In light of the Alen Stajcic dismissal and his proceeding media statement surrounding the team culture, I wonder, is it possible that he didn’t actually know how bad the culture was? Or perhaps, he didn’t want to know because accepting that there was a huge cultural problem would mean accepting that he was potentially responsible for it. And that’s a pretty tough pill to swallow.
I’ve seen this time and time again with coaches, but specifically with male coaches. Invariably when I’ve had conversations with them about team culture, it’s fallen on deaf ears. They genuinely don’t see that there’s a problem. And if they can’t see that there’s a problem, they definitely won’t be able to fix it. The coaches that I’ve had seem to have this belief that in order to fix team culture, they have to fix the “big” things – they have to hire a sports psychologist. They have to do team bonding. They have to establish team values. But it’s not the big things that create a successful team culture, it’s the little things. It’s acknowledging your players. It’s getting to know them as people, not just disposable players. It’s listening to what they have to say. And it’s making them feel valued. Ignoring them at training? Ignoring them when they get injured and are of no “playing” use to you? That’s a guaranteed way to create a dysfunctional, selfish team and that’s something quite a few coaches seem to specialise in.
I truly believe one of the main reasons men struggle to coach women is because they don’t understand them; they believe they can coach women in the same way they coach men. But here’s the reality: men and women are fundamentally different. The one thing that women want more than anything else on a team? Fairness. The one thing that men want more than anything else on a team? To win. If the best player on the team hasn’t trained all week, women do not want them to play, whereas most men wouldn’t care. Women want what’s fair because they want to feel valued. They want to feel like they matter. They want to feel like their efforts are being acknowledged, that they are being acknowledged. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Yet coaches seem to completely dismiss this need. So from double standards, team division occurs. What makes coaching women challenging then, is ensuring that things are fair. And why is this so hard? Because it means that the coaches have to be transparent in their decisions, they have to be honest, and they have to be consistent. People with big egos, which I’ve experienced countless times with my male coaches compared to female coaches, don’t like to be challenged. They don’t like to be held accountable. And they don’t like to be questioned. They have to be in control.
So what’s the most detrimental quality on a team? According to The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni, it’s the absence of trust. Without trust, there’ll be a fear of conflict (the second dysfunction). Without conflict, people won’t express how they truly feel. If people don’t express how they feel, there’ll be a lack of commitment (third dysfunction). If people haven’t contributed, there’ll be an absence of accountability (fourth dysfunction) and if there’s no accountability, then the team will be individual-result focused rather than team-result focused (fifth dysfunction).
So if trust is the most important quality in creating a successful team culture, how do you create it? Isn’t that something that we just feel over time when we get to know someone? Or are there specific elements that need to be established before trust can be experienced? According to Frances Frei in her TED talk on How to build (and rebuild) trust, there are three parts to trusting someone:
1. authenticity – if you sense I am being authentic, you are more likely to trust me
2. thorough logic – if you sense I have real rigor in my logic, you are more likely to trust me
3. empathy – if you believe my empathy is directed towards you, you are more likely to trust me.
The most common element that falters is the last one – most people find it hard to believe that someone is in it for them and not just themselves. And in our forever increasing self-indulgent culture, that really isn’t a surprise. So how can we overcome this? And how can we get someone to trust us?
From my experiences, I’ve found that trust is synonymous with safety. When we feel safe in another’s presence, we’re much more likely to trust them. To be open with them. To be vulnerable with them. And safety, I believe, also has three parts: non-judgement, non-reaction, and time (or effort). So how does this apply to your teammates? Well teammates need to know that you’re there for them, not yourself. Being intentional with acknowledging their presence or encouraging them when they do something great on the field makes them feel valued. Makes them feel seen. And it makes them feel a part of something bigger than themselves.
And that’s why it’s so detrimental when a coach ignores a player, through injury, through deselection, or simply because they don’t like them. It makes that individual feel invisible. And so their focus, instead of being on the team, will be on themselves. This is also why it’s so detrimental when a coach yells at a player for making a mistake, because it eradicates that safety element. No human will ever reach their excellence if they’re constantly worried about their survival. And yet, coaches continue to yell. They continue to threaten. They continue to intimidate. And they continue to target an individual’s character as being the reason for their mistakes. Coaches act as though individuals intentionally try to fuck up. And there’s no logic to that. Because everyone, at any given time, is always doing the best they can given the resources they have. So if a player or a team isn’t succeeding, then that suggests there is something, some obstacle, prohibiting them from doing so. And perhaps that obstacle is actually the coach. But how many coaches do you know think like this? That take responsibility rather than blame? That aren’t afraid to admit when they’re wrong? If your experiences have been anything like mine, you’ll probably be struggling to find any examples.
Although it is much easier to coach people to conform and to reward them for saying what you want them to say, it’s imperative to learn to celebrate differences (Francis Frei). Without alternative views, who’s to say that your way is the best way of doing something? As a coach, just because you might have age and experience on your side, that doesn’t mean that you always have the best answer. Having an openness to ideas that might perhaps challenge yours is essential in making players feel valued. Making them feel like they matter. And if players feel that, they’re more likely to be there for the team and not just themselves. And if they’re more likely to be there for the team? Then you probably have a successful team culture.