We don't need more books on team culture. The business world and the coaching world are both littered with content about culture. Yet, I bet that every individual reading this has experienced a work environment or an athletic environment with a toxic culture. With all the information available today, why don't leaders intentionally cultivate a positive environment? In his book "The Power of Habit," Charles Duhigg writes, "Destructive organizational habits can be found within hundreds of industries and at thousands of firms. And almost always, they are the products of thoughtlessness, of leaders who avoid thinking about the culture and so let it develop without guidance." In others words, you must set the culture or the culture will set itself.
Culture isn't a goal; it's a strategy. I adapted this idea from a baseball book called "The Shift," written by Russell Carleton. Carleton references a Harvard Business Review article that talked about goals versus strategies. According to the article, saying "great customer service" is a goal is meaningless. All of your competitors would state that great customer service is a company goal. But who will allocate time and resources and commit to great customer service? Carleton writes, "A real strategy forces you to make choices between options when it's not obvious what the answer is." In other words, spending time on building a positive team culture is a strategic choice, not a goal. You must intentionally choose to spend time building a positive environment, even if it means less time spent in other areas.
The coaching profession lost a giant when University of Washington Head Football Coach Chris Petersen stepped down in December 2019. At Boise State and at Washington, Petersen built one of the best team cultures in all of college athletics. For his program, culture wasn't just a goal; it was a strategy. Petersen valued camaraderie over bullying, building confidence over dressing down players, and teaching over yelling. As another former football coach said, "The culture of love and respect is 8,000 times more powerful than the culture of fear. It just takes longer to establish." Petersen established his winning culture at two schools, but it didn't just happen. It took a long time to establish, and he prooved willing to let players leave who would not buy into his ideals. Petersen emphasized culture. He allocated time to building a positive team environment. He connected with players. His "Built For Life" program demonstrated a daily emphasis on academics and life beyond football. And the end result was a football program built to compete for Pac 12 championships and young men pursing a degree from a world-class institution. When author and speaker Jon Gordon visiting the UW Football program, he was blown away by the way the players listened and the quality of the questions they asked. He said it was like an Ivy League atmosphere.
Culture First. Success Later.
What price would you pay for a winning culture? Michael Lombardi asked that question in an article for The Athletic in which he talked about Matt Ruhle. Lombardi wrote, “Winning culture builders are like franchise quarterbacks- they can never be overcompensated.” The article was published after the Carolina Panthers hired Matt Ruhle to be their Head Coach. Ruhle came from the college ranks and he had won at every stop. He built a great defense and a highly competitive program at Temple University, not exactly a football powerhouse. They were 2-10 in his first season and 6-6 in year two. They followed that up with two 10-win seasons in years three and four. He then went to Baylor where he took over after one of the biggest scandals in all of college sports which cost the jobs of the Head Football Coach, the Athletic Director, and the University President. Ruhle’s first year was all about laying the foundation. The team finished with a 1-11 record. As the article put it, “Culture first. Success later.”
In the second year, they started to see results on the field. Ruhle’s Baylor squad finished 7-6. And in only his third year, they burst onto the scene with a trip to the Big 12 Championship game and an 11-2 regular season record, with the only two losses being close battles with Oklahoma. They ended the season losing the Sugar Bowl to finish 11-3, an amazing turnaround considering the scandal Baylor had faced prior to Ruhle arriving. Now, he was headed to the NFL.
So, what price would you pay for a winning culture? Matt Ruhle is a winning culture builder. Chris Petersen is a winning culture builder. Iowa State Head Football Coach Matt Campbell is a winning culture builder. My wife, Kari Raymond, is a winning culture builder. She builds winning cultures in high school volleyball and the high-stakes world of club volleyball. I often wonder what it would be like for her to coach at the college level. There may be no greater challenge in the sport of volleyball, then trying to bring together ten 14- or 15-year-old girls from different schools, unify them, and move them toward a common goal through eight months of practice, travel, and competition. Imagine building that winning culture over four years. Whether it is varsity, junior varsity, 14-1s, or leading the 15-year-old age division at Northern Lights, building a positive environment is a strategy for her. She intentionally works to build a positive culture every day. She is a winning culture builder in the volleyball world. Winning culture builders can never be overcompensated. Like a Matt Campbell at Iowa State, one person- in the right position of leadership- can make all the difference in the world.
