Defining a Team Culture
This is a difficult topic for me to write about. I’ve had other coaches ask me on multiple occasions how we ‘do’ things at Nazareth College. Up until a couple of years ago, I never really spent that much time thinking about it. We just did ‘it’. Unable to define what ‘it’ is up until recently, I’ll give it a shot today.
As our throwers were arriving to practice on Monday, I asked them how their weekend was. We had a meet the Friday before, and going more than two consecutive days without seeing my throwers is very uncommon. As we were discussing the practice format for the day, they told me they got together on Saturday and had a potluck lunch. They organized this on their own. I was very pleasantly surprised that they organized such an event, on their own, without any prodding from me or any of the other coaches.
Like I mentioned, up until a couple of years ago, I didn’t really pay attention to our team culture. It ultimately ended up coming back to bite me in 2017. I was left confused, shaken, and distraught in the fact that I had lost my kids. No, not at a track meet. But lost in a sense that they didn’t believe in me and our program. I assumed (it is never ok to assume anything) that everything was ok. The year prior our seniors handled anything that may have come to the surface. If there was an issue brewing, they let me know. Otherwise, they handled most of the team bonding and culture building on their own (another big mistake).
After that 2016-17 season, I tried my best in 2017-18 to approach things differently. I was more positive at practice. I was more cognizant of my words/phrasing of things in conversation. I always thought I expressed an interest in their majors, life activities, and other happenings that college students have to face and deal with on a regular basis. Unfortunately, a lot of what I tried to implement was viewed in vain. I had one senior athlete that had been with us through the very best of times and the very worst of times. My attempt at being a more positive and nurturing coach faltered.
Thinking back to the 2014-15 season, I called or emailed some of my former throwers while I was working on my doctorate. A lot of our presentations and group projects were focused on our leadership abilities, decision-making skills, and ways to overcome adversity. I presented about situations I faced as a throwing coach at two very different NCAA Division III institutions. I asked my former throwers to create short videos about times we agreed, disagreed, handled adversity, and overcame obstacles together to realize their (the athletes’) goals they had set out for themselves. A lot of what came back centered on positive coaching skills. They shared their thoughts about open communication, goal-setting, and transferring track skills into life skills.
Getting back to coaching at Nazareth, I spent a lot of time over the summer thinking about how I was going to approach this 2018-19 season. With a new group of throwers, I wanted to make sure that we shared our expectations for the season, goals we wanted to achieve, and plan out how we were going to do that. Before our season officially started, I met with each thrower individually. I asked them to share their ideas for the upcoming season, how they liked to be coached, and how we could balance their coursework with practice times.
Most importantly, we shared expectations. I asked each person individually to share their expectations they had for me and what I expected of them. This part of the conversation is what I believe has helped establish our Nazareth College throwing culture. Let me correct that, these conversations shaped our culture because each thrower shared their expectations with everyone else. We kept those expectations posted in our practice area. Every day we had practice, they were reminded of what they expected of themselves, what they expected of me, and what they expected from the group.
Each day we talked about our expectations. What we expected from ourselves and our team. It wasn’t until we started discussing recruits and who they would stay with for their overnight visits that I realized we had come together as a group. As I was sharing details about how overnight trips typically went, one of the athletes asked me if the recruits had to throw with us if they decided to come to Naz. I was caught off guard, and wasn’t sure where this conversation was going. Another athlete said, “Yeah, if we don’t like her can we tell you? We don’t want anyone to come that isn’t going to fit in with our team.” It was at that moment that I realized we had finally come together as a team and had established our culture.
We established our culture by:
When I first started coaching, the 22-year old me would not have felt comfortable with my athletes sharing what they expected of me and what they expected of their teammates. There were times during my first couple years as coach that I did not feel comfortable having difficult conversations with my athletes. I was afraid to have the discussion. I remember my stomach getting tied up in knots at the thought of having a difficult conversation. Now, I encourage my athletes to share their thoughts on a daily basis.
We had just finished our weight room session this afternoon when I asked them what they thought of the past couple of weeks. They shared what they liked, didn’t like, and what they wanted to try differently. The younger me would not have wanted to change course. But, I value their opinions and only they know how they feel after a training session or weight lifting session. I also met with a couple of throwers individually. For some, plans have slightly changed. For others, we are staying the course because, as they told me, they feel comfortable with how things are going and that they are making progress every day. For the couple that asked to make some changes, we are going to do so. It’s not what is supposed to make me feel comfortable, but what makes my athletes comfortable.
1/28/2019 05:18:04 pm
Amazing article. I believe it takes a great deal of courage to ask these-questions. I also believe that this style builds great human beings, not just great athletes. I feel that many of your strategies could be incorporated and/or modified into a high school program. Thank you for your willingness to share.
1/29/2019 08:12:09 pm
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Dr. Charles Infurna
Charles Infurna, Ed.D., is the owner and lead coach of Forza Athletics Track Club. Dr. Infurna has coached National Record Holders, National Champions, All-Americans, and Conference Champions at the Post-Collegiate, Collegiate, and High School level.