The Gist: Coaches and players build and shape team culture. When coaches co-create team values and tactics with players they give them ownership in the culture-building process. This player-driven approach supports coherence and youth development. More than any single team-building activity, we need to give athletes agency to be culture creators (and leaders) in their everyday actions and interactions to make our desired team culture come alive.
Creating a coherent team culture does not just fall on coaches; players are central to the culture-building process. The actions and interactions of all team members constantly shape culture. Coaches can not only build a coherent culture through reflective practice, but with autonomy-supportive coaching. Autonomy-support refers youth-directed behaviors that coaches exercise to offer athletes choice and agency, and show all players genuine care. During the culture-building process, coaches can shift responsibility to players to be culture creators. They can offer players opportunities to define their own team values and actions that reinforce those aims. In doing so, coaches co-create culture with, rather than for, athletes. Giving athletes ownership better ensures that they internalize team values and behaviors to support coherence. Moreover, a player-driven approach allows coaches to use the culture-building process as teachable moments in which athletes learn to reflect, engage in meaningful, collaborative conversation, and hone leadership skills.
Instead of imposing culture on athletes, coaches can create a space to define and discuss team values/goals with athletes. Just as coaches can use reflective strategies to identify aims and corresponding actions, they can guide their teams to do so. And, we can facilitate conversations about team values and culture with ALL youth athletes—no matter their age (or developmental stage). These are important conversations to have with young people, and we should be careful not to assume that the discussion is “too much for” our athletes—especially younger players—to handle.
To effectively engage youth in the team culture-building process, coaches need to meet athletes where they are. Team culture can be an abstract, dense topic, but the dialogue we have with our players does not have to be complex. How we structure and prompt players to reflect and converse can dictate how abstract, or concrete, the team activity becomes. For younger players (U-8 to U-12) who tend to think less abstractly and more egocentrically, coach direction needs to be simple, concrete, and self-referenced. For older players (U-13 and above) who likely have a greater cognitive capacity to reason abstractly and adopt another person’s perspective, coaches may be able to start the conversation in broader terms and shift more responsibility to players to drive the discussion. Ultimately, just as we did with our own reflective practice, we need to push athletes to be concrete and exact about what team values look like in action—on our team. Here is one activity that I have used with my teams (U-13 and older), along with how you might tweak the activity to meet the developmental needs of younger athletes with whom you are working:
- Prompt athletes with this guiding question: Describe a successful (cohesive) team using three of your senses: look, listen, and feel. What does a successful team look like? What do you hear as a member (or observer) of that team? How do you feel as a member of that team?
Give athletes time to reflect on these questions alone, then have them pair up with another player. Starting off with a smaller discussion will allow athletes who may be hesitant to talk in a larger group setting the chance to work through and express their ideas. After this pair-share, you can bring your team together to debrief. The goal of your team discussion should be to give athletes space to speak to their “look-listen-feel” experience. As a coach, you can provide some input, but your primary aim should be to help pull out shared (and unique) themes across players’ responses. These thoughts, feelings, actions are likely those at the core of your co-created culture. From the sensory experience that athletes use characterize a successful team, guide players to define KEY values (and specific behaviors) of that team—your team. If you decide to use this activity with athletes in middle childhood (U-8 to U-12) or younger, focus the discussion on how players would experience the team from their own perspective. Use simple language when framing and initiating the conversation. Instead of asking players to “talk about team culture” or describe a “successful, cohesive team”, ask them what it looks, sounds, and feels like to be a part of a “team they want to be on”, or “good team”. Be specific and targeted with your questions— such as, “what does it look, listen, feel like to be on a good team?”, “What do good teammates do?”, or “Is there something that a teammate did today in practice that helped you?”. Direct players to focus on how they would personally feel as a member of the team rather than as an observer.
Now that you’ve co-created team values and defined specific actions that players (and you) can use to reinforce those aims, how do coaches continue to involve players in the culture-building process?
Creating a successful, cohesive team takes more than one “team-building” activity or culture-centered conversation. As coaches and players we may think that team building takes place during a single BIG event. Epic ropes courses, long weekend trip/tournaments, and team dinners are among the activities that I fondly remember from when I was a player. While these moments are fun and important, as coaches (and players) we need to think about smaller, subtle opportunities that we have to build and reinforce what we value with our teams. The little actions done consistently over time are what make a BIG IMPACT. Let’s encourage our athletes (and ourselves) to be culture creators and leaders in their everyday actions and interactions with teammates.
Here is a link to an example of an everyday, player-driven practice on the professional stage.
This video could serve as another way for you to guide a discussion on team culture with your players. Have youth athletes identify the culture-building tactic, its purpose, and their own personalized approach. Remember: these strategies need to work for the individual. Helping players think about how to customize this tactic to align with who they are and their relationships with teammates is essential. Player-specific, concrete practices are those that athletes are more likely to use not just once—but integrate into their everyday actions.