The Huddle, Issue #32: Identifying and Nuturing Your Team Culture

Posted: March 31, 2011 11:57 PM

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Identifying and Nuturing Your Team Culture

Thursday, March 31st, 2011


Huddle Issue 32     

"Successful teams, sometimes by accident, but more often by design, share amongst their members a common set of values, attitudes and goals. These characteristics define the identity of a given team, and ultimately create the culture of that team." -- John Korber

"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." -- John Sandahl

"The most important thing to realize about your team’s culture is that it will change every season." -- Miranda Roth


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Issue #32: Comments/Discussion Thread


  • Us vs. Them
    ArticleBlock Beatty

    • In 2001 the WUFF Warriors defeated FBI from Portland, Oregon 11-6 at Chicago Tune Up. That win was probably the biggest win for a Wilmington club team since the Slickers defeated NY Graffiti at Worlds in 1993 [one could argue that the victory over Philly in the regional final in ’95 was larger, but I’ll take ‘93]. Later that weekend the Warriors defeated Ring of Fire 11-10; the first win over Ring for a Wilmington team since 1996 [though in ’96 they called themselves En Fuego I believe]. A week a later at Sectionals the Warriors defeated Ring again, this time 17-14 in a game that was never close: Two wins vs. Ring in a week’s time and the first North Carolina Sectional championship for a Wilmington based team since 1996, the Us Against Them mentality was alive and well and producing wins. Obviously, no one embodied the culture of Us against Them better or more passionately than Warrior founder and leader Mike Gerics. Whether it was the black socks, red shorts and black shirts; the Warrior flag; the team name; or the two catch phrases: Battle, and WTMB; the team’s identity started and ended with Gerics. He was the epitome of Walk It Like You Talk It.

      Us against Them was nothing new for a Wilmington team. Before the Warriors, the Slickers did it, and before the Slickers arrived on the scene the UNC-W Seamen cultivated it better than anyone around. For them it wasn't only an Us Against Them swagger; the identity was also largely what those of us around at the time liked to call being Dreader than Dread; it meant being always in the constant huddle. That sense of being was even with the Warriors years later who in August 2002 rode 13 deep in a van to compete at Purchase Cup: The Warrior leader behind the wheel the entire drive, bringing us down the West Side Highway at dawn and in awe of everything he had never seen.

      The common thread among the three teams listed above was without question an Us Against Them culture. While that works for a while, it can get to be incredibly exhausting and a degree of arrested-development sets in. While the Seamen won at title in 1993, they should have won four straight. In a team life-span that lasted from 1992-1996, the Port City Slickers’ biggest victories were in their first two years: the backdoor game to nationals over Gimme Five Bucks in 1992, and the victory over NY Graffiti at club worlds in 1993. In the meantime they beat everyone they were supposed to beat, didn’t beat anyone seeded above them and chose to jump up and down screaming Swear Allegiance than get any better. In 1996 the Slickers went into nationals in Plano, Tx seeded 3rd out of 12 teams, won one game and had essentially imploded by the end of the weekend. In the estimation of the then captain Ed Wagenseller, the implosion was the result of a group of individuals who were not willing to sacrifice their own personal agenda for the common good of the team. This is where youth and immaturity came to a head; everything from play time to wanting to stay away from the team with family and friends at nationals instead of the team hotel. This divisive behavior led to the ultimate downfall of one of the most athletic and mentally unstable teams to have ever graced the pith in the mid 1990’s. And that individual decision to stay away from the team hotel took us out of our constant huddle and thus set things spinning in the wrong direction. Steering your team in a unified direction doesn’t end at practice, or once you make nationals. Part of your identity is how you go about business once you’re there; this is why Furious George and Fury have always intrigued me.

