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.

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 are able to ‘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. They 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. That is, to stop worrying about the ‘brand of culture’ and writing values or bold (and largely vacuous) statements about what a team stands for, and instead to 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. It is 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’ that sits as part of the team’s annual performance plan.  The result is a dangerous simplification of the complexity of a sports 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

I’ve always been drawn to award-winning filmmaker, writer and educator Nora Bateson’s metaphor about human social systems as I think it beautifully articulates the essence of understanding culture. For the coach, team culture cannot be viewed as something with a ‘magic formula to be unearthed’ or a ‘code to be cracked’ but rather something you feel. It’s dynamic, unpredictable, always changing and innately human, like a rhythm.  Team cultures are in a constant state of (re)construction and (re)negotiation between players and coaches. This happens not only on the field, but also in the changing room, during water breaks, on the bus, and in the car on the ride home from training. Therefore, effective cultural leadership requires continued attention and a heightened ability to notice what’s going on.

To ‘think culturally’ and ‘catch the rhythm’, we coaches should endeavour to become ethnographers and anthropologists of our own team environments and football tribes, and we need to come to appreciate them in their own unique context.  As disciplined observers of, and listeners to human interactions, stories, relationships, social practices, rituals and symbols, we should continually and curiously ask the question: ‘what is going on here?’. This primes us to notice the emergent clues and patterns that may surface the tacit beliefs which shape the culture.  Such a position enables us to become continually sensitive and empathetic to not only the context (cultural, historical, political and local), but also our players, and to acknowledge their impact on the culture.  When we become ethnographers of our own teams, we come to notice new and rich data and are able to construct a ‘thick’ cultural interpretation of what is going on.

Rather than merely label what players and staff do, this approach seeks to answer why players behave in a particular way.  This shifts the picture from ‘the way we do things round here’ to ‘the why we do things round here’, and acknowledges what it is to be human in your team (the ‘why’).  As with any ethnographic endeavour, while the intention is that you might study and reveal who your team are, you find what actually happens is that you study and reveal who you are.  You come face to face with the very nature of who you are, your own belief systems, values, biases, your own history and prejudices. While admittedly that is sometimes not the most pleasant reviewing, we know that growth through self-awareness is at the heart of athlete-centred coaching and learning to become the best coach you can – and that’s a pretty good place to be.

“If you want to change the culture, you have to change the stories” – Michael Margolis, CEO, Founder, Chief Storyteller – Get Storied

Clifford Geertz, the foremost anthropologist of the past 40 years, defined culture as ‘the stories we tell ourselves (and others) about ourselves’.  These stories act as an anchor for connection.  They connect players to one another and to the team’s cause or purpose, they can make players proud to be who they are, give them a place to belong to, a place to stand together – look at the stories surrounding FC Barcelona, and over time, roots to hold on to – FC Bayern Muenchen’s Thomas Müller springs to mind.  The importance of these innately human concepts reminds us that at a biological level culture works with the limbic brain, the emotional brain. Culture speaks to our primal emotional nature, not the rational, reasoning brain.  This is a major reason why it is the ‘human’ moments in sport and teams that last and linger in our memories.  Therefore, it seems logical that at the heart of coaching practice is a coach’s ability to navigate and meaningfully work through cultural concepts such as stories (or narrative), language, symbols, social practices, rituals, and symbolic acts to cultivate new shared experiences and subsequently facilitate new stories to emerge.

Predicated on the belief that culture is the product of shared meaning (the emotional and cognitive attachment we give an experience), and that shared meanings are formed from the same interpretation of the same experience, perhaps the most important culture-impacting behaviour for a coach is to create meaningful shared experiences and engage all members of the team in bringing the meaning of that experience into the conversation (either overtly through sincere dialogue or covertly through sincere action).  These become the stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves.  This perspective positions the role of the coach as a custodian of the team’s culture and not the author or enforcer.

It is important as coaches to acknowledge and respect our roles as ‘actors’ in the stories told about our teams, and that we play a critical role as a ‘cultural sensegiver’ (a signpost for players to make sense of ‘what’s going on here’ and ‘what matters to us’).  Simply put, our actions today will become cultural stories tomorrow.  I’m reminded of a conversation with a recently retired Olympic athlete, who commented, “At the end of the day, it didn’t matter what the psychologist or the athlete lifestyle advisor said or did, or the physio, we all looked to the coaches for a sign of what matters”.  ‘Thinking culturally’ does not start with facilitating a values workshop and prioritising ‘Team Values™’[1]; it’s an everyday thing – for a coach, every interaction matters.  As my own research examining cultural change in an international rugby league team revealed, players were always less concerned with a grandiose vision or rhetoric, and more concerned with local and daily practices and interactions.  Sensegiving triggers can include the things which a coach pays attention to, measures and controls (including performance analysis and game plans), role models (through behaviour and decisions), rewards, and how they recruit, select, promote and de-select.  Inconsistency in behaviour and decisions heightens ambiguity and results in a confusing cultural template as players try to decipher the meaning behind the coach’s behaviour.

A rabbit hole I’ve seen several coaches slip down is the presence of one set of principles (or rules) for a minority group of players and another set for the majority.  The stable frames of reference provided by coaches consistently ‘walking the talk’ helps players make sense from ambiguity.  Consistency also creates the psychological safety required for players to let go of old cultural beliefs and stories and construct or learn new ones.  If culture is communicated consistently, the same understanding from the same experience becomes patterned and leads to a shared belief system, or team culture.  A question I often ask coaches is, ‘Do your behaviours and decisions make you a leader worth following?  Are you creating a culture worth belonging to?’

It turns out when people come together as a community for whatever reason, at the heart of this is the forming of cultures. This is a very natural way of being human – it is how we’ve survived, adapted and evolved over history. It’s hardwired into our DNA.  As Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright articulate in their book Tribal Leadership, “Birds flock, fish school, people tribe”. We (should) know how to do this, although modern society is having a good go at pushing this deeper into our subconscious and further from our grasp.  To ‘think culturally’ is to put matters of culture and shared meaning as a priority coaching praxis (the process by which a theory, idea or skill is enacted or realised in the field by the coach).

For the coach, at the heart of this perspective are the three ideas outlined in this article, try to: (1) view culture as something a team is, a way of understanding it, rather than a product with a fixed or static endpoint, (2) ‘catch the rhythm’ by becoming an ethnographer of your own environment, because team culture is complex, dynamic and ever-changing with no ‘one size fits all’ solution, and (3) change the culture by changing the stories.  You can do this by creating new shared experiences and talking about them.  Develop your own storytelling skills but be aware of your own role in the story.

This approach is subtle and it starts with micro-experiments that involve ‘having a go’, gathering feedback (noticing what happened) and engaging in iterative cycles of action learning (act-reflect-learn-plan) to evolve your ideas and understanding of what works for you and your team right now.  The view of ‘thinking culturally’ as a core coaching skill moves coaching practice away from (well-intended but) mechanical models of ‘best practice’, linear success steps or recipes for success, and sensitises us to the subtle, non-objectifiable, and human features of teams, the stories, language and meanings, the things that actually drive ‘who we are, why we are, and what we do around here’.

[1] Although it is important to state that with the right group, at the right time, with the right coach, this may be a sensible venture to explore; the maxim ‘it depends’ always rings true


Cover Image: Tom Grimbert

Popular searches: defending, finishing, 1v1, playing out from the back, working with parents