When Kari interviewed for her high school math teacher position at Lakeville South High School, the administrator who sat in on the interviews was a veteran wrestling coach. He had no idea of my wife's two national championships, her reputation as a culture builder, and her numerous accolades in the sport of volleyball. In retrospect, Kari should have brazenly introduced herself by saying, "I am the Jim Jackson of volleyball." That's a connection Mr. Administrator would have quickly made. Jim Jackson is one of the best high school wrestling coaches in the country, and he also signifies the difference one person can make.
In 2020, the Lakeville School District celebrated Lakeville South High School’s first win over Apple Valley High School in wrestling. They made a big deal about it, but there was a problem. The man who built Apple Valley High School into a wrestling power was no longer there. Jim Jackson led Apple Valley High School to 14 state titles in 15 years. Think about that. In a state rich in wrestling history, Jackson led his program to 14 state titles in 15 years! He retired from coaching to spend more time with family. After a few years away, he got back into the sport building a new powerhouse in the southwest suburb of Shakopee.
Jackson was the type of coach who set expectations about how his wrestlers should treat other people. He taught them how to treat the bus drivers that drove them to meets. They were warriors on the mat and courteous young men off. Just a few short years after taking over at Shakopee High School, Coach Jackson had built a new powerhouse at a school with zero history of success in wrestling. Now Shakopee was among the top 2 teams in the state and Apple Valley High School slipped from relevance as Jackson’s fingerprint on that program was now farther and farther removed. The Lakeville School District was looking for something to celebrate, but their first win over the Apple Valley Wrestling program now meant nothing. Apple Valley was becoming less relevant. Shakopee High School was now the beast. What a difference one excellent coach can make.
If I coached college volleyball, I would walk into the interview and tell the search committee, “We are going to be the best place in the country to play college volleyball. I didn’t say we are going to be the best team, I said best place to play, which is controllable. The best girls, the best coaches, the best team culture, the best training methods, the best practices, the most positive group.” You could also walk into your team meeting, like Urban Meyer did at Utah, and say, "You know, there are only about eight teams in the nation that ever do things the right way. And we're going to be one of those teams." But it doesn't just happen. It must be a strategy, not a goal. And you must allocate time to building your team culture.
Rick Pitino wrote four things on the board in the locker room. His Providence basketball players had brainstormed and reported the four most important areas of the their lives. Basketball, Education, Hard Work, and Togetherness. Pitino was new to Providence and had just inherited this group. With the players huddled around and with these four things written on the board, Pitino addressed his new team:
"How many of you want to be professional basketball players someday?" I asked.
Virtually every hand in the room went up.
"Well, since you've had a losing season last year and there is no one here in this room who averaged at least ten points a game last year, it's obvious you are not a success in the basketball part of your lives," I said, erasing one quarter of the blackboard. "And since I've seen your grade point averages, it's also obvious you aren't successful in school either."
The room went silent as I erased another quarter of the blackboard. Then I turned to the trainer and asked him how many players had been in the gym every day since the season ended. I wanted to know how many had been working on their games.
"No one, Coach," the trainer said.
"So, it's obvious you don't work hard either," I said erasing another quarter of the blackboard.
Then I started raising my voice.
"Let's see," I said. "You aren't successful in basketball, you aren't successful in school, and you don't work hard. What's left?"
I paused for emphasis.
"Well, hopefully you're a close team," I finally said. "Hopefully you care about each other."
"Oh, we do Coach," said a player named Harold Starks. "We're a close team."
I pretended to think for a minute.
"Okay, Harold, how many brothers does Steve Wright have?"
Starks slowly shook his head.
"What does Billy Donavan's father do for a living?"
Harold now looked like a deer stuck in the headlights.
