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Key Team Culture Moments

by John Sandahl

"The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet." 
     — Father Theodore Hesburgh

If team culture is simply a set commonly held attitudes and beliefs about a team, then the reason for wanting to encourage helpful culture is straightforward: it helps performance. 

As evidence, here’s an example of a "team culture" situation that you may have seen or been a party to. Primary receiver catches an underneath pass, turns to see his partner going deep and rips a pass deep. His teammate, though a good receiver with a decently timed cut, is both double covered and running into the wind, so the decision is questionable at best. Despite the poor choice of throw, his teammate plucks it from the heap and scores a point for his team. How the thrower (who is a team captain and leader both on the field and off) responds to this situation is a key team culture moment.

Many throwers in this situation would walk to the sidelines and congratulate themselves, or certainly accept congrats from their teammates – thus hiding their mistake – and thereby encouraging a team culture of questionable decisions. 

Others might shrug their shoulders and walk away thinking, "Well that was dumb, but at least it didn’t cost us. I’ll be sure to ‘tell on myself’ by pointing this out in the huddle post game or tomorrow night on the drive home so that people know that’s not what we want." Whether or not this conversation happens and how soon will directly affect the message that newer players take from this moment. 

But what if the thrower sprinted towards his teammate, pointing at him as if to say, ‘Great catch,’ while shouting to his high-fiving teammates on the sidelines, "I will play better!" It’s not hard to imagine that this radical way of reacting could have an enormously positive impact on newer players, given the proper context and team culture ahead of time. The message here is potentially so much stronger. Imagine the impact on newer players: "That guy, (already a vocal and trusted leader), is willing to walk the talk. He just called himself out when he didn’t have to." 

This is not an imaginary situation – I’ve seen it happen at Club Open Nationals. What this thrower knew was that his vision for the team’s play was different than the play he’d just made. He took that opportunity to reassure his teammates that he wasn’t going to let the successful outcome of this play affect his vision for how the team continued to play. It was a small gesture, and though I can’t speak to the effectiveness of this comment in the moment, I know that this comment stood in stark contrast to how some of my teammates at the time would have handled the same situation, and that was telling about our own team culture. It also shows us what it means to "practice" ownership over the team culture as a player. 

Using your imagination, it’s not hard to come up with a dozen other such situations in or out of games. For example, your team is facing universe point after losing the last three close games; a person on your team makes a bad call; players complain about playing time after a close game, etc. In the end there is an ethical, inclusive way to handle all of these situations, and the teams that do the best at handling them will have the most success in the long run. The trouble is, how to do you identify what these common successful beliefs are, and make them common if they’re not? 

Simply put, in a democratic/player run sport like ultimate, you talk about it. In general, the more people you can get involved in this conversation, the better. Teams who buy into a collective vision of hard work will be most successful on the field, and the same is true of team culture. In fact, one should feed the other. 

What does that conversation look like? Think of the above, or your own more recent examples, and ask your teammates: how/who do you want to be when we’re faced with this stuff? It can really be as simple as that. What is the value(s) that are important to all of us as we put together this team? Other examples would be: How do captains need to be when we’re in tight game situations? What makes us most successful as a team? How about as individuals? What does it take to ensure that we’re following through on this stuff? 

Then – and this is the trick – you need leadership players that are willing to live out those beliefs and you need people to keep calling attention to them ("I will do better!"). It’s called accountability in the business world, and the same is true here. 
How do you encourage all this outside of merely telling on yourself? 

Some ideas:

  • Consider having a "team chemistry" captain or group of people who has an intuitive sense of the harmony of the team (or lack thereof), he/they can be in charge of hearing concerns from players that need to be addressed. Not all of us are equally adept at handling these kinds of people issues. Finding the right person/people can mean the difference between resonance or dissonance.
  • Encourage dialogue on the team values throughout the season, not just at the beginning. Though this is especially important during and after the ‘tough spots’ that occur throughout a tournament or game, scheduling regular conversations like this can ensure that these talks happen. Just as you must establish team values and beliefs before the troubled moments, you must also continue to check in when those beliefs are challenged.

    For example:
    • We are a team that plays hard to the final point – how did we do this game? I feel like we didn’t really follow through as we’d all like. What kept us from achieving here?
    • We support each other through the game, and I didn’t feel supported when I made that mistake. What do we have to do to get better?
  • Consider spending time outside of scheduled team time to allow semi-organic conversations to happen around team growth in a particular area. This can have the danger of feeling forced, but when done right can really add to the collectivity and buy-in of teammates.
  • Address moments that are conflicting with team values as soon as possible, and even at the expense of short term success. When you drop an issue or let it linger because you’re focusing on the game, you also run the risk of losing both your positive team culture AND the game.
  • Find a way to address the "bad apples" early and often. As captains and coaches, we’re often treading the line between talented but worth/not worth the trouble. What is true is that your team over the course of a season can’t survive more than a couple prima donnas. All-star teams that are together for even less time generally can’t survive with any.
  • Finding ways to encourage cross-clique pollination is key to building relationships, whether the roster is school based and in flux, or club based and solid. Being a little forced here can pay huge dividends later. Having teams within teams, buddies, intra-team cross-workouts, etc. can be a great way to make this happen. Never doubt the value of a little "meaningless" competition to bring people together.
  • As ultimate is a team sport, an essential step to achieving team chemistry is that everyone knows and values their role in the team’s success. If individuals feel valued and have a sense of purpose, they will be more likely to support the goals of the team, and thus create a healthy team culture.

Obviously every team will be different, and so the specifics of team culture can’t be reduced to a few simple steps. With a bit of concentrated effort and team leaders’ committed to a common vision, a positive, successful team culture should be attainable. Keeping it is the trick and the challenge of long term success. 

(Note from author: thanks to Sarah Weeks for Inspirational and editorial assistance.) 


huddle issue032

Thu March 31st, 2011

Us vs. Them
by Tully Beatty

Find Your Spirit Animal
by Tyler Kinley

by John Korber

Nurture What You Like, Overcome What You Don't
by Peri Kurshan

Team Identity
by Ali Lenon

Self-Sustaining Team Culture
by Matt Mackey

Key Team Culture Moments
by John Sandahl

Work Together
by Charlie Reznikoff

It Will Change Every Season
by Miranda Roth




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