It's been likened to an art form, studied like a science, and labelled a challenge, but whichever way you choose to look at it, creating and maintaining an effective team culture is critical to sustained success.
So, if we define culture simply as ‘the way we behave around here’, we need to determine what is acceptable and what is not? But then as a coach, how do you sustain a culture or how do you deal with an athlete who acts in a way that opposes the culture you want?
Even though culture ebbs and flows, most often impacted by changing dynamics within a team each season, these were some of the questions we had in mind during a conversation about culture with a few highly experienced coaches, who we’re lucky enough to have as clients.
The conversation crossed the globe, with Deanna Gumpf and Lizzy Ristano, University of Notre Dame’s Softball Head Coach and Associate Head Coach, respectively; Melissa Phillips, Head Coach of the London City Lionesses; Darren Winterbine, Founder of Midwest Academy of Sport in Western Australia; and Tim O’Brien, Head Coach of St Mary’s of California Men’s Rugby. Hosted by Bo Hanson, 4x Olympian and Athlete Assessments’ Founder and Specialist Coaching Consultant, the conversation looked to capture the points of commonality found between coaches – techniques, tips, and what to do when things don’t go according to plan.
What we found most invaluable about this conversation is the way the coaches shared their real-life experiences, providing raw, firsthand accounts of their coaching careers and journeys. (If you would like to dive into the background of the coaches further, we invite you to read their bios included at the end of this article.)
Opening the conversation, Bo dived right in, asking the coaches to provide an insight into their respective team cultures,
“How would you describe the type of culture that you ultimately want? Is there a story, or are there things that you specifically try to create in the type of culture that you want?”
Previously, when I was at The University of Pennsylvania, working with one of my best friends and mentors, we spent a lot of time thinking about how we would create a culture. We worked together for 5 years and were fortunate enough to win a championship in that time. During that time, we really invested in the recruitment process to make sure we had the ‘right people’ around us. By the ‘right people’ I mean a group that shares ambitions and values. We had our own set of values within the program – that’s something I have tried to establish here as well.
When I came to the London City Lionesses, I also came into the professional realm and the English game. I found that the football [soccer] business was focused around tactics and X’s and O’s, it wasn’t so much focused around being a people business.
I had players come into the office in the first year of me taking over and say, “Wow, I’ve never spoken to a coach who’s actually talked about me as a person, as opposed to what I do on the field.” We really try not to create just a culture of competition and competing, but a culture of togetherness – sometimes it’s a fine balance to blend the two – getting women to compete and be driven towards a goal but that drive, and the common goal binds them together at the same time.
To give you some context, I came into the club right as COVID was starting to unfold and took over a group that had huge ambitions and huge expectations, but not necessarily the processes or a culture in place to be able to achieve those. We opened up the season to a team called Sheffield, and got thumped.
Six months later, we played them at their place and drew one, one.
On the bus ride home, our girls were singing on the back of the bus. Okay. It’s silly. In reality our girls were just having a sing along on the back of the bus, but it was a moment and a memory that really embodied a bit of togetherness. The result we achieved on the field came from all of the hard work towards the common goal, executing our values and the vision of what we’re trying to do every single day.
I think it is really important to have common values and core values within the program.
DEANNA GUMPF & LIZZY RISTANO:
Our staff have been together for 16 years, so we’re pretty stable. That’s the one thing that our girls can always count on – ‘Us’ and the consistency of our staff and our commitment. There’s a whole lot of us who are mums so we’re grinding through life as mums and we’re grinding through softball with family in our minds. Our team and softball is the most important thing other than our families.
This feeling of ‘family’, the commitment, the relationships, and the grittiness of it all is what we’re all about. Over the 16 years we’ve brought everyone together as a family and we want our girls to feel a part of it. I think ‘family’ is what makes us unique, the way we’ve intertwined family with work and work with family – it builds trust, stability, and consistency. Important, but also special.