"So, you really don't know anything about each other, do you?" I asked.
No one spoke.
I made each player stand up and talk about himself and his family. Then something wonderful happened. What had been twelve individuals suddenly become a cohesive unit. The makings of a team.
When it comes to culture, I stole a lot of material from Messiah Soccer, a Division III dynasty in soccer, a place that wins national championships but knows that winning is not their highest purpose. If you want to study team culture read the book "The Messiah Method." The authors write, “The best place to play means you love the girls you’re playing with. It means you develop deep relationships that go well beyond soccer. It means you have awesome team chemistry where what the team needs is more important than what you need- and you fully buy-in to that. It means you fight for playing time but you don’t hold that against your teammate- that you’re not mad when you’re subbed out, but instead, you’re excited for the guy who came in for you. And it means you have each other’s back.” I want to talk about connecting with you players and understanding they we are all wired differently. I want to share some principles you can use to build a positive team culture. But first I want to address forming your team or selecting your team. Because the biggest mistake you can make is in team selection. As Messiah Soccer states it, "You don't want to burden the right people with the wrong people."
We're Not Just Collecting Players
This entire series of posts started when the Stevens Institute of Technology and Colby College were looking for Head Volleyball Coaches. I am convinced that those jobs are among the best college coaching jobs in the country. Division III schools like Stevens and Tufts and Wash U and Colby and Carleton College offer a world- class education and the opportunity to participate in Division III athletics. If world class institutions also commit to athletic excellence, then you have some of the best college coaching jobs in America.
However, I have an issue with some D3 schools, and it impacts team culture. You don’t need 38 players on your volleyball team, and it’s detrimental to the culture of the program. I have no idea why Central College has 38 players on their Division III volleyball team. I have no idea why Division III programs think they need a JV squad. Resources should be focused on one squad of a manageable number of players. The University of Minnesota manages to develop the players in their program without a JV squad. Coaches who develop players don't need a JV schedule to make their players better. Kari comes from the club volleyball world where she plays the entire season with ten players. As a varsity head coach in large suburban high schools, she cut players and carried ten on the varsity squad. For college, I can see having 12-16 players in your college volleyball program. When I see 38 players on a volleyball team, there is nothing hard about making the squad. There is nothing special about it. The Navy SEALs do not have a JV squad. You either make the cut or you don’t. D3 schools don’t need JV programs.
Keeping 38 players is detrimental to the culture of the program. As a coaching candidate for a D3 job, I would address this at the interview. What is the athletic department's philosophy on JV squads? Is there a no-cut policy? Those questions will answer a number of other questions for me. For one, what type of autonomy do I have as the head coach? If I am not allowed to cut or if I am forced to have a JV squad, then obviously the coach does not have autonomy. Number two, am I trying to build a program that can compete at the national level or are you using volleyball to help bring students to the college. Believe me, an athletic program that competes at the national level can bring qualified students to the college, but am I the admission office or the leader of the volleyball program?
The short list of Division III coaching jobs in America for us would include world-class institutions- academic institutions that kids want to attend. Kids want to attend Tufts. They want to attend Stevens. They want to attend Colby College. They don’t need a JV program in order to attract students. I'm bothered by the D3 mindset of, "I played volleyball in high school. I'll give it a try in college." As Geno Auriemma said, "Kids don't become All-Americans here, banners didn't go up in this building just by showing up and saying, 'Hey coach, I want to give it a shot.'" I'm not looking to attract student-athletes who want to wear a volleyball jersey one last time. Honestly, those kids might need to find new avenues for their time and energy. They don’t need the presence of a JV team to convince them to come to the school.
There should be something special about wearing the jersey. If a college program is recruiting like it should, you know who is coming in. You recruited them; you watched them play. You know who they are. After serving on the staff of two national championship contending, D3 programs, I know there are few surprises. Very few times do you have a kid show up for your team, someone you know nothing about, who ends up making an impact in your program. It’s special to be a Navy SEAL. It should be special to be a part of the Stevens Ducks volleyball program. It’s not for everyone and that’s ok.
