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Building a team culture for success

Introduction

Why does team culture matter? It’s a reasonable question.

It’s vital to success because healthy, performance-led team dynamics can be your team’s competitive advantage – retaining its members while keeping them engaged and focused on success.

Basketball legend Michael Jordan had this to say, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.

Where does team culture come from?

“Healthy team cultures emerge from coaches, athletes, and other team stakeholders holding each other accountable as well as supporting each other,” says performance coach John Yeager.

Yet building a high-performance, healthy team culture doesn’t happen overnight.

Instead, it can take years, and crucially, it requires consistency. And a rational and repeated message needs to be backed up by positive action.

Yeager suggests that the coach and the team should focus on community first because it helps build the athletes’ character by teaching them to be responsible for themselves and others – ultimately leading to a positive team culture.

What does a healthy team culture look like?

Despite being a tricky balance, team members must hold each other accountable while offering appropriate support. One without the other does not create a high-performance team culture.

After all, it’s not just the coaches who should push athletes to be their best; the team can help get optimum performances out of one another while creating a safe and secure environment.

When Nathan Phillips and Stu Wilson started working with Culver’s U16 ice hockey team to create a healthy culture of accountability, they spoke to the players first. The team made it clear they needed clarity about what the coach and each other wanted of them. Once they had that nailed, they were happy to support one another and be held accountable.

Support was particularly valuable as many players were new to the school – arriving from all over the US. It helped them manage the difficult times, including fitting in and reframing the pressure as an opportunity to succeed.

Individual players helped each other and shored up the team.

The potential for team-led success became apparent several years ago, when mid-season, the U16 team took part in a multi-event survivor-style challenge. Success in each event meant more food options for their dinner later that day.

Despite accomplishing the first three, they couldn’t seem to finish the final jump-rope challenge, which only got two students through despite multiple attempts.

 

The final–unlikely–reward was sauce for the pasta.

So, they joined together for a huddle and started chanting, “It’s sauce time.” On the next attempt, they were successful – but only because they saw themselves as a team with success or failure shared.

“It’s sauce time” became a mantra for Culver’s team support and accountability that made its way back to success on the ice.

Deeper into accountability

Accountability (like sauce) comes in more than one flavor.

Vertical accountability is top-down. It involves the coaches being held accountable by the administrators and the athletes made responsible by the coaches.

But it also needs to be layered.

Horizontal accountability is spread across the team. For trust within the group, each player needs to be able to answer “yes” to the question: “Are you doing everything you can?”

Yeager suggests teams sign up willingly to a commitment statement, which includes:

What am I accountable for?

Giving my best effort in every training session and support the team goals.

What do I hold teammates accountable for?

Encouraging me and supporting me with fair and open communication.

How will I support my teammates?

Be positive and always open to feedback.

What strengths do I bring to the team?

Discipline, high energy, and leadership.

Ultimately, the team relies on its members to agree to be held accountable and use their strengths as best they can.

Understanding what support looks like

The shot put is a demanding sport involving throwing a weighty (16-pound) steel ball as far as possible, and it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.

When word got around at an annual indoor athletic meet, that–despite recovering from an injury–Julian Nunally, one of Harvard’s track and field team, made an impressive second throw, his teammates were ready to support him. While the interaction between athletes from different track and field events is typically limited, jumpers, pole vaulters, sprinters, and hurdlers rushed over to watch his third and final throw.

With their encouragement and loud cheering, Nunally was spurred on to break his previous personal best by an epic seven feet – unheard of at this level of competition.

Support is particularly helpful when based on identifying, becoming aware of, and applying signature strengths. Such strengths aren’t physical, such as endurance, muscle or speed, but internal qualities, including bravery, perseverance, and creativity.

When athletes know their own and each other’s strengths, they are more able to apply them to what they are already good at, trusting in their abilities and complementing each other’s weaknesses.

 

Here are two examples:

A swim captain is aware that while one of the team has strong leadership skills, she is hesitant to showcase her talents. The captain encourages her to lead a warmup session, offering ongoing encouraging feedback to build her confidence while benefiting the team.

During basketball practice, one of the team notices a fellow player struggling with a drill. They use their strength of ‘teamwork,’ spending personal time after practice to walk them through the practice step by step – ensuring their teammate goes into the next session confidently and supporting team cohesion.

What does the research say?

Research backs up what we’re hearing from coaches.

An extensive study performed in 2021 that explored teamwork and a healthy team culture recognized strong links between coach and player feedback, team dynamics, player ability, and athletic performance.

2016 research extended team culture beyond the coach and team players and recognized the importance of close relationships with physical therapists, massage therapists, nutritionists, and beyond.

Unsurprisingly, creating a positive team culture delivers success for everyone involved.

Tools for creating a thriving team culture

So, let’s pause for a moment and think about what a healthy team culture could look like for our high school and college athletes:

Regular Feedback Sessions: When coaches and players hold regular meetings and offer constructive feedback openly and respectfully, the team understands its roles and how to improve – fostering a culture of growth and respect.
Team-Building Activities: Getting the team involved in activities outside of sports can strengthen bonds and build mutual respect among players, resulting in a more supportive team environment.
Recognition of Efforts: Players and coaches should regularly acknowledge and celebrate efforts and achievements–big or small–to reinforce positive behavior and motivate team members.
Shared Decision-Making: When coaches involve athletes in decision-making processes–including setting team goals and developing training sessions—it fosters autonomy, a sense of ownership, and responsibility among the team members.
Support During Challenges: If a player is struggling, the entire team is available to provide support—whether it’s sport-related or academic. A supportive environment ensures the player feels secure and valued for their athletic performance as an individual.

A team culture that consistently balances accountability with support creates a nurturing environment for athletes to thrive.

 

Wrapping Up

Yeager recognizes that “Team culture can enable athletes to hold each other accountable and support one another effectively.”

As coaches and parents encouraging mental and physical wellness and high performance in our young athletes, we need to help them find an appropriate balance of accountability and support within the teams they play.

A healthy team culture will sustain long-term enjoyment, satisfaction, and performance in sports while building resilience for the challenges ahead.

References

Jurch, S., & Durand, M. (2016). Sports massage: the science of athletics: good teamwork among sports science disciplines helps athletes optimize performance. Massage Therapy Journal, 49.

Spijker, N. (2024). 120+ teamwork quotes for building a strong team culture. RSS. https://www.rock.so/blog/teamwork-quotes

Sun Laishuang, Jiang Zhaoyin, & Zou Benxu. (2021). Effects of Physical Fitness, Player Ability and Coaching Feedback on the Athletes’ Satisfaction and Athletic Performance in China: Moderating Role of Teamwork Competencies. Revista de Psicología Del Deporte, 30(3), 141

Yeager, J. (2021). The coaching zone: Next Level Leadership in Sports. Yeager Leadership Press.