September/October 2019 - 53

By Matt Richards, contributing writer
We were on the brink of a fantastic season. This was
several years ago, when I had a strong core of returning
players and a highly touted recruiting class joining our men's
basketball team at Southern Maine Community College. As
head coach, I was looking forward to besting the previous
year's 18 wins and playing in our conference finals.
Six months later, we were watching other teams
compete in the postseason. We had not even reached 18
victories. What went wrong?
I did not work on creating team culture. I assumed it
would develop on its own. We had a lot of talent, but I
never took the time to define what our team was about
and mesh personalities. Like all coaches, I focus a lot
on recruitment, practice preparation, player evaluations,
scouting and film breakdown. Building the right
environment was not at the top of my list. But that neglect
can lead to a team suffering in more ways than one.
The longer I'm in athletics, the more I understand the
importance of team culture. Without a strong sense of
purpose, a team will not meet its potential. I decided to
make developing a positive environment a larger priority.
I clearly define expectations and make a point to notice,
question, and talk about everyone's actions and attitudes in
a more deliberate manner. The result has been a focused
group of players who work hard to be better today than
they were yesterday.
What are some ways to make team culture a key element
in one's program? The first step is to define expectations.
We start by asking players to develop individual goals. Then,
as a group, we compile goals for our team. As part of this
discussion, I talk about what each player can bring to the
program. I spell things out by defining " chemistry creators "
and " energy suckers, " and making a list describing each.
Our " chemistry creator " list outlines what we want
each player to do to build our culture. Some of these
expectations are related to actions during play, and some
are not. I tell my players that chemistry creators:
* Care about the team outcome over their personal
accolades.
* Put the team's success ahead of their own.
* Hold each other accountable regarding team rules,
social media, classroom expectations, practice effort and
so on.
* Find a way to help a teammate each day.
* Place an emphasis on succeeding in the classroom.
* Acknowledge unselfish efforts by others.
Secondly, I list the characteristics of an " energy sucker. "
I've found that the attitudes in this category can be
contagious - once they start, they can snowball - so it's
very important to nip them in the bud. An energy sucker:
* Is only satisfied when personal accolades are received,
regardless of team outcomes.
* Is negative, and believes it was someone else's fault
when we don't succeed.
* Complains about shots, playing time or their role on
the team.
* Doesn't commit to their best effort academically
(misses classes and study hall, late assignments, doesn't
get help from tutors).
* Exhibits negative body language when receiving
instruction.
The next step is to emphasize positive behaviors over
negative ones. Not every player arrives on a team as a
chemistry creator. However, we can teach it and develop it.
One idea is to start practice by asking players what
they did that day to help a teammate. Answers shouldn't
always be related to the sport. Encourage small things like
an upperclassman helping a freshman find a classroom
or sign up for next term's classes. Promote players being
accountable for each other's success in all aspects of life.
It can help to place a value on unselfish intangibles.
A colleague of mine gives out a gold practice shirt each
day to a player on his basketball team who took the
most offensive charges in practice. The idea is easily
transferable. You can hand out a reward to the player
who was the most encouraging in practice. Think about
what qualities you want to see in your players to develop a
positive culture and figure out how to recognize them.
Sometimes, you have to specifically teach how to be
an unselfish teammate. On our team, I insist that when a
player receives a great pass, he must point his finger in the
direction of the player who distributed the pass. This is
simple, but a lot of players don't come in with the instinct
to recognize an unselfish play. We deliberately teach " the
point " to emphasize teamwork.
Finally, make sure captains and team leaders are selling
your philosophy. I meet with my captain every day, even
if it's only for five minutes, to talk about team culture.
We might discuss conversations among players that took
place after our film session or whether anyone on the
team is struggling academically. Your captain must be
just as willing as you are to focus on creating the right
atmosphere. He or she will benefit in the long run by
learning to be an effective leader.
Along with bolstering actions associated with chemistry
creators, you have to be on the lookout for energy sucking
behavior. When you spot it, correct it immediately. I
usually bring that particular player into my office and pull
out the goals he shared with the group in the beginning
of the year. I ask how his particular behavior meets those
goals. This helps him understand what he is doing wrong
and the importance of turning his attitude around.
Sometimes I'll ask our team manager to film the player
during practice instead of the full court. Then, I'll ask the
player to watch the video with me. Film doesn't lie. This has
proven to be a great corrective tool with instant feedback.
Winning is a byproduct of many factors. By creating
a team culture that promotes chemistry creators and
squashes energy suckers, you'll put yourself in a position
to be successful, as well as enjoy each day.
Matt Richards is associate dean of students, director of
athletics, and head men's basketball coach at Southern
Maine Community College.
COACHAD.COM 53
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September/October 2019

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