From a culture standpoint, team chemistry becomes more difficult the larger the group gets. For a team of five people, 10 relationships need to be nurtured for every member to be connected to every other member. For a team of 10, 45 relationships must be maintained. To expect 38 team members to build relationships with each other in a sport where six players are on the court at a time is not realistic. High school volleyball deals with cuts. Club volleyball deals with cuts. Division III student-athletes can handle cuts. We want people to be involved and there is value in finding a way to have great people involved in your program whether as a player or a manager or videographer. But there are limits. It needs to be a special unit.
As head coaches, we’re not just collecting and accumulating players. Michael Lombardi often writes about culture for The Athletic. In talking about Pat Riley, Lombardi wrote, "Riley knows how to build the right team- he's not just collecting players. He's putting together a team that understands his culture, with the type of players he needs in order for that culture to exist. Instead of finding talent, Riley eliminates players who don't fit his specific profile." As the Kurt Russell character Herb Brooks said in the movie Miracle, "I'm not looking for the best players. I'm looking for the right ones."
In 2014, Kari Raymond did not select the 10 best players for her club volleyball team. But she selected the ten right ones. She built the right team. They won the national championship, but it wasn't based on talent alone. Kari's 2005 National Championship team won because they were an extremely talented group of players who loved to train and proved to be the best team on the floor. The 2014 team was talented, but they were unique in how they came together. It was an extremely cohesive and unselfish group. Kari and her assistant coach, Greta, selected five middles and zero outside hitters for their squad. They were going to build the right team and- to some degree- position did not matter. Players embraced new roles for the good of the team. They were unified. There was zero drama. And they peaked at the right time. They finished the season 28-0, including going undefeated at nationals. Equally important, it was a special group of parents. The best way to describe that team might be a Proactive Coaching quote we saw on a social media post. It says, “Only a few times in life are you able to gather a group of people who share passion, ability, commitment, desire, and respect. If they can use those qualities to find a common purpose and build an intentional culture, they become a team of significance and are difficult to beat. I wish every athlete could experience this!”
Oklahoma Women's Basketball Coach, Sherri Coale, once told an audience of coaches, “If there’s one thing that can make us more effective coaches, it's spending more one-on-one time with our players.” A major part of building the culture is connecting with your players. Our program can be summed up easily: TEACH, CONNECT, and RECRUIT. Teach every day. Connect with your players every day. Recruit every day. The coaching staff must be intentional about connecting with every person in the program.
I think every coach in America should read the chapter in the book "The Culture Code" that talks about Gregg Popovich. Popovich is a master at building culture and connecting with players. And he does it in the NBA, where countless successful coaches have gone and failed because they can't relate to professional athletes. If you read the chapter, you will see how intentional Popovich is about connecting with his players every single day. From the way he interacts with players during pre-practice stretching to the time he spends with players over team meals, everything is built on connecting with players.
In the book, "The Messiah Method," the authors write, “Team chemistry isn’t something that we just hope for. It’s something that we work really hard at. It’s not easy, it’s not simple, and it doesn’t just happen.” For years, my wife has used puzzle pieces, individual notebooks, and support squad partners to build communication, kill cliques, and develop a cohesive group of ten players. Every year, she has a plan. And that plan is executed daily with one goal- no team drama and 10 members of a team, who know how to be good teammates. But it doesn't just happen. If you don't set the culture, the culture will set itself.
You'll have to ask her about support squad partners and how she uses player journals. But I will share about the puzzle pieces. She stole the idea from my mentor, John Tschida. Kari actually stole it and tweaked it. Long after I worked with Tschida at the University of St. Thomas, Championship Productions worked with him to produce a number of coaching videos. They became instant best-sellers. So, many years after my St. Thomas days, I was coaching high school softball and needed to brush up on my softball knowledge. One of Tschida's videos was an all-access series. It takes you through a few days of practice just as if you would be sitting there on campus.
