Spreading Your Team Culture like a Virus

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Team culture, an especially hot topic these days, matters because it directly impacts team performance, attitudes, motivation, relationships and everyday behaviors. No doubt your team has a culture - all teams do. Yet each culture is unique.

Team culture is most simply described as ‘how we do things around here’, or, as the head coach and captain of a prominent national team recently put it, “it’s what we stand for.” The coach in particular speaks from experience, himself having played on a team that was once voted world team of the year.

Is your team culture the one you really want? And, if so, does everyone in your program understand, value and adhere to it?

When coaches speak about team culture they usually emphasize ‘buy-in’ or ‘getting athletes on board’. However, a key lesson I learned through working with championship coaches is that strong team cultures don’t require a sales pitch, instead, they spread like a virus.

Viruses thrive in highly contagious settings. Coaches of successful teams constantly nurture such environments and prevent loopholes that allow athletes to escape from it. They want their athletes to be constantly exposed to the desired climate and behaviors to create what might be called a culture ‘epidemic.’

So, just as you can tell if people have the flu by symptoms they exhibit, you should be able to clearly discern whether your players have caught the team culture virus. What does this virus look like? That depends on what you consider the key markers. I suggest creating a list of behaviors and attitudes that you would expect to see in someone who exemplifies the “what we stand for” in your program. If you’ve established a highly viral environment to transmit the conduct, care and commitment, your athletes will show signs of it very soon.

Viruses spread most quickly and easily when you have strong carriers of the virus who come into regular and close contact with others in the team environment. Therefore, another effective way to spread the culture is to frequently put highly contagious team leaders in situations where their actions will infect other team members. You, as coach, should be the strongest carrier, but you will need help.

A strategy you can use to quickly identify those who are most contagious is to answer the following question posed by Daniel Coyle in his book The Culture Code: “If I could get a sense of the way your culture works by meeting just one person, who would that person be?” For example, if the cornerstone of your desired team culture is work ethic, ask yourself which athletes already model a strong work ethic on a regular basis? Other members of the team need to be regularly exposed to these carriers of the work ethic virus. If you notice an athlete who arrives to training early or stays late to work on their weaknesses, consider requiring them to do this extra training with a teammate. Likewise, if an athlete asks to come for an extra film session, grant the request only if they bring a teammate who has yet to be infected with the virus, one who likely would not make such a request.

Those who are most contagious often are the veterans and upperclassmen who have been exposed to the virus the longest. Heading into the season after winning the 2018 Super Bowl, coach of the Philadelphia Eagles Doug Pederson explained how he uses veteran players to infect new players with the Eagles culture: “I have to rely on the veteran players that are still here. We’ve established a certain culture here. They can take in a new player, I don’t care if it’s a free agent or a draft pick and just say, ‘Hey, this is the way we do things around here. This is our expectation.”

A third way to ensure your team environment remains infected is to place traces of the virus where players spend most of their time such as training facilities, locker rooms, team meeting spaces, and competition sites. Just like a single exposure to a virus is often not enough to become infected, the common practice of relying on a one-time preseason team building activity to ‘set the culture’ is insufficient in creating a team culture epidemic.

Routines, rituals, storytelling, and images are powerful exposure strategies. What kind of routines do you use with your team to start and end training sessions and meetings? What kind of rituals do you have for recognizing and celebration milestones and peak moments? Conversely, what rituals do you have in place to help athletes cope with the opposite of peak moments, sometimes referred to as pit moments? What stories do you or former athletes share with the team that connect them to the program’s history and their role in enhancing the legacy? Finally, what pictures, quotes, maxims, and symbols do you display in your team environment, and how often do you refresh such visual reminders to keep players from becoming immune to the team culture virus?

One memorable example I’ve seen recently was a program that created a critical moment wall that featured photos that captured from each competition an instant where a player modeled the team culture in a way that positively impacted the competition outcome. Another program placed a full-length mirror at the entrance of its training facility with the statement ‘A Champion Reflects’ in large bold print across the top.

Images and symbols such as these are most effective for spreading your team culture virus when they are placed in what are referred to as ‘high transmission points’. For example, research has shown that up to 14 people in a row can be infected by a virus after touching a contaminated door handle. Increase the rate of spread for your team culture virus by reflecting on the high transmission points in your team environment, and then ensure the virus is active in those places.

While spreading the virus is essential, you also need to be on constant guard against those who may act as a vaccine against your team culture. Such resisters can prevent the spread of the virus or significantly reduce its potency. The coach, teammates, or both must quickly confront athletes who actively thwart efforts to spread the team culture virus. A protocol should be created for attacking deliberate attempts to stop the team culture virus from spreading, such as disregard for team standards or selfish behavior that negatively impacts the rest of the team.

Some programs have found the creation of a team court to be effective. Offending players must plead their case before their peers, who serve as judge and jury. The court then determines and recommends a sentence, which the coach reviews and approve or modifies to ensure the penalty is not overly harsh or has the potential to harm or humiliate a teammate.

Social media also can serve as a strong vaccine against your team culture, particularly when players are constantly checking what others are saying about them or performance. Coaches should work together with athletes, and parents depending on the age group, to create social media guidelines to protect players and the team culture (see a previous Coach Doc commentary written on this topic).

Lastly, while investing time and energy in trying to infect those who have yet to catch your team culture virus, we must also guard against neglecting to strengthen the virus in those who already are infected. Our strongest culture keepers need to remain contagious so they can most effectively infect others. This is often achieved through the creation of small leadership groups comprised of players who meet more regularly with the coach to brainstorm strategies for sustaining and strengthening the team culture virus. In school sport settings, you might even consider creating a culture club or team captains class for student-athletes who are strong carriers of the virus. The athletic director who shared this idea with me considered it the most effective strategy she ever used for creating a team culture epidemic.

Former championship or legendary members of the team often are natural carriers of the team virus. Current team members should be regularly exposed to these strong culture keepers, either in person or through their images and stories. For example, frequent exposure to former Olympians and their journeys was one of the key findings from Karen Crouse’s recent profile of the small town of Norwich, renowned for producing US Olympic athletes despite its tiny population.

Finally, remember this key principle in spreading and maintaining a strong team culture: A team culture is caught not bought. Spend less time trying to get athletes to ‘buy-in’ and more time infecting them through exposure to other people, behaviors, routines, stories and images that reinforce the team culture virus. Once the team culture epidemic has caught on, keep the virus active throughout the season while watching for potential vaccines that may impede it.


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