ‘culture’ is thrown around a lot in sport. However, what does it mean exactly and, as coaches, how do we create and maintain it? While it is, largely, accepted that developing culture is important, particularly as we progress up the sporting pyramid to elite levels, there are common mistakes made. It is essential that coaches have a good understanding of team dynamics . It is also important to note that this is relevant when working with a team or an individual athlete, as regardless of the context, a high degree of social collaboration is both inevitable and necessary.
The first step in creating a strong culture is bringing it into discussion, rather than leaving it in the background. A common coaching mistake is letting a culture manifest (for better or worse) on its own. This can be initiated by discussing ‘success’ – What does it mean? How would it feel? What would it look like? This gets the ball rolling in regards to identifying what it is that members want to achieve. It is important at this juncture, to try to define success in controllable ways (e.g., working together, preparing and performing optimally, achieving new personal bests, etc.) rather than linking success exclusively to an outcome (e.g., winning the championship). This ensures that the team is in control of success and experiences greater levels of self-determination and autonomy. It can also help to alleviate the high levels of negative stress that we often experience when the main focus is directed at the outcome.
Once decisions have been made around what success means, then key values can be discussed – How will the team operate? How do we want to be perceived? What do we value? Generally, during this discussion, qualities such as togetherness, effort, persistence, etc., are suggested. This can be done in small groups, and then ask the groups to report back a handful of values that they believe are of utmost importance. It is suggested that the coach collates these, and circles the ones that are being consistently mentioned. Going through this process allows the athletes to have input into the establishment of the culture, which will likely have a positive impact on ownership and accountability (something many coaches struggle to instill). Finally, once a number of key values have been identified, then desired behaviours should be discussed. For instance, if the team values togetherness; how is that portrayed, and what would it look like? (e.g., vocal support, preparation, intensity, communication, etc.). This step is about establishing key behaviours that will put the team in the best possible position to perform and achieve success.
The final phase is a continual one. Another mistake that is commonly made is that we nominate an early season practice as a ‘white board’ session to discuss team culture, and then tick it off the list – team culture? Done. To really build a strong and robust culture takes time and perseverance. This does not mean that every few weeks, you need to have another ‘off-field’ session, however people do need to be reminded of the culture. It might be as subtle as discussing the huge effort that was exhibited during a drill in training; “Jo, I love the effort that I just saw – it really embodied the values that we’ve been talking about these last few weeks!”. Additionally, make the culture a living document. Print posters, make wristbands, play music that reflects identified values, so that it becomes a constant reminder.
This writer acknowledges that going through this process can take time; however, it also ensures that all members of the team are consciously heading in the same direction. When we make our purpose explicitly clear, we shape subconscious thinking so that attitudes, decisions, and behaviours are aligned to the overall goal. Going through this process is about working towards a strong and positive culture, rather than hoping for the best. Good luck!
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About Warrick Wood
Warrick Wood is a lecturer of sport psychology in the School of Sport and Exercise at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. Warrick has a strong coaching background, coaching basketball at a range of levels in New Zealand and having served as an assistant coach on a women’s college basketball team in Indiana. He has also worked for several regional and national sporting organizations in areas of high-performance and coach development. Throughout his time coaching and working in high-performance sport, Warrick developed an interest in the psychological aspects to performance, particularly at the competitive/elite level. He is currently completing his Ph.D., which is examining athletes’ perceptions of coaching behaviours which are conducive, as well as undermining, to basic needs satisfaction. Further, Warrick is currently working with various elite athletes and teams in New Zealand to enhance performance through mental skills training.