I look for the element of ‘fun’. We try and make everything we do ‘fun’, our entire academy is built on it. We try and do stuff that makes people keep coming back. We want them to value the time they spend with us, so it needs to be fun, but obviously it’s at the highest level, so we get people to work hard. At the moment, we’ve got athletes and coaches, a mix of ages from 19 different sports, we have them in group sessions, they’re all from different cultures and different areas. We talk about inclusivity, but at the end of the day the boys and girls, men and women, – we just want them to compete and push themselves.
We work on the value of trust we need people to trust us to be there and serve their needs. My role and my staff’s role is basically to be there and work out with our people – what their goals are, how we can serve them and get them to where they want to be in the long run.
Bo: Are you finding fun needs to be part of a sporting culture?
Absolutely, our players are giving up so much of their time. They want to enjoy what they’re doing, and I think that’s one of the things that helps them come back. If they’re not enjoying it, then they’re probably thinking, “What else is there for me to do?” Especially when we think about what we’ve all been through in the last 18 months, their sport is an outlet for them, so we did things to be together as a team even when everyone was in lockdown.
Bo asked Tim to tell us more about their program, noting he loves many aspects of the St Mary’s culture, while remembering that rugby is not yet recognized as a professional sport in the United States.
Bo: It's not just all about the 15 right, there's a lot of men involved in your program.
There’s 1,400 males at St. Mary’s College and 63 of them choose to play rugby, as a club sport on varsity. So, there’s no real ‘bait on the hook’ they need to love it, you need to put out a product that they can embrace. This is pretty challenging. And, as coaches, coaching staff, we need to be pretty creative about how to pull guys in. You know, we have kids that will play for our national team, and we have a hand load of guys who couldn’t make the worst team in the country, literally.
And we train with everyone together, whenever we train, we’re together, six days a week and the bulk of our season. So, you do have to make it fun. You need to make it challenging, competitive, it needs to be player driven.
Perhaps our communication is over the top a bit, but the consistency of our messaging is vital to the success, health, and wellbeing of our program. The leadership group drive the ship and life in general throws a lot of curve balls, challenges, and surprises at the guys all the time.
Because it’s 24/7 and especially during the last year during Covid-19, when the guys go away, you want them to miss it badly, you want them to want to get back into the grind. They may hate it in the moment, but you want them to love it, in the end.
Bo: Can you give us an insight into what the Match Winning Qualities are for your program and how you come up with them. Match Winning Qualities are often called trademarks, values, or pillars. These pillars of performance create stability within a program.
We had a bit of an acronym in the past, ‘WRAAP’ it stands for:
- Work Ethic,
We used the acronym as our basis, it guided our decision making and it helped us meet standards. I really wanted to take the way the acronym helped players’ decision making into the new club and while I know that things will not always work as they have done in the past, I took the methodology across to the Lionesses.
Also, I wanted to take some of those values with me because I feel that as a coach, when you’re operating within your value system, it makes it a lot easier for you to have the kind of moral, ethical battles and decision making that you face every day.
When I met with the owners of the team, they spoke about defining themselves by the word ‘PRIDE’. With the team, we then came up with the words:
and they became our core values. And now each year we’ll have our defining core values as a team because the team is changing here, but we have an overarching set of guidelines for players to live by. Players can ask themselves simply – does what you’re doing fall underneath pride? And if it doesn’t, the answer is that you probably shouldn’t do it. It’s a good leveller and it ensures that all players are on the same page.
DEANNA & LIZZY:
Our dark years were stimulus for creating our guiding principles as a coaching staff. We had a couple of tough years where we felt like things weren’t going right and the girls spent a lot of time in trouble (we had some really good punishments including cleaning the football stadium – that one goes down in history, they still talk about it 10 years later). In short, we didn’t like coming to work because we didn’t like our team. We came to the realization that it was all our fault. We knew we needed some guiding principles to judge everything by; how you play the game, how you live your life, and who you are.
We came up with the following; to be unshakeable; to love and trust each other off the field so you can love and trust each other on the field; never back down from a challenge; represent Notre Dame, your family, and yourselves in the utmost manner; play with toughness, tenacity, and enthusiasm; and be selfless.