At the end of practice, Tschida had a post-practice meeting and they recognized a player. For example, who had the best focus. If I remember right, they would even ask a pitcher to recognize a hitter who was really dialed in during batting practice. Kari took that idea and has used it for many years for her high school and club volleyball teams. The player recognized is awarded a puzzle piece. It sounds simple, but everyone enjoys being recognized for their work and players love collecting puzzle pieces throughout the season. Plus, the players learn to communicate with their teammates. Kari will also have the recipient, turnaround and honor a player she thinks had the the best communication or best focus or whatever the theme may be. Year after year, players say the puzzle pieces are one of their favorite parts of the season.
I once heard Mike Krzyzewski say, “My job as a coach is to not destroy a kid.” Coaches can award puzzle pieces too. Players need to hear positives from their coaches, and it's good for coaches to recognize players in front of their teammates. Too many times coaches think we need to break them down in order to build them back up. But each player is wired differently. Some of them don't need to be broken down. Your job is to not destroy a kid. Recognizing players with puzzle pieces, giving them writing assignments in a notebook, assigning partners that rotate throughout the season- these are all intentional efforts to build a winning culture.
To build a positive team culture, you must mandate that the team spend time together. Messiah Soccer calls this "Forced family fun." Another key that Messiah talks about is “One-on-One Gets It Done.” Kari uses her Support Squad Partners to vary which players warm-up together. When you coach 14- and 15-year-old girls long enough, you learn to be intentional about setting the culture or the culture will set itself. No worrying about who your partner is for practice drills. No wasting time as 10 girls seek to divide themselves up into partners. Partners are assigned and rotate on a schedule so that every player will spend a certain number of weeks partnering with every other member of the squad. If you just let the girls decide, you will soon see the same two players always warming up together and soon little cliques form. Be intentional in helping all members of the team build one-on-one relationships with each of their teammates.
Be hard to play against but easy to play with. Again, we love how Messiah Soccer states this: "Teammates are to say nothing and do nothing that undermines one another, and on the receiving end, they’re not to interpret comments or actions as personal attacks. The default assumption is that no one in this program does anything to harm or disparage anyone else- so don’t do it and don’t hear it that way. Be a team of grace. Be hard to play against, but easy to play with."
Selflessness means the team comes first. Again, Messiah calls it "Team Over Individual: It’s Not About You." An individualistic mindset endangers team chemistry; a community mindset enables it. It’s not about you. The Messiah coaching staff said, “We told them right up front as freshman: ‘There may be no decision in four years that is in your best interest. Get it through your head now- where we eat, what we do on a Friday night, how we warm up- it may never be the way you want to do it.’"
You must teach kids to be good teammates. The club volleyball world is as bad as juniors hockey. The focus on winning, the parental pressure, and the hope of millions of dollars in the NHL or full-ride Division I scholarship have created out-of-control worlds for juniors hockey and club volleyball. In these two high-stakes worlds, there's drama among parents and drama among players. University of Minnesota Head Volleyball Coach Hugh McCutcheon said, “The club volleyball scene on the women’s side does our athletes a little bit of a disservice in that they play so often, they play so much. A lot of their socialization among their peers becomes connected to their team. And instead of developing real friendships, this teammate/friendship thing gets blurred and instead of being a team now we are kind of a pseudo sorority or we become a theatre troupe where there’s a lot of drama. And then they get to college and they want to transfer that idea of what a team is. And of course that can’t be what a successful team is. You can’t have those kinds of behaviors and expect to be the best that you can be.
“I think we have to teach our kids to be teammates. Among other things that means they’re friendly, and they are inclusive. They take responsibility for their actions. And they hold people accountable. That, to me, becomes the priority- teaching them to be great teammates first and foremost. If you have people on teams that can be good teammates, then you are going to get really solid friendships that will evolve from that. In fact, I imagine, you will get lifelong friendships that will evolve from that.”
Building the culture of your program must be a strategy. And it's never just one thing. You must build the right team. As a staff, connect with players every single day. Be intentional about avoiding cliques and helping players develop relationships with every member of the team. Teach players to be selfless. Teach them to be good teammates. And as the head coach, understand that it all comes down to relationships and knowing your players.
