When I realized my team culture was failing, I knew I had to do something fast. It wasn’t just a matter of players being unhappy or some drama here and there, our game performance was suffering and it had nothing to do with IQ, conditioning, or knowledge. It was a lack of effort, heart, and mission.
My first reaction was the most common one. I told them they needed to want it more, because it felt like I wanted the win more than they did. It felt like I was dragging them to the playoffs, even sometimes dragging them to the end of the game. The other teams seemed to want it more, we lacked hustle and grit. It seemed as though honoring their commitment to the team was not a priority in their lives. Excuses, distractions, and blame were starting to become a daily battle.
I was already doing fun things with the team such as team building games, some activities outside of practice, and we joked around a fair amount. I thought that was building a positive culture. But it wasn’t working. Clearly it was their fault, I was doing my part. So I did what most coaches do; I started adding more boundaries to try to create the team I wanted. I added rules, expectations, and clear consequences. I structured the crap out of everything, leaving no room for anything but what we needed in order to succeed.
IF you are late to practice we will run. IF you don’t participate in our Saturday activity you will sit the first half. IF you don’t put out 100% effort I will replace your starting role. I will not tolerate X,Y and Z anymore. “If you..then you” statements. It’s structure, right? Its teaching them accountability. It’s making a boundary and creating the culture we so thoughtfully designed, right?
So that’s what I did. I created lines, boundaries, and structure. The more structure I created, the worse our culture became. If I could have run out onto the field and shouted “WHY!?” at the top of my lungs without being a crazy person, I would have done it. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get a handle on this beast. Was I just cursed with a difficult team?
I could have saved myself a lot of misery had I just known this one thing.
Culture isn’t about boundaries, scripting, or clarifying consequences. Structure is important, but that’s not culture.
Culture is about CONNECTION.
The more you draw that line, create that boundary, create “if..then” statements, the more you sever the very connections you need, the more toxic the culture becomes. You’re not building boundaries, you’re building walls.
I needed to dismantle the walls, not create more of them. I had been so focused on demonstrating my authority and requiring compliance that I had pushed my players farther and farther away from me. You’ve probably heard the old reliable advice to start off strict and then get nicer so they don’t run all over you. But, that doesn’t keep them from running all over you, it keeps them from feeling able to approach you, be honest with you, or feel connected. Players who feel disconnected from their coaches will lack trust, belief, buy-in, compliance, and often will put up their own walls in defense. Is that the culture you want to be building?
Let’s get this dialed in, because it’s really important, very misunderstood – and I was one of the ones given bad advice that had to learn this the hard way- which means my players had to suffer along with me.
Being nice, caring, and open with your players isn’t going to cause a sudden loss of leadership over your team or some wild rebellion. That sort of disrespect for a coach is not caused by being nice, that’s due to a coach having a lack of conviction, clear mission and purpose. A leader is not created out of fear or elevation, but by being a light on a path that draws others to follow, and then ALLOWING THEM TO CONNECT with that light.
Don’t create more walls, build connections and create a culture that drives greatness and teaches champions.