Culture Shock

Culture Shock

By Kate Leavell  Nov 2016

I remember vividly taking my first high school head coaching job, all of the fears and insecurities about running a team were stressing me out. I look back on what I was worried about the most, now years later, and I see clearly just how much I didn’t know, that I just didn’t know.

Breaking down skills, teaching the game, making on the fly adjustments, countering the other team’s strategies and creating optimal match ups were a top priority, but a place where I felt at least partially competent or less intimidated to figure out.  My biggest worry was the administrative parts that I’d never done before.  Organizing our schedule, our practice apparel and uniforms, working around spring break, getting the fields lined correctly, having keys to the building on a Saturday when it’s locked and not setting off the alarms, having the fields set and broken down on game days and balancing a budget all the while working with a set of booster parents who didn’t know anything about me.

As I began to conquer my fears, as the admin work turned out to be not so big of a deal and the team was winning and learning at an incredible rate, I felt as though I had figured it all out. I loved my players, loved coaching, and we were moving ahead and growing in skill and number like no one had anticipated.

The funny thing about hindsight is that you recognize the signs later that at the time were so clearly right in front of you.  My culture was rotting, I didn’t see it. It was rotting out of sight, behind closed doors, away from my attention, and slow enough that it took a year or two before it was staring me in the face.

Ask me now what my focus is with my teams, what my most important key to success is, what I should have feared from the beginning rather than the details, the admin, the fields, and I will say culture.  A team can win and be organized in every way but come crashing down because the culture is left to form itself.  Everything trickles down from culture; the admin, the plans, the strategy, the players, all follow the direction of what philosophy is or isn’t built for that program to stand on.

I reached a point in coaching where finally I knew exactly what I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to build a culture, how to keep drama, hurt feelings, miscommunication, confusion, rumors, and pot stirrers from destroying a team. I knew how to build a team but I didn’t know how to maintain it without it imploding.  As GI Joe says, knowing is HALF the battle.  It wasn’t until I opened a copy of Jon Gordon’s bestseller The Energy Bus early that year that I fully understood the concept of driving my team’s culture and empowering my players to do the same.  It wasn’t until I understood the concept of energy vampires, team buy-in, filling space with positivity to keep negativity from creeping in. I was missing the very simple but team and life changing concept that as soon as a team of people buy into the value of working together for a greater purpose, a change can occur. That we could start our season already united instead of trying to build unity with wins or reacting to losses.

I never coached the same way again. I never let culture be a byproduct of players emotions or a reaction to misunderstandings; situational in any way, never again.  I spent the next couple of years fine tuning my culture-building and figuring out the best way to build a team’s and parents’ buy in – it’s how I created the concept of Meeting in the Middle for the best program experience.

Jon Gordon and Mike Smith have laid out in detail just how to direct culture so that any kind of team, any group of people under leadership, can thrive beyond the X’s and O’s. They can thrive beyond the immediate goal of accomplishing a specified task, because they believe in a bigger concept – the absolute success of and collaboration with EACH OTHER.

You Win In The Locker Room First gave me a road map to what I was trying to trial and error on my own so that I could drive my culture more efficiently and more effectively.

How do I know it’s working? That my teams are stronger and unified because I changed my approach? I know because they get better in the second half no matter how tough the first half is – they actually strengthen each other when things get tough instead of falling apart.  I know because we can have open conversations without defensiveness when we don’t immediately see eye to eye leading to greater collaboration.  I know because more players come back for the experience of being a part of the team over their love of the sport. I know because the Energy Vampires are too uncomfortable to stay. Culture will never take a back seat again, it’s going to be up front, shot gun, right next to us drivers deciding exactly where we will take it.



Kate is a Jon Gordon Companies Speaker, a Master National Coaches’ Education and Positive Coaching Alliance Trainer with a passion for leading and breeding success through positive culture, structure, and accountability.  Her writing on the movement to improve our youth sports culture, effective coaching tactics, and positive leadership has been featured in a variety of national publications.  Kate has helped develop winning teams in every place she has lived and specializes in team-building, effective communication, and program growth. Read more by Kate Leavell at www.kateleavell.com, about Jon Gordon at www.jongordon.com

Submit a speaking, training, or workshop request at www.kateleavell.com/speaking or by emailing directly kateleavell@gmail.com

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