Monday, 20 June 2016

Thoughts on the Development of Culture within Team Sport

                I have just gotten back from a mini-vacation where I was able to unplug for a few days and collect some thoughts on what I deem to be one of the most important aspects of team sport. My opinions and thoughts on this are drawn from my experiences both in the private sector of coaching and now in an institutional setting and they are my own. Many of which have been stolen or borrowed over years of working with many different sport/strength coaches, therapists, business leaders, teachers and most importantly, all the wonderful athletes. I am by no means an expert in this, but then again I don’t know that many people are. Most of this is based on trials and tribulations over the span of about 20 years of coaching and it is my hope that you may be able to draw something useful from it.
Culture is a tough definition when it comes to team sport. It is very vague on one hand but widely thrown around on the other.  For the purpose of this blog it should be understood that we are using the term in a broad sense with the focus being placed on some of the small pieces that make up culture such as: accountability/expectations, transparency, habit formation, leadership and creating an atmosphere that is conducive to increasing performance.
                It is hard to argue with the fact that the majority of successful businesses and sport teams possess two qualities in which they are able to drive performance from, talent and culture. There are many attributes that help to foster greatness, but it is hard to argue that without talent and culture, there is not much of a base to build from. Many successful entities have one or the other and at times there is a combination of the two, but what separates the perennial power houses from the occasional success stories is the ability to hold the two aspects together as much as possible for as long as possible.
                Both talent and culture can be built, but for the purpose of this blog we should consider the key points that talent can be acquired through recruiting; where culture must be built from the ground up.  This doesn’t mean we are not trying to develop talent, it just means that key roles can be filled in a timely manner if your resources allow for it. The points below are in no particular order and are steps that we have taken and continuously worked towards in any venture I have been involved in.   
·         Culture is built by an unwavering love and passion for what one does. It is infectious but can easily be destroyed by a simple lack of caring or ownership by as little as one person
·         CARE. And show it. It is easy to say all of this, but to live it is a completely different story. It is both emotionally draining and time consuming, but if you show your passion for it, people will respond accordingly. This means giving more of yourself even when there will be times that you are close to tapping out.
o   During our seasons of play, our staff tries to get out to as many games as we can. Our athletes know the kind of hours we put in and they know that sticking around for a 7pm game adds hours to our already long days. However, this shows that we are invested in them and genuinely want to not only show our support, but watch how they play/move on their field of play in order to pick up on something we may have missed training in the gym.
·         Own your mistakes because we all make them at some point. Pointing the blame at someone else when you are ultimately supposed to be in charge reflects upon your leadership abilities.
·         Share your vision with those that are going to help you build it. The week before I started I told my assistant that I wanted to change the world and her reply was “let’s do it”.  If she wasn’t on board with my ridiculous ideas we would not have been able to be as impactful as we have been.
·         Surround yourself with people that challenge you and your ideas. Chances are, someone on your staff or one of your athletes have been in a similar situation and you may be able to adapt something from their past that can impact your future.
o   Ensure that you have a diverse staff.  We all have something unique we can offer but if you hire people that are similar to you the chances of being challenged are lessened.  From a coach standpoint, we can’t all relate to every athlete we work with but by including diversity within your team the likelihood of being able to reach more athletes is improved.
·         Enabling is the first step to entitlement. Entitlement should not be confused with empowerment. Empowering someone comes from setting the bar/standards high and giving them (by them I mean your athletes and your staff) the tools needed to create something great.  One works to earn something so they may be rewarded with a result. The other comes from a mindset that one deserves the result without doing the work to achieve it. You reap what you sow and whatever seeds you plant will grow.
o   I know that this is a tough one for many coaches to deal with so I will share my approach on the enabling and entitlement issues.  Make your athletes work for everything (and I mean everything). If they want to clean from the floor, show us you can deadlift and hang clean well and that you qualify to do so. If an athlete asks for anything (extra mobility work, conditioning, strength, etc.) we follow up with an email asking “Why do you need this? What are your time constraints? When are you able to do these extras so that we can program accordingly? If there is no thought put into it, or the response time is poor, we will call them on it. Our time is valuable, but we are always willing to make time for those that will show us they are willing to do a little more
o   This may seem like an easy concept to some, but it seems lost to many:  If you allow for a habit to form and repeat itself, what do you think the end result may be? For example: A sport coach would not or should not allow poor technique to pass in training or practice sessions because we know that habit will transfer to a competition setting. Why would anything related to culture be any different?  Why would it be ok to show up late to a session once, but not the next time?
·         We have all heard the old adage “hire slow, fire fast” I assume? In my setting, we are attempting to build the culture slowly over time and correct the issues as quickly as we are able to. This ensures they do not become more problematic as both good and bad aspects of culture are infectious. I remember going to a conference on social media and the speaker stated that for every positive review you receive online it will touch 5-8 people but every negative review will reach 30.  Culture is no different.
