10 minutes to a better team culture

Photos by Matt Stickland

How to develop that 'family' feel on your team

— By Jamie McGinnis

Teaching your players to work productively within a team environment is the baseline for a team’s success.

Many Coaches say they don’t have time for this culture development.

Jamie McGinnis

Jamie McGinnis

In truth, when a coach says they don’t have time, they’re actually saying they don’t know what it looks like to develop culture.

They don’t have a roadmap of what to do, and they can’t see the benefits of doing it.

Over the next few minutes, we won’t be able to give a roadmap, but we will attempt to give you a couple simple ideas on how to improve your team’s culture.

Simply put, culture is “the way things are done on your team.”

Here are some signs indicating a positive culture:

  • A feeling that players are moving toward a common goal
  • Attention being paid to removing distractions toward this common goal
  • There were early season conversations on behavioural expectations
  • Feedback is routinely given

Generally, there are standards set and reinforced by team leadership.

Now, some signs that a culture might need some work:

  • Permeated with negativity (rumouring, labelling, excessive teasing)
  • “We should be doing this” statements from players or parents
  • The wrong type of competition
  • Members trying to put other members down
  • Players do not feel confident to express themselves

I’m sure you can add another dozen examples of what negative culture looks like, it’s all too common in team sports.

So how can you improve “the way things are done” on your team?

Every group has a culture. Put some thought into what you want your team's to be, and set out to make it happen.

To get started, ask yourself these three important questions:

  • What do I want my players to leave this season with?
  • How can I create the best possible environment for individual and team growth?
  • How can I remove distractions to this environment?

Create a list of 5 to 10 items. Consider your values; then let these answers be your guide. Keep that list in your coaching clipboard. It will evolve as your season progresses.

Coach Jamie McGinnis of the University of King's College looks on during a recent soccer game.

Coach Jamie McGinnis of the University of King's College looks on during a recent soccer game.

Culture development is a main focus with the men’s soccer program for us at the University of King’s College (UKC) in Halifax.

At UKC, we have a few fundamental principles that help us create the culture we want.

We will discuss two of them:

No. 1 — “Full effort and focus, every practice”

The aim for “full effort, and full focus” was the expectation set on Day 1, and is reinforced on a daily basis with “check- ins” at the beginning of each practice.

Check-ins are our reminder to leave our problems outside of the field. Maybe it’s school work, issues with their girlfriend/boyfriend, or maybe it’s the the problem of not having a girlfriend/boyfriend.

The check-in is our commitment to each other. The aim to give full effort and complete focus to everything we do for the next two hours. We like “effort” and “focus” because those are the elements that the individual can control. We know that if they give that to us, we will improve faster.

Full effort and focus for two hours is impossible though….and we tell them this, but the aim to do this, is what is possible. As the season goes on, with reminders and sometimes punishment, focus time grows longer, and effort levels remain high.

No. 2 — Respect

An expectation that our players treat teammates, coaches, opposing players, and yes, the officials, with respect. This behavioural message is to continue playing on the edge, continue being yourself, continue to challenge your teammates, challenge officials from time-to-time, and compete hard against opposition, but do it respectfully.

Teaching your players to work productively within a team environment, with people they may not align with, is hands down the biggest benefit of team sports. We build on this foundation.

This is rarely taught by leadership, and that’s a huge miss.

This standard is easily set and reinforced. Respect is the basis, our goal is a “family” feel, and trust is the key word.

We try to set the mood where our players trust that team leadership (captains, and coaches) are there to support them with their issues on or off the field. We do this by only bringing on coaches and team leadership who represent the family values we want to cultivate.

Related: 5 mindset keys to a championship team

So when you are building your leadership team, ask yourself if the people you are considering for those key roles represent the values you want in your group.

At King’s we have connected our results goal, what we want our players to come out of the program with, and our own values. From there, we have created standards that we enforce daily. It isn’t perfect, but it’s our aim, and it works quite well.

I hope that you see that culture development is more than just taking a night off practice, going bowling, checking the box for team building, then shifting your focus to bringing home the Ws.

It’s about a small amount of thinking, a little bit of planning with your group’s leadership, and constant reinforcement. It’s worth the effort. Team success is built off of this trust, a sense of belonging, and commitment, and these are all byproducts of culture work.

After it’s all over, your players won’t remember the wins, they will remember the connections to other players and the coaches. They will remember how they felt being on the team, and the lessons they learned.

So let’s collectively shift our focus to improve the way things are done on our teams. Your players' experience is what actually matters.

If you are a coach, the next time you’re about to search for that next drill or tactic, consider Googling “improve team culture" instead. The articles are often about leadership training, and organizational development in the business world, the same principles apply.


Jamie McGinnis is head coach of the men’s soccer team at the University of King’s College in Halifax. McGinnis continues to coach at all levels of soccer from U6 grassroots, academy level, through university. He’s also part of a group working on “9 steps to a highly effective team culture” a roadmap to a better team sports experience.