row2k Features
Collegiate Coaches Corner
Program Building Part 1 - Defining Culture
May 5, 2020
Erik Dresser,

Following the cancellation of the 2020 spring racing season, row2k solicited the collegiate coaching community to engage in a variety of high-level topics within the profession. We submitted over sixty questions across a dozen topics and thank the coaches and staffs that found time to contribute their thoughts during this stressful time.

This week we focus on the topic of Program Building with the following question:


At the heart of our team is love for the sport, love for one another, embracing the journey together and a commitment to achieve something magical when we race. Our goal is to create extraordinary performances by developing compassionate and competitive human beings. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Of course, there is hard work to get there, and everyone needs to embrace the work, and that requires an extremely high level of trust.

I like to think of the trust as all encompassing, not top to bottom. When the trust is high, compassion supports accountability. Then it’s not about who is embracing the work and who isn’t, it’s about supporting each other and enabling one another to succeed.

“Culture” is how your team’s values get applied in any given year. Culture itself can vary from year to year as the group changes: each group should endeavor to make the culture “their own.” Start with values that are agreed upon, then the application of those values is that team’s culture. Once seniors graduate and a new regime of team leadership takes over, it is THEIR job to implement the timeless values.

Think of a nation or a franchise with steady leadership: the people or players change almost constantly. But because the values get handed down from generation to generation, culture slowly adapts.

Team culture is the collection of practices, norms, goals, expectations, acceptable behaviors, traditions, and history that make each program unique. Basically, what makes our team go? How do we go about our business on a day in, day out basis? What can the athletes expect from the coaches/captains, what is expected of them?

For our team I emphasize (almost daily) the importance of positive, constructive support from the coaches to the athletes and amongst the team. I place tremendous importance on having a stable and consistent working environment- so they know what to expect when they show up to practice each day. They need to feel confident, comfortable (and OK being uncomfortable), and supported- which I believe gives them the best chance to perform at their highest level.

I also emphasize that communication and the flow of feedback is a two-way street, and that they have input into how things are going. That support, communication, and feedback loop allow us as coaches to really push them hard, because hopefully, they understand why and believe in the process!

Team culture generally is a standard set of beliefs and behaviors that the team embraces and demonstrates. On our team, our culture is defined by several core values:

  • Empowerment: of self and others
  • Respect: for self, others, the sport and the work
  • Excellence: to strive for excellence in all areas of our lives
  • Process: to thoughtfully develop plans for goal attainment and to celebrate small gains each day
  • Risk: to step outside of our academic, athletic, social and emotional comfort zones in order to develop and succeed
  • Reward: to appreciate the privilege of rowing and to feel satisfaction when we attain our goals

Team culture, in general, is being a part of a group with a unified vision. It is about a group of people belonging to something that is greater than the individuals; but everyone still works to take care of their own self. Athlete development, team vision, and season strategy is a major part of developing this sense of belonging.

My general definition for team culture is the cumulative environment, relationships, and attitudes of the individuals on the team. We spent the fall semester being very deliberate about identifying our current team culture, what we wanted our team culture to look like, and ways we could move towards those goals. Here’s what we came up with:

  • We can increase the positivity of our team with the results we produce, giving each other positive feedback (myself included), and having individual conversations
  • Our culture stands for honesty, transparency, competition, communication, hard work, accountability, and improvement
  • How we can enhance our culture: communicate, celebrate progress, workout, no energy vampires
  • We are working towards a team culture that includes: more pride, internal competition, knowing other people have birds (happiness) to share, camaraderie, taking actions toward changing the culture

We define “Team Culture” as the mutually agreed upon understanding of the difference between a rower and an oarsman, and the desire to be the latter. Team Culture is a living thing that shifts as the makeup of a team shifts and therefore needs to be stated, if not constantly, then certainly seasonally.

The culture of G150s is determined by the team. We allow the guys to decide how they will define themselves and the way they treat each other. The coaching staff’s biggest take-away from that meeting usually ends up being that we are a competitive, compassionate, and fun-loving program.

In a way, team culture is something you feel, see and believe in when you are part of it. And ideally, that team culture is moving forward in a positive and constructive manner for everyone associated with the team whether they are members of your varsity 8 or rowers in your novice 4, a coach or an alum. This is essential because everyone has the ability, and should have the opportunity to create, build and shape what the culture is around the team, practices and races.

The thing about team culture, it evolves and changes. It can change over the course of a few weeks or months, and from year to year. Before COVID-19 ended our season, our team culture was still developing, but I noticed it changed from where we started in the fall to where we ended in the spring. Being the third head coach at F&M in as many seasons, our culture needed some adjustment and only our athletes could really make the shift.

I could tell them this is what I want, this is what I expect our culture to be, but until they wanted it too, we wouldn't get to that positive team atmosphere. And that type of change takes time, but before we ended, I could see people who were on their way out, make a decisive change to their approach to the sport and to the team. It was amazing to see the culture begin to shift.

Team Culture is the essence of how you do everything. It is how you put the boat in the water, how you take each stroke, how you treat your teammates on the water, off the water, and how you treat yourself. Team Culture is how you do everything; therefore, it is everything to us. Team culture is essential to our program and essential to our success, and we try to convey its importance to our team from the minute they step in the boathouse. However, as far as how we define it for our team, it is extremely hand’s off.

Team Culture is the result of the organic mix of personalities every single year, driven by their desires and goals. There are some aspects of our team culture that are repeated every single year, these are legacy characteristics that define what it means to be Women of Washington. However, each team has a distinct leadership style and team vibe that contribute to a new team culture. Forcing our own ideals as coaches or past years ideals on to a new group of people is not going to be successful or stick. Both in rowing and team culture, we must give our athletes the tools to reach the results on their own.