      By the time the Gerics led Warriors arrived on the scene and began attending tournaments like Chop Tank and Tune Up and moving away from tournaments like Toss in the Moss, the Slicker debacle from ’96 was not the too distant pass. While you arrived at Midway on Friday, your rep had arrived on Wednesday. At the time, we didn’t hesitate identifying this and we thrived in it. However as mentioned above, it’s exhausting, especially for players not use to the long haul of the open season; and what becomes most exhausting is the doubt: Are we good enough, am I good enough? A late lead over Ring in the semis at regionals in ’01, quickly diminished and we found ourselves playing up from the bottom for the 2nd and 3rd bids. Later that season at nationals, the Warriors upset Florida Combo in the first game, and had to disc to win on the upwind goal line versus New York Ultimate. The next morning we gained short-term revenge on a less than interested Ring, and in a chance to make pre-quarters the next round versus Madison, the dogs were called off and the twelve packs were brought out. What else better than alcohol to assuage self-doubt? When you’re not expected to do much, no one in turn is disappointed.

      Identifying your team’s culture can be tricky and in large part you can mold around your teams long term and short term goals. Of course team doesn’t happen over night; you don’t go from a collection of individuals at practice 1 to a team by practice 2; you need time to embrace the peaks and valleys as a group. More often than not, a team’s short term and long term goals – setting themselves up for the big let down – can get in the way of [finding] their identity/culture. Returning to Ring in 2007 after year’s hiatus, we stripped down the objective from winning it all, to stopping the other guy from winning it all. It wasn’t a popular change of direction and not everyone bought in, but emphatically explaining your goal is to win nationals can lead to quick finger pointing when that goal isn’t accomplished and you begin to wonder who your team really is. Players develop an overblown sense of what they bring to the table and it rears its ugly when they come up short; but if your team identity is firmly in place, there’ll be no need for such theatrics when the chips fall the other way. A lot can be said for those teams who simply play the game in front of them, and then suddenly, there they are. Having your team put down their own agenda and buy into what you define as your system can be a delicate step, but with strong leadership and clear understanding of what your team is about, that system slowly becomes the abiding culture.

      Who are we and who is our competition: In 2010, the UNC-W Seamen made a collective effort to lose the “vs. Them” and focus on the “Us”. We left the effort to sustain the Us Against Them mentality to our opponents and worked on vaccinating ourselves against 2nd tier teams and complacency. We already knew how we would be perceived and received, so we decided to let them waste their energy on it. In turn, we took that inward focus to create a Small Axe mentality; very similar to what it was prior to College Nationals in 1990. As the post-season arrived, we put up wins against UNC; UVA; UGA; Illinois, Iowa; Harvard*, and Colorado. Had we not made the effort to take the chip off our shoulder yet keep the underdog mentality, it’s safe to say many of the wins vs. the larger state school would not have happened. And adding to that, much of our re-focused identity had to do with how those teams faired after they played us. After nationals we were 37-10. 18 of the teams we played went on to lose their next game. The tune was an old rebel one.

      Teams I’m intrigued by:
      New York, New York; Boston Dog: Furious George; Seattle Sockeye; Riot; Fury; CUT; Wisconsin Hodags; Wisconsin Belladonna; Colorado Mamabird; Chad Larson; Middlebury; Stanford Superfly; Florida Ultimate; Santa Barbra Condors; UCSB Black Tide; UCSC Banana Slugs; UNC-W Seaweed; UCSB Burning Skirts; Oregon Fugue; UNC Pleadeis.
  • Find Your Spirit Animal
    ArticleBlock Kinley

    • I like to imagine a team's culture as its spirit animal.

      Furious would be a rabid dog: Fierce, foaming at the mouth, and angry.

      Revolver would be a cobra: Patient, calculating, and deadly.

      Chain is like a big gorilla: Powerful, intimidating, and brutish.

      Sockeye is like a monkey: Playful, goofy, throwing its own feces, yet strong.

      Okay, Tyler. What in the hell are you talking about.

      Well, think about it this way. Imagine if the monkey tried to be the rabid dog. Instead of being goofy, he foamed at the mouth, acted incredibly fierce, and was super aggressive... well, he would get killed. It wouldn't work. It's simply not him.

      Similarly, Sockeye did best last year when we were goofy, played with smiles and positivity, and failed when we got angry at each other or our opponents. On the contrary, Furious was best when they were angry and fierce, thriving in that team culture.

      So, how do you recognize what your spirit animal is? Well, reflect on your season thus far, as well as last season. Remember the games you won? What would you characterize the vibe as? What about when you lost? Nurture, then, the characteristics and habits of your successful moments.

