Building a Team Culture: Tips & Insight for High School Athletic Coaches

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A high school basketball team and coach huddle before the game.Team sports are rarely won or lost on the back of an individual player; even the most talented athletes need their teammates. For example, while basketball teams need people who know how to score, they also need people to rebound, block, and assist. This spirit of teamwork is critical for what happens on the court or athletic field, but it doesn’t begin there. Indeed, coaches and athletic directors cultivate a team culture behind the scenes, something that informs the way players interact with each other at game time.

Many examples exist of teams that have thrived by cultivating cohesive team dynamics. Consider the Navarro College Bulldogs, the competitive cheerleading team showcased in the Netflix documentary Cheer. Viewers of the show see the Bulldogs building their trust in each other and their appreciation for each athlete’s contribution with every practice. Consider also the New England Patriots, the powerhouse NFL team acclaimed for maintaining a consistent spirit of teamwork even through personnel changes.

These teams provide just two examples of how impactful it can be when coaches work to develop a team culture among their athletes. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what this means and how it can be achieved.

Defining Team Culture

Beginning with a clear team culture definition is important. When coaches and athletic directors mention building a team culture, what exactly are they talking about?

Building a Team Culture: What Does It Mean?

Every sports team (just like every company) has a culture: the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that shape interaction among team members. A culture can be either positive or negative.

A team culture can be defined as one in which individuals are influenced to share a common goal or mission with their team members and work together toward achieving shared objectives.

The Benefits of Building a Team Culture

Coaches and athletic directors value a strong team culture for many reasons. A few of the most significant benefits are described in the following sections.

Individual Value

When a positive team culture is in place, it not only provides a common goal but also shows how each individual’s unique strengths or abilities contribute to that goal. Rather than having a dynamic in which only a few superstars shine, a strong team culture recognizes everyone’s value.

Improved Morale

Teams that have a sense of cohesion also tend to have higher morale. The reason is that everyone on the team feels a part of something bigger and sees an opportunity to contribute to a greater good.

Work Ethic and Productivity

Another benefit to a positive team culture is that it gives players a reason to put forth their best effort. By clearly defining a goal and outlining how each athlete helps further that goal, a team culture provides guidance and encouragement for players to do their best work. 

Conflict Resolution

On any team, tension, misunderstandings, or hurt feelings sometimes arise. When a solid team culture is in place, it provides a framework for constructively working through these issues. It allows the coach to point back to the shared goal and remind players that they’re all there to support each other in pursuit of that shared goal.

Team Culture in Sports: The Role of Coaches and Athletic Directors

Both coaches and athletic directors play a significant role in developing a team culture in sports.

The Role of the Coach

Coaches have multiple ways to pursue a team culture. One approach is to allow it to happen organically, starting with players. Many coaches decide to step out of the way and allow players to find their way toward a team-centered approach. The major benefit is that, if it works, players will feel a heightened sense of ownership over the culture they’ve created.

However, this approach also comes with significant risk. Sometimes a handful of players will be especially assertive or aggressive, taking it upon themselves to shape the culture but excluding some teammates in the process. In these situations, the coach’s “organic” approach can backfire, resulting in team dynamics that are fraught or toxic.

An alternative approach is for coaches to assume a role that’s active without being dominating, offering their example and guidance while still allowing players to be involved in the process. For example, coaches can openly discuss the team’s goals, vision, attitudes, and expectations during practices and huddles. In this way, they collaborate with players in establishing a team culture. Coaches must also lead by example. This means having a clear sense of the kind of cultural values they wish to see and embodying those values at all times.

Regardless of how a culture develops, trust must be created to have a successful team. Players need to feel like they can depend on each other and their coach for support, and they need to work their hardest toward common goals. This is a key responsibility for coaches as leaders with the most day-to-day interaction with their players.

The Role of the Athletic Director

Though coaches undoubtedly play an important role in shaping a team culture in sports, they often do so under an athletic director’s supervision. The athletic director may not have as much direct interaction with players as the coach does, but it falls to the athletic director to clearly convey the program’s values.

Indeed, to talk about culture without mentioning values is impossible; in many ways, culture consists of different values that team members share, and those values can have either a positive or a negative effect on team cohesion.