·         Create autonomy and ownership. When we coach our athletes we give them minimal cueing with the mindset that they will need to figure some things out on their own. The same goes with our expectations in the weight room; the more they can figure things out on their own, the more likely it is to stick. When the majority of your team is figuring things out, the more ownership is likely to take place. The more signs you have in the weight room saying “pick up after yourself”, “don’t drop dumbbells”, etc. the more likely they are to be ignored. They just become part of the décor.  Ownership can also be instilled through a sense of pride.  Make the best of your space (field, office, weight room etc) and focus on highlighting the finer points and making the best of those that aren’t necessarily up to par.
·         In order to improve culture, we must have leadership. I find this to be one of the most difficult aspects because we are in a time where our self-worth is dictated and measured on our cell phones and social media accounts, not by our actions and real life successes. Somehow who you follow or who follows you is now an accomplishment? 
o   The leadership must start at the top down, and roles for both coaches and athletes must be fostered, encouraged and well-designed. We know that it is difficult to develop leadership with any generation and in all settings, but does that come from a lack of inherent leadership capabilities, or a lack of mentorship and guidance? If you think your role as a coach only involves coaching, I wouldn’t bother reading any further.
o   If you create accountability, you will see glimmers of leadership emerge which allows for you to identify who your key players will be.
·         We know that culture takes years to build, and we know that everyone loves change, except when it happens to them. Be patient and expect that there will be a ton of hiccups along the way.
o   Assess the needs of your environment and create a plan of attack. When a change or shift is needed we intuitively try to rip the band aid off and attempt to fix everything at once. Your assessment becomes your guide to triage your given situation. Work back from what your ultimate goal is and try to target small, impactful things that will add up over time. This can be something as simple as having your athletes wear clothing that represents their team for every session, or not allowing tardiness or unexplained absences.
o   Many people are hardwired to resist change. Communicate plans well in advance and educate the people around you as to why change does not have to have a negative connotation.
o   Anticipate those that will be resistant to change and be prepared to educate them accordingly. These are the people that say, “We have always done it this way”, or, “this is what the best team in the world does”. If you butt heads with these people or challenge them in a negative fashion, you will never win them over. But if you drop your ego, and are prepared to show “why” and “where” you may be impactful, the likelihood of them buying in is much greater. If we expect our athletes to be a cohesive unit and work together, we must hold ourselves to the same standards.  Ultimately, if you do butt heads, you can at least know that you have given someone an opportunity to learn something new, which may serve as a learning experience for future issues.
o   Do NOT be hard on yourself when something doesn’t work as planned. We have over 600 athletes representing 25 teams and over 60 coaches. There are so many variables and unique personalities at play that we will have to take some lumps along the way and reframe our failures as an opportunity to learn.
o   Be professional. There are very few instances in this world where this will not separate you from others. Replying to emails in a timely fashion, with your spelling and grammar in check, thanking people when they help you, or being on time are simple things that anyone can do with minimal effort. Quite frankly, they go a long way.
·         Structure and principles are key, not necessarily systems. Obviously we all have systems in play, but be weary of rigidity in them. If we want creative coaches and athletes there needs to be some wiggle room. Rigid systems can create mindlessness, and in many cases may zap autonomy. Keep in mind, many athletes (specifically in team sport) crave structure and are attracted to being around others with similar mindsets.
·         Create accountability by defining and reinforcing parameters that put it back on the athlete to take ownership. In our setting we have very few non-negotiables (do not be late, do not miss sessions, support your fellow athletes, no headphones, no phones in the gym and wear shoes).  The only time these are excused are when the athlete gives the coach prior written notice. We have over 600 athletes and ask that they email us so that we have a paper trail which also keeps us as a staff accountable. We also have one poster spread around the gym and verbally reinforce them to encourage accountability. If an athlete comes in and says, “my knee hurts”, we can instantly refer to the poster which asks questions such as:
o   Did you report your injury to the S and C staff immediately so you may receive modifications as needed?
o   Have you had an assessment or therapy yet?
o   Have you done your pre- and/or post-work for this injury yet?
This is simple, yet effective. It is far from perfect, but it is a form of accountability and ownership, both key pieces to the culture puzzle.
·         Punishment should not be confused with accountability or consequences. Punishment is easy and is quite often delivered out of emotion. If we want our athletes to be able to focus and control emotions on their field of play what kind of example are we giving them when we struggle to control ours? In our setting, if an athlete shows up late without prior notice, they are asked to leave. The consequence is they miss the workout for that day. If it becomes a recurring issue, we will give them their program and they may train out of the student gym for a period of time and their coaches will be alerted of this.  Quite often, this can give you an idea as to where the leadership lies. If no one notices a member of their team is missing or cares to do so, you may have some issues you need to address. Conversely you may have athletes that always notice when someone is absent or you have brought it to their attention and they are not sure how to deal with the situation or get upset. We need to be cautious when conflicts or issues arise and we place it in the hands of the athletes.  Coaching should be more than just telling athletes what to do and when to do it. Our goal is to help create strong, productive members of society, and something as simple as helping them with conflict resolution skills is invaluable.
