I had an opportunity to speak to the Seton Hall baseball team about their team culture.
I love this topic because culture is like the wind or love. You can’t see it, you can’t hold it, but you can most certainly feel it. It’s there, all the time. And make no mistake, it is either helping your cause or hurting it.
I said culture is both everything and nothing. It’s “everything” because so many ingredients go into it - what players and coaches do, what they say, where and when do they spend time with each other, and how they respond to adversity.
It’s “nothing” because you can’t go down the street and just buy your team some more culture. You can’t just say we’re going to recruit some culture this year.
We talked about the powerful difference between coach-led teams and player-led teams. Coach-led teams can be good...even very good, but ask any coach and they will tell you that player-led teams can be great. Some become legendary.
So what can coaches and players do to create a championship culture?
First, get crystal clear about what your team values are. For example, when I first asked the Seton Hall baseball team what their values were, the very first answer was “hustle.”
That should be no surprise given that the legendary former head coach Coach Sheppard made the phrase “never lose your hustle” synonymous with the program. His son, the current head coach, continues that tradition today. The phrase is found in his email signoff, it’s a frequent hashtag on their social media posts, and you can see it displayed in the lockerroom and heard it discussed amongst the players.
I recommend coaches write down what they want their program to be known for - It is best to come up with no more than 3-5 values. Less is better in my opinion. A good priming question to ask is, “my program wouldn’t be my program if not for what?” “What makes our program unique and unlike any other?”
Next, without letting your players know about your list, ask THEM to write down the 3-5 values that represent the program. You might be pleasantly surprised that there is a lot of overlap, but chances are there will be some disparities. That let’s you know what you need to focus on and what your strategic communications need to focus on.
Second, get crystal clear about what behaviors help model and reinforce those values.
For example, assuming the Seton Hall baseball team wants the mantra of “never lose your hustle” to be a cornerstone value of their program, they should determine how that value is manifested in specific, observable behaviors.
In this case, these behaviors may include:
1. We run EVERYTHING out, no matter what.
2. We ALWAYS dive back into first base.
3. We sprint on and off the field.
4. We finish our last conditioning sprint as fast as the first sprint.
It is best to create agreement on these behaviors as a team so players get buy-in to the process and feel like they “own” the values and the behaviors as much as the coaching staff.
By making these behaviors explicit and known, players are then equipped to hold each other accountable.
3. Third, reinforce these values in word, deed, and symbolism.
Once the team is crystal clear on their values and what behaviors match those values, it’s time to continuously reinforce them through multiple channels.
Talk about your values. When players demonstrate those values in their actions, make a point to celebrate those moments and showcase them to the team. You may want to occasionally ask players to share examples of when their teammates were living those values in practices or games the previous week.
Nobody responds very well to boring lists. People respond to stories. Great stories then become fables and legends.
Part of what creates these fables are your team’s symbols. Do you want “work ethic” to be one of your team’s values? Then have that plastered in places where the team can see that phrase. Creat a “lunch pail” award and have the deserving player carry an actual lunch pail to practices and games. The more obscure or awkward the better. When outsiders ask them “what is that” it creates additional opportunities for players to talk about that value and what they did to deserve that award.
4. Fourth, never stop tending your garden.
Culture is a living thing. It’s not static. You don’t just “install” a culture and then expect it to ride on autopilot.
I like to think of culture like a garden. You have to continuously tend to it. You need to water, feed, and nurture it. You also have to occasionally remove some weeds that will inevitably sprout up.
Always look for opportunities to live your values. Never pass up an opportunity to showcase them with your team.
In sum, be purposeful about what kind of culture you want. Understand what values you want your culture to represent, and identify those specific, observable behaviors that match those values. Live those values. Talk about those values. Celebrate when you “catch” players and coaches behaving in ways that support those values. And continuously tend to your garden. Repeat every year.