      But what does nurture mean in practice, and how? I like to use warmups/1st drills before practices and games as a means to set the tone. On Sockeye, where the joy of playing was valued over extreme intensity, we started practices and games with small-sided games that everyone enjoyed. It set a tone of enjoyable competition. On Furious, I'd instead have a serious huddle talk begin the day with high expectations, goals, and a series of drills where winning was rewarded and losing was punished.

      Finally, every culture has strengths and weaknesses. The monkey lacks the intensity of the rabid dog, the cobra lacks the playfulness of the monkey, the gorilla lacks the cunning of the snake. Your goal is not to find the perfect spirit animal and apply it to your team-- there isn't one, and you can't be something you're not. Your goal is to recognize that one that creates the most success for your team, and nurture and engrain those habits.
  • [kuhl-cher]
    ArticleBlock Korber

    • Culture [kuhl-cher] -noun: the attitudes and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization.

      Successful teams, sometimes by accident, but more often by design, share amongst their members a common set of values, attitudes and goals. These characteristics define the identity of a given team, and ultimately create the culture of that team.

      Everything about the actions of the team is a function of these characteristics, right down to the definition of success itself. A team that values equal playing time for all players could consider a tournament without winning a game a successful one…while clearly plenty of other teams would not. A team’s culture helps define where it wants to go and how it wants to get there. Core to the success of any team is an agreement, unspoken, implied, or in writing, between its members on these things. Leading a group of people who do not share a minimum of them in common is both incredibly difficult and incredibly stressful.

      I believe that a team’s leadership has a responsibility to lead the team in a direction consistent with its culture. In some cases (like some youth sports or the business world), it can be appropriate for leadership to impose values, attitudes and goals onto the members of the team. In cases where the leaders function more as peers (as is common on many ultimate teams), the leaders only have a limited ability to influence the team’s culture.

      Captains can be highly effective leading a team where it wants go, but should be cautious about trying to lead a team somewhere else. If your team of sheep are happy being sheep, you probably will not have much success trying to make them into wolves. It takes a tremendous amount of poise and character for a captain to lead a team somewhere away from his or her own goals, but our obligations as a leaders are to lead our teams where they want to go…or to let someone else do it.

      Recently, I have led two very different ultimate teams. The first played most recently at the USAU Club Championships and was formed through careful recruiting and selection. Its members shared values and goals from day one. The other played indoors in a local recreational league and was formed through a random draft. Its members had little in common other than living in the same general area and looking for a good time on the field one night each week.

      As expected, the teams differed greatly in many ways. One team consisted of mature players with polished skills and refined personal drive. The other had several players who had never heard of a stall count, could not throw a forehand, and had never heard of the USAU.

      My leadership of these two teams varied as greatly as their makeups, but one constant persisted. I worked as hard as I could to deliver an ultimate experience consistent with the expectations, values and attitudes of my teammates. On the one hand, this included track workouts, sophisticated defensive schemes and goals for success at Nationals. On the other, teaching basic rules, the shirt colors which could be considered ‘dark’ and the importance of stretching were more appropriate.

      While the cultures of the teams clearly varied, my responsibilities as a leader remained unchanged: lead the team to the place that it wants to go using means consistent with its culture. My recreational league teammates did not want to hear “Just work harder!” any more than my club teammates wanted to hear “Well, at least we are all having a fun time!”

      A team’s culture is central to its existence, identity and success.

      If you already have a team to lead, it is important to understand the value and goals of your teammates. For example, what would a majority of them consider a successful season? Going undefeated? Sharing playing time equally? How do they want to achieve this success? Holding shorter practices? Running more track workouts? Partying harder together more often?