·          Be encouraging. We all know when our athletes are doing something great, but do you address this in an intimate or closed environment? There is nothing wrong with mentioning positive notes to a group, but bringing one of your athletes into your office to say how pleased you are with their progress is next level…..Watch them open up: the color in their face and posture changes immediately, and most importantly, you have given them a feeling of empowerment and accomplishment (both of which can easily be lost in the team environment).
o   On the flip side, if you fill your athletes with false praise, then praise becomes absolutely meaningless. Pick and choose times where there is merit so they know that you honestly mean it. If the majority of what comes out of your mouth is fluff the athletes will see through you.
o   If you have something to raise that is negative or may come off that way, the same approach is useful. Everything should have meaning and purpose.
·         I would like to say that once you mention something once it becomes a done deal.  This is rarely the case, so ensure that you repeat your message as needed before issues arise with the understanding that you are in this for the long haul. Having said that, if it is only a few outliers that are missing the message, speak with them individually or in a small group to ensure there is impact behind it.  It is useful to be realistic in your approach here as well.  For example, we have a dress code for the weight room and expect everyone to be early to their sessions. We know that when teams report, new members may not have team issued clothing in the first couple weeks and that they are still working out class schedules. Since we are prepared for this, we reiterate the message as needed, give them a realistic timeline, and things clean themselves up in a matter of weeks.
·         Be as encouraging to your staff as you would your athletes. If they know that they are appreciated for their work and that you value them, they are more likely to have the ability to carry on your cultural expectations in your absence. In our setting I have one full-time Assistant Coach, and a Student Coach and Graduate Assistant Program.  I have to be able to rely on them to be able to hold our athletes to the highest standards. My goal as the head coach is to mentor and guide our staff to one day either take my position (or a similar one) and have the tools necessary to be successful.
·         Command respect by not raising your voice. When you yell all the time, or bark orders, a couple of things happen. First, it makes the athletes focus on your tone and think, “this coach is a dick”, and the message becomes lost. Secondly, it makes the athletes think something is wrong.  We are not in war here, this is not life and death. Having said that, there are times where you may need to raise your voice outside of motivational or potential injury settings, and just as when you praise and athlete, these should be used sparingly so that the message is impactful.
·         Speak at a level where everyone can hear you, and not any louder. Athletes that think it is acceptable to speak over you will be shushed by the leaders in the group that value the importance of your message. It also forces attention in a world where attention spans are diminishing. If you are unable to garner the athlete’s attention, stop talking and wait for them to finish their conversation. They will get the message fairly quickly that this is not acceptable.
·         Do not expect perfection, encourage it and give the athlete the tools needed to do so and it will come. In our setting, we can have up to 50 athletes in the gym at any given time with only 2 coaches on the floor. I know that we will not get perfection immediately with this ratio, but I do know that if someone walked in nothing would look horrendous. If you create an environment where athletes understand that they must qualify to do your core movements/skills they will accept progressions or regressions much more readily. This allows us to ensure that our principles stay intact while minimizing the risk of injury and reinforcement of negative patterns.
·         Encourage competition before it is necessary. We live in a time where everyone is praised for participation.  Include competition in your training environment when it is feasible. As an example, our non-travelling football athletes will do a competitive circuit on the Friday or Saturday of a game weekend. They are expected to train as those that would travel do without the reward of playing and this is an opportunity for them to continue to compete, have purpose, and feel as though they are still a valued member of the team. We explain and educate them as to why we are doing this. Travelling or not, every member of the team has a role and without them remaining in shape and competitive they cannot drive those that travel to compete at the level needed in training. Let’s also not forget what it is like to be a student-athlete. At the end of the day, training can get mundane and even though it may not fit into your training plan there are simple competitions you can partake in that will not negatively affect your end goal. Chances are, they won’t physically make any huge impacts either, but mentally it can create a change immediately in the training environment.
·         Be adaptable. Things change on an hourly basis when you are in a big business or institution.  You must figure out what is essential, what is useful, and what is possible, and formulate decisions and programs based on this.
·         Keep your strengths strong while bringing up your weaker areas.  Too often we identify “needs” and neglect what we do well to fix everything else.  Our ultimate goal is to do the basics and do them well and progress from there.
·         Be proactive not reactive. The more you can anticipate, the easier your life will be. When we are reactive, chances are we will have more of an uphill battle trying to achieve your end goal.
