Supporting the transformation from good to great
What is culture in sports teams?
What is culture in sports teams?

What is culture in sports teams?

The word culture can sometimes seem a little unclear or fuzzy even though it is regularly used within clubs, teams, and training groups. We might hear comments such as: “we have a great culture – we support each other through good times and bad”; “there was a drinking culture amongst the players”; and “a culture of winning was prioritized over athlete well-being”. What the research tells us is that culture is a crucial facilitating factor for the long-term success within a team or club. As Connors and Smith (2011) write:

Culture can …either work for you or against you – it can make the difference between success and failure.

So, what is culture?

There is no one definition for culture although there are many definitions! Schein (one of the leading authorities in this field) defines organizational culture as

“a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration” (Schein 2010, p.18)

We could say that the key components of culture are

  • assumptions and experiences
  • beliefs and values
  • artifacts
  • actions and practices

These shared components can develop within the group but also be carried through from one generation to the next (within the same group). If these components work in positive harmony, then a culture that supports success will be created. These components work together and influence each other; however, it is very important to keep the following in mind:

What are artefacts?

What do you hear, see, and feel when you first go into a club or a training group? These are the observable artefacts that help you gain your first impression of the culture that exists.

  • You might see some visible traditions, such as an athlete bringing cake for everyone to eat, as it is their birthday.
  • You might see athletes coming to practice at different times (you might feel that they are late, or maybe experience that everyone is professional and understand their roles).
  • Do you feel motivation and excitement during the training, or do you see resigned faces amongst the team as the coach screams?
  • Is there one discernible club uniform with the same club colours – or do different parts of the team have different shades of the same colour (or even different colours)?
  • What can you see on the notice boards?
  • Are there pictures? What do they show? Holding trophies? Joyousness? Team spirit? Team portraits?

Toto Wolff, the Team Principal, and co-owner of the Mercedes F1 Team recalled that when he first visited the company (with a view to joining), that there were old magazines and newspaper (in other words, artefacts) in the lobby while he waited for his meeting. He reflected that dated newspapers did not match his expectations of what an innovative and elite sports team should look like.

What you see and feel on a visible or higher level within the environment are relevant, however, we need to go deeper to really appreciate how culture impacts outcomes and results.

Values and beliefs

Many organizations – schools, clubs, businesses and more have spent time discussing and identifying their values. They might be referred to in discussions and strategy meetings, as well as appearing on homepages and perhaps walls at the sports stadium. Values might include some key words, for example, trust, endeavour, team spirit, respect. However, in this category of culture that we call values we can also witness and experience things like the team’s goals and philosophy (“We believe, if we regain the ball high, we are close to scoring a goal” – Pep Guardiola) as well as sayings and slogans. For example, “TRUST THE PROCESS” (Philadelphia 76ers), “WE BELIEVE” (Golden State Warriors).

What are the stories that are told within your club or group? Who are the legends? Are the stories empowering or reinforcing negative behaviours? The story of the athlete that made a best time whilst hungover from a party the night before, might reinforce the idea that lifestyle does not affect performance. Alternatively, the legend who performed below par on the first day of the National Championships and thus missed the final in their best event but came back the next day to win in their worst event, is a story to inspire and teach.

What are assumptions and experiences?

We can take the following example to get a clearer understanding of what assumptions and experiences are. As we know, athlete well-being has not always been prioritized in high-performance environments. In the first example, it could be that the coach tells the athletes that well-being is important, however, this does not translate into the athlete’s experiences:

In the next example, we can see how the athlete’s actions change because of the way the coach behaves:

Assumptions and experiences are often difficult to see

As we have noted, artefacts and legends can be readily seen or spoken of. Equally, values and beliefs may have been discussed openly within the group. Assumptions and experiences, on the other hand, are often hidden, taken-for-granted or unstated. The members of the culture may never have discussed them and thus are not readily aware that they exist. (This latter example is also known as preconsciousness – whereby the person could easily recall the mental content if asked about it).

Because assumptions and experience are not always apparent, they need to be explored if we are to really understand the culture within our training group or club. We can not rely on what we first see. Equally, we cannot trust that the values and beliefs that are discussed (or found on the club’s homepage) are actually those that are practiced or experienced by the group members. For example, a club might state that honesty and respect are its core values. However, in practice, the coach may experience endless talk from the parents that the neighbouring team are pathetic and to lose to them would be shameful. It would be of no surprise, if the coach began to adopt these values – that they hear each day from the parents, rather that living the values of respect that they were hired to uphold.  

Final words

As we have seen, club or team culture goes deeper than what we first see, hear, and feel. Ultimately, the key elements of culture can not be easily explained by the members of the group. For good or bad, the group has learned, shared, and taken-for-granted the assumptions that pervade its environment. In a follow-up article, I will be discussing how we can evaluate our existing culture and how we go about deciding whether we need to make changes to the culture or not.

Supporting material in writing this article

Buch, K., & Wetzel, D. K. (2001). Analyzing and realigning organizational culture. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 22(1), 40–44.

Connors, R., & Smith, T. (2011). Change the culture, change the game: The breakthrough strategy for energizing your organization and creating accountability for results. Penguin.

Coulter, T. J., Mallett, C. J., & Singer, J. A. (2016). A subculture of mental toughness in an Australian Football League club. Psychology of Sport and Exercise22, 98-113.

Cruickshank, A., Collins, D., & Minten, S. (2015). Driving and sustaining culture change in professional sport performance teams: A grounded theory. Psychology of Sport and Exercise20, 40-50.

Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership (Vol. 2). John Wiley & Sons.