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Build a Team Culture for Athletic Success

The values, attitudes, and goals of a team impact its performance and success.

CCO Creative Commons
Source: CCO Creative Commons

It is a widely held belief in the sports world that the team culture can have a big impact on how a team functions and performs. How team members, think, feel, behave, and perform are all influenced by the environment in which they practice and compete.

For example, have you ever been on a “downer” team? I’m talking about one that is permeated with negativity, unhealthy competition, and conflict? It sure doesn’t feel good and it can definitely interfere with your performing your best. As an athlete, it’s difficult to do much about it; all you can do is accept it or find another team. But, as a coach, you can have a big impact on how your team functions.

In addition to my psychology work with athletes, I consult extensively in the corporate world where I help executives and companies to maximize individual and team performance. One of the most important areas I focus on in this work involves helping senior management to create an organizational culture that is positive and high performing. Developing a healthy team culture is as important in the sports world as it is in the corporate world. So, in applying these concepts to sports programs, let’s start with an understanding of what a team culture is and why it is of essential value.

A culture is the expression of a team’s values, attitudes, and goals about sports, competition, and relationships. It determines whether, for example, the team’s focus is on fun, improvement, or winning or whether it promotes individual accomplishment or team success. A team culture is so important because it directly influences many areas that affect team functioning and performance:

The culture establishes norms of acceptable behavior on a team, either explicitly or implicitly conveying to members what is allowed and what is not. These norms can dictate to team members how to behave, communicate, cooperate, and deal with conflict. When clear norms are established, everyone on a team is more likely to abide by them.

The culture creates the atmosphere that permeates every aspect of a team’s experience. Is the atmosphere relaxed or intense? Supportive or competitive?

All of these qualities of a culture have real implications for how the team functions, how its members get along, and, crucially, how the athletes on the team perform and the results they produce individually and collectively. When a team has a defined culture that is understood and accepted by all of its members, they feel an implicit pressure (in the good sense) to support that culture.

Your goal is to create a team culture that nurtures individual and team growth, success, and fun.

Three Pillars of Team Culture

A team culture is comprised of three essential pillars that support all team functioning and performance: values, attitudes, and goals.

Values are defined as “Principles or standards of behavior; your judgment of what is important in life.” Values are so important because they guide the decisions and choices you and your athletes make as a team and as individuals. Whatever you value most is where you will devote your time, effort, and energy. Here is a list of values that I believe are essential for individual and team success:

  • Ownership: no excuses
  • Hard work/best effort
  • Purposeful/focused
  • Quality
  • Teamwork
  • Trust/openness
  • Humility
  • Respect of self and competition

Attitudes are defined as “The way you think and feel about something.” Attitudes are vital because they guide how athletes think, feel, and act toward their sport. Here is a list of attitudes that I think are helpful in sports:

  • Process, not outcome
  • Challenge, not threat
  • Seek out discomfort
  • Experiment
  • Mistakes/failure are good
  • Never give up!

I define goals as “The object of a person's ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.” As you know so well, goals are vital for athletes to motivate them and to direct their efforts. Here are some team goals that I believe are useful for a team:

  • Support and communication
  • Process focus
  • Consistently fast
  • Respond positively to adversity
  • Total preparation
  • Bring it!
  • No regrets: take your shot!
  • Have fun!

For values, attitudes, and goals, the above lists are just suggestions and you should work with your athletes to create values, attitudes, and goals that best fit your team.

How a Team Culture Develops

Coaches can allow the culture of their team develop in one of two ways. First, it can emerge naturally as an expression of its individual members. The benefits to this “organic” approach is that team members feel a sense of ownership for the culture because they created it. But there is a risk that the creation of the team is unfairly shaped by one or a few team members who may be particularly assertive or controlling, leaving other members of the team feeling marginalized and powerless. And a real danger can arise when the team culture is hijacked by a small subset of the team who are more interested in exerting their own power over the team, however unhealthy it might be. The result can be a truly toxic culture that serves neither the best interests of the team as a whole or its individual members.

The second approach, and the one that I recommend, is for coaches to take an active (though not dominating) role in the creation of a team culture. Through your leadership and open discussions with team members, your team can identify the values, attitudes, and goals that you and they want to act as the foundation of the team culture. This collaborative approach to team culture will ensure that everyone on the team feels a sense of ownership for the culture and, as a result, are more likely to live by its dictates.

Tools for Building a Team Culture

There are also some specific things you can do to actively develop and foster a healthy team culture.

  • Be explicit in defining your team’s values, attitudes, and goals (make lists!).
  • Identify and enlist team leaders to support the team culture.
  • Provide opportunities to build team culture.
  • Create shared responsibilities in which team members have to work together.
  • Create team rituals such a pre-competition dinners or after-event cool-downs.
  • Schedule weekly check-ins to get feedback about how things are going.
  • Recognize teachable moments and use them to encourage your team culture.

Training Group Cultures

In addition to the overall culture that a coaching staff fosters to best serve the goals of the entire team and the needs of all of its athletes, training groups within the larger team can also create their own cultures. These training-group cultures better reflect the individual personalities of their coaches and athletes and the unique goals that they are pursuing. These cultures also allow athletes who may be unable to take a leadership role in the team as a whole to exert influence within their training group.

Make Team Culture a Team Effort

Coaches, I encourage you to sit down with the rest of your coaching staff and your athletes to discuss the kind of culture your team wants to have. Proactively creating a healthy team culture will pay off in so many ways during the competitive season including improved communication and reduced conflict, a more positive vibe, better team functioning, and, almost always, higher levels of performance and success for the team and its individual members.

For information on becoming mentally stronger in your sport, see my e-book, Prime Sport: Psychology of Champion Athletes.