I have come to realize that in recent years the word ‘culture’ has become increasingly popular in the analysis of both good and bad team performance. And this straight away took me back to the documentary I watched recently: Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In.
The 13-time Premier League winner was an absolute master in man management, and many deem him to be the best motivator in the history of football. He knew how to implement a ‘winning culture’.
The term winning culture / high-performance environment/ high-performance culture is common nomenclature within sport, but there is scant research and a broad range of definitions regarding this concept, despite how often it is used.
Creating a high-performance environment is deemed the utopia of sport. Fostering this kind of environment however is notoriously difficult and takes a considerable amount of time and energy to do. The culture of a sports team or club can often be seen as very philosophical. However, it is much broader than that. Many cultures within sports teams are highly practical, solid, and real. There are often many challenges that are faced when working in high performance environments for example communication problems, coach and athlete conflict, interference from managers, media reports and financial pressures. The world of elite sport therefore becomes ever more political, ruthless, and fast-paced where results become the focus. The talent within these teams is often very high where athletes and coaches are exceptional at what they do, they are confident in themselves and their abilities but are often sceptical about new or different approaches.
No doubt, there is an unbreakable bond between culture and motivational climate. And where does the coach sit in this environment you ask? The coach is often the most influential significant other in the sporting experience (Pensfaard & Roberts, 2002). The climate that the coach creates via their interpersonal style can be extremely influential to motivation and behaviour. Creating a motivating and high-performance environment can deliver an impact on the performance of athletes.
Creating a high-performance environment is a fundamental building block for any organization. The creation of this environment is a challenge for any leader, and generally requires considerable amounts of observation, perseverance and most importantly, organizational buy-in or in our case sports buy-in.
A culture is the expression of a team's values, attitudes, and beliefs about sports and competition. It determines whether, for example, the team's focus is on fun, mastery, or winning or whether it promotes individual accomplishment or team success. The culture is grounded in an identified sense of mission and shared goals.
The culture creates norms of acceptable behaviour on a team, either explicitly or implicitly conveying to members what is allowed and what is not. These norms can dictate to team members how to behave, communicate, cooperate, and deal with conflict. When clear norms are established, everyone on a team is more likely to abide by them.
Very importantly, the culture creates the atmosphere that permeates every aspect of a team's experience. Is the atmosphere relaxed or intense? Light-hearted or competitive? Supportive or competitive?
All of these qualities of a culture have real implications for how the team functions, how its members get along, and, crucially, how the athletes on the team perform and the results they get. When a team has a defined culture that is understood by all of its members, they feel an implicit pressure (in the good sense) to support that culture.
Coaches can allow the culture of their team to develop in one of two ways.
First, it can emerge naturally as an expression of its individual members. The benefits to this "organic" approach is that team members feel a sense of ownership for the culture because they created it. But there is a risk that the creation of the team will be unfairly shaped by one or a few team members who may be particularly assertive or controlling, leaving other members of the team feeling marginalized and powerless. And a real danger can arise when the team culture is hijacked by a small subset of the team who are more interested in exerting their own power over the team, however unhealthy it might be. The result can be a truly toxic culture that serves neither the best interests of the team as a whole or its individual members.
The second approach is for coaches to take an active (though not dominating) role in the creation of a team culture. Through your leadership and open discussions with team members, your team can identify the values, attitudes, and beliefs that you and your athletes want to act as the foundation of the team culture. You can also discuss what all of you feel is important in terms of the atmosphere you want to create, the expectations the team has about their behaviour, and the way in which team members communicate. This collaborative approach to team culture will ensure that members feel a sense of ownership for the culture and, as a result, are more likely to live by its dictates.
The culture-building process can be a delicate one. You must find a compromise between the different individual interests of your team, while also maintaining unified goals and certain shared values across the group.