Building a Culture

In Leadership by Brock Bourgase

Creating a culture that lasts from season to season is one of the coach’s most challenging tasks. When all team members buy in, significant successes can be reached so it is worth the effort. For a culture to truly come to life, the responsibility for its development must be shared by players and coaches alike.

Give Players Ownership

When New Zealand All Blacks coach Graham Henry took over after an unsuccessful 2003 Rugby World Cup, he began by making players responsible for the team. At first, the coaching staff identified some players who were negative influences in the clubhouse and could not continue to be a part of the program but afterwards, Henry’s style involving allocating more autonomy to the team.

Players began assuming control of disciplinary proceedings. Veteran players would induct new selections into the All Blacks heritage. In fact, Henry ceased giving speeches in the locker room immediately before games because he felt that he had done all that he could and it was up to the players to perform.

When Mike Krzyzewski devised rules for the 2008 United States Olympic Basketball Team, he approached the team captains first and helped them lead a discussion about standards and rules that involved all team members. Future Hall of Famers such as LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant set the tone by emphasizing punctuality, respect and effort. When superstars like James, Bryant or Chris Paul are willing to share the ball and play defense, everyone can buy in readily. Against zone, the 2012 team was willing to skip the ball and set hammer screens to generate open looks.

The 2013 and 2014 Toronto Blue Jays teams underperformed and many blamed a fractured clubhouse. When Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson arrived in the off-season (and Troy Tulowitzki and David Price joined midseason), the veteran players began fostering a culture that promoted success, sharing the experience and inspiring other players to change their habits. The 2015 Blue Jays succeeded in situations where the previous team failed. In Game 5 of the A.L.C.S., Martin made a critical error in the top of the seventh; rather than dwell on it, he began the next inning at the plate determined to do something and focusing on the next pitch.

A culture is not something that is created unilaterally and passed on from top to bottom; it is developed as a group and everyone has a role to play in helping each other. Legendary All Blacks captain Richie McCaw helped exemplify this concept. Although he is nearing the end of his international career, throughout the recent 2015 World Cup, he commented repeatedly how the event was not about him and his legacy but helping New Zealand win another Webb Ellis Trophy.

Build on a Foundation of Selflessness

Dean Smith always prioritized the team and the program above the individual player. Players pointed to the passer to acknowledge an assist after scoring, everyone stood on the bench to applaud a teammate leaving the game and stars were substituted for selfish play, not poor play. A coach cannot easily duplicate the talent of those great North Carolina teams but they can strive to replicate the program’s ethos: “Play hard, play smart, play together.” No Tar Heel was above the rules: if a player was given a technical foul, they ran lines the next practice, if Smith received a technical, the coaching staff would run. Smith is legendary because he won while remaining true to his culture and style of play.

Selflessness is apparent during a workout. The defense is intense so that a teammate can make the most of the rep. There is little time wasted between drills because a player who goes slowly reduces what a team can accomplish. Everyone throws good passes because bad ones reduce shooting percentage and lead to turnovers. Helping a player up, fetching a loose ball, rebounding for a teammate during warm-up, giving specific feedback and giving energy are little ways that an athlete can contribute to the team as a whole.

Since five players must share the ball, basketball relies upon a certain equality and sacrifice to succeed; offenses and defenses simply will not work if an individual is out for their own numbers. Gregg Popovich does not describe plays as a way to get a specific player a shot but an opportunity for that player to create a good shot for the team. For this play, it is an isolation for Kawhi Leonard not because he is meant to force it no matter what or pull up if he can’t get to the hoop but because he is trusted to initiate the action, read the defense and find the best San Antonio player to take the shot.

Take the Long View

Henry wanted each All Black to leave the jersey in a better place than they found it. Krzyzewski was thinking not only about the 2008 Olympics but returning the United States to a position of international dominance over many years. Some teams post the players who have previously worn a particular number in the dressing room stall in order to foster pride and encourage current athletes to live up to the standards set in the past. The All Blacks have a “Team Bible” that discusses team traditions and the importance of representing New Zealand that is presented to new players. Building a culture is not meant to last a single season but it is something that will outlast every coach, player and team member.

Likewise, if the past Blue Jays season is a one-time occurrence, it would still be exciting but fall short of the meaningful change that could affect Toronto baseball for years to come. Although fans have been critical because of some playoff loses, Dwane Casey has achieved extensive success with the Toronto Raptors by focusing on player development and defensive work ethic. Although there are still bumps in the road to come, when the culture and system work, it works well.

Some of the choices to be made while building a culture – perhaps releasing a player, holding firm on a standard or raising the intensity level of a drill to challenge the team – may hurt in the short-term but success in the long-term. Building a culture means taking the time now to do things better from this moment on. It’s a process, not an outcome.

Reading List

The following books have insightful information about establishing a team culture that values character, commitment and performance under pressure.