One thing we do with those every year is, we have our team define what this looks like and what this doesn’t look like. For example, if it’s being unshakeable, what does being unshakeable look like? They all throw out examples. We write it down. What does it not look like? Then throughout the year when you know there is going to be a moment when there is potential to be shakable, we go back to that list and its self-defined.
We have not changed our values since 2009 – we did add one, to be selfless around 2015 (we were noticing some selfish behavior). Prior to that we would pick a new theme every year and then at the end of the year we would throw that out the door and start with something new. That approach just did not provide consistency, whereas retaining our values not only provides consistency but the opportunity to build on values. We grade ourselves by our values, we go back to them on our best and our worst days.
We’ve been working with the whole group on our values and to get them to think about values we ask questions like; “At the end of a game what do you want the other team to say about you guys, what do you want to be known for?” the way they’ve come up with those values helps us drive the values themselves.
For example, some of the values they’ve come up with are never give up, be unselfish, compete on everything, be tough, play the game very hard but fair (obviously nothing outside the rules), and play for each other. Then in training coaches can take it up with individual players and say – “You know, one of our values is never give up but you just dropped off, stopped defending that guy, gave up and walked away. How does that sit with you and what we’re looking to achieve?”
You can use the values as a constant reminder and hopefully the athletes start to use them to hold each other accountable.
We score against our values all the time whether its accountability, trust, selflessness or what have you. We just score out of 10 and we will be in a room with the guys and some of them regularly show up late and give performances that are far less than their best and it’s amazing, they will still score themselves 8, 9, and 10’s. as time goes on those scores get much more realistic. Conversations become pretty honest, it’s tough for all of us, but is tougher for younger guys who are not used to the really difficult conversations, but it’s great to see them develop and call each other out.
I’m finding that everyone wants to talk about culture and how great their culture is, but I just don’t know if they live it, you know we need to live it.
Giving us an insight into culture, Bo says, “We will always have a culture, but if we just leave it to grow by itself it may not be the culture we want. Every coach wants accountability, there would not be a day that goes by where I talk to a coach and they are not trying to drive accountability within their program – I think that’s a massive piece of keeping the culture we want alive. Redefining your values and throwing it out to athletes is a great way to keep culture alive.”
A way we try to get our athletes to hold themselves and each other accountable to their values is by creating symbols of our values and putting them up beside the practice court. We ask each other how we went against each one of our values that session. Our athletes give themselves a rating out of 10. It’s a really mature thing to do but you don’t have to be an adult to do it! In fact, I think younger kids are probably a bit more honest about it because they are not working for a paycheck. They’re working for court time, acceptance, and the love of it. When they give themselves something like a 5/10 and say it’s not good enough, they know that the consequence is let’s do it again or do it better next time, comparatively professionals are a harder case, they’re worried about pay checks, mortgages and paying bills.
Bo agreed, “We can define our values what they look like and what they don't look like, and we can have clarity around that. Athletes can have a lot of input, so they have a sense of ownership over their values. Clearly defined values are a marker of a successful program.”
Then he asks, “But, what do you do when someone doesn’t buy in to your values or chooses not to continue buying in? It’s not a matter of if this is going to happen, but when. Especially at the highest level of sport, we are asking people to live in a way which is pretty uncommon.”
DEANNA & LIZZY:
One thing we tend to do is, instead of isolating the player – put your arm around them and bring them back in. We try to surround them with the group more than isolating them on their own little island. They can choose to get on board and if they don’t then it’s clear that that piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit our program. At that point we might go our separate ways.
Bo: That way of dealing with a player’s actions reinforces your value of ‘family’. ‘Family’ is a tough value because not everyone has had a great experience with family and there are some really strong associations with family, but this is a good example of your philosophy in action.
DEANNA & LIZZY:
If we just keep going back to them, it’s like family, you can’t turn away and then at some point, if it doesn’t work on our end, we know we did our best.