Just as coaches promote the values of hard work, teamwork, and high expectations for their players, athletic directors promote those values for the coaching staff. Athletic directors must provide clear goals and set high standards for their coaches. That may mean mentoring coaches and providing professional development.

Leadership is another important value for positive team development. An athletic director is in a unique position to demonstrate strong leadership skills and provide leadership-building opportunities for both coaches and players. These skills should be developed not only on the field but also in educational and community settings.

Athletic directors are also in a strong position to underscore the value of diversity. If everyone on the coaching staff and the broader team have the same perspective, it makes it more difficult to find creative solutions to problems and truly excel. A good athletic director will actively seek to bring in athletic department personnel, coaching staff, and players from diverse backgrounds.

Tips for Building a Team Culture in High School Sports

Ultimately, as coaches seek to instill values and create expectations for their athletes, it should be with one eye on the team’s performance and the other eye on what happens to players beyond graduation. By showing athletes how to be team players, how to be leaders, and how to respond to failure and adversity, coaches can position their athletes for ongoing success in college or graduate school, in their professional lives, and in their family lives.

Several practical tips and strategies may prove helpful here.

Determine Goals and Values

If shared goals and values shape culture, then one of the most important steps is clearly establishing those goals and values.

Of course, for most athletic teams, the overarching goal is simple: to win games. With that said, teams may set several additional goals to help them achieve their shared objectives. For example, a team that’s struggled with low scoring may set a goal to increase its per-game average by 10 points. A team with a clear star player may set a goal to better include its supporting teammates. Other goals may be related to sportsmanship and attitude; for example, coaches and players may agree that they all need to work on being more gracious winners or more respectful of the opposing teams.

As for how these goals and values are determined, a few options exist. A coach may decide to dictate these goals and values or allow players to come up with their own ideas. Often, the best approach is somewhere in the middle—a collaborative approach that the coach guides but in which players have a chance to speak their mind.

To help remind players of the goals and values they’ve agreed upon, it may help for coaches to write them down, either on a whiteboard or on a poster in the locker room or in players’ handbooks, which can be essential for building team culture.

Set Clear Expectations on Team Behavior

Goals and values are important for developing a team culture, but so is individual behavior. As such, it’s appropriate for coaches to clearly set the bounds of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior for team members.

This expectation setting may include the way players interact with each other, opposing team members, referees, and boosters. It should encompass behavior during practice as well as during and after games.

Examples of the expectations that coaches may set include the following:

  • Specifying how players are to interact with their rivals (handshakes after games, for instance)
  • Clarifying policies about practice tardiness and absenteeism and emphasizing the importance of all team members showing up to do their part
  • Noting the kinds of behaviors that aren’t tolerated during practices, like bullying or malicious name-calling

Often, the school athletic department’s stated policies guide the expectations established for player behavior. Here again, the athletic director’s input can be essential.

Additionally, this is another area in which it’s best to ensure that expectations are clearly written down and made available to players, such as in players’ handbooks or a code of conduct. Coaches must ensure that no room for confusion or ambiguity exists.

Be Empathetic and Transparent with Student-Athletes

Another important step for coaches looking to develop team cultures is embodying empathy and transparency in all their interactions with players.

Empathy matters because in a team culture, players and coaches alike must support each other. For players to trust each other on the court or field, they must feel like they’re looking out for each other and that they have each other’s back. This starts with coaching. As athletes deal with academic struggles, trouble at home, injuries, or other setbacks, coaches need to show that they understand and care.

The other puzzle piece is transparency. Again, this comes down to trust. For players to feel like they can trust and be open with each other, coaches need to set a tone of clear, honest communication. Coaches and players should be able to speak plainly with each other — not sugarcoating problems — and work together to find solutions.

Appoint Team Leaders

While coaches must lead by example and hold players accountable to the standard they’ve agreed on, they can’t do this alone. That’s why they should identify players who show leadership potential and appoint them to help support the team culture.

The goal isn’t to enlist team members as tattletales who report on players who violate the team’s code of conduct. On the contrary, the goal is to select team members who can be ambassadors of the team’s cultural values, embodying them and spreading enthusiasm.

