What are team values and how do they influence culture? International Coach Developer and expert in culture in sport, John Alder discusses the balance of team culture and how often this is an element in team sport where control cannot be exerted and we have to look beyond slogans on walls and team meetings in order to greater understand team dynamics.


*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.


People, excellence, inclusiveness, fun, integrity and respect. Sound familiar? Just a sample of the words you often see emblazoned on club entrances, team websites, promotional material and even the back of corporate phone cases. They sound good don’t they? In fact, as a coach, you may have even helped your team pick some of these – if you have, I hope you know what you’ve got yourself into. Dr John P. Alder, from the English Institute of Sport and UK Sport, examines team values and culture in sport in an exclusive for Player Development Project.

A great deal of ink and air time is given to culture in sport. Players transfer to clubs “because of the culture”, coaches recruit players who “align with our values”, and culture seems to be portrayed as the point of difference across a whole range of performance measures. And rightly so – when you are part of a great team, it feels different. You behave differently and approach training, playing and your teammates differently. The spark for this two-part article was a conversation with an international junior netball coach. She told me of a recent presentation she was invited to, where a coach presented his “success story” and how it began with “sitting the team down, and hammering out what the team’s values should be”. He brought along posters of the team’s values and showed a video set to music followed by a visionary statement that was developed, like the team’s values, by the players and policed by them. The audience regaled at this inspiring tale of a group being empowered to grab hold of their team’s culture. The netball coach was so compelled by the coach’s presentation she set out to do the same with her athletes as part of preparation for their forthcoming world cup campaign. However, the reality for our netball coach proved to be a bit trickier than the story implied. Instead of enabling harmony, it provoked volatility, fractured the group and created division. She left the session confused, anxious and questioning herself as a coach. I empathised with her experience and found myself asking the question, yet again, what went on there?

I’ve been working with and exploring culture in performance sport either as a researcher or a coach developer for nearly 10 years, and this story is not a rare one, nor is it new. I’ve seen and spoken with many coaches drawn to the inspirational success stories of team culture, change and the integral role team values play. As a cultural initiative, “values whiteboard sessions” (the process by which all players sit down and establish what the team’s values are or should be) are becoming common practice. They are often undertaken at the beginning of the season or when new coaches join a team and have the tendency to manifest in posters and team slogans displayed proudly around clubrooms and organisational buildings. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve toured a sporting organisation or facilities, only for the climax and final stop to be at a mural of the organisation’s values where my guide gushes with excitement to gauge how suitably impressed I am with this mural – my response is predictably appreciative but superficial and sceptical.

The argument for the concept of values in team culture is that they help create meaning from routine and act as a shared behavioural road map for the individual and group to follow. Equally, participation in a larger system of shared values cultivates a common purpose where teams form their own identities and express them through unique languages and practice. First and foremost, there is considerable merit in sensitising a group of athletes to explore and articulate what is valued in their team; this brings the whole idea of culture, purpose, beliefs and identity to the table and into the conversation. However, I do seek to offer a cautionary counter narrative to how values have come to be perceived in sports coaching. The motives for creating team values are often well intended – to sanctify ideals and beliefs so that individual players can become a whole as part of a shared identity. However, the reality is that five or six glossy values and slogans reflect a far less-complex environment than that which exists in sports teams and I do not think values are the unifying force that they are reported to be.

In fact, they are deeply problematic and cast a shadow over a more authentic and humanistic understanding of how people and teams operate. The outcome is seemingly plausible but misguided coaching practice. The problem as I see it is emergent of two pervasive ideas; how we’ve come to view team culture (and values) and therefore how values have come to be “worked with”.

Pervasive Idea: How we have come to see team culture
Colloquially defined as “how we do things round here”, while culture is challenging to define, there is consensus across the disciplines that culture is the shared belief system of a group, produced by the complex social interactions and socialisation that in turn shape individual and group behaviour, and arguably success.

So appetising is the performance impacting potential of team culture in sport, we’ve gone looking for culture, rather than at culture. Looking for culture, the success stories and trade secrets of “what works” has reduced our interpretations to what we can see: observable artefacts (slogans, values posters, handbooks and ritual practices) and anecdotal tales. While these sources offer valuable insight into a team’s culture, they do have the tendency to simplify and artificially ossify the diverse, complex and constantly changing socio-cultural environment of a team. We conclude with plausible, but linear and often mechanical coaching solutions based on what we think worked.

In a complex adaptive human system like a team culture it is easy to explain why something happened, yet it’s impossible to predict this ahead of time. Complexity author Dave Snowden refers to this as “retrospective coherence” – the process of looking back in time, drawing false causal explanations as to why something worked or it didn’t. As Snowden regularly asserts, “It’s a lot easier to predict the past than the future!” and any attempt at predicting the future acts as a precursor to the belief that we can control the future.

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John Alder
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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