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Building a Team Culture in an Individual Sport

I’ve enjoyed many in-depth coaching discussions all over the globe with current Baylor University Head Women’s Tennis Coach Joey Scrivano. Unlike many, he’s managed to balance being known as a coach’s coach and an athlete’s coach. He gets it. Though we’ve never coached together, I know we’d hit it off.

I’ve spent my career coaching what is considered to be an “individual sport,” but what I’ve learned is that building a healthy team is equally important in every sport.  I’ve enjoyed countless hours of study and sacrifice gaining knowledge on coaching a team.  It’s been a ongoing, long, and sometimes painful process of trial and error, but the joy is there when you get it right… and often so is the success. Ultimately, there are a few fundamentals that are vital to developing a team culture, across every athletic discipline. Here’s my “Culture Countdown”:

5. Leadership

Great teams often have many leaders. From assistant coaches to team captains, a good team requires more than just a good coach. The head coach should cast the vision and be the ultimate voice, but it will take a core team to help carry out the vision. Choose coaches and players that are teachable, but also look for those who can influence the team to reinforce the vision you set as the coach. You must have multiple voices repeating the same core message. This is crucial to developing a cohesive team.

Key principle: Choose players and staff carefully, and cultivate leadership wherever possible.

4. Homework

Preparation is painful, I know. But many contests are won or lost before play begins. Show me a team that is more knowledgeable, more focused and has a game plan based on research and film, and I’ll show you a winner.

You must know your program, your personnel and your competition.

Take this principle a step further and seek out good competition for your athletes internally and externally. Your team will improve by playing against better teams and increasing focus and intensity in training seasons. You can’t improve without getting out of your comfort zone.

Key Principle: Games are won in practice and preparation.

Baylor Women's tennis

3. Recruiting & Selections

Your players are the heart of your team. Choose them carefully. Consider character over talent in both recruiting and selections. You have a vision for the program: what are the core competencies that your team needs to accomplish your goals and who are the types of athletes that fit that vision? Look for individuals who can operate with a common purpose. There are no perfect athletes out there, but there are the right pieces for your team. Talent without character and self discipline is like a delivery truck without a driver. Package is there, but it’ll never reach the destination.

Key Principle: Know where you need to go and seek out the players that can help get you there.

2. System and Standards

There’s no secret formula. There is no system that magically (or quickly) wins contests. It comes down to having a plan, then having the energy, the infrastructure and the focus to execute your plan. Great coaches are great teachers. Many of the best coaches are not in the limelight, but they know how to shape players toward a common goal.

Set clear standards for the team.  If everyone is striving to hit the same metrics, you will build discipline, but also will be operating on the same plane as a team. As a head coach, one of your most important jobs is to identity and communicate what those standards are AND help your team reach them. As another method of team-building, you might invite players to participate in the process and help set standards, goals and priorities for the season. Your staff should already be involved in this process.

Key Principle: Have a plan, then know and do what it takes to execute, and expect the the same from your team.

1. Team Bonding

Team bonding builds team culture. Obvious? Sure. Easy? Nope.

In the course of any season it can be a challenge to make time for it outside of practice and meetings, but it must be done.

Make time for some fun. Humor is one of the best relationship builders.

Make time for each athlete. One on one communication is key, and nothing is better than face to face communication to help get to know your team members and for them to understand you too. Realize you don’t have to create extra time… on road trips or during team meals, you can initiate fun and interesting conversation with the team. You have to be a family first to be a team. And being a family begins and ends with communication. It’s easy to be so focused on the mission and forget that relationships can be the most fundamental ingredient for success.

Key Principle: Even when time is limited, make time to be together as a team.

Bonus Principle: Support

Being a team means having each other’s back. Develop support staff – parents, friends, mentors for you, your staff and athletes. I’ve heard it said, “when you feel alone, you act alone.”

You can’t do it all as the coach, so bring positive people into the team peripherally to help offer support and encouragement.

Mentorship will be important for you as the coach, as well.

I’ve learned a lot from observing others. I’ve gained knowledge from mentors and shared ideas with many fine coaches over the years to refine my techniques. This has helped me remain dynamic and open to change and helped me see the importance of building a healthy team culture as a the foundation for success.

Joey Scrivano has led his team to a Conference Championship in 9 of his 11 seasons at Baylor University compiling a 107-10 record. He has earned 10 Coach of the Year Awards in his 14 years as a Head Coach. Follow him on twitter @BUScrivano.

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