April 9, 2018

The Role of the Coach in Building Team Culture

Written by:
Richard Davies

Following a very turbulent week in world cricket, which has seen a number of outstanding players banned from the sport they love after a series of poor choices, a number of pundits have aired many different opinions as to how things should have been handled.

In the aftermath, I want to look particularly at the role of the coach in building team culture and hopefully as a result ensuring such poor choices simply cannot be made in a team environment.

The initial and most striking contrast during this time was that almost simultaneously, as a parade of sorry Australian cricketers were marched before the media, New Zealand, with no fuss and very little ceremony were completely dismantling the English batting line up in a way that Australia did not get close to during the recent ashes. And yet there was no vitriol or ill feeling towards the black caps from the English team or press – quite the opposite in fact.

Conversely three months earlier, the whole Ashes series was awash with accusation and counter accusation until it became quite unpleasant for all involved, this more recent antipodean series has been played in excellent spirit.

The question is, how do two such different situations in the same sport arise?

Quite simply, the culture within the New Zealand team is something that was intentionally addressed over 5 years ago when Brendon McCullum took on the captaincy and Mike Hesson the role of coach at almost exactly the same time. There was a clear statement that the team would approach the game in a particular way in order to create the desired culture and it is something that all players bought in to. Interestingly, it was an approach that was treated with something close to derision by several in the Australian cricket set up at the time, seeing it as naïve idealism.

Around a year after this Lehmann was appointed as coach of Australia, largely on the back of his ability to forge good relationships with players after a serious fall out between the team and previous coach, Mickey Arthur.


Something that has been agreed on in all quarters is that Lehmann is ostensibly ‘a good bloke’ and it is sad to see his tenure end as it has done. My contention is that for any coach, let alone someone with the apparent EQ of Lehmann, this should not happen.

However, there does need to be a very deliberate plan in coaching any team as to exactly what kind of culture needs to be engendered into the group. This is something Lehmann did not appear to actively take in or on, counting on the fact that his sound relationships and general bonhomie would ensure the group acted appropriately.

While there are many different views on how to create culture, there are two strands that run throughout all published research, and they are:

  1. It takes a long time (several years at least) to completely instil a desired culture in a group of any size and it needs to be very deliberate (it also takes less than a year to destroy it!).
  2. There is no way one person can drive this change - it needs buy-in from everyone in the group.

A Positive Example

A noteworthy and recent example of deliberately instilling a new culture is that of the Australian Women’s Hockey team. Following a rather ignominious and premature end of tenure of the previous coach, Australian Hockey made the decision to appoint Paul Gaudoin (previously assistant to the men) to the position – a man known for his integrity and ability to relate to players alongside an outstanding record of results. His remit was to restore a positive culture to the team and as he explained, to get the players to enjoy what they were doing and to do it ‘for the right reasons’.

Interestingly Gaudoin held off naming his management group for about a year after taking over the team, working to understand the individuals and to create the trust in the group that had been lacking before his appointment.

The reason I bring up this example is that to effect significant and sustained cultural change the buy-in mentioned earlier needs to be clearly organised. Again, there is a large consensus in research: one person can only really influence 5 or 6 others, which in the case of a squad of around 25 players means that the appointment of a management group of around 4 or 5 actually makes a lot of sense.

However, again it is important that this management group is intentional as to with whom they are working. While this does not need to be an official mentoring role (although I have gone through the merits of such a system in a previous blog), I would suggest that assigning specific players to each member of the playing group would be beneficial – this way no one is left to ‘slip through the cracks’.

One outcome of this sorry cricketing affair that has been clear from listening to former Australian cricketers is that, while there was always a ‘hard edge’ to the team, their view is that there has been a consistent decline in conduct both on and off the pitch in the last 5 years. Given the climate that the 2005 Ashes was played in, this view does hold some sway – it was fiercely fought but with great sportsmanship, as was personified by the picture of Flintoff and Lee after the Edgbaston test (below).

This fall from grace during Lehmann’s tenure shows that where small lapses are not picked up upon by the management group of a team, the snowball effect can have serious consequences further down the line. I would contend that had some of the smaller contraventions of the Australian cricket team been picked up and addressed earlier in the piece, the cheating that has been so condemned now would not even have entered the players’ heads.

I would also take issue with Michael Vaughan’s regular assertion that Australia and similar teams need to have a ‘nastiness’ about them to perform at the top level. From experience on the one occasion I remember things boiling over during my coaching of YMCC, we lost our tempers and consequently a crucial top of the table game 2-0. We also had to apologise to officials and the hockey association as a result of losing our composure.

Conversely, I certainly don’t remember seeing Guardiola’s all conquering Barcelona involved in skirmishes on and off the pitch – they simply didn’t need to be. Also, I have never had to work to motivate any team I have coached when we have been playing a so called ‘nasty team’ – there is a natural desire to beat any team perceived to be playing ‘beyond the line’, and so even to have that approach appears to me to be counter-productive.

I certainly don’t remember seeing Guardiola’s all conquering Barcelona involved in skirmishes on and off the pitch.

In conclusion, the stark difference between the New Zealand and Australian attitudes appears to have been brought about, not by two different coaching strategies, but rather by one well implemented coaching strategy and one failure to even design one. I don’t believe Lehmann decided to generate a culture where abuse was common place and cheating could be fostered, rather he didn’t act when some of these minor incidents occurred. So the saying ‘what you permit, you promote’ came back to haunt him in a way he probably never imagined.

Key Take-aways for Coaches

I would suggest the following are lessons that we, as coaches, should take away from recent events?

  • When we take on a new role we must be intentional about the values we are going to expect to be demonstrated by our team – these may be explicit or implicit or a combination of both.
  • We need to choose our management group carefully, based on their ability to espouse the values we want to uphold.
  • Our management group needs to allocate personnel for whom they are accountable in securing buy-in over agreed values.
  • We must be quick to pick up on the little things that are contrary to our expected choices and behaviours and mark them as unacceptable.

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