We want to give them examples of things we want to see in them instead of being negative. For example, we’ve found that the problems usually come from playing time, so we would address it with this kind of strategy – ‘if you come to practice 10 minutes early every day we’ll meet you here.’ That way they know we care enough to come early and make the extra effort. We’ve also had some really good captains, so when things come up in the locker rooms they can head them off there.
We also do the over-the-top communication and connecting with the player on the personal side as well as the playing side – we suggest meeting in the coffee shop and we don’t even talk about the game, we just try and get on the same page.
We also have a regular team time activity, I think at the moment it’s once a week, it doesn’t have to be something grand it can be something as simple as 20 minutes after practice doing something.
Bo: At what point do you say that a person is impacting culture in a negative way? Hopefully you’ve got a strong enough culture that one or two people can’t drag it down.
At the end of the day, we are run by the players, so you don’t have to be the coach’s kind of guy. It’s really the captaincy and the leadership of the group that drives the team and they need to believe what the coaches are selling. But there are a lot of aspects of all of our sports that requires zero talent like energy, body language, being on time, and so on.
At St. Mary’s College we play a lot of rugby. I’ll try to schedule 54 games. The average kid plays in 15 games there are 63 guys, 15 on at a time. You’re fighting for minutes, so if you’re a guy that’s dragging us down, you’re just not going to get any minutes.
Our whole program is built around the bottom, pushing up the top, the top pulling up the bottom. We want to win a national championship hands down. It’s very clear that this is what we’re doing. We’ve lost one guy in all the time I’ve been at the college. I’ve been at the college 20 years. It’s a special culture, its player led. Sure, there has to be some teaching of the leadership group, you know love, respect. Some of my most important coaching lessons have actually come from the leadership group. Players have said to me – you’re making mistakes here, you’re doing this wrong. There was one particular time when I lost my mind. At half time the captain came up to me and said “You can’t ever let that happen again” and it never has since. I’m pretty grateful for that.
Bo: This example shows us that feedback is a two-way street. That willingness and openness that you have as a coach to be given feedback by your players, means there's no way in the world that it's not acceptable for players to give each other feedback and try and help each other.
We talk about that a lot. I don’t want to use the word accountability, I’d rather use involvement. We try to get to the point where we are willing to genuinely help each other get to a greater cause than just working as individuals.
If someone doesn’t buy into our culture or steps away from it, I start by getting the leadership group to try and talk to them and show them the behaviors that we expect, the values, things like that.
I think there’s a lot of times where people are genuinely thinking that they’re doing the right thing, but obviously it’s just not hitting the mark, they’re just not reaching the standard that we want to set, which is going to be off. So, then you try and provide some evidence and say, look, you’re just not there. This is what it looks like. This is what we want and give them the opportunity.
But it always comes back to court time, so if someone is not meeting the standards, they are not getting the same opportunities as someone who is. That’s the whole thing, you can’t have different sets of rules for athletes within your program. So, you know, your best player might be someone that doesn’t get in the weight room. Doesn’t do all the good things that are required off the field, and he still gets court time. If you do that you are just setting yourself up for failure. Everyone has to be on the same level of accountability. There has to be lots of communication.
And as Tim talked about earlier, the difficult conversation needs to be had, and it needs to be around, okay, this is what you said. How are we all going to achieve that? What are you doing to achieve it? You know, how are you doing this? And then show them, as I said, evidence of where they’re not meeting the standard, video doesn’t lie.
Bo adds, “Yes, symbolic acts are really important. Symbolism is one of the levers of cultural change (and, even when we are not on a specific cultural change project we are on an evolution project and the levers are just as important). You can think of the levers for cultural maintenance or change as SSB – Systems, Symbols, Behavior.
What Darren is talking about is a symbolic act of not playing your best player if they don't role model the culture you expect of the entire team. If you do play them because you are focused on winning, you will have problems.
Mel, can you give me any examples of symbolic behavior, symbolic actions or just the symbolism of writing stuff on boards from your programs. Tell me about the symbolic acts that you try or reward to really live your culture.”
This is one I stole off another coach! I’m sure that coach has been a regular on your webinars. We used this one at Penn and with London City. We wanted our culture to be based on gratitude and unselfish behavior. So, we give a weekly team award, it’s a chance to celebrate those around you for winning the award.
