The Importance of Culture

By Stephanie Allen, Head Coach, Binghamton University @BinghamtonWLAX

The best advice I have received as a coach, especially as the head coach of a relatively young program, is to start at the bottom and focus on building a strong foundation. I was told from countless colleagues that the attention should be put on your culture first, knowing that success is a by-product of those expectations, beliefs, and habitual behaviors. Although many of you have likely been told something similar, I bet we’d all agree that none of us spends quite enough time focused on the details of sustaining a strong culture; or better yet, teaching cultural compliance to an 18 year-old.

Photo courtesy of Binghamton Athletics Communications
 Photo courtesy of Binghamton Athletics Communications

Building or changing a culture within a program can take years. We constantly remind ourselves, our players, and our staff that winning and success are processes. Culture is what produces wins over time and a coach can’t get there without accountability to him or herself and responsibility to the team and overall organization. We want our players to be intentional and fully commit themselves to operating above the standards we have set for the program. While the day-to-day struggle of getting 30+ young ladies on the same page may keep our hands full, we are also obligated to get those values and decision-making skills to transfer off the field, to the inevitable Friday or Saturday night post-game celebration. We live in an era where coaches at every level are held accountable for their student-athlete’s actions on and off the field. I bet we all wish we could wipe our hands clean of student-athlete decisions from the hours of 10pm to 6am. Coaches would much prefer to be assessed on our reaction to student-athlete behavior opposed to the actual choices that they make.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining about the duties and responsibilities we have as coaches. I believe it’s one of the most influential roles out there and is an amazing opportunity for us to make a difference in these young, impressionable lives. It’s what we dedicate ourselves to because of our passion for the game and our love for these young women, even as the landscape of college athletics changes and we become more liable each and every day. The player development piece is what I love most about the job and the ability we have as coaches to impact the lives of our players through our teaching and our responses. It’s terrifying sometimes to see coaches across the country being fired or suspended for things they don’t know about or essentially do not have control over. But, the nature of our profession demands that head coaches be accountable for decisions they don’t make because they are accountable for the culture of their teams.

I am a strong believer that you can’t necessarily put in place procedures to prevent student-athletes from making bad choices, but you can build a culture that helps them make the right choices. The approach we take as leaders is going to vary from program to program, but we all want to teach acceptable behavior and cultivate our players’ understanding of responsibility to those beyond themselves.

We all know that our job security relies on the trifecta of recruitment, game plan execution, and the management of our team—not necessarily in that order. In this case, I’m not talking about the acquisition of talent or the game strategy, which directly drive wins and losses and are both major parts of our role as coaches and ability to retain our jobs. I’m talking about that piece that sometimes holds our programs back from achieving success or goals when we have talent or great strategies in place or takes time to build as we enter in to new institutions. The issues preventing us from reaching those goals instantaneously are typically not sport-related, they are cultural or behavior related. For a program to truly succeed, it has to have cultural compliance.

Obviously it begins with the recruiting process: making sure that we are spending the time to do our homework on these players that will eventually be impacting our programs. It requires focusing not only on talent and athleticism, but ensuring you recruit individuals with strong character that understand the team’s expectations and cultural standards.

After recruiting, the mindset then changes to development. I’ve learned over the years that our players don’t know what they don’t know. We can’t expect a team of natural leaders to spontaneously emerge. We can’t select a few upperclassmen to take the reins and automatically be ready to guide a group of unique, 18- to 23 year-old individuals. We have to teach them what is acceptable and how to be strong-willed and uncompromising in making those decisions when they have a choice.

So what can we control as coaches?

  • Establish standards and expectations: We can be clear and direct about our expectations and use our current leaders in the program to establish a set of standards that they feel represents the program, department, and university appropriately. Giving your players a set of non-negotiable principles along with the opportunity for them to set benchmark behavior expectations allows for more buy-in and a higher level of accountability. You are either meeting the standards or falling short. If players fall below that line, the conversation becomes much easier when it comes time to discuss whether they are moving forward with the program or not.
  • Develop leadership skills: We also can control how much time we spend with our players off the field in developing leadership skills and giving them guidance on the types of issues they face daily as student-athletes. We can have open discussions with them about temptations they face as college students and what they want to prioritize and value throughout their college experience.
  • Emphasize Communication: The best advice I can offer is to not only have this open communication and development training with your captains, but more importantly, the younger players within your program. We have team captains, but also meet with a group of players weekly outside of our captains group that includes players from all classes. The more time we spend with the younger players in our program in a learning and development setting, the more support our captains have, and the more comfortable these young women feel having tough conversations with teammates perhaps not meeting the standards and expectations. We take them through relationship building strategies and knowing how and when to use their voice. We emphasize the off-field time spent with one another in order to build on-field chemistry. When you have players consciously connecting that their choices on and off the field impact the entire program, they want to do the right thing or work hard to put their teammates and themselves in the best position possible. We have players that feel self-worth in knowing they are the future of our program and have the ability to positively influence their teammates without necessarily holding that “captain” title.
  • Show Your Emotions: Lastly, and probably most importantly, we need to show our players we care. If they don’t think we care, development won’t take place and there won’t be buy-in. It will just look like a set of rules for players along with an unattainable list of expectations. Be honest and real with your players. Share with them that you hold them to standards because you care and won’t allow them to settle for mediocrity in any area of their life. You challenge them because you expect more and it’s your responsibility to maximize their abilities on and off the field. When players know you care, or that their teammates care, the motivation to work harder or be the best they can be becomes intrinsic. Work hard to be a role model exemplifying the same principles you expect of them. You have to be the example if you are asking your players to better themselves each day. You are the standard.

So how do we prevent our players from making a bad decision at 2am on a weekend, cutting corners on a paper or test, or walking the fine line of hazing and tradition?

We can’t hand-hold our athletes and we most definitely can’t be around to monitor every minute of every day. We can, however, manage our program and the players within it to hopefully know right from wrong when the choice is before them and unquestionably understand that their choice affects something far greater than them. We can manage our program by standing on a strong culture of relationships and accountability to those around us and maximizing the abilities of our players with development and teaching both on and off the field. We can manage by educating players on what they don’t know, mentoring through the challenges, and planning for the future and longevity of the culture created. Because, at the end of the day, we are culturally accountable for the decisions and actions of these 18- to 23-year olds. Empower them!

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