The 4 steps to develop a strong team culture

Above: The Sydney Swans AFL team is well known for its strong team culture & achievements

“Your culture is what you do and say every day”

It is fair to say that in team sports establishing a good team culture and environment is high on the priority list of all coaches. At the elite level we have seen many examples where talent-laden teams have failed to achieve success due to poor culture and “group dynamics”, and just as many examples of the opposite. In fact a good team culture can greatly assist in one of the key measures of how well a coach does his job – that being team performance as a whole seemingly exceeding the expected performance of the sum of the individual parts (players), and doing so on a consistent basis.

So how do coaches go about defining what this team culture should look like and then developing it with their playing group? Well the number of models and theories that could answer this question would probably take a full day to consume if you went and did some “googling”. The approach I am going to suggest is one I have seen work very well in the elite team I am involved with and know has worked with many other teams at varying levels as well.

This model is actually the work of “leadership guru” Ray Mclean, founder of Leading Teams. Ray began consulting with our Australian Football team towards the end of 2004 and continues his involvement today. His company consults for many other sporting teams and businesses both in Australia and overseas. It is fair to say his work is world-class and I feel lucky to have been exposed to his methodology at an early stage in my coaching. But enough about Ray.

To cut to the chase and leave more details for further on, below is the 4-step model for defining and developing a good team culture.

I can still clearly remember the session where this model was first introduced to us in late 2004 when our senior coach Neil Craig started his term as senior coach. This was to be the building blocks for becoming a consistent finals team for the next 5 seasons. The thing that struck me then, and still does as I write this article, is the simplicity of the approach. I think this is why it can be such a good model for coaches at any level. However do not be fooled into thinking that all will be a panacea with this model. The execution of it, particularly steps 3 & 4, are a challenge that must be met on a daily basis by all coaches and players. More on that later.

Ok, lets explain each step of the model a little more.

1) How are we perceived?
Here is the starting point of the process. What we are doing here is evaluating where we currently are at. We could frame this question in the eyes of opponents, media, management and from within the team itself. More often than not this step is designed to tease out perceptions that we want to change. For example your team may be perceived as any of “inconsistent”, “vulnerable”, “soft”, “unfit”, “poor skill level”, “selfish”, “conditional”, “underachievers”, “no game plan” or “individuals”. Hopefully this step also reveals some positive perceptions that people may have of your team. Hang on to these!

2) How would we like to be perceived?
The words you come up with in this step can relate to on and off the field. I don’t think you need more than 4 or 5 as there will be many actions and behaviours that will go towards achieving that perception, as we will see in the next step. Some perceptions your team may be striving to create could include “professional”, “hard working”, “disciplined”, “fair”, “structured”, “organised”, “ruthless”, “team-first approach”, “successful”. There are no right or wrong perceptions to document at this stage – it is whatever things your team feels most strongly about.

So in steps 1 and 2 we have identified where we are currently at and then where we would like to get to. Bridging the “gap” that exists between these is where the following 2 steps come into play.

3) Actions & behaviours that will create these perceptions
In reality the first 2 stages of this model are plain sailing – it is a fairly quick and straightforward process to identify and document these things. The true test of developing a culture is about to start.

It is now appropriate to talk about the SPECIFIC actions and behaviours that will need to take place on a daily basis to create the perceptions you are after. Clarity of exactly what will be required from players and coaches can be provided here, which may not have been the case after step 2. For example, say you decide on “professional” as a perception you strive for. Ok, so how do I act and behave “professionally”? As a player I cannot do “professional”. But if “professional” means turning up on time to team meetings – there is an action that I can do and should be able to execute at every opportunity. See the difference? Another action that could fit under “professional” might be completing post-game recovery processes exactly as required.

I think the more actions and behaviours that you can document and provide as examples for your players the better. Sometimes players won’t think of all the little actions that go towards creating the perceptions you are after so it never hurts to keep highlighting them and educating your players.

Now the test comes – can every individual on your team display these actions and behaviours on a regular basis? No amount of talk or “magic dust” is going to get the job done from here. It is all about A-C-T-I-O-N! Taking the “professional” perception example, every time a player is on time for a team meeting the closer your team comes to creating that perception and in turn growing the team culture.

Conversely, anytime a player takes a short-cut with their post-game recovery then a little piece of the “professional” perception is eroded and so your team culture takes a small, but significant, hit. It is as simple as that.

“Little things done well is probably the greatest secret to success. If you do enough small things right, big things can happen.” – John Wooden

4) Feedback on actions & behaviours

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions” -Ken Blanchard, leading author and leadership/management expert

Of course the beauty of team sports is the capacity for team members to help others along. Whilst I mentioned in the previous step that the key to all this is as “simple” as taking the right action on a daily basis, the reality is this is an enormous challenge requiring great discipline. Therefore like any performance or behaviour in life, regular feedback is a tremendously powerful tool to keep individuals and the team as a whole on the right track. On top of that, in my opinion feedback that is delivered by peers (ie fellow players) is even more powerful again.

Two other important things to note on feedback. Firstly, it needs to be integrated into day to day life for your players. Do not wait for mid-season reviews, “crisis team meetings” or 1 on 1 meetings between player and coach to provide feedback. Provide the feedback immediately when behaviours are observed that either assist or detract from creating the desired perceptions (note here that I am suggesting feedback should be delivered to reward actions, and not just pulling people up when taking the wrong actions). We have a simple motto for this – “see something, say something”.

In relation to “see something, say something”, it can require great courage for players (younger ones in particular) to deliver feedback that is “constructive criticism” in nature. With that in mind there must be the clear understanding by the playing group that feedback is not a personal attack on the individual, but an observation of their actions and a process that can help them improve. This is true regardless of whether a player or coach delivers the feedback.

“Having a clearly defined set of principles to work with reduces conflict because it depersonalizes criticism” – Phil Jackson

Understand that it can take some time for players to learn to deliver and receive strong feedback. At times they will feel very uncomfortable doing so. This is a great thing though as it means your group is taking the required actions to grow the strong team culture you and they desire!

Where to now?
Have a go at it in your coaching, or take only the pieces that you want. As was hopefully emphasised throughout this post taking action is the only way to getting where you want to go. Let us know of your thoughts and experiences you have with trying to put some of these concepts in place. Or maybe suggest an alternative model that we and other coaches could learn from.

Good luck!

One final thing…..
What about “player-empowerment” as it relates to this model? Well you as a coach have a choice to make here – obviously I have described examples where players are clearly empowered within the model. However it doesn’t have to operate like this. Further discussion on this is probably best suited to a follow-up post. Stay tuned!

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