The 2018 World Cup displayed football and team cultures from around the world. In this article, Dr. John Alder of the English Institute of Sport follows up his article from Issue 17 of PDP Magazine with an insightful examination of the importance of ‘thinking culturally’.

Note: John contributed to this article in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of either the English Institute of Sport or UK Sport.

Cover Image: Tom Grimbert

As a custodian of a team’s culture, the coach’s beliefs, actions and behaviours undoubtedly influence it (to varying degrees).  However, as we uncovered in Part 1 (The Shadow of Team Values), culture is not something you ‘fix’ or can ‘fix’ for that matter.  In this article, we’ll explore how we can shift coaching practice from looking for culture and ‘working with values’ to looking at culture and the idea of ‘thinking culturally’.  The shared beliefs that form the bedrock of a culture should be deeply meaningful to those in the group, and should not become a tool of measurement, control, or something leveraged ‘to get that player to behave’  or comply.  As far as I see it, there is an opportunity and responsibility for sport to do what its corporate cousins (and increasingly professional sport) have struggled to do – stop worrying about the ‘brand of culture’, writing values or bold (and largely vacuous) statements about what a team stands for – and instead, actually stand for those principles.  This is important if we as coaches are to realise the promise of athlete-centred coaching and better meet the varied needs of players.

When former US Army General Stanley McChrystal realised his approach to leadership was failing, he reflected, “We had to develop a new paradigm…The role of the senior leader was no longer that of controlling puppet master, but rather that of an empathetic crafter of culture”.  As a coach, to become a ‘crafter of culture’ requires considerable cultural, social and interpersonal knowledge, skills and behaviour, something I call ‘cultural literacy’ or ‘thinking culturally’.

“If we change the way we look at things the things we look at change” – Max Planck, Quantum Physicist

As highlighted in Part 1, the dominant view in sports teams sees culture as something an organisation has, an attribute, often a desired state, for example, a ‘performance culture’ or a ‘family culture’. This perspective positions culture as a tangible outcome or goal that can be achieved, often through conscientious leadership actions.  The inherent risk when we go looking for culture is that we reduce it to a function of managerial technique, something ‘we do’ and that sits as part of the team’s annual performance plan.  The result is a dangerous simplification of the complexity of a sport’s team, and subsequent misinterpretation of the nature and influence of power, conflict and cooperation in the team.

To ‘think culturally’ we have to change the way we look at things.  Instead of a destination or goal, if we view culture as something a team is; a complex system of social relationships, interactions and continually co-constructed beliefs, culture then becomes a lens through which to understand the highly networked, fluid, tacit and tribal nature of sports teams.  By changing the way we look at things, the things we look at change and culture now becomes represented to and by us in meaningful ways through a system of language, signs, symbols, objects, beliefs and rituals.

Culture shifts from something done to people, to the product of people – the actions, interactions and introspections of players, coaches and support staff, and the sense and meaning they make from those shared experiences.  This is a bottom up approach, not a top down one, and it offers a much more useful starting position, one that values the voices of the people and as a consequence generates more meaningful insight into what actually makes a team tick.

“The goal is not to crack the code, but rather to catch the rhythm” – Nora Bateson, Filmmaker & Writer


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Dr. John Alder
Dr. John Alder
John is an international coach developer whose life mission is to help individuals, teams and organisations flourish, while promoting culture-driven leadership and learning organisations. John holds a Masters in Sports Coaching and a PhD in High Performance Management with a focus on leadership, change and culture. A former junior international rugby player, John currently works at the English Institute of Sport
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