Keys to Creating a Winning Environment

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When asked to identify a topic that I think would be most valuable for helping coaches and their athletes improve their performance, I always recommend a session on creating the right conditions for success. The coaches who are most effective at developing athletes and building winning programs are environmental engineers; they construct their programs around a few common guiding principles: Core Values, Personal Mastery, and Disciplined Focus.

Core values are the enduring standards and expectations that coaches use to lay the foundation for excellence. Core values provide a compass to help navigate the many unpredictable and challenging moments coaches encounter on the path to excellence. Whether it be the world’s most successful sports teams, companies, or schools, the best always have a clear and shared understanding of how they will need to conduct themselves to reach their goals. For example, legendary high school coach Bob Ladouceur spent decades building a record-breaking football program around the core values of faith, integrity and scholarship.

I encourage coaches to set aside time each preseason to conduct a four-step core values exercise.

1. Reflect on what they believe should be the core values for the program.

2. Ask their athletes and administrators for their thoughts on core values for the program.

3. Create a list of shared core values that reflects athletes’, administrators’, and their own views.

4. Define sample behaviors that reflect the core values.

For a vivid example of how this process works, read how Coach Mike Krzyzewski employed these four steps to create powerful core values for the 2012 Olympic champion USA Basketball Team in his book, The Gold Standard: Building a World-Class Team.

Personal mastery is defined as a self-driven passion for continuous improvement. The best coaches create growth mindset environments where athletes are not afraid to fail. Instead of playing or practicing with fear of making mistakes, athletes are encouraged to take risks and support each other when they fail. World champion volleyball coach Karch Kiraly refers to this as ‘practicing ugly’. Regular setbacks are normal and required on the path to excellence.

Unfortunately, many young athletes participate in sport environments where they are coached to fear making mistakes, leading to risk aversion, which ultimately stunts their growth. Successful coaches on the other hand constantly teach, reinforce, and reward personal mastery. Personal mastery can be taught by giving athletes input into setting training and performance goals. Personal mastery can be reinforced by scheduling a few minutes at each practice for ‘self-practice’ where athletes are allowed to work on skills they personally want to improve. A common strategy for rewarding personal mastery is the use of positive charting systems that recognize athletes for their work ethic and initiative. For example, Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer has his staff record such behaviors in his program’s leadership system and players are awarded helmet stickers.

Disciplined focus is the ability to attend to and notice things that matter most to performance excellence. One of the characteristics that most distinguishes experts from non-experts in any field is learning what to ignore. A renowned college coach who recently visited one of my classes observed that the best coaches and athletes ‘don’t major in minor things.’ This is similar to one of legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s favorite sayings, ‘Don’t equate activity with achievement.’

The most common way successful coaches practice disciplined focus, and help their athletes learn disciplined focus, is by designing efficient high intensity practice sessions. A common error made by less successful coaches is running excessively long practices. Successful coaches, even at the professional sport level, often recommend keeping practice sessions to 90 minutes maximum. Each practice should include a written practice plan that is designed to minimize transition time in between activities. Also, each activity should have a pre-set time limit (e.g., 8-10 minutes) and be set at the appropriate level of difficulty. Practice activities that are just beyond the reach of athletes’ current skill level, but attainable with coach support and feedback, will keep athletes focused and ‘in the zone’.

These three keys – Core Values, Personal Mastery, and Disciplined Focus – are used by successful coaches the world over to build winning environments. The surest way to realize the full value of these keys is for coaches to model the keys themselves, as does University of Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook, who just recently led his team to their third national title. Coach Cook attributes his program’s success to his disciplined focus on evolving as a coach (personal mastery) and ensuring that core values are always current and relevant.

So, how do you stack up in creating a winning team environment? Try reflecting and answering these three questions to gauge how you’re doing:

• Would an opposing coach be able to correctly identify our program core values?

• How do I respond when my athletes make a mistake?

• What strategies do I use to evaluate the quality of our team’s efforts at the end of each practice or competition?

The coach who regularly ponders and honestly answers these types of questions will gain not only the competitive edge every coach seeks for their program, but also peace of mind knowing that they are building their program on the same foundation used by the world’s greatest coaches.


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