      If you are starting a new team, you have some flexibility to recruit players who share your values and goals. Make your values clear before and during tryouts and encourage people who share your values to come out. In the end, identifying (and leading in a manner consistent with) your team’s culture will have a significant effect on your effectiveness as a leader.
  • Nurture What You Like, Overcome What You Don't
    ArticleBlock Kurshan

    • Team culture can often be overlooked as an important contributor to your team’s success, both in the short and long term. The culture of your team determines what types of players will be attracted to the team, will enjoy playing on your team, and will stick around season after season. There is no one “right” team culture, and it can be defined as much from the actions of a single individual (founder, strong personality, etc) as shaped over time by the collective actions and personalities of the group. Once your team is known as having a particular team culture though, it is very hard to overcome that perception, even once the reality has changed. So it is worthwhile identifying your team culture (real or perceived!), nurturing what you like, and trying to overcome what you don’t like.

      Many aspects of team culture are neither positive nor negative, but depend on individual preferences. Some players want to play on a team that’s known for being hard-working and disciplined, others prefer to be involved with a team that prioritizes having fun and giving people freedom to expand their personal game. Some players want to win above all else; others want most of all to play with people they like. Some people like playing on a team where direction comes clearly and succinctly from above, others prefer a team where there is room for more people to be involved in decision-making. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle on all of these, but it’s worth figuring out where on the spectrum the preferences of the team as a whole lie. It’s a good exercise to do with your team at the beginning of each season- determine not only what your team’s goals are for that season, but what the team’s priorities are in terms of team culture. Sometimes this type of conversation will highlight the fact that the team’s goals and team culture priorities are not aligned!

      Once you’ve identified what you want your team culture to be, incorporate elements of it into your practices and communications. Make sure to explain why things are being done a certain way (e.g. sprints for turnovers, or taking a weekend off so people can go play at a fun coed tournament) in terms of what you’ve collectively decided is the team’s culture. Try to ensure that big team decisions (schedule, type of offense, etc) are made with fostering the team’s culture in mind.

      For many of us, playing Ultimate is such an important part of our lives that we can forget that when it comes down to it, we’re doing this for fun! It’s worthwhile then to try to make sure that our team’s culture reflects what we as individuals value most about the game.
  • Team Identity
    ArticleBlock Lenon

    • Why have some teams (in both college and club) been around for years while others fade in and out of existence, emerging with new names and members every year? What seems to be true is that teams with strong identities have more fun, are more dedicated, stick around longer and play better. The teams that don’t will fight, argue and fade away. What do you think about as a leader and team member of a team struggling to exist? What does it take to build a strong team identity. What are the team building things that you can control and what is out of your control?

      Finding people who like to play together, who want to put in the time it takes to run and be a part of a team, and who are equally obsessed with a sport that is still on the fringes of popular athletics, is the first and probably the most important element of starting a team. While it takes a critical mass of these efforts and emotions from people, we have to realize that as individuals these element are mostly out of our control. If they are not there then it may not be worth spending time trying to wrangle them together. If you have these elements, then the following are some things that you can control as a decision maker.

      Be Inclusive:
      Even if you have a strong returning team it is important to be inclusive, especially in the preseason. Make an effort to make new members feel welcome, show them that it has the potential to be their team as well. If you treat tryouts like a hazing to get into an exclusive club, in a couple years you will not have a team. Small things like learning names and greeting people during tryouts goes a long way to making people stick around.

      Be Visible:
      One amazing thing about a team is that you have twenty members at your disposal that you can use to make a statement. The opportunity to design something for that many people to wear or do all at the same time does not come along in everyday life. If you want everyone wearing bright green sweatshirts with a giant panther wrestling a boa constrictor printed on the back… make it happen. If you want to find a company that will sew dragon wings onto the shoulders of all your jerseys and print them like they have scales, do it. Even if you don’t go over the top, team gear makes you visible and interesting. Especially on college campuses your uniforms and identity will generate excitement and recruit new players. Take advantage of the opportunity, do something different, do something fun and remember that people will associate your team with your colors, logo and style.

      Have a United Front:
      Strong teams have strong leadership. If you have a group of captains, or a core of decision makers, it is important that your leadership at least seem like they are making decisions together. Even if they fight and bicker during meetings, when they present to the team put up a united front. If you have an issue with a co-captain don’t interrupt them as they run a drill and tell them what you think they are doing wrong. Wait for an appropriate time to bring it up and address the issue. This may seem like a straightforward thing but I can’t count the times in college where captains disagreeing in front of players has brought team moral way down. Being together as captains boosts team confidence and confident teams play better.

