No amount of team talks, workshops and lectures can shape a team more than the daily conversations that shape your team’s culture.
Culture conversations are the essence of what it is really like to play on your team. I’ve become convinced that the culture on our team is formed in the conversations that take place every day. In the locker room, at practice, in the weight room, through email, text and social media exchanges, our players and coaches are engaged in conversations. We use these conversations to shape our team’s culture.
In these culture conversations players form an understanding of what they believe to be right or wrong, a sense of what should or shouldn’t be. They learn about each other, and what’s going on. They develop the cultural norms that will shape our individual and collective behaviors. Since I believe in the value of conversations I have always been searching for ways to nurture the right kind of conversations. The conversations our team has can either be engaging and energizing, or depressing and draining. Obviously we want to create the former, rather than the latter.
Negative culture conversations can quickly change any positive feelings within your team. The days of coaching at arms’ length with the only interactions being through team talks are long over. If you say you want to empower your players, to encourage their feedback, and then never have a conversation beyond a team talk, then that’s your culture. Players don’t really believe in what you are saying because they never have a way to communicate directly and specifically what they are feeling. One-on-one and small conversations are critical to creating meaningful conversation. Players will be considerably more engaged if they have regular communication with the coach.
So many articles on culture provide information, and not actionable ideas on a relatively abstract concept. My thinking on the topic of how to use conversations to shape our team’s culture was first stimulated by an article by Sefu Bernard. Please read it here: Your Team Culture Is Held In The Conversations. I reached out to Sefu and we had a conversation about this topic. This was a few years ago now, but the concept became a part of our program, even though at the time I was not clear on a methodology to apply the concept. I believe we have a better handle on our methodology now and I wanted to share it with you.
Actionable Ways we Try to Shape our Team’s Culture
If you believe culture eats strategy for breakfast, you need to nurture the right kind of conversations to create the culture you want. We do this using two primary methods.
1. One-on-One Culture Conversations
Like most coaches I try and connect with my players as much as possible, about life and basketball. Most of these conversations are informal. They happen before, and after, practice, on road trips, and when they have idle time during the day and are hanging out in a lounge area by my office. Some players are easier to connect with than others. Some players will open up more than others. I tried having one-on-one meetings but too often I didn’t feel like I communicated what I needed to communicate. This was because the conversation often got steered in a different direction.
My agenda in these meetings was not specific enough. I had to find a way to separate the one-on-one communications, that I valued so much, and the one-on-one meetings where I wanted to communicate something specific. Fortunately, I read an article about Russ Rose, the highly successful women’s volleyball coach at Penn State University. In the article he discussed the concept of the one minute feedback meetings. Read more about Coach Rose here: Russ Rose: The Man Behind The Dynasty
Here is the practical application of the One Minute Drill for Feedback that we use:
In these meetings I focus only on these three things. We do not deviate from the agenda. If a player brings up another topic, I remind them that this meeting is about these three things. If they wish to discuss another topic we can set it up for a different time. Why is it so important to adhere to these three things? I think a player’s satisfaction with their role on a team has more to do with their lack of understanding of what that role is. Also, if a player does not like their role, I want them to understand how they can work towards changing it. I openly encourage them to work towards a bigger role while understanding the reality of the current role, and its importance to our team’s process. These one minute meetings help me very clearly, and honestly, communicate a player is doing well, what needs improvement and current role.
2. Small Group Culture Conversations
Our goal is to have less team talk and more small group talks. In fact, we start the year with a team talk, where we cover all the topics for the year ahead, but beyond that we don’t have any formal team talks except pre-game, half-time and post-game. We don’t even have team talks before or after practice except sometimes to communicate the schedule for things like practice and departure times, and to follow-up, when needed, on a cultural conversation. We also do team video sessions, but those are more specific towards individual and team improvement or preparation, rather than cultural conversations.
In my experience the sound of one person talking is not a conversation. I have always felt team talks are limited in their effectiveness. They are too general and rarely bring out conversation. They are more lectures than back and forth communications. They key to making a conversation useful is to create interactivity.
We create interactivity by holding culture conversations. We (or the team) divide the team into small groups of three to four players. Each group spends a short period of time discussing a topic. Each group takes notes and summarizes their conversation in a google forms survey I send out afterwards. This provides an opportunity for anything that was discussed to come back to the coach anonymously. If any of the findings require further discussion, or need to be brought up in front of the team, then we do so in a future follow-up.
There are many ways to get feedback from your players. We use Google Forms because it is relatively easy to gather information or to survey our players.
Here is a sample survey we sent to our players after an early season culture conversation. Our goal was to find out how we could help our players moved forward during this early phase of the season.
There are many possibilities for the type of conversations you can create for your players. Here are some other possibilities:
- Conversations on progress.
- Conversations to clarify goals and values.
- Conversations to solve problems.
- Conversations about what’s not working.
- Conversations to celebrate achievements.
- Conversations about life.
How Did the Answers Help Us?
We opened this google form to any player who wanted to respond. Some responded as a group, and some groups encouraged each player to respond separately. Three things jumped out in the what we can change answers. Some of the feedback was about things that I had thought I had explained. The player’s feedback told me differently. This allowed me to re-address specific needs so that they understood why we do certain things. For example, we don’t have a set time for practice. We end when we end. Ending practice is dictated more by academic commitments and the time of the season than the scheduled time.
Since this was early in the year, a player was wondering why we sometimes went beyond the scheduled end time. This was easy to re-address and alleviate any concerns. The same held true for water breaks (players can get water whenever a coach is not teaching, or when a player is not directly needed in a drill) and stretching (we follow the research which argues static stretching is not effective for pre-practice preparation), and videos online (we post 100’s of videos to our private team Facebook group, in addition to each player having access to Synergy, however we had not played any games that were posted to Synergy yet, and our practice footage was being edited).
There are a variety of answers to this question which was understandable given the phase of the season. Also, only two players had played for me before, so these answers allowed me to focus in on very specific things I wasn’t covering to my player’s satisfaction.
These answers confirmed our belief that our players liked the way we practiced and trained. This is a part of forming cultural norms. If there is a lot of variation in these answers you probably are not focusing your players enough on what you believe makes your program successful. Since we constantly talk about the value of learning through 5-on-5, and the benefits of competing every day in practice to improve yourself and teammates, I was not surprised these answers came through.
Please let me know if you have had any success with culture conversations. I always value hearing about the practical methods you have used to help create conversations and cultural norms within your team.