Establishing a team culture
You’ve put together the drills.
You’ve completed the line-up sheets months in advance.
Your manager is in place and you have the assistant coaches ready to deliver.
Cones counted. Balls all top shelf versions and a rainbow full of pinnies to use.
You are both excited and organized. This is the year it all comes together.
Walking out onto the pitch for your first practice the team seems just as thrilled to be there as you are. The activities start to flow but the group doesn’t quite execute as you had it drawn up. Not to worry, it’s the first session. It will improve.
Next session you begin to see the same bad habits forming in some, and even mild frustration from the other players, towards those who are more squirrely. Again, it’s only the second time together, our organization and the fact that we have prepared all off season will get everybody on board. Seems good enough for pre-season.
After practice you mingle a little and begin to acknowledge that the parents are watching in the sunshine. Then your first question arrives. You’ve been dreading this moment since you received your team list. What do these people want? I know what I am doing. Don’t they realize how much work I have done at my kitchen table?
“How come you guys aren’t doing more shooting drills? We look quite bad at this judging by the first few practices.” Your skin crawls.
Then another parent asks to have a word with you. Quietly taking you to the side they want to know how you are going to deal with the joking attitude that is already happening. Their offspring apparently doesn’t like players who don’t take it seriously.
On the drive home your phone rings and it is yet another parent wondering what your plans for formation were and that if you needed another coach he would be happy to help.
As you hang up you can’t help but think all the work on organizing the year has effectively been worthless. Your brain moves from elated to be out on the pitch with the kids, to frustration, to blaming these parents meddling. And you pay to do this as a volunteer!
Does this sound somewhat familiar or have you watched coaches in your club deal with scenarios similar to this? It should. It happens all over the world and at every level of play but where it hurts the most is at the younger ages when development, emotionally and physically, is sorely misunderstood.
I’m going to let you in on a secret to basically eliminating any of this type of mess.
Start With Your Team’s Culture and Environment.
What? Culture? What’s that?
Isn’t that the fluffy stuff that businesses talk about? You know the vision and mission stuff? How will that benefit my 11 year olds or my 7 year old daughter and how will they even understand that stuff?
Indeed, culture and environment have increasingly become more important to businesses and organizations around the world, and if you prepare properly you can put together a simple plan that will lead your coaches, parents, and players for the entire season.
Why is it important to start with attitude and defining a culture?
Like many of the best clubs on the planet having a foundation and belief system allows everyone from the head coach, to the fans, to the administration staff, to know what they are working so hard for and even why they should care.
Take Barcelona for instance.
“More than just a club.”
When things go south with a staff member or club ultra group they can lean on their foundation of “more than just a club” to bring people back into check. More often than not, the people will police themselves because they know they are part of something bigger. How about developing players? If you are more than just a club do you develop players to simply use them for money and only care about winning, or do you care about producing beautiful people while aiming to win at all levels of life? Deep questions but at the heart of the answers lies the true culture of an organization or team.
Of course there are deeper examples but look at clubs like Ajax, Barcelona, and more importantly smaller clubs like Leyton Orient and Southampton. They began to get the culture right, the best people were attracted to those environments, and their teams began improving. At that level it is extremely difficult to do and very easy to lose but vital to performance at all tiers of the club.
Establishing a culture around your little team allows everybody involved to know what you want to achieve, why everybody is important, what the goals might look like and where the entire group is striving to get to. It gives everybody connection to the results.
In youth soccer it is perhaps the most important piece because without building a conversation, seen as a culture of development, of everybody getting better, you will by default have a culture of win-at-all-cost thrust upon you.
If you don’t create a culture you want, you will end up with one you don’t want. There is no in between.
Nobody wins in that scenario.
How do you build your team culture?
Establishing a team culture does not need to be difficult but it must be something you believe in. It has to be your strongest opinions and you need to really be a living example of what you want the group to be about.
You can’t tell everyone that the team is all about development and then secretly want to win every game or play your best players the whole game while others sit. Authenticity and integrity is of paramount importance for the leader of the team.
Begin your season by determining what you want from the team. Do you want your seven year olds to get better at dribbling, understanding they need to use both feet, or maybe even begin to entertain the importance of practice. What if your ten year olds became a team rather than just a group of individuals? What are your technical goals for the group? Write it down.
How do you want practices and games to go? I don’t mean winning. I mean the attitude the players bring and what would make life amazing for your staff and players? What are your expectations of the parents and why?
Now look at those goals and the environment you want. What will it take to bring that out in the group?
Now choose one word, or phrase, to be the foundation of all your thoughts. Yes, one word. I love words that initially seem simple but on further reflection have great depth. Words like brave, courage, fun, determination, focus, hungry, best, or phrases like team-first, more than just a club, deliver more, are all great examples of words that will become your theme for the year.