The Beauty of Coaching
Part of connecting with your athletes is understanding that we are all wired differently. We are all wired differently. Mike Krzyzewski said, “Each team I coach is different because each individual is different. That’s the beauty of coaching and it's one of the things I love about each team.” Later, he added, “Almost everything in leadership comes back to relationships… The only way you can possibly lead people is to understand people. And the best way to understand them is to get to know them better.”
I love assessments like the DiSC. For the past seven years or so, Kari and I have been using the DiSC tool to help us understand our players and better communicate with them. We have used this tool with 14-year-olds, with high school volleyball players, with club volleyball players, and with high school softball players. It is not a personality inventory. It’s a wonderful tool to help us understand how individuals typically behave and how they typically respond to situations. The wonderful thing about assessments, according to a top CEO in Silicon Valley, it really doesn’t matter which one you choose. Once you have completed one, you have this awareness that you are wired differently than the people around you. And I believe that is missing for many coaches. We need to understand that our players are all wired differently. They aren't motivated by the same things. They learn differently. They respond to losing differently. They aren't like you.
The 30 for 30 documentary called, "The Best That Never Was" chronicled former Oklahoma Football player Marcus DuPree. It is an outstanding documentary about one of the mostly highly-recruited football players in the 1980s. It might not paint Barry Switzer in the best light, but, I give Switzer a lot of credit. The wise, veteran coach, is able to admit his mistake in how he coached Marcus DuPree. DuPree chose Oklahoma and ended up being an impact player immediately as a freshman. Injuries, burnout, homesickness, and friction with the coaching staff seemed to plague his sophomore season and DuPree eventually left OU. In the documentary, you get to know this mild-mannered superstar athlete who didn't need to be berated by his coaches. He was a young, small town Mississippi boy, living in a fishbowl. He missed his family and needed his confidence built. He didn't need Switzer dressing him down in front of media or the team. Years later, Switzer, with a Super Bowl ring and three national championships to his credit, told the documentary film crew, "I was probably a little tougher on Marcus than I had to be. My handling of him was probably the most regrettable coaching experience that I had."
I love that quote from Switzer because it gets back to the idea of trying to know and understand your players. The Netflix documentary Last Chance U provides two great examples of toxic cultures and examples of coaches who coach every kid the same way. Seasons 1 and 2 looked at a junior college football program in Mississippi and seasons 3 and 4 looked at a junior college football program in Kansas. All four seasons are like watching a train wreck. And ironically, two different players provided keen insight about their experiences playing for the two head coaches depicted. Isaiah Wright, star running back who played for the head coach depicted in seasons 1 and 2 said, "He’s a good coach. He’s a good coach. He knows what he’s talking about. He knows what he’s doing. I can just say that where he lacks is he lacks in knowing his players. He lacks in knowing where his players come from, how they react to stuff, and how they don’t react to stuff. And then he just…he misreads people.”
How can you possibly engage and motivate and teach players if you don’t understand them or if you treat them all the same? During the middle of a game, Carlos Thompson, a wide receiver in Season 3 said of the head coach, “We gotta talk to Coach Brown. He’s gotta calm down. That dude don't respond to that. That makes him shut down. He gotta realize what kind of team he’s got. He’s gotta realize that.” Be strategic about the team culture you establish. Allocate time to building a positive team environment. If not, the culture will set itself and you could end up with a disaster that looks like Last Chance U.
What price would you pay for a winning culture in your Division 3 volleyball program? What price would you pay for a winning culture at your workplace. Don't just collect players. Build the right team. You don't want to burden the right people, with the wrong ones. Nick Saban once said, "You want to know what my goal for spring practice is? Get the right guys on the bus. Get them in the right seats and get the wrong guys off the bus." Build the right team, be intentional about the culture of your program, and connect with your players every single day. Spend time with them. Allocate time to building a positive culture. Even if laying the foundation means a 1-11 record in year one, have the conviction to say culture first, success later.