After coaching for over 20 years and having many highs and lows throughout my career, when I reflect on the part of coaching that gives me the most pride, it is our team culture. Building a positive environment on and off of the field is not only essential in cultivating a family feel; it is a gift that will keep giving for years to come. Those athletes will reach out to you in their lows and highs throughout their lives and they stay your athletes forever no matter where they are in life. Creating a stable foundation off of the field for your athlete (friendships, classroom, relationships, etc.) removes distraction from their everyday practice and play. A happy athlete off of the field is a successful one on the field. We don’t have to move heaven and earth to make that happen and in fact, sometimes you can’t, but you can play a part in creating a culture that is conducive to happiness and success. Help them find balance in their social and academic lives and they will bring less drama to the practice field.
Creating that family environment isn’t always easy and it will not come without occasional drama, but just like a marriage, you must actively work at building a culture, it doesn’t happen on its own and it needs to marinate to be exceptional. Here are some of the following ways we have worked hard to build our culture and use them every single day we are together:
Traditions are essential, if you don’t have them, make them. The pride of being part of a custom that will be passed from one generation of athletes to the next is priceless. Reaching back to your alums to remind them that they are part of that foundation that built the program reminds them that they are never forgotten. Some of our traditions were started before I was part of the Coastal picture; others were injected into the program. Either way, pride in the consistency year after year and the celebration of being you, pride in your team, your choice is key.
Accountability among your athletes is an altruistic way to show growing and learning among teammates. Asking them to share their mistakes and weaknesses allows them not only to acknowledge their own challenges, but it shows other players it is okay to be vulnerable and that no one is perfect on the field. But remember that accountability goes both ways. We as coaches need to celebrate their success in their achievements. On the flip side, share with your athletes when you make mistakes and how you grew from them as a coach. They will respect you more for your honesty and transparency. They will hold themselves accountable when they are coaches and be more apt to admit their own mistakes as athletes. When they recognize that you are fallible, and you own it; they will trust you more.
Pay it forward. Take the time each and every day to pay it forward. Each athlete should remember that inspiring each other builds the confidence of the individual player but it pays dividends into the team’s synergy as a whole. The idea is that for every compliment you receive you should give three away. Imagine the exponential gains your team will see if you multiply that by one practice; and coaches, it starts with you!
Create team building moments. You do not have to spend a fortune to go to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro as a team to bond and build strength as a unit. Nor do you have to hire an excessively expensive teambuilder (although I do think they are awesome and effective) You can create those moments on your own. Two of my favorites that I can share with you:
- Pizza Wars (inter squad wars or choose a team on campus to challenge you) – For years we did this inter-squad challenge and it was a competitive and fun way for players on the team to spend time with teammates that they wouldn’t usually hang out with. Our coaches would choose judges within the athletic department and a pizza victor would be crowned for who made the best pizza. This year was our first year challenging our very own Coastal Carolina Softball team. They were stiff competition but for the 2019 season, lax came home with the trophy. We found this team building exercise to also generate a sense of inclusion within the department and brought some of our staff members closer to our teams; win-win in my book!
- Team Missions – Create random missions on your own and pick groups out of a hat bi-weekly to go accomplish and document the mission. Making the groups random ensures that your team is getting a chance to spend time doing fun and wholesome things with teammates they don’t normally spend time with. These missions can be as simple as doing their nails together, making homemade cookies together, going bowling or my all-time favorite; making a popsicle stick sailboat to float down the river.
- Reach out if you want more, I always have a trick up my sleeve
Laughter really is the best medicine. Sure, we are a Division I program, and we have to train hard, stay focused and challenge ourselves to get better every single day, but that doesn’t mean we can’t capture the funny moments in practice and thoroughly enjoy them. Embrace those moments because it is what keeps your athletes light and relaxed. Sometimes we as coaches tend to take ourselves way too seriously and let our egos/competitive nature get in the way. Remember to laugh often and freely because it really takes the edge off of the day.
Most often when I see others with great energy and a thriving culture, I can rest assured that they are having a colorful four-year experience and that they have a coach that cares about the big picture of their collegiate career. However, if it is something that you feel you want to improve upon, never hesitate to reach out; after all we are all here to pay it forward and help one another. Can you win without culture? Yes. In all honesty, winning with culture is way better. The sisterhood lasts longer and returns great dividends to your program’s future.