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Building an Effective Team Culture

Tips for enhancing cohesion within a team

The term ‘culture’ is pervasive in sport environments and it appears to be, largely, accepted that developing a positive and strong team culture will be a key antecedent of success. It is often observed, however, that the amount of time coaches spend deliberately developing culture is disproportionate to the importance that we ascribe to it. This article seeks to provide coaches and various other support staff with a number of strategies that can be employed to intentionally develop a positive culture within a competitive sport setting.

For a group of individuals to become a ‘team’ a common purpose must first be established. This limits ambiguity regarding what the team is looking to achieve. A strong sense of purpose can be achieved through group discussions with all members of the team. Ideally, this discussion should include talking about (1) what success means, (2) what it would feel like, and (3) what will be requried to achieve it. It is important to start with what success means; if, for instance, a team loses in the final to a better team, but performs as best as they can – is that failure? Likewise, if a team wins the final game, but significantly underperforms – is that success? These are the kinds of questions that need to be considered to ensure that everybody is clear on what the long-term goal is. It is also interesting to note that when teams have such a ‘performance focus’, they often perform better due to enhanced focus, appropriate levels of anxiety, and greater enjoyment, but that’s an article for another day.

Once a definition of success has been agreed upon, it is important to then consider how the team will get there. This is where teams will begin to explore values and behaviours that will be critical in helping the team function as a coheisve unit. Qualities such as respect, trust, and support will generally be highlighted as important ingredients in achieving effective collaboration, something that even the most individual of sports requires. At this juncture it is a good idea to break teams up into small groups where they can discuss the values that they believe are the most important. Ideally you want groups of at least three but no greater than five or six. This ensures that each group will formulate some good ideas and each member will feel more comfortable expressing their opionion. Once back together, each group should present what they believe are the most important values that the team requires. The coach/manager/facilitator can transcribe the suggestions on a board and make note of the most prevalent ones. It is suggested that the team (athletes and staff) then decides on the most important five or six values. It is often better to have a small number that the team will strongly identify with, opposed to having too many that end up getting forgotten.

Once key values have been established, the final discussion should be directed at what behaviours will be important to ensuring that the team ‘lives’ the agreed upon values. For instance, if respect is identified as a key value – then it is important to consider how individuals need to behave to ensure that respect is being exbited. Behaviours subsequently associated to respect may be punctuality, dress, and maximum effort. It is then made clear to everybody invovled that key behaviours for the team will be arriving on time, dressing professionally, and exerting maximum effort at all times.

Although navigating this process can take time, it is likely to enhance a team culture by making desired values and behaviours clear, opposed to manisfesting the background (for better or worse). It is also known to enhance performance as athletes feel more connected to the team and are, thus, likely to exert greater effort and work together more effectively. Additionally, having a strong culture may help avoid inevitable conflicts as when differences in opinions do emerge (which is not in itself harmful), there is an existing culture built on a foundation of respect that will allow the team to move forward efficiently.

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Once the above discussions have taken place, it is important to make regular links back to the culture. A common mistake is to have an ‘off-field’ session and then tick off team-building for the season. To enhance the potential benefits, the team needs to live the culture, and there are various ways to do this. Firstly, making constant references back to key values and behaviours can be effective.

Although from time to time it can be beneficial to have prolonged team discussions, it can be as simple as calling the athletes into a huddle during training and reinforcing effort by making an explicit link back to the culture – “Matt, I loved the effort there, you were clearly displaying the key behaviours of our culture that we’ve been talking about over the last couple of weeks…keep it up!”. Such a quick and easy strategy will reinforce the behaviour for the individual, but also overtly reminds everyone of the desired qualities and behaviours.

Secondly, making the culture a living document can strengthen the culture. This can be achieved by printing posters to place in open areas (training facility, meeting rooms, locker-room, etc.), making tee shirts branded with key values (often this ends up being in the form of an acronym), listening to music that reinforces key behaviours, or creating team movies that highlight each individuals’ contributions. Such strategies are likely to promote the culture and remind athletes what is, truly, important to the team.

Finally, provide opportunities for individuals to exhibit the key qualities; this is often achieved through team-building activies. Setting up challenges where members of the team are required to work together or are placed in testing situations can strengthen the bond between individuals. When this is done, however, as aforementioned, it is important to make the critical links back to the culture. Questions such as “why did we do that activity?”, “how were we successful?”, “what behaviours were key in us reaching the goal?” ensure the athletes make the link between the activity and the key behaviours and qualities that are going to put the team in the best possible position to achieve success.

Of course it is hard to quantify the benefits of these strategies; however with that said, it is widely suggested that deliberately developing a culture decreases the risk of undesired values developing, and is generally believed to heighten members’ sense of belonging, commitment, effort, and enjoyment. Fostering such qualities (which are important precursors to performance) is often the focus of coaching dilemmas – so why not give it a go?

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