I have used many of these words to easily and simply establish a team culture from the very start of the season. The first minute of the first practice. Look at your group, their age, what level they are playing at and choose carefully for them. It is pointless if the depth of the theme is way ahead of where they are at. Fun for a sixteen year old elite level team won’t take hold in the group if they are already living a focused type of existence. Try to bring out what they might be up to and what you’re teaching in practice is about.
Last year I had a group of talented nine and ten year olds and we lived to be Brave. From the outset we encouraged the group to be brave about their passes and to be brave with the ball. From day one we established a scenario that it was courageous to play to the goalie and to play to another teammate who may be under pressure. Brave play working towards a goal of a possession-based team that isn’t scared or afraid to play from the back.
We didn’t stop there. What was it like to be brave at school? Brave at home? We used practice to get deeper into the meaning of the word. Right within warm-up and within the activities. Stopping play to coach and teach and reinforce being brave. We looked at ourselves as coaches and aimed to take out fear from our culture. Adding stress or the fear of losing wasn’t courageous for us as adults.
Brave permeated our team talks, our parents began to cling to it as we talked to them more. We even got some t-shirts made up with BRAVE written across the front. Culture.
Our parents were a big part of our plan. As coaches we stood firm on our goals of simply making the players better by the end of the year. That was our top goal that all other measurements fell under.
From the first practice we engrained our theme into the players and then quite quickly with the rest of our group after a mandatory parent meeting was held. This was extremely important and is truly the next step for you as a leader.
The meeting was used to explain our beliefs, that their children were in good hands and that we believed in making their kids better. Just like school, at the end of the day that resonates with parents. They want to see them getting better. We explained that winning was not our goal and why, but that we thought there could be some good scoreboard results if we continued down the right path. We established clear metrics for how our success would be measured and how they could follow along. We invited them to partake in player team talks and were transparent with our developmental goals. Then we told them about how the players were being coached to be brave and what that meant. This is where we encouraged and made the invitation to our parents to look at what being brave might be for them.
Frustrated by your son’s performance? It would be brave to cheer positively.
Annoyed by the position they were placed in for that game. It might be brave to think team first.
Maybe it was brave to trust that the coaches knew what they were doing.
Perhaps it would be brave to never discuss poor performances in the car.
Would it be brave to take on new measurements of success and innovative programs they had never seen before?
Parents bought t-shirts to wear to games, sent us songs that had the word brave firmly in the lyrics, took on roles they had never wanted and we very quickly became a club. Not a team. A club. All parts equal.
Surprisingly, it actually may have taken longer to write this than to execute the first steps of the cultural plan. The thinking was where the tough work was accomplished. Taking the time to dream what you want from the year and be realistic with those plans. Finding information from around the soccer globe to back up your points and then use that information appropriately.
For us, it was Brave to be different and establish a solid plan for how we would make everyone better. Then we stayed true to our culture the entire season.
So, in a nutshell, here are the steps to building a solid culture that will allow you to teach soccer to your best ability:
What do you want the players to accomplish this year? How will you measure it? Are you clear that this is developmentally appropriate? Leave no stone unturned in your thinking. Find a plan that has been thought through thoroughly so you can adopt it.
Determine the word or phrase that most fits your goals? Is it Brave for passing out of the back? Is it fun for six year olds just learning the game?
Establish from the minute your first meet your players what that word is and why. “Boys, we are going to be a possession style team and we will need to be brave enough to pass to our goalie under pressure. We will work with you all season to develop this and teach you to become better players. You’ll need to trust us and I promise we won’t get mad at you for trying.” Layer one started. Fifteen seconds. Continue to use and embed the word. Ask questions of it’s meaning on and off the field.
Establish the goals for the team. How you will measure their performance so they know. Under twelve the scoreboard doesn’t measure performance, and in fact, even professional coaches will attest that performance sometimes isn’t linked to the score. Be careful about wins meaning you look good. Measure performance indicators and establish ways, like Play Better, where the metrics matter more than the score.
Talk to the parents and invite them into your theme with a very simple parent meeting that you have seriously considered. What, why and how? Be transparent and strong. It can be difficult but in the end build a culture so strong that the parents feel bad by not being a part of it and are actually compelled to be a big part of it.
Be consistent throughout the year. Culture is not a one day thing. It is a way your team lives when they show up to the field…and hopefully when away from the field.
Now your drills and your practice plans have the best foundation to exist. They work because everybody is on the same page, no matter what their ability, and everybody is valued.
Culture is king!
Good luck this season.
Go. Play Better.
P.S. The Play Better program instantly creates a new culture for your team. It brings out a new way of seeing development, holistically, and puts the onus on adults to teach the right things to our players. If you want support building a solid bases for your players to learn from please call us. We want to help everybody take the next step in holistic player development.