We call it speeches and sweets. It happens on Monday and any player who gets team member of the week gets a chance to give a speech, thank their teammates for where they’re at and where they’re going as a team, and what behaviors got them to this point. They hand out little Lindor chocolates to the group, we used Otter Pops in the States where it was a bit warmer! But, the point is that the team is getting recognized for performance, we are putting the team first and recognizing everyone that’s part of it. It’s a regular part of our program and is one of the choices that you make, you have to educate every single day.
Just on that note, if you’re trying to establish a new culture or are new yourself in a culture you must recognize the difference between a mistake which might need an educational reminder and a bit of a chat, and a reoccurring habit that could use some education, an arm around bringing them in, and celebrating the right examples.
Bo: Celebrating the positive is a huge piece of the puzzle but how quickly do you address a one-off event or a pattern? I’m super aware that this is reflective of our profiles, but I also know letting things go is a slippery slope. If someone sees someone else doing something, they think it’s acceptable and suddenly we have 3 or 4 people doing it.
I too am a D, so I go in straight away and address things! I think in coming into the culture, it was really 50/50 in terms of players who wanted to buy into the standard because it was an immediate standard of work ethic and attitude. I worked on what the standard looked like and getting all the players on the same page. Initially players that had a poor attitude or lack of work ethic would not get rewarded with playing time.
I wanted to see the start of change or players adapting behaviors within a session or a team meeting. Even though we were a bit limited with Covid, by the end of the year or the six months of the season, they knew there would be a conversation if they did not adapt. I would deal with it straight away at the end of the training session or in the office, I would ask them, “What would it look like if you did this or what outcome were you trying to get?” I was always asking questions trying to get the players to come up with the answers themselves. When you are managing and modeling standards and values to a new group, personally I think you have to address things in the moment right away.
Previously I had spoken about players who drove and held standards as if they were their own. When you deal with things this way, it shows those players that it’s ok to hold these standards with the wider playing group. You gain respect from them, and you start to get some voices in internal leadership.
Bo agreed, “When you have players leading from within it really drives culture.”
I could talk a dog off a wagon about this! Coaches need to set the right type of example, these kids are watching, they see it, they feel it, they talk amongst themselves, and it spreads like wildfire. If you don’t set the right example, your foundations will crumble.
This is who I am, and this is what I do. Don’t show up to practice unprepared. It’s big trouble. We’re asking a lot of the student-athletes and they’re expecting even more from us.
Bo: Can you share an example of a time where you had to make a call on playing your best player because of something? Reflecting, did you make the right call?
DEANNA & LIZZY:
This was at the same time that I really wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, I didn’t enjoy who I was with, and I wasn’t even standing in my standards. Everybody assumes that because you’re winning and you are successful, that everything is great. There was certainly a time when I played a player because they were talented and not because I should have. I think all of us have gone through a time where it’s hit the fan and you’re just trying to manage the moment.
We don’t always get it right, but always learn from it and I value being open about that.
Bo: It is really easy to teach technique, but the culture piece is really challenging.
The teams I’m working with are probably not going to win a national championship. We certainly want to go and compete as hard as we can, but the pressure is off for the coaches… But it’s still really important to pull an athlete up that’s displaying poor behaviors or being disruptive to the team because it really quickly gets out of control, it’s like a bushfire. All of a sudden it just goes right through, and it could have started from a covert conflict that you are not aware of.
You need to live your standards otherwise athletes will see through it, and parents will see through it. You need to do more than talk a good game. We are trying to develop these athletes to play at the highest level.
Bo: Once we’ve calibrated the culture we want through conversations with our people, we need to check-in, and if you’re in charge you’re able to take action.
Deanna and Lizzy, can you tell us about your aquarium analogy for culture?
DEANNA & LIZZY:
The aquarium analogy; picture an aquarium tank – we picture our team as the tank, the culture is the water, and the leaders are the chemical and filtration system.