      Trial By Fire:
      People bond and build trust by going through things together. Sign up for some fun tournaments where you can be easy going and then make sure you sign up for tournaments where there will be teams that challenge you. Fly to tournaments if you have to but also go to some that take a long drive. Some of my favorite team moments have happened in a van driving ten hours to California for tournaments. Somewhere around southern Oregon there is a tipping point. Crazy things start happening and you have to become closer.

      Ride the Ups and Downs:
      Realize that high performing groups take time to form. Having realistic expectations of your team is important for its growth. There is a progression that any group which is building will go through. There is a forming period where everyone is figuring out what it is like to be a part of the group. There is usually a rough period where people fight and disagree (this stage is as important as any of the others because you work out some of you most important values during the storm). Sometimes the rough period breaks groups apart but the ones that emerge are stronger. Hopefully you then reach a stage where everyone is performing well and together. Just knowing that groups go through ups and downs can help set good goals and expectations for your team.

      Building a team can be hard. Knowing what you can and can’t control make it easier as a leader. Doing it with friends and like-minded people can make it really fun. I hope this advice helps and that next year there are more strong teams out there than the last.
  • Self-Sustaining Team Culture
    ArticleBlock Mackey

    • A former captain and then-coach of mine offered only this advice when I described to him the multitude of ideas and plans we rising seniors at Dartmouth had for team leadership and culture in the coming season: It’s always harder than you think.

      This message is worth keeping in mind for anyone seeking to engineer or change something as amorphous yet integral as one’s team culture - it’s all too easy to get caught up in the energy and excitement of the season and neglect the grand ideas and notions you have for making this season the season for you and your teammates, to say nothing of the difficulty of managing people in general.

      Of course, being difficult makes it all the more worth doing.

      Managing Personalities - Appear (and be) Open to Suggestions:
      I like to think of team culture as the sum of (at least) two potentially competing energies: that of the team leaders (they may be captains, they may be team veterans - they are the ones you traditionally look to to set the tone), and that of the vocal minority. I’ve found that these energies are typically generated by only about 20% of a roster; the other 80% are willing to go along with the pervading culture. Don’t underestimate the potency of this minority to subvert team culture, and don’t assume that they don’t exist - oftentimes they are most vocal when you aren’t listening.

      Team leaders would be well advised to actively work to cultivate the appearance (and reality) of being open to outside ideas and input from all members of the team - an insular leadership commands less respect, and therefore less influence, on team culture than an integrated one.

      Cultural Considerations:
      That said, the big questions you have to address when seeking to identify, establish, and nurture one’s team culture are:
      • What’s feasible? Is it realistic to expect a college team to have perfect attendance at practices? To work out thrice a week? To stay on-point and undistracted at practices and in tournaments? No doubt some goals for the way you want team culture to develop fall into this challenging category. Honestly assess your motivation and what you’re willing to do to reach these goals - it may be that you can only devote energy to one goal at a time, but once one aspect is established, this then builds momentum toward further progress.
      • Where do you compromise? If you cannot realistically expect perfect attendance, where’s the point you’re willing to be OK with? If you’re going to insist on a rigorous workout schedule, are you willing to permit a lower effort level at practice itself as the team adapts to a higher workload? Know where you stand on the trade-offs between reaching your goals perfectly and reaching the point of “good enough.” You will find this threshold tested at times and you may need to take the process one step at a time if your changes are especially transformative.
      • How do you continually reinforce this culture? Once you’ve achieved your goal - say, gotten team buy-in on regular workouts - how do you ensure that this is sustained over time? This is where the real challenge and art of managing people and team comes into play. Reminding your teammates of the team goals (hopefully your team as a whole has met and established some) that inspire the culture - in this case, a reminder of team on-field aspirations to inspire hard work - is often effective, as it appeals to both individual desires and to obligation to the team; social pressures are a strong force for reinforcing change.

      A Note on “Intensity”:
      Perhaps the most difficult and contentious component of team culture to establish and sustain is the team’s “persona” - what kind of energy do you bring to the field? Are you more likely to be seen with a smile, a scowl, a no-nonsense look? Unlike some qualities that make a team, there’s a wide range of individual preference here, and while some teams have the luxury of selecting for a certain personality, most teams are a mosaic of individual approaches and feels for how a given game and tournament should play out.

