By Arron MacDonald
Coach MacDonald shares a few thoughts - and a story - on leadership and team culture...
I’ve coached at a lot of different levels and managed people both as a coach and professionally, but one thing I’ve always tried to emphasise is building and maintaining the culture of the team (or club) that I’ve been a part of - whether I was a “leader” or a “follower”.
Maintaining the culture is often one of the toughest things to do as a coach, as talent can be blinding to us.
With that in-mind, I wanted to share a story from the 2017/18 season, exerpts of which were originally published at www.burybasketball.com...
During pre-season, we spent an evening with every Senior Player and Coach in the same room, with one thing in-focus: our culture as a club, and how each of us plays a part in it.
This is something that I’ve done a few times before as a Coach, and I’ve always been really happy with the outcome… this session was no different.
The message to the group was clear: if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, in the way we’ve been doing it, the best we can do is attain the same levels as previously – or (more likely) step backwards.
We got pizzas in, the guys broke off into small groups, and we had them talk about what good (and bad) team-mates look like in several scenarios, before working through some goal-setting exercises and having the players define what it was they wanted to get from being a part of our club.
The results were really clear across the group, and set our three foundational values:
1) They wanted to work hard
2) They wanted to have fun
3) They wanted to get better
…and it’s the third of those (“Get Better”) that is often the most misunderstood.
Whenever people see anything outlining our culture, they think of “Get Better” as an individual, or even a team-wide thing. We’re looking at the entire club getting better, year-on-year, and that’s what we work towards.
To this end, we really drilled down as to the elements that make up each of them.
In respect of “Getting Better” and building and sustaining a culture of excellence with humility,nobody comes closer to perfection (in my opinion) than the All Blacks. If you’ve not watched the recent documentary following them for a season on Amazon Prime, I highly recommend it.
Anyone who has read “Legacy” by James Kerr is familiar with the term “sweep the sheds”. For those who haven’t read it this is the term applied for the action taken after every training session, when the very best rugby team in the world essentially become their own janitors – cleaning up their changing rooms to leave them spotless for the All Blacks who come in tomorrow.
By undertaking this task every time the group is together, it brings to life a view across the group of ensuring that when your time in the jersey is done, you’re handing off a “better jersey” to the next man. Each and every player has helped in some small way to improve the environment for the next day, and eventually, for the player that follows them.
This always made me think of a quote which I’ve leant on a number of times:
“How you do anything is how you do everything.”
The consistent high standards that the All Blacks apply to every little thing tallies up. It helps a great team become the best in the world.
“Sweep the sheds” also popped back into my head a few weeks ago, when the Japanese Football Team were eliminated from the world cup, and took the time to clean their changing room, and leave a thank you note (in Russian) for their hosts.
Being old enough to remember “Pizzagate” following Arsenal’s loss to Manchester United, it seemed out of place for a freshly defeated (and eliminated) team, who were clearly emotional at the final whistle, to have taken these steps.
As much as it conjured up thoughts of “Sweep the Sheds”, for me, it also made me think of my favourite of Coach K’s philosophies: Next play.
Like Coach K, we believe in focusing as much energy as possible into influencing the next thing – because we cannot influence what has already gone. Does this mean we always show great body language? Never question a decision? Never show negative emotion? No, we are – after all – human. It just means we try to get on with things in a positive manner, as often as possible, in the belief that this will give us the best chance of a positive result every game, and also the best chance of developing mentally tough players.
The last tenet we zoomed in on has been a buzzword of mine since I first heard Doc Rivers mention it over a decade ago… “Ubuntu”.
Loosely speaking, it means a person is a person through other people. We’ve taken it to mean “We, not me.”
Ubuntu is a challenging culture to maintain – because it requires a delicate balancing from player to player… challenging them just enough, and staying as positive as they need you to be. It relies on everyone wanting everyone else to be as good as they can possibly be, and sometimes, players aren’t motivated in that way.
We had a case this past season where a player simply wasn’t towing the line, and was making life miserable for his team-mates – but was one of our most talented players.
We gave him a chance, and numerous players spoke with him to explain that his way “wasn’t how we do things here”.
In the end, we couldn’t allow that one person’s negativity to affect our culture. It was hard to let a talented player go – it likely cost us some wins down the stretch – but the support from the players and volunteers at the club was unanimously in favour of the decision… he wanted us to be more like him, and our players didn’t feel comfortable in allowing that to happen.
In a way, Ubuntu brings us back to the All Blacks as well – as they have a belief that “Good people make good All Blacks.” We want our players, from the ten year-olds to the 50+ year-olds to be good people – our goal this season was the same as last, and draws upon that:
“We want everyone to be the best players and team-mates that they can be.”
…and we’re lucky to have players throughout the age groups who truly believe in that, and hold themselves and each other accountable to that standard.
I wish I could say that “focusing on culture” was enough to win everything last season… the truth is, it wasn’t. However, looking at our two senior sides, our first team improved from .500 with a negative basket difference, to a playoff team with the best basket differential in the league; while our Reserve side went from bottom of the table to .500.
Did culture do that on its’ own? No. Our culture didn't make key free-throws or defensive stops. It didn't help a ball at one end bobble in, or another bobble out.
But did everyone knowing that we’re all pulling in the same direction help? Absolutely, 100%.
There are people who’ll read this and question why we would put such an emphasis on this “stuff” for a local league club… for those people, I’ve got two answers:
1) We hope that our younger players will embed these principles, and that it’ll help them to be better members of the community, and more employable prospects in their future careers (whatever that may be).
2) We believe that there’s no shame in taking what you love seriously – regardless of the level you’re performing at, if you’re doing it as well as you can do it, then it’s an effort worthy of praise.
As a coach, I’m grateful for our culture, and that it’s player-led, as it allows the guys to have a greater element of self-governance without the need for me to step in all the time.
I’m even more grateful for the “magpie” culture we’re a part of – where (like others) we steal with pride from the best in their field, keep what is useful, adapt what is uniquely our own, and discard what is not required… without so many superb coaches and teams focusing on their culture, I’d have never started down this path, and I can’t imagine coaching, or being a part of a team, without these foundational elements.
Since running this "team building evening", I've been working with the team at ONE2ONE Basketball, and have adapted this into a "Culture Camp" - featuring an on-court and off-court session with a team, during which we work on improving skills and behaviours across your team, by using drills from the ONE2ONE Basketball Drill Bible and a number of activities which are easy to replicate and build from.
I've already run a version of this camp with Winchester Royals, and had the following feedback from their coach, Abi Whiteman:
"The first game back after the "Culture Camp" was AMAZING! The team came in with such a positive mentality and were noticeably louder and more supportive of one another - and this has carried on throughout the second half of the season, as we went from a .500 team to pushing for the playoffs. It wasn't just the players who enjoyed it, either - the coaches who attended also said how much they enjoyed the day and learnt from it, and the parents from both our teams and others have been commenting on their improvement as a team and their positive, supportive attitude as well!"
If you would be interested in ONE2ONE Basketball coming to run a “Culture Camp”at your club, focusing on building teamwork and leadership in your team, please get in touch.