Establishing and Maintaining Team Culture
If you were to ask every coach in the country what they believe is the most important factor in developing and sustaining success as a sports program, it would be more than fair to assume that more than half of them would tell you it’s all about establishing a culture for the program.
You hear the word “culture” a lot when it comes to sports teams and programs nowadays. It’s become somewhat of a buzzword, becoming a placeholder for a lot of different ideas and concepts.
So how can a coach develop a true culture that the foundation of their team can be built off of? There is a ton of differing opinions on this, but obviously there isn’t just one magical way to make it work. In fact, that may be the beauty of establishing and maintaining a successful culture– there are so many ways to go about it.
Building the Foundation with Communication
“I think in terms of sports and when you’re setting that culture and the team, in my experience with the National Team, there was a couple ways that happened,” says former U.S. National team soccer player Julie Foudy. “One, our first coach we ever had Anson Dorrance set that culture– that was his style. Our first captain we ever had, April Heinrich set that style.”
Foudy talks about how for the early stages of the U.S. Women’s National Team, setting the culture became a major focal point of the team.
“This is the foundation they talked about all the time. ‘This is who we are!’ You say it. It just doesn’t happen, it’s actually said and stated. ‘This is what we value. This is what is important to us. We fight for eachother, we work for eachother. We can be talented, but at the core of us, we are a blue-collar hard-working team.’”
The communication of the values the team sets seems to be a recurring factor in a lot of success stories about establishing a winning culture.
“Well, for me personally, it’s to hold our players accountable, to give clear guidelines and expectations to them,” said Minnesota women’s hockey coach Brad Frost. “That involves discipline and accountability, but also to really focus on the process and focus on the right things.”
Setting Up Pillars
Keeping the message and system you want to implement relayed and well-communicated to your team is key when trying to usher in a cultural foundation. Every player has to be aware of what the standards and expectations are, if they are to embody and live up to those benchmarks.
“My biggest thing as a head coach is making sure all the kids understand that, yes we have high expectations for them but, that’s because we, as a program, it’s not just me– it’s our assistant coaches, our athletic director, teachers, the principal of the school,” says Menlo-Atheron High School head football coach Adhir Ravipati. “Making sure that our kids understand that we are going to do everything that we can to push you to be the best you can be. But, we want you to hold your end by competing everyday.”
Another key part of building a team culture is deciding what the pillars of that culture are. For some teams, it could be things like: respect, commitment, hustle, or dedication.
It’s important to have these pillars, because it helps put the culture you are trying to establish into understandable terms for your team.
“Our culture is just centered around one word, and that’s compete. No matter what you do, we want you to compete to be the best you can be,” says Ravipati.
“I think it’s critical to have some values. Some things that you are going to lean on as a coach and that your players are going to understand– these are the important things. For us, it’s about being tough, grateful, disciplined, and devoted,” said Frost. “Maybe it’s team first, maybe it’s excellence, maybe it’s who knows what. Depending on what level you’re coaching, maybe you have one or maybe you have two values.”
This can apply to all levels of competition. If you have a culture or value system you want the team you coach to be built on, the message has to be understandable and relayed as often as possible, in order for full-on adaptation.
Even in major Division I college football, this sentiment rings true. “We like to have a value set and we have our Wildcat values that we believe in and the two cornerstones are the two great choices a higher power has given us and that’s a choice of our attitude and our work ethic,” said Northwestern Wildcat head football coach, Pat Fitzgerald.
Staying on the Same Page
Once the mentality, culture, and values are set and understood by all parties involved, what becomes important is maintaining that momentum. This tends to be the easy part, because everyone should be on the same page at this point in the team culture’s development.
“When you can base your players experience and their success on them embodying and fulfilling those values everyday, it’s going to be a whole lot of fun. The winning for us has been a byproduct of our culture, and we believe that culture supersedes strategy,” said Frost.
Reiterating the goals of your program and making sure the expectations are understood and met will also help with the effectiveness of a program’s culture in the long run.
“One thing I always tell our kids is, ‘If you competed today to be a better student, if you competed to be a better person,’ whether that’s as a son, brother, teammate, whatever that is, ‘and last you competed to be a better football player, then you had a really good day.’ Those are the days we try and get everyday out of our kids,” says Ravipati.
Once the culture is firmly etched into the DNA of a program, that is when a team unites under one identity and mindset: perfect harmony.
“That was the mentality, and you can be more technical or tactical than us as another team, but don’t ever let them outwork us. Don’t let them be stronger than us mentally. So that was something we talked about a lot, I remember,” said Foudy.
Then, ultimately, the fun can begin for all involved.
“It starts with the values through recruiting, the way that we coach and teach our players, and we just have fun. I want the guys to grind, but I want them to have fun and have a blast. For me, that’s what it’s all about,” Fitzgerald said.