      It’s difficult, if not impossible, to change personalities. It is quite possible, if still difficult, to establish some baseline expectations for team conduct, whether they be implicit or explicit. Oregon Fugue’s remarkable experiment in team spirit - contesting no calls - is an exemplary example of this. I don’t doubt that some members of the team were more given to argue than others, but as the thing built and took on its own life, the personality of the Individual is subjugated by the will of the Team.

      Seek out and nurture those Team impulses, and you’ll create a team culture that self-sustains and refuses to crumble.
  • Key Team Culture Moments
    ArticleBlock 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.)
  • Work Together
    ArticleBlock Reznikoff

    • Ultimate is a sport of independent minded players—players who like to self-govern—and in ultimate a wide range of personal investment and work ethic on a given team is common. This creates a difficult situation: the headstrong leader yelling about commitment as the fun loving party-captain rolls his eyes. Forming a single team identity can be daunting. The most important step is to get everyone together doing something other than playing ultimate. Often teams try to define their identity in a team meeting. This is fine—if you want a team whose identity it is to meet and talk about your feelings, but usually these meetings highlight differences more than create unity. Instead, throw a theme party. Go disc golfing. Meet at the local burrito joint after practices. Rent a beach house rather than hotel rooms. Work out together. Twenty-plus guys in the weight room at your university’s gym? Hilarious antics occur, freshmen learn safe weight training from seniors, people get to know each other casually, and your team improves its fitness. That team time will lay the foundation of trust on which you build your identity.

      Strong teams weather disagreement. If two players who dislike each other can coexist, that highlights your team’s unity. Try pairing these two hotheads in a drill that makes them work together. You might be surprised to find how well they do when they share a goal. You may need to have the two talk out their differences. When mediating, always put your team first. Remind them that when teammates argue the team doesn’t win or have fun. But disagreement about team identity is different from refusing to participate in team identity. Some players want the benefits of being on your team (usually playing time) yet undermine team events. The more valuable the player with his cleats on, the more destructive he can be to the team energy. Established teams know that these dissenters must be cut or the team will have a frustrating season. If what he wants does not fit what your team needs, then his departure will reinforce your team identity. If your team thinks you communicated poorly with this player, then his departure will hurt your team. So when cutting such a player, make the cut about team unity.

      One cold rainy April day, the Hodags found themselves playing sloppily against an inferior opponent. Bryan Paradise, the team captain, exploded with anger, threw chairs away from the sideline, forced his teammates to stand, and yelled “now we become men!” Had Bryan tried that stunt in November, it would have backfired; had he waited till May, it would have been too late. Bryan had the social intelligence, or the luck, to challenge his team in the right way at the right time. That season the Hodags won their first championship. Every team needs a charismatic leader to articulate its identity. When you find that leader empower him to speak in your huddle. He will remind your team why they love playing ultimate.
  • It Will Change Every Season
    ArticleBlock Roth

    • The most important thing to realize about your team’s culture is that it will change every season.

      Yes, I was concerned when I first joined Riot that I might never fit into the intense, upfront grind of the kickass East Coast transplant women, but the team has changed a great deal in the past 7 years. Riot has become a weird, unique, open-nearly-to-a-fault bunch of weenies (young and old) who’d rather drink Dr. Pepper than the beer and wine of Beth Wise and Vivian Zayas. I think this attitude of being ok with change is particularly important when coaching a team.

      You need to allow your players to find their own sources of culture each season. From one year to the next, you may find yourself nurturing a completely different development of team culture based on the events in the lives of your team members. At times, you may not even agree with the development of a cultural practice (wearing eye black or skirts, swearing in your cheers or your huddle talks…) but you have to listen to your teammates/players to figure out what is working for them. If you’re lucky enough to stay with the same team long enough, you’ll recognize some themes will never change, even through the practical sways – the Small Fryz will always love each other more than anything else and Riot will always support each member in their individual pursuits even above the pursuits of the team.


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