How to Build a Winning Culture
Use this framework to set your team up for sustainable success.
In sports, culture is one of those things we talk about often, but rarely stop to discuss in detail.
More specifically, most people tend to think of culture—particularly team culture—as something that is either there or not. A team’s culture is either good, bad, or somewhere in between. But it’s generally not something we feel can be controlled.
At Versus, we like to challenge that thinking.
In our opinion, team culture is one of the most important aspects of sports, particularly for student athletes. It’s one of the main factors that influence an athlete's experience with their chosen discipline and the life lessons they will pick up along the way.
Culture also has a huge effect on individual and team performance, particularly when it comes to sustained success. Many teams can have a winning streak here and there, but those with a a positive culture tend to have enduring success.
Contrary to popular opinion, we also believe that culture is something that can be controlled. It’s our belief that not only can the culture of a team be built—but all leaders of a team have the responsibility to do so, thoughtfully and intentionally.
Advice from One of the Greats
We recently sat down with veteran college softball head coach, and sports culture expert, Tim Walton. For those who aren’t familiar with Tim, you can read his bio here.
The main thing you need to know is that he’s been a head coach in college softball for over 20 years, the last 17 with the Florida Gators. The list of personal and team awards attached to Walton is staggering..
Some of his most notable highlights include leading his team to back-to-back national titles in 2014/15. Winning SEC Coach of the Year five times. And recently, becoming the second-fastest college softball coach to reach 1,000 wins.
At just 49 years old, Coach Walton has a lot of achievements still to come. He’s facilitated sustained success throughout his entire coaching career, and attributes much of this to a focus on building a winning culture with his teams.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though. In our exclusive video interview with Tim, he explains how in his early days he got culture wrong. He got sidetracked trying to build a “machine,” rather than a team.
The full video can be accessed by signing up at Versus. But for those who haven’t picked up a subscription yet, here’s a sneak peek at Walton’s framework for how to build a winning culture.
Start by Defining Success
This point might sound simple, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.
The first step of Coach Walton’s framework for building a winning culture is to define success. Unless everyone is clear on what success is, there is no way a culture can be developed to support it. But Success can mean different things to each person.
What success means to the coach, to an athlete, and to the school might differ.. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it needs to be recognized and addressed. Ultimately, everyone involved in an athletic team wants to win—usually championships—but there are also other events and milestones they hope to see develop along the way.
For Coach Walton personally, he says success is described as “doing things right all the time and finding a way to manage my people to get to where we want to go.” He also states, “We’re not going to win every single game, but we’re definitely going to do it the right way. We’re going to prepare. We’re going to plan.”
So how does Walton put his plan for success into action? He makes sure everyone has a role.
As he explains,
“Every person in your program, on your team, and in your organization, has to have a role. They have to contribute to your team’s success. That ultimately, is the key ingredient to winning championships at a higher level and being successful for a longer period of time.”
To find out how all the stakeholders in an athletic team define success, you need to get to know them. Anyone wanting to go deeper on this topic should check out our other article with advice from Walton—How Knowing Your Players Promotes Success.
Team vs Machine
At this point in the interview, Walton recounts a mistake he made early in his coaching career. He explains that his expectations for success started early—when the first class he recruited all said they wanted the same thing—to get to the College World Series.
With this goal in mind, Walton explained that he set out to build a machine. A winning machine.
He got his best player, then tried to make the next one just like her. He repeated this process over and over, trying to make all of his players the same. High-performing winners, but nonetheless, the same. He course-corrected in time, but not before learning an important lesson.
“I felt like I was building a machine. Not building a team,” explains Walton. He cautions us that as coaches and players, we all want to win every game and to be perfect. But pushing every player to be the same is a risky endeavor and not conducive to long-term success. In Walton’s words, by taking this approach, “you're ultimately in danger of imploding from the inside out.”
Walton’s advice, “Try to train your players to be the best versions of themselves. Don’t train them to be something they think they should be. That they don’t necessarily want to be.”
Using this approach is far more likely to yield better individual and team results. Most importantly, it sets up a sustainable team culture that promotes long-term success. Because every player feels they have the opportunity to grow as individuals, they will consistently give everything they’ve got for the team.
Be Consistent with Your Core Values
Sticking with the theme of consistency, Walton identifies core values as an essential component of a winning culture. “How are you going to build a foundation where you expect to win, if you don’t have a really strong core?,” he asks.
This is one area where Coach Walton doesn’t ask for feedback from anyone else. He is rock solid on his core values. He lives up to them himself and consistently promotes them throughout the team.
Ultimately, everyone has to define their own core values. Coach Walton’s are a good starting point to begin thinking about yours.
Walton’s core values are:
- Responsibility - Control your actions. Control you.
- Accountability - You’re accountable to not only yourself but to your family, the name on the back of your jersey. Also to your teammates next to you.
- Work Ethic - We go hard ALL THE TIME. That means you don’t take days off. When you work, you do it right. But don’t just work hard, work smart. Do the things necessary for you to be a really good player.
- Raw Toughness - Be able to perform your best, when it matters most.
Culture Builds Success
Towards the end of the interview, Walton outlines the value of “putting the work in” to build a winning culture.
No doubt, this practice has helped him and his teams win games. But for Walton, the true reward is getting to enjoy the process along the way.
As he explains further, “I feel like I don’t have to talk people into stuff. You’re working towards your goals. I’m working to help you stay on track. And that makes it very rewarding, because we really establish a lot of fun things together.”
From the player’s side, “They get to see true personal development, while ultimately getting better, stronger, faster, and smarter.”
Walton’s approach really is win—win. But it requires focus, dedication, and commitment.
A winning culture won’t build itself. It needs to be intentionally designed and implemented by leaders within the team.
If you want to learn more about culture in sport, head over to Versus and sign up. You’ll get access to this exclusive video interview with Tim Walton, plus loads of others from leaders in all areas of the sporting world.
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