Coaches may seek out players who have a proclivity for teamwork or show early enthusiasm for the team’s goals, values, and behavioral standards.  Additionally, coaches should seek players who the rest of the team likes and respects.

Recognize Teachable Moments

A final strategy for coaches looking to build a team culture in sports is to find teachable moments and use them to boost team cohesion.

The reality is that all players will sometimes fall short of the goals, values, and expectations they’ve set for themselves. While it may sometimes be necessary for coaches to respond to these missteps with disciplinary action (especially if that’s what the code of conduct recommends), coaches should create an environment that doesn’t always penalize failure, but rather sees shortcomings as opportunities for learning and growth.

When individual players fall short, this may mean privately addressing the matter with them and providing individual goals and strategies that they can use to get back on track. If the whole team falls short, however, it may mean talking together about revising or amending the goals and expectations that’ve been set.

Inspiring Quotes About Team Culture in Sports

The importance of developing a team culture is nothing groundbreaking; in fact, many of the most successful athletes in history have recognized the need to establish and maintain a team culture. The following sections contain just a few noteworthy quotes about team culture in sports.

Michael Jordan

With six NBA championship rings to his credit, Michael Jordan has long been recognized as one of the most accomplished athletes of all time. According to Jordan:

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”

The quote is a significant claim coming from such a seminal talent. He suggests that a skilled individual may achieve some success, but only teams that work together in a cohesive, strategic way can go all the way.

Vince Lombardi

Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi was also a believer in the value of teamwork. He once noted:

“Individual commitment to a group effort: That is what makes a teamwork, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

In other words, each player is responsible for making an effort, but those individual efforts must all be in pursuit of shared objectives. Otherwise, players are simply working at cross-purposes with each other.

Phil Jackson

Here’s a quote from Phil Jackson, who coached Jordan to all six of his NBA championships and later found additional success coaching the Los Angeles Lakers:

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

For Jackson, each team member should be as strong and as capable as possible, but all the team members should work cohesively together.

Billy Martin

Finally, consider the words of Billy Martin, a baseball player who found success on the diamond and later as a team manager. According to Martin:

“There’s nothing greater in the world than when somebody on the team does something good, and everybody gathers around to pat him on the back.”

The quote attests to how a team culture can boost player morale.

A Team Culture for Success

Both coaches and athletic directors play a crucial role in formulating a team culture in sports and in positioning student-athletes for success on and off the field. An important starting point is identifying the values and goals that can facilitate a true team-based environment, one that encourages all players to put forth their best effort in pursuit of a common goal. Coaches should use their daily interaction with players to model positive behaviors and emphasize how the values athletes learn will help them on and off the field. For athletic directors, much can be done to set standards, codify values, and lead by example, creating an environment in which coaches and players alike are drawn together in a spirit of teamwork.

Through formal education, aspiring athletic directors can learn more about the skills required for building a team. Consider a degree in athletic administration as one way to foster these competencies.

Recommended Readings

Careers in Sports Management: How to Enter a Dynamic Field

Strategic Planning in Sports Organizations in Interscholastic Athletics

Ethical Issues in Sports and How Athletic Leaders Can Address Them

Sources:

Business & Industry Connection Magazine, “Embracing Technology, Diversity Propels Chevron into the Future”
Entrepreneur, “17 Inspirational Quotes to Instantly Foster Teamwork When Unity Is Lost”
Forbes, “How to Build a Strong Team Culture in Seven Steps”
Forbes, “The New England Patriots: The Mastery of Teamwork in a Climate of Constant Change”
Forbes, “13 Reasons Google Deserves Its ‘Best Company Culture’ Award”
Harvard Business Review, “Build a Culture That Aligns with People’s Values”
 Houston Chronicle, “Benefits of Team Building in a Corporate Setting”
National Federation of State High School Associations, “An Athletic Director’s Legacy? Doing What’s Best for Students, Coaches”
NBC Sports, “Warriors’ Culture Is Attractive to Former, Current and Future Players”
The Guardian, “Cheer: Netflix’s Cheerleading Docuseries Is an Exhilarating Cirque du Insanity”