Culture has been a hot buzzword in team sports for a while now, so there is plenty to read on the topic. I’m a big believer in culture and the impact the every day environment can have on individual and team behavior. When I became a head coach at Rhode Island College in 2005 I went about establishing a culture, as most first-year head coaches do, and we had a lot of success.
It probably took a full year to establish our culture, but our culture was really what allowed us to sustain success. It was a great combination of talent, mentality and fit between myself, the school and the players who were already in the program. There was alignment on what the program should look like and how we should go about our business every day, and our players completely bought in. I said it at the time and I still say it today – I don’t think I’ll ever be a part of a culture as tight as the one we had at Rhode Island College again. It was something special.
The most important thing about that championship culture, however, is something I think we often forget about as coaches. The culture we build wasn’t my culture, it was my players’ culture. Leadership can be very tricky, because ultimately we are responsible for what happens, yet we to get the most out of our people we have to give control to them. As the leader it’s easy to think of the culture as something that is yours, not theirs. The most important aspect of our championship culture at Rhode Island College was that it became theirs, it wasn’t mine.
What I did was help the players establish some standards and set some guidelines for our behavior. And certainly in the beginning, mine was the dominant voice as we were trying to get things established. But as you evolve, and as your players truly buy-in, they are the ones who carry the culture every day. It doesn’t have to come from your mouth. They know what is expected of them, they believe in it, and they carry it out. The culture grows under their watch, not yours. They set the standards and they handle the accountability when those standards aren’t met.
You hear it said often that the best teams are led by the players, not the coaches. I’m not sure I completely agree with that. We often use leadership conveniently, saying we have great leadership when things are going well and blaming our lack of leadership when they aren’t. The leadership comes from you as the head coach and goes through your players, and hopefully over time you have to be less and less active in that regard. But culture and leadership are two different things. Certainly you need leadership on your team for your kids to carry the culture, but culture is more about behavior and less about what is said. The leadership you provide helps establish the culture in the minds of the players, but then they carry it out without thinking about it. It becomes who they are and what they are about.
When I became the head coach at Maine, I went about establishing our culture the same way. I knew it would take longer given the lack of talent in the program at the time. We had good kids, but most of them weren’t used to the work ethic or commitment necessary to be great. As I look back, I realize our culture was mine for way too long. I was the one carrying it for the first 3 years, trying to get our guys to understand what it took to be successful. It’s certainly not easy when you aren’t having success to get the belief you need, but I could have done a better job. I had too much control of the culture from the beginning, and I didn’t give the players enough room to take a hold of it. It wasn’t until our fourth year when I started to give up control that we really started to establish and believe in our culture.
To make the culture theirs you have to be confident enough to step out of the way. You can’t control everything or make every decision. You have to trust the guidelines you put in place, and let the players carry out the behavior. Sure, you’ll have to step in at times to make a point or to change behavior. But over time your players will take on that responsibility and those who don’t fit will find their way out of the program.
Culture is crucial, and establishing a great culture can lead to sustained success. But don’t just create a culture and ask your guys to fall in line. If you really want to achieve at a high level, make the culture theirs. Give the control and let them hold each other accountable to standards they believe in. The most effective culture you can have is one owned by your players.