·         Do not accept mediocrity. It is really easy when you are a lone coach on the floor with many athletes, but if they know that you hold technique and work ethic in a high regard it is easier to hold them accountable.
o   Success and failure are equally infectious. In our setting, we know that we will have an influx of athletes in late August, early September. This is where we spend a lot of time on technique. We try to place our novice lifters with our more experienced and technically sound lifters. This has multiple benefits, one being that the experienced lifters pass down the importance we place on technique, specifically at this time in their respective seasons, and it encourages both leadership and ownership to both parties involved.
o   This should also carry over to the importance of athletes taking care of the weight room.  They know we have a limited budget and that we clean it ourselves. If you allow them to leave it a mess after a session and let your student coaches or interns clean up after them you are not demanding the most out of your athletes. You can choose to say your job is to make them stronger, powerful, more conditioned, etc. Or, you can choose to help give them life skills that will carry on with them for the rest of their life.
·         Educate those around you constantly. We hold monthly meetings with our student coaches but encourage questions daily. We also encourage our athletes and coaches to ask questions and if they don’t have any questions, we explain why we are doing what we are doing. If they have a deeper understanding of the message and collective vision, they are more likely to support it and be enthused by it.
·         Treat everyone the same. If you let your star player or favorites walk in late or do anything that others aren’t you are setting yourself up for failure. We work in a team setting, even with our individual sports and the fastest way to destroy things is to let them think they aren’t a team and that somehow some individuals get a free pass to do as they please. 
·         Identify the people you are dealing with (coaches, support staff and athletes). This may seem simplistic but you will meet the same personality traits 100’s of times in your life and if you have a better idea of the type of people you may be dealing with it may allow for you to relay your messages and communicate better. If you haven’t recognized this yet in your career start to take note on how people interact in similar situations and after a few years it becomes like the movie Groundhog Day. I stole the passage below from a business conference I was at and I apologize that I don’t remember who coined these. There are many more traits, but these are an easy start:
§  Adapters: Those that can’t wait to get things done and will do whatever it takes to do so! They volunteer their time and give more of themselves for the sake of the greater good.
§  Resisters: They question everything and quite often are very vocal about their displeasure around the water cooler. I think this is important as well, although they can be a huge pain if their resistance is just for the sake of it, and not at all constructive.
§  Coasters: They find a way out of everything. Quite often they will do the least amount of work and utilize the most resources.
·         Mental toughness is a term that gets thrown around quite often nowadays. We all want resilient athletes, workers and staff, but the idea of beating people down to build them back up should be left out of sport.  If you look at the athletes or staff members that you deem to be mentally tough what are the characteristics you see?  If you can identify what makes them unique you can begin to add character as one of your key recruitment tools. We find that instead of breaking people down to build them up, encourage them to achieve their goals and to demand more of themselves to be more effective. Be demanding, but fair and understand that what works for one person usually only works for that person only.
o   If you want mentally tough kids, demand the highest out of them, make discipline a key component of your program, and differentiate it from disciplining them. Holding high standards and punishing are two very different things.  Raise the bar, and don’t encourage your athletes to reach it, encourage them to jump over it, and the mental toughness and resiliency will come. In our setting as S and C coaches, sport coaches will identify mental toughness as an attribute they would like to see in certain players. I quite often ask for examples of where they see this lack in specific athletes to see if we can actually affect change. If our hockey coach says a player is soft in contact we will look to see why.  Did they have a previous injury that is making them hesitant? Are they fit enough? Or, do they just lack the ability to get into a position where they can create success? Because, if they do, we can work on “mental toughness” with them and by “mental toughness” I mean confidence.
o   Understand that in any population you work with, you do not have a full understanding of everyone’s background (upbringing, parents, sleep habits and other uncontrollable factors).  Not everyone you work with will fit the mold you would like to see them in so it is up to you to either refine that mold or make a tough decision.
·         Lastly, question yourself.  If you think you are doing everything perfectly you may want to re-evaluate things.

There is much more at play here, but this is a start and I hope that you as a reader, coach or employer may get a tidbit that is useful within your own unique situation. Just as in coaching, what works for one, works for one, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from others’ trials and tribulations.  Ultimately, if you want to affect change you will have many long days and sleepless nights, but know that there is light at the end of the tunnel if you have the right people around you. The second you find yourself no longer caring, I suggest you move on in your career. You may be able to gut out your long days but then it just becomes work… and who wants that? 
NONE of this would be possible without the support of Lisa (my assistant), our Student Coaches and Grad Assistants, and our bosses that gave us the autonomy and support needed to build something better so that one day we can achieve greater things. Having our sport coaches and athletes believe in what we were trying to do and understood the importance of putting culture before performance has made this journey that much better. 

Yours in Strength,
Joe McCullum

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