I think culture is fundamentally about the actions of the people on the team. It comes down to the choices they are making and the actions they are taking. At Penn, we really want those actions and decisions to be based around creating a successful team… making fast boats, driving good training and recovery, doing strong work in the classroom, and creating awesome teamwork. So, you can make choices that take us towards those outcomes or away from them, and that’s where the team has a lot of control over the culture they create.

I thought Peter Steenstra defined team ‘culture’ in such an important way. He said that a coach establishes team ‘atmosphere’ and the ‘culture’ is up to the athletes. A coach can only control what type of air the team exists in, while the athletes control how they live inside that air. If a coach tries to control ‘culture’ then the athletes won’t own it or the goals inside it and therefore not be able to be as bonded as a community. I love that definition by Peter Steenstra.

We have a set of values and goals that are important to us. The behaviors of our team must align with those values and goals. It is my job to protect and live out those values to create an environment (culture) of clarity, trust and progress.

Generally, we go back to talking about, “What are our values?” What do we feel is important, and encouraging open discussion to reinforce those values. We talk a lot of respect, accountability, positive attitudes, actively fighting negativity, and what being a good teammate encompasses.

Team culture is the collection of norms, commonly held values and expectations of a team. It is who we are as a collective, and what we value most. Some of our team culture comes from our University’s values, but many come from within. Every team has a culture. Sometimes that culture is not what you want, but there is no such thing as no team culture.

For us, we have built our culture around values such as pride, accountability, growth and fun. We keep these values present in everything we do. Each year we start by sitting down as a team around a table and we discuss openly with one another. We talk about who we want to be, what we want to accomplish, what will be our legacy, and how we want to do things. The athletes have an enormous amount of say in all of these things.

Culture has two definitions. As a noun it means “The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people or other social group”. I actually prefer the VERB Culture which means: “To Maintain (usually referencing biological cells or tissues) in conditions suitable for growth”. After all, this is exactly what we as coaches are trying to produce; the growth of our athletes as individuals, and by extension, the team and thus the TEAM CULTURE is that act of creating an environment suitable for growth.

Team Culture for rowers is a set of standards, beliefs, behaviors, and expectations that define the more existential questions of the team. Who are we? What do we do? Why? In My opinion team culture has several important facets:

  • What is our overarching goal as a team: Includes elements of performance on the water, on the erg and in the classroom and intangibles such as having fun or building strong relationships.
  • What must we accomplish physically, mentally, emotionally to reach that goal
  • What set of personal and behavioral attributes will push us closest to achieving this goal
  • What set of these attributes will create the best results CONSISTENTLY
  • Defining coach and team actions and consequences that will elicit the behaviors we desire.
  • Publicly describing the behaviors and actions that define our culture and implementing the requisite actions at all levels to meet it

Consistently (at least once yearly) re-examining your goals, your ideal behaviors and your actions and making adjustments.

Team Culture is what your team does as a habit, good or bad. Our team culture is to train and live everyday like you want to be the person everyone relies on, to live as the standard for the rest of the department.

Any successful sustainable successful endeavor, has to be, in my experience, a partnership. All of the coaching expertise will have marginal value unless there's a sense that we're in this together. The athletes are going to be the ones that ultimately determine to who makes the stand or if they make the stand. And that's just the way it is. If you're a coach, you certainly could encourage, support, and tell the truth about what needs to be done to bring a situation forward. But ultimately the athletes will determine whether the whole process works. And once a significant portion of the squad understands that and understand that they have, if you will, the power to bring about the results in conjunction with the coach, there's real durability and strength that will take place on the racecourse to reflect their results.

The results, the morale, the energy is going to be a byproduct of bringing full measure to each practice, or I guess a more accurate way of saying it is, endeavoring to bring full measure to each practice. We're not around the conference table discussing integrity, or we're not at the conference table to discussing commitment. The boats and the oars in each individual practice is where your culture is built.

Team Culture is the atmosphere that you create around your team. Culture is the reason that people do things the way they do.

Why do Americans work such long hours compared to other countries? Why is smoking in public taboo compared to certain other countries? Why are East Coasters quick/impatient, West Coasters laid back, Midwesterners so genuine, Southerners so polite? “I don’t know, that’s just how we are.”

So, we’re aiming to create a Culture in which people love to work hard, love to be a supportive teammate, love to excel in the classroom, love to continually strive to be the best version of themselves. And we’ve done that when our rowers don’t think about those things, but rather it becomes so ingrained that “it’s just how we are.”

The foundation for our team culture is set when each member demonstrates a strong commitment to our ‘Rowing ABC’s’. Attendance, Bettering yourself, and Communication. You will quickly get left behind if you struggle in this area for an extended period of time.

Team culture to me is the attitude with which the team works and exists. Does the individual work with the same attitude and care to the others on the team? With what kind of mindset do they show up for practice, for school, for life and do they do it together, and do they try to make their goals and visions the same as the others on the team?

If you enjoy and rely on row2k, we need your help to be able to keep doing all this. Though row2k sometimes looks like a big, outside-funded operation, it mainly runs on enthusiasm and grit. Help us keep it coming, thank you! Learn more.


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05/06/2020  10:58:52 PM
Wow!! Erik managed to find some "female" coaches who can speak to this topic. What a novel idea!! God forbid if we should actually know a thing or two about "catches" and other more technical stuff : 0

05/07/2020  7:39:33 PM
2 people like this
You realize NONE of the female coaches elected to answer the questions about the catch, right? Erik specifically pointed that out in the comments. You clearly have an axe to grind but it’s misguided in this context.

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