What are team values and how do they influence culture? In the first of a two part feature, 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.

Team success stories appeal to that human weakness and the prospect of something making the uncertain practice of coaching more certain and controllable. The apparent simplicity renders us smitten with the prospects and the product but insensitive to just how challenging it is to uncover and articulate the tacit and subtle processes of team culture. As American journalist and cultural critic H. L. Mecken observed, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible and wrong”. Like the captain of the Titanic, what we see in success stories, like that our netball coach heard, is the tip of an iceberg. What lies underneath the water is an enormous body of ice consisting of daily subtle interactions and social exchanges between a group of players, coaches, staff and an organisation from which beliefs, values and culture emerged. What is hard to see and therefore easy to wildly misinterpret and misunderstand is how power, conflict, cooperation and change unfolded in both individual and group behaviours. As Keir Hansen, High Performance Director at New Zealand Netball once reminded me, “Culture is like a bubble, you can guess, but you never really know what it’s like unless you’re in it”.

Embedded in our interest in “what worked” is a fundamental flaw and one that permeates much of the popular sports psychology literature – that of survivorship bias. Survivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating on things that made it past a selection process (“winning teams”) and overlooking those that did not. The outcome is a set of overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored. How often do we hear of David Moyes or Roy Hodgson being invited to talk about “what didn’t work”? By focusing on success stories, coincidences and luck are ignored, the group and coach are afforded a special property and false assumptions are made as to “what they did differently”, however the map is never the territory.

Given the rightful association between culture and meaningful, engaged, motivated and high performing teams, it is not surprising that team culture has come to be viewed as a tangible outcome, something that can be achieved through conscientious (and strong) leadership and strategic thinking, something done to people. The deterministic rhetoric from research, media and folk practice has presented an optimistic and functional view of values where the coach occupies an omnipotent role and this has framed how coaches have come to operationalise and work with values.

Pervasive Idea: How we work with values

The popular view of culture is that social order in a team is centred on value consensus and common values – the general agreement on and patterning of the fundamental beliefs of a group – and with a skilful, strategic and conscientious coach, this can be achieved. However, with a more critical view of culture, it is clear values, consensus and a coach’s role in this is not so straightforward.

The Impracticality of Shared Values

Values by their nature exist largely at a conceptual level. They are abstract concepts and therefore can easily become vague and risk multiple interpretations. For example, what “commitment” looks like to you can be quite different to me. Since a culture and its associated values are socially created, they are context bound and often transient – they change through experience. Individuals can hold many different values that evolve and (re)prioritise over a lifetime, bringing into question whether absolute consensus to a set of team values is even possible. Any effort to facilitate values consensus that is not organic can very quickly descend into meaninglessness, as organisational culture expert Paul Bate argues, “people are rarely gullible or totally compliant, and they never take kindly to being hit over the head with someone else’s idea of a good thing”.

The result is that team values become materialistic and procedural, and are often reduced to false totems and platitudes by the way of posters, slogans and rhetoric. In fact, values in the tangible sense form a ruse in team settings that can misrepresent culture and divert coach and athlete attention and cast a shadow over the tacit culture and what really matters. A professional rugby league coach highlighted the superficial and meaningless nature of team values when it becomes a procedure:

“Every club’s got one [vision statement and values], you know – if you ask any player, give us some things [values], they go ‘honesty’, ‘hungry’, ‘relentless’, and all that stuff, same old bullshit. ‘Relentless’ – they love that one! The clubs will be doing the same shit at the start of the year, all their posters of ‘we will be courageous, we will be ruthless’ – all the words are generally the same or similar. A lot of the clubs will go through it – ‘What are your values?’ – every season, but I’ve seen the players roll their eyes, they just go through the motions because often it keeps the coach happy and helps them get selected. But I’m cynical as to whether it ever means anything.”

Furthermore, the meaning and interpretation of a team’s public values are further undermined by actual behaviour. As Michael Henderson, an organisational anthropologist from New Zealand commented in his TED talk, “people don’t see values, they see violations”. Henderson’s quote not only questions the utility of published values, but it infers we are sensitised to seek out discrepancies between “what was said” and “what people did”. Clearly sport is not immune to this as off-field misdemeanours by athletes, coaches and teams make popular public theatre and are often subject to moral criticism.

Values as Tools of Power

Values consensus is centred on a sociological concept called cultural hegemony. First articulated by Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci, cultural hegemony refers to the spontaneous (often subconscious) consent of the masses to the direction imposed on social life by the dominant group. Therefore, a sport team’s values are inherently political. Team unity and empowerment through values consensus is celebrated, yet this inherently promotes compliance, conformity and uniformity, which comes at the expense, or at least a reconciling of the identity of the individual within the team. By its nature, the dissemination of the values favoured by the dominant individual or group can be coercive and act as a tool for control, where values are used to leverage or reinforce hierarchy and exercise power or control by the coach (or others).

The subordinating of identity, values and beliefs are controlled by implicit fears of “not being seen to join in” or not “being a team player”. For those that reject them, they are often seen as a “bad fit” or labelled “uncoachable” since they don’t subscribe to the dominant template.

Several research studies by Dave Collins and colleagues in the UK have revealed a Machiavellian dark side to coaches where the values, standards and practices of a sports team are at-all-times sensitive to exploitation by these privileged stakeholders. Research by Nelson et al (2014) reported coaches presenting a semblance of empowerment to manufacture “buy in” to their agenda, where power is not given but loaned to athletes until sharing no longer benefits the coach.

A coach who concedes his power to encourage athletes to create, define, evaluate and police their team’s values may give the impression that the team has ownership of the culture, but empowerment is never equal. Dave Snowden argues that declaring values is to publish a language of power that once explicit is open to politicking and mendaciousness amongst culture members. Team values are a potential site for coercion, repression and social control amongst the team by dominant individuals, hierarchies, groups and subcultures. While players may align themselves to behave in accordance with the expressed values, this is just as likely to be a product of self-preservation as it is an embodiment and belief in the espoused values.

Having twisted the kaleidoscope, a light is shone on the shadow of team values and the deeper problematic roots of how we’ve come to view team culture. There is a disconnect between the romantic, materialistic public narrative of values and the messy, complex reality where team culture is a dynamic, ever changing and intimately human experience. I challenge whether achieving shared team values is even possible, and if so they risk being incredibly brittle in the face of multiple interpretations and behavioural violations. Of greater concern is that behind the veil of team unity, values are shown to be tools of power for not only coaches but dominant individuals and groups, and subsequently they are not necessarily the positive and unifying force they are reported to be.

To conclude Part 1, I’d like to revisit the story of the netball coach and look at her experience of culture and values creation through our new lens. While the experience felt to the coach like a failure since it evoked debate and dispute and didn’t result in inspirational values posters, if we look beyond the shadow of team values, I would hazard a guess that the shared experience will have mattered far more than it seemed at the time. The social exchange and the discussion that ensued would be where the seeds of culture were planted, not in some glossy posters. For meaningful coaching practice, this highlights the importance not of “team values” but of shared experiences, their meaning and how coaches can foster this. In Part 2, we will explore how we may shift coaching practice from looking for culture and “working with values” to looking at culture and the idea of “thinking culturally”.

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