The ‘C’ Word: Culture

The term culture is defined by Coakley (2011) as “The ways of life that people create as they participate in a group or society”.  In a coaching context this simply means ‘the way your team participate and interact as a group’.  As a coach when you hear the term culture it can trigger lots of different connotations from ‘team building’ activities, to getting out and having a social night with the lads, from training culture to performance culture.  In my mind the term gets over used, I’ve been guilty in the past of trying to ‘create culture’ by putting on activities but in my mind culture comes from actions not words.  You can say what you want about ‘how you are going to act’ or ‘what you want to achieve’ or ‘creating a vision’ but none of it is worthwhile unless you act it out.  If you say you want to be professional, then act professionally, if you say you want to achieve a training culture where everyone keeps standards high then train with high standards and if you create a vision then you have to live it.

In a nutshell team culture is what you do, not what you say and if you are a coach looking to build a better culture with your group of players then hold off on the extravagant or elaborate team building exercises, cancel the booking on the army assault course and plan carefully exactly what your end goal looks like.  It’s very easy to fall into the trap and think team activities help build culture, they might help create spirit and bonding opportunities but that’s not the whole ‘culture package’ that’s a very small part of it.  Your team culture is what defines your team and most importantly how you act on and off the pitch.

Unfortunately building the perfect team culture isn’t an exact science and not a quick fix either, it takes time and you have to find your own way because no sets of players are the same, the dynamic is different with every team around the globe and so you have a unique team and therefore requires its own specific unique culture.

How to Build Culture

I do however have a few hints and tips I’ve picked up along the way that may help establish a better culture within your team, hopefully you can read them and relate them to your unique environment and make them work for you.  I’m going to write with senior men’s elite environment in mind but of course as with most things coaching can be age related and made appropriate, so if you coach a youth team, men or female it will hopefully be useful.

So here goes, in my opinion little things that make a big difference to improving team culture, morale and getting everyone pushing in the same direction. None of them are rocket science or new imaginative ideas but simple is effective.

1. Talk to all not just the 11.

When you are doing an 11v11 practice, the coaching courses and manuals get you to work with one team.  Leading into a match day you’ll have your starting team in mind and work with them in a 11v11 situation in the final days preparation.  This is good practice and very common I would imagine.  Don’t split the team into two 11s then send the second 11 away with your assistant or on their own and tell them to get organised into a 4-4-2 like the opposition then spend 5 minutes with your first 11 telling them the tactical plan for the weekend.  There are some simple reasons why not to do this.

  • The second 11 feel like a second 11 and you don’t want that, football is a squad game nowadays.
  • You will need at least a few of those second 11 players at the weekend in the game so they need to know the detail
  • You are a team, not an 11.
  • The more players who you can improve their tactical understanding the better.

Do get all players together before the 11v11 practice starts and outline your expectations from both teams tactically, give the second 11 some guidance on how to mirror the opposition system and then explain how the first 11 will play against it to exploit it.  That way everyone knows the situation and will feel part of the team preparing for the weekend.

2. Switch players during training games.

Staying on the subject of 11v11 practices or even the 8v8 or 9v9 small sided games you may play.  By all means get your starters playing together to help build combinations but at some point during these practices, swap a few players around or change some players positioning.  Before you do this though discuss with your team what you are going to do and why you are doing it.

  • Keeps players on their toes
  • Improves competition for places
  • Enables you to look at different combinations
  • It will ultimately help the team
  • Changes don’t mean players are performing poorly

This will help keep the larger squad motivated during training, make these games more competitive and help build your training culture and ethic.

3. Bring your substitutes in at HT.

Half time is a key part of the game (see my post The Half Time Break).  Every football match you ever see when the players depart towards the dressing rooms at half time, the subs come out onto the pitch and more often than not they kick balls around aimlessly, shoot at the reserve keeper, play piggy in the middle or muck around taking the piss out of each other.  Is any of this really warming up for the game they might be about to enter?  No so why do we keep doing it? In my book bring the subs in at half time to listen to the key messages you are delivering to the group.  If you stick someone on ten minutes into the second half you’ll spend 5 minutes repeating the half time message to them on the touchline.  The substitutes need to understand what improvement you want from the team in the second half so bring them into that discussion so they know the detail required, then if they are going on straight away send them out after you’ve made your key points and get them doing a proper warm up before the game restarts.  If they are professional enough they would have been keeping themselves ready throughout the first half anyway and 5 minutes is ample time at the break.

4. Bring extended squad players into the sheds.

If you name a squad of say 16 for a match day then ask your un-named squad members to meet the team at the same time if you’re at home.  Away games may be hard because not everyone travels but at home get all your players there and in the dressing rooms together for the pre match team talk.  You may have youngsters who can sample a match day atmosphere, fringe players who would like to know the detail that is said before games to help them understand the way the team prepares and it saves you as the coach repeating messages to others at training the following week.  You could even look at bring them in at HT as well if you have room.  The same principles apply.

5. Name the team before match day.

I’m quite passionate about this and you can read more detail in my earlier post (Naming the Team) but name your team before you turn up on match day.  If you name in on match day everyone comes with expectation and for some of them it will be false expectation, you name the team, they aren’t in it and they will be flat and disappointed.  Is that really the mood you want them in preparing for a game?  NO and don’t hide behind the excuse of “I’ve always done it that way”, “the players are used to it” or “they need to harden up”.  At the end of the day the players are only human and you’re not doing much for your culture if you treat them poorly, show some respect and let them arrive at the game knowing their roles for the day and ready to carry them out rather than disappointing them or creating a bad vibe before you play.  Respect is a huge part of building a solid foundation to your culture.

6. Tell them WHY they have been dropped.

Before you name the team for the next game talk with the players who are going to miss out or have been dropped from the line up and give them an honest explanation.  If you can’t justify your decision then maybe you haven’t made the right decision or not thought about it enough.  There are 1001 reasons certain players are picked over others so just be honest and give them a clear and valid reason why they aren’t playing and then what role you see them playing in the next game.  They may ask about the future or the next few games coming up so you might want to consider those scenario’s too.  There are still far too many coaches who just name the team and players are left no the wiser to the decision.  I don’t buy into it being part of football and players just accept decisions, you might be stamping your authority down but you aren’t gaining their respect that’s for sure.  Everyone deserves a reasonable explanation.

7. Give no starters things to work on.

If players aren’t getting a game or making the squad then take time to talk with them about why others are ahead of them in the pecking order and what you want to see from them if they are to move up the ladder.  Everyone is always going to be disappointed they are not starting or playing but if you give them some things to work on at least they can continue to improve and feel like they are working towards something rather than just going through the motions which will have a big effect on your culture.

Culture Summary

Cultures are created from actions and as a coach you are the leader of those actions.  If you don’t show people respect, if you can’t discuss issues or tough decisions and if you can’t lay down a foundation based on honesty and trust then you haven’t got much of a chance of creating a strong culture within your team.  The 7 steps explained above are not new ideas or revolutionary game changers, they are some basic principles regarding respect, honesty and trust and in my experience these will help you create a better culture.  They are more important than any team building activities because culture is never tested without pressure, everyone can have fun, have a night out and build spirit but it’s not tested in a social context, once you start picking teams, playing games and making tough calls that s when you find out how strong your team culture really is and the steps above will help your culture withstand the tougher times and stand up to the challenges you face as a coach.

Good luck and enjoy connecting with your players.

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