You want a winning college basketball team? You need talent, and experience helps. The ability to knock down shots is necessary, for sure. And, defense and rebounding, well, those are critical. In addition, there is recruiting, skill development and formulating offensive schemes. However, there is another crucial element to success: TEAM CULTURE.
Team culture is hard to define, yet impossible to win without. A positive and healthy team culture is as critical to winning as any physical aspect of basketball.
Here are steps to help coaches build or enhance a team culture that works positively for their team.
Team culture is dynamic, not static
What does this mean? Simply, you cannot expect that whatever your team was about last year will automatically carry over to this year. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel all the time, but you must have a pulse on your current group, and where they stand. Make deposits regularly to keep your culture healthy and strong. Be proactive when you sense a weakness.
Develop core values
One of the beautiful things about coaching is the rhythm of each new season. We all get to start again each year. Whether you define the beginning of your season as the day after the last season ends, or when your new group arrives on campus. Make sure to take the time to define what matters most in your program.
In our program, we meet at the beginning of each school year. We talk about who we want to be as members of Cal Women’s Basketball, what we value, how we want to play, and how we want others to see us. We define the essence of what it means to be part of our program. This meeting always comes before we talk about goals. Goal setting may be important, but in reality, what you are striving for on the court is meaningless without standing on a sturdy, team culture foundation.
Be intentional with your messaging
Once you have defined the core values of your program, it only becomes embedded as your team culture if your players own those values. A legendary coach on Cal’s campus once told me, “if your players can’t articulate what you are about, then it’s not your culture”. So, provide daily reminders of what your team values most. Message it. Maybe you put notecards with key words inside each locker, or hang a sign on the locker room wall. Possibly, the terminology becomes something you say in practice huddles every day. Whatever defines your team culture, make sure it’s part of the vernacular every day, and your buy in will likely grow.
Invest time to build and strengthen culture in season
Maybe you set your culture at the beginning of the year, and you talk about it daily. But, for it to become ingrained, you must invest in it regularly - even when the madness of the season begins. Culture must transcend wins and losses. If being a family is part of what you value on your team, you can’t stop doing team dinners or bonding simply because you lose two games in a row. If a player is discontent with her playing time, she still needs to feel connected and committed to the team and your culture - even as she may struggle with her current role. Positive culture can be harder to maintain as the “roller coaster” of the season takes heed.
Protect against that by staying true to a schedule of events or standards you established in your program. At Cal, we do a series of meetings called Lessons with Geezy throughout the year. Essentially, these are off the court life lessons that are at the fabric of who we are. So, if I have scheduled a Lessons with Geezy on financial literacy in the middle of February, I don’t change it merely because we rebounded poorly last game. In fact, by sticking to the plan, I reinforce the culture in our program that preparing for life off the court is important, too. Do not allow whatever it is that defines your team culture slip (or don’t let your players stray from it) based on how you are performing on the court. This seems like a simple message, but it can be tough to uphold.
Be flexible with approach, not your core values
As I mentioned earlier, culture is not static. It never stays exactly in one place - given all the moving parts in college athletics. As players graduate and new freshman come in, your rosters change each year. You could have a younger team or a more mature team. Maybe some of your strategies with respect to X’s and O’s evolve, or you have winning or losing streaks. Be confident enough in what you stand for to be able to change your approach when necessary. There have been years where our team has played whiffle ball after a tough loss.
We had a veteran team I knew needed to “let it go.” Other years, we handled losses by making practices extra-competitive. Last year, I made a PowerPoint about a devastating social crisis when I thought our team needed to stop feeling sorry for ourselves. My point is, as coaches, you can change your approach without jeopardizing your culture. In fact, as stated earlier, the stronger your culture is, the better you can adjust to specific team needs for a greater buy in toward your program.
Having a strong culture does not guarantee a winning season. However, not having one pretty much assures you won’t win. Find what works for you, and be true to yourself as a coach. What do you want your team and program to stand for? Ask your team what they want to be about. Whatever your style, define what positive culture means to you, and then invest in it. A strong foundation will give your team the opportunity to win. After that, it’s up to you to draw up some good plays.