“What do you want your team to look like today?” Blog post #3

“If dreams were thunder and lightning was desire this old house would have burnt down a long time ago.”  John Prine wrote this awesome line in the song Angel from Montgomery. I’ve had this lyric taped to the right of my work desk for almost twenty years now. Right below this is a fifteen year old post-it note that reads, “What do you want your team to look like today?”  Both of these speak to the subject of culture and are reminders for me to work on our culture daily.

After a three week break we started up practices again yesterday. Before practice I wanted to discuss our team culture and what coaching Guru Bruce Brown refers to as our core tenants. Improving our culture is one of my main ambitions this summer and something I have felt needs to be addressed. With each group that comes through it is a natural process to educate the new members of the team on the expectations we cherish and what we want our team to look like.  Creating a positive culture is as paramount as teaching good technique.

My best teams have always had a way of pulling each other into the practice room and holding each other accountable. It may be peer pressure, shared team or individual goals, social time or simply fun. At the program’s core it is the culture that has been created that influences much of its motivations. Culture is simply who we are, what we value and how we go about business. It is driven by the philosophy of the programs leaders which usually means the head coach (in high school sports). As leaders we can choose what is important to us and how that manifests itself in the team. We’ve all heard people say, “The team has taken on the personality of the coach.” In many ways that’s true. The ’86 Bears were a rough and tumble crew that definitely took on the personality of Coach Ditka. In recent years the Seattle Seahawks come across as a free spirited bunch that emulates their free spirited Head Coach, Pete Carroll. Regardless of the leadership style the head coach usually has an enormous impact on the culture of the program. That said, a team is only truly a team when it’s members share in the ownership of the core tenants and culture. If Richard Sherman has a beef with Head Coach Pete Carroll this could be a problem in the upcoming season. But since they share ownership of the team and a shared philosophy they will work their differences out and probably go on to win the Super Bowl. Just saying.

In what I call a “Conscious Program” the leaders and team members have a part in creating the culture which therefore leads to ownership. In an “Unconscious Program” the tenants are either not communicated with the team members or the teammates do not share the same values. Either way, in this situation the program unconsciously goes through the motions subservient to emotions and external influences neither owned nor chosen by the team.  An “Unconscious Program” usually does not have a solid philosophy driving it. As coaches the first thing we should do before ever heading a program is develop a clear and concise Program and Personal Philosophy.

What I Value.

My personal philosophy has always included giving even the roughest kids a safe place to fail. This has driven part of the culture in our program. I will give an athlete a second and third chance until they have become too big a burden on the team or they have proven they just can’t get it done. I’m not talking about failure on the mat I’m talking about failing to follow the tenants or expectations of the team. I have this philosophy because I was a kid who needed a second and third chance and without the sport who knows where I would have ended up. One of the functions of high school sports, (Public Schools) in my opinion, is to provide a place for success.  That one success may be the spark that lights the fire and changes the trajectory of a young life. This philosophy has to be understood in advance by the team so if and when the situation arises they know that kid who may have messed up royally is still here because we believe in second chances. Ultimately, this teaches one of our core tenants – compassion.

The Process is also integral to both my philosophy and therefore the culture I want to create.  A process focused approach (last week’s blog subject) embodies so many of the positive building blocks of the coach-athlete relationship it for me is really essential.  Our culture takes this into consideration and everything from goal setting, the vocabulary we use to how coaches and teammates handle wins and losses is subject to our process driven culture. It would be silly to leave this up to chance don’t you think?

A work in progress.

Before I met with my team yesterday I reviewed the characteristics I wanted to discuss with them. There are characteristic that are static that I truly believe are essential with every team– integrity, compassion, inclusion, work ethic, focus on the process and discipline. Then there are those characteristics that may be specific to a particular group. Because my team is young I felt that ‘mental toughness” should be a characteristic we strive to make our calling card. Ultimately, a team is a work in progress so therefore so should be the culture. We are always trying to improve our culture and instill a lofty set of characteristics. Culture is a work in progress and the core tenants are characteristics we aspire to daily. The next step in our process will be to define clearly what “mental toughness” looks like and how we can identify it. This will give the coaches and team an opportunity to identify situations where when a teammate exhibits a high level of mental toughness we can seize the teachable moment and make sure we point it out.

I have never been in the Penn State Wrestling room nor have I spent any time with their team. As a spectator and observer from afar it seems to me they have a great culture. They seem to enjoy what they do, have a positive spirit in their work and truly respect one another. At this past season’s NCAA Wrestling Tournament on Saturday before the medal matches I stood behind them in a cafe while waiting for our breakfast. I noticed a couple things. They were very considerate of others, were very humble when complimented by others, they seemed real comfortable around each other and they went out of their way to help each other. Isn’t that what great teams do? It left a mark on me and I couldn’t wait to come back and share my observations with my team.

Culture is a tangible element that can be felt, seen, heard upon spending time in your team’s environment. If you want to know a part of your teams culture walk into the locker room, sit on the bench, close your eyes and listen to the conversations. Than go into your office and ask yourself, “What do I want my team to look like today?”

Since your painting pictures in your mind I will leave you with these awesome ending lyrics of Angel from Montgomery.

“There’s flys in the kitchen I can hear’em  there buzzing.

And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today.

How the hell can a person go to work in the morning

And come home in the evening and have nothing to say?”

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