A good culture ensures club and team success

Janne R. Mortensen is an expert in sports psychology and talent development and founder of the consultancy Mental Motion. In this post you can read about creating "the good culture" and translating value words into concrete actions - both at club and team level. It's about shared understandings, participation and we-actions.
By: Janne R. Mortensen

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You may come from a club, association or team where the old stories of past role models and great values hang on the walls and in the hallways. Great words or images that are there to inspire. The big questions are just:

  • What are the stories behind the values?
  • Why were these values chosen?
  • How do they affect you as an athlete, coach, parent, sports director, caretaker or board member?

Very many clubs' values are clear when it comes to talking or writing about them. But the values are less clear when it comes to practice. Actions, that is. That's a problem. If you want the good team culture, you need to move from talk to action (ASAP).

Define the good club and team culture

It can be hard to describe what good culture is when we can't touch it. We can't see it - and yet if we look hard enough. A team culture can be seen in the way people react in different situations:

  • What language do we use?
  • Who do we highlight in the club or team as role models?
  • Who decides what?
  • What do we tolerate and what is absolutely not tolerated?
  • Which people are hired?
  • How is the tone?
  • How and what do we prioritise?
  • What is the focus of the training?
  • How is the framework socially?

These are just examples for reflection, and there are many ways to see through and examine a culture.

The most important question: What kind of team culture do you want to create?

There will be countless opinions about what a "good" team culture is and what culture should prevail in your club. Often, most people think that everyone wants the same thing, yet are surprised to find that each person has their own view of culture.

Start by looking at the culture you have today: What do you like? And what don't you like?

These questions provide a starting point for the direction of change. Then, you need to set expectations about the culture of your club.

Expectation matching is often taken for granted, but it needs to be prioritised and is central to a club's long-term success. You need to make sure everyone agrees on the direction of the culture so you don't go your separate ways. The direction is not one you agree on in a two-hour board meeting or a chat in the changing room.

Dialogue about and development of good culture takes time - just like anything else that needs to work optimally for the club and the team. 

Next step: Value clarification

Maybe you already have clear values in the club that you also act on (strongly!). Or perhaps, as described at the outset, they hang on the wall and are one with the wallpaper. Values that just sort of always hung there.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Values just need to be used in the right way.

The values are essential to create a good culture in the club and in the team, and the values set a framework for the culture. The values guide coaches, players, board members and parents in how to act in an exemplary manner when the individual is on the pitch, in the changing room, at conferences or meetings.

Using values in the right way leads to creating a common understanding of each value. As individuals, we often think that everyone else understands a value in the same way as we do. But this is not necessarily the case, and in order to agree on the meaning of a value, it is useful to ask questions about the value and its context.

Let's use the value "serious" as an example:

How does the athlete act on the value of being serious?

  • Does this mean that the athlete has to put himself ahead of others in his way to the top?
  • Or does it mean that the athlete has to train himself?
  • Or that the athlete must arrive on time?
  • Or that the athlete should take an education next to the sport?

How does the individual coach act on the value?

  • Does the coach highlight the best players?
  • Do everything to win all the matches?
  • Focus on long-term development by giving playing time to everyone?
  • Highlighting results?

To ensure that everyone understands and acts on the values, those involved must have a say in how the values are understood. And how those involved are expected to act on the values. Again, this is not something that can be done in a single meeting. It takes time and immersion to reach agreement and consensus on what the values mean for the club and the team.

Give athletes a say and formulate we-actions

Creating a healthy team culture is a must and a framework condition if you want to see sporting results and success.

As a coach, you have a crucial role in integrating the values into everyday life. You are the leader of the team and must take the lead, which means that at the very least you must always act according to the club's values.

Secondly, it is your job to make sure that the values become a natural part of your daily training and thus in the way you build training and routines and talk to and with your athletes. Include what you recognise and what you do not tolerate.

To ensure that the club culture becomes a permanent part of the team, I recommend that you as a coach involve the athletes in the development process. This means asking questions about how they understand the values, as well as why and how they fit with your team. Most importantly: How should you act on the values - both on and off the field.

For example, if "serious" is one of your values, you can formulate we-actions together. A serious we-action could easily be:

"We always come prepared to training"

And further: what does it mean to come prepared?

You can write the values in the locker room, where the we-actions are under the values. This way you will be reminded daily of how you have agreed to act towards and with each other.

It also means that value clarification and expectation alignment are a key part of developing a strong team culture. So are ongoing evaluations of the values and culture work, so that the team acts in a consistent way and achieves and builds on shared understanding.

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Using values in the right way leads to creating a common understanding of each value. As individuals, we often think that everyone else understands a value in the same way as we do.

Janne R. Mortensen

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