Culture is like an aquarium, you can’t just dump a bunch of chemicals in the water one day, set it and leave it – it’s something you have to tend to every single day, constantly checking in. Where are your levels at? Where’s your PH at? You have to test the water and see what’s going on. We just try to do a little bit every day and then little by little.
Where we’ve made mistakes maybe in the past, is we have that one big meeting at the beginning of the year – a two hour meeting. We tell everyone what the culture is going to be like, but then we never do anything about it. Comparatively, when you work with the aquarium idea, we are just constantly checking the water, the PH balance. We are checking that everything is good and that the team is in a good place, and yeah sometimes I put people on the spot.
Bo adds, “We know that culture is a fleeting moment, and it can be exactly where you want it to be at one moment, and then literally it starts to drift. And we have a concept where we call it drift to failure. So, give me one thing that you as coaches check for to make sure everything is okay - that this is the culture we want, and the culture is like what it was yesterday.”
DEANNA & LIZZY:
I notice the girls hanging out with us at the stadium. It’s the biggest red flag when no one is hanging around and they split right away. It’s like, “what’s going on?” “what’s wrong?” What do we need to do? It’s very apparent when their hanging out and talking about their day. They come early just to feed balls to someone else who’s hitting balls or stay for a chat. I can also make a judgement about our culture by the kind of things that come across my desk.
Building on the aquarium analogy – have you ever seen Finding Nemo? If you recall the scene where Nemo gets taken from the ocean and put in the aquarium in the Dentist’s office, you’ll remember that in order to get him out the fish literally have to clog the filter themselves so that he gets emptied out and thrown back into the sea. You see that in programs too. Sometimes the players sabotage and effect the program to get certain things they want.
For me, it’s about common language and making sure that the players are speaking the same language as you – not just regurgitating what you say, but living the things that you’re saying and actively trying to be each day and holding each other accountable to the standard. This shifts everything into a positive light. You see them picking out moments where they celebrate each other for the positives.
Bo: Do you also see them holding each other accountable for standards they might not be hitting, not everything has to be called out in front of the group – they can grab a team leader, pull them aside and say, “Hey did you see that moment?” This is something you can do to help them recognize those moments where they live and speak the culture and have the same language.
I remember the turning point for us – we went away for a tournament, and we thought, ok we can win that game, so we said, “it would be great to get a draw out of the Sunday game”. We ended up winning 4-2 in this wet and rainy game. They did certain things within that match that we’d started to see in the weeks leading into the training sessions, they were starting to act and behave and speak the same language. Those behaviors paid off in the game because they were holding each other to such a high standard. They were so driven and focused on the performance that it resulted in a win.
As a coach you wander round and check in with a number of different kids all the time.
It is easy to miss things. I made a terrible, terrible mistake at the college a couple of years ago, where I didn’t realize that the gentleman I’d been coaching with for many years, wouldn’t even talk to our captain. And here I am, Mr. ‘I’m on the vibe’ and I never knew until we had a debrief, the player was just a phenomenal ballplayer, but he never came to talk to me about it and I just thought everything was cool and I missed it.
So as much as you think you’re ‘on the vibe’, you can miss it and you just can never give up trying to be in touch with people, by any means possible. You learn a lot from the guys in those touches. I mean, even in that piece, I learnt a lot. I learn a lot from the team. You learn a lot in this business. We’re in the learning business, people business, and teaching business.
Bo rounds out the conversation by saying, “Body language is a huge indicator and people, what they say, what they are talking about and what the group looks like together. These things are good indicators. I’d say the energy and the talk are good indicators of where things are standing. A mentor of mine once said, if you don't notice, you can't take action. So, it's critical that we're really, really paying attention.”
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Where to from here?
This conversation is just an excerpt of the in-depth, educational, and inspiring conversation Bo had with the coaches in our Webinar on ‘Return, Reset, Restart Your Team Culture’. If you enjoyed this, we highly recommend watching back the recording of the session where the coaches provide even more examples of tried and tested strategies and detail experiences they have had throughout their many respective years of coaching. If you would like to learn more, access the webinar recording here.
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