When the Houston Astros won their first World Series in franchise history in 2017, not far removed from three dreadful last-place showings from 2011-2013, there was much talk about how a new team culture was responsible for the turnaround.
“Culture” is a popular buzzword in sports and the corporate world, an umbrella term referring to any number of factors that bring a team together united around a common goal.
Too often in sports, however, a team faces a culture problem that’s not always easy to pinpoint. Here are five signs your sports team could have a culture problem.
1. Lack of integration.
For many years, sports franchises drew a line between front office personnel and those managing the action on the field with little interaction between departments. That’s no longer the case as analytics and data play an increasing role in sports. Coaches and managers are expected to apply data from the front office to on-field decisions.
Ideas that would have been considered crazy just 20 years ago, such as drastic defensive shifts in baseball or taking a huge percentage of 3-point shots in basketball, have become commonplace.
No longer can a coach rely on gut feeling or instinct alone. Not surprisingly, recent coaching hires tend to be those who embrace both modern analytics and traditional player evaluation and management models. Given the arms race in sports data, a lack of integration between the front office and coaching staff on this front could signal a broader culture problem.
2. Lack of character.
NFL teams spend countless hours leading up to the draft evaluating talent. But the combine and postseason All-Star games represent only part of the process. Teams perform extensive background checks and interviews on potential draft picks, not wanting to risk spending valuable selections and signing bonuses on players who will underperform or, worse, embarrass the team off the field.
Teams sometimes gamble, believing a player’s talent overweighs the character risk. More often, a pattern of character issues continues. Too many of those players can create a culture problem as performance suffers.
“If you have a culture built around high-character players, you can absorb one or two of those character issues and perhaps turn them around,” says Brent Callaway, director of performance at EXOS. “But if you build around a bunch of those guys, that’s going to be trouble.”
3. Lack of balance.
Managers and coaches forever try to strike a balance between being stern taskmasters and being “players coaches” who let just about anything slide. Effective managers find a way to hold players accountable while keeping things light, recognizing that it’s a long, grueling season.
Joe Maddon, first with the Tampa Bay Rays and most recently with the Chicago Cubs, holds players to high standards while keeping the clubhouse atmosphere loose. He stages themed road trips, having players dress for flights in Hawaiian shirts or jerseys of their favorite hockey teams, and brings exotic animals into the clubhouse.
“You look at coaches who get that balance and you see someone who will be successful,” Callaway said. “But if you have no policies or no player relationships, it’s only a matter of time before your team falls apart.”
4. Lack of performance mindset.
Teams across the major sports, as well as college programs, have vastly augmented their support staff over the last decade, adding dietitians, trainers, and even sleep consultants and sports psychologists.
But the best teams have veteran athletes who open their own wallets for movement specialists, massage therapists, and personal chefs. This sets an example for younger players, who realize that talent might have gotten them in the door, but a commitment to performance is what will keep them there. A lack of veteran leadership steeped in such a performance mindset can create a culture problem.
“The smart young players are the ones emulating the guys who take care of themselves,” Callaway said. “Hopefully you have those guys who have both learned that mindset as part of your team and built upon it themselves.”
5. Lack of trust.
In a good mentor relationship, the pupil can question the mentor while still being respectful. Heated arguments can occur, but it’s understood the parties remain respectful and keep the dispute in house. Effective coaches keep such situations from escalating and ending up in the media.
“It’s no different than two brothers who call each other names and beat each other up one minute and are back playing the next,” Callaway says. “There’s an element of trust that allows you to speak your mind and yet always act with the other’s best interests at heart. Inside a sports team environment, the issues that appear typically stem from a violation of that trust.”
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