Developing a healthy team culture is as important in sports as it is in the corporate world. Successful sport franchises have strong, deep-rooted cultures. These organizations have a defined way of doing things, ingrained habits, to which every member of the organization adheres. When an unsuccessful organization makes a change in a leadership position, often that person assumes the task of improving the organizational culture. Of course, that’s much easier said than done. Changing a collective culture is difficult because culture is a habit. People prefer doing things a certain way and people are resistant to change. It is important to understand why team culture is essential in sports and how a leader goes about changing the organizational culture.
A culture is the expression of a team’s values, attitudes, and beliefs. It determines the organization’s focus and what the organization promotes and the goal that everyone is striving to achieve. The culture is grounded in an identified mission and shared goals. It is a positive thing when you have a good culture of hard work, winning, sportsmanship or any other positive qualities. The culture creates standards of acceptable behavior on a team, either explicitly or implicitly conveying to members what is allowed and what is not. These standards can dictate to team members how to behave, communicate, cooperate, and deal with conflict. When clear standards exist, everyone on a team is more likely to abide by them.
Coaches take an active role in the creation of a team culture. Through leadership and open discussions with team members, the team can identify the values, attitudes, and beliefs that everyone wants as the foundation. When establishing a new culture, one of the first things a coach does is identify people who are committed to the organization and dedicated to achieving the mission. The book Good to Great (Collins, 2001) states, “the good-to-great leaders begin the transformation by first getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus and then figure out where to drive it” (p. 63). Once the right people are on the bus, a leader can begin sculpting a new culture. Collectively, the organization must determine what values, attitudes, and beliefs are going to act as the foundation for the team culture. Goal creation will begin for the organization, team, and individual players. Once the foundation and a new vision are set, collectively everyone can set out to accomplish the new goals.
When trying to change a culture, there needs to be a level of understanding of how a positive culture will appear. An example of a high functioning culture are caring leaders who are athlete-centered and focus on the success of the students. Everyone works together and there is support for one another. Finally, from the top-down, there is unwavering support from the administration. So when a new coach or manager takes over and assumes the task of improving the culture, how does a leader go about changing the organizational culture? Like any organization, first, a leader must assess the situation. Several factors could have contributed to a poor culture. There could be a lack of administrative support. Was administration ignoring that there was a problem in the sports culture? Another level of potential failure could be the coaches. Was there poor coaching or was the emphasis by the coaches on winning only and relationships weren’t developed with the athletes? Sometimes parents can be overinvolved and still not be supportive of the coach’s message or the athletic program. When parents are unsupportive, this tends to lead to poor behavior at games. Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is the student-athlete. The students have to be committed to sports involvement and be willing to hold other athletes accountable for their level of commitment. There have to be firm expectations for the student-athlete. Active leadership has to hold all students accountable for academic performance.
Coaches have to be deliberate about creating the culture they want. They cannot just assume that change will happen or emerge on its own. While being deliberate, coaches must have a process that the team can follow to develop their culture. Every successful organization has a list of goals they would like to achieve. It is important to match the desired values and behaviors to match the goals the team wants to achieve. Beyond the coach, team players play an important role in representing a positive culture. Effective teams have team captains who role model the desired behavior and hold other players accountable. The coach cannot be the sole person to carry out the mission. Players need other players, viewed at a peer level, to act as role models. When players and coaches are on the same page, poor behavior is dealt with immediately and there are consequences. Conversely, appropriate behavior is recognized and immediately rewarded in a meaningful way.
Creating change within an athletic program is not easy. There needs to be a collective buy-in from several parties: administration, athletic director, coaches, parents, and student-athletes. Above all, there must be structure, accountability, and simple goals for each member to achieve.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York, NY: HarperCollins Inc.