row2k Features
Program Building and Team Culture Part 1: Defining Team Culture
October 3, 2022
John FX Flynn

Along the lines of the Collegiate Coaching Corner series, row2k reached out to a wide swath of the junior and youth coaching community, to solicit responses on a wide range of topics both unique to youth coaching and to the profession and sport in general. Participation is 100% voluntary, and any youth coaches we may have missed initially are more than welcome to contact us to get involved in future columns.

Within the range of the responses we received, we have done our best to make each topic as inclusive and representative as possible of the many different perspectives and types of junior and youth programs across the country. If your voice or perspective of your program is missing and you would like to contribute, please join us via the contact link above.

You can see the full list of planned topics here.

This week, the answers we received to the first of five questions we asked about Program Building and Team Culture:

How do you define ‘Team Culture’ generally, and for your team specifically?

You cannot build a team culture at a junior program unless you can define it quickly and clearly to a group of youngsters in 2022. I would define team culture as a collection of actions, expectations, and values that define your team. It is the responsibility of coaches and team members to implement and transfer them over from year to year.

As a coach, think of what kind of program you want to have. Do you want to grow the team as large as possible? Win regional or national championships? Provide a place for people of all ages or abilities or sizes to exercise and/or have fun? All of the above? Whatever your goals, emphasize the cultural aspects that can achieve such priorities.

Team culture is the values, goals, and behavior of the group. Each season, we create a poster and the athletes decide on their top three goals as a team, and ten expectations, or norms, to reach those goals. Then, everyone signs the poster to signify their commitment to each other. While the expectations on the poster vary from season to season, we’ve found that they always include accountability, good communication, commitment, respect, and kindness.

This is something I think a lot about. I came across a good definition of this while listening to a podcast. Team culture is a dynamic process characterized by the shared values, expectations, and practices across the members of a team. I lean on the team leadership to come up with the values, expectations, and practices and these are revisited throughout the season as a way of keeping us on track.

Team Culture is the cumulative effect of all actions and decisions, whether intentional or not, made by each member of the team. So as a team, if you want a certain culture, everyone need to be intentional about choosing actions and decisions that contribute towards that goal. Every member has a necessary role to play and is responsible for making conscious, daily choices in support of our stated team culture goals. Our team culture is centered on three principles: We are positive and supportive. We embrace difficult things and want to work hard. We always do our best.

The simple definition of team culture is how your team interacts together. Do you support each other, do you feel welcomed by other team members, do you enjoy coming to practice and being a part of the team? What are the expectations of the team about how we act in terms of our attitude towards training, working hard, and how we interact with each other as teammates.   For our team specifically we have a discussion about our team culture every season and what we would like to see. What we do well and what we can do better. We want to see everyone putting in their best effort daily and coming to practice ready to work.  We want to be supportive of each other and check our egos at the door the best that we can. Which is hard to do. The ultimate goal of the team is to create our fastest boats possible and it is everyone’s job to assist in that goal in the best way she can. That means everyone pushes and helps each other without judgement. Offer advice and encouragement, but never criticism. Everyone has something to learn from everyone else and each person's contributions are equally important whether that is our spares or our 1V rowers. We all have a role to play. If you do that to the best of your ability with enthusiasm and industriousness, there will always be a place for you on BLS Crew. 

Team culture is the general "feel" of any given team. Coaches can help guide a culture along, but I feel that it is fluid and changes with the athletes that come your way. Our culture is always changing with new kids and new ideas, but always falls back on a genuine sense of everyone belonging and supporting each other along the way.

"Culture" is such a nebulous concept, yet I can't think of a singularly more important thing to get right as a coach. Perhaps the reason why it's so important is that it encapsulates so many things. As succinctly as I can put it, culture is the collection of values and goals promoted by you as a coach, and enacted by the athletes. I probably spend as much time thinking about culture as I do about training and technique.

This is also the area I've grown most as a coach over my first few years. A quick anecdote. I started coaching right out of college, with the elite competition of Sprints and IRAs fresh on my mind. This translated to so many early struggles for me as a coach, where I was always pushing kids to accept nothing but elite results and aiming at the highest level. Unsurprisingly, losses and failures were hard on both myself and the kids. Even successes were met with exhaustion instead of jubilation. Retention was poor.

To get some inspiration, I talked to an old coach of mine who's seen lots of success of his own, Nich Parker with the Columbia Lights. I asked him what his biggest secret was and his answer changed my philosophy forever. According to him, the most important job of a coach is to make sure everybody is being supportive and having fun. Winning is a byproduct of everybody loving what they do every day. Hearing this from one of the winningest coaches in lightweight rowing over the past decade was surprising to say the least.

Every coach who's achieved success at the highest level wants to win. But winning has never been about winning. Creating a positive team culture where athletes can grow, enjoy the moment, and learn valuable lessons along the way is what it's always been about. I do my best to strike the balance between pushing kids to be the best they can be while also making sure they are loving every second of the journey. Since my conversation with Nich, I don't have any youth nationals gold medals, but in the meantime, the kids and I sure are having the time of our lives.

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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