There is more to creating a winning team than selecting the best members, continual practice, and having the best coaching staff. Truly understanding what it takes to build team culture can spell the difference between a team that performs well on and off the field and a team that struggles to apply themselves, is disconnected or appear in the media for all the wrong reasons. Club and team culture in sports can be improved, however far it has fallen or however stagnant it has become.
Sadly, one only has to look at recent scandals in national swimming and gymnastics to see examples of poor club culture in sports. When Olympic swimming champion Maddie Groves called out swimming officials as ‘misogynists’ and dropped out of Olympic trials, it led to Swimming Australia initiating an independent report panel to better understand the experiences of women and girls. Gymnastics Australia faced the Human Rights Commission’s report exposing a control culture, win-at-all-costs approach which the report stated, helped “create an environment where abuse and mistreatment can thrive”.
While these examples are governing bodies and associations, board and committee members and management in clubs of all sizes are the people ultimately responsible for club and team culture and any subsequent issues that arise within the clubs they run. Problems with culture can lead to not only reputational problems but also financial consequences and teams with a poor or toxic culture typically find it harder to attract and retain sponsors. Then of course there is the added risk of legal action against the club if one or more participants or team members take an issue to the tribunal or to Court.
However, it is important to note that a healthy culture is not just a culture where problems such as misogyny and intolerance are absent.
What does a thriving team and club culture look like?
A healthy culture is one that actively promotes positive attitudes, values, and beliefs. Members of a club, league, organisation or association that work hard toward a shared goal while appreciating each other’s differences and contributions. A winning, healthy culture also means that they respect opposing team members and umpires. Coaches treat team members with respect while holding them to a high standard of professional conduct, letting them know when they need to improve their performance in order to increase the odds of winning games. Coaches are free to hire and fire players and decide on strategies without unwarranted intervention from sponsors or board members. All roles, responsibilities and boundaries are very clear.
The CEO and board members take charge of ensuring the coach and their team are performing in accordance with the team’s core values and expectations. These people choose their sponsors with care, ensuring any would-be sponsors reflect the team’s values.
A diverse board is ideal. A team composed of former participants or athletes, lawyers, accountants, and other experts that have the skills and real-world experience needed to manage and steer a club in the right direction. Ideally, such a board would include men and women from various ethnic backgrounds.
Any sporting board should have a good capacity for balance. This can be quite hard because they can get pushed and pulled from side to side with competing goals. While the coach might say the focus is about getting results on the field, the treasurer will be looking at the books and seeking to manage funds more effectively while someone else is looking to spend money to create community connections to keep the flow of new members coming to the club. There needs to be a balance between interests – sporting outcomes, commercial interests and alignment with club culture goals.
Examples of thriving club and team cultures
A well known example of great team culture was in Ric Charlesworth’s coaching of the Australian women’s hockey team between 1993-2000, achieving two Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000 and were number one (1) team in the world for most of that period. Charlesworth, himself a former athlete, was known for his hyper-competitive, stubborn nature, attributes that made some of his team players nervous about his role as their coach. He had high expectations and demands, even going so far as to fire a player he did not believe was acting professionally or putting her full energies into being successful on the field. However, his players came to admire him because he threw himself fully into their game and pushed them to be the best they could be. When they performed well, he expressed unrestrained pride in them. He didn’t play politics but rather judged team members based solely on merits and performance. His team, in turn, did everything in their power to make his expectations of them a reality.
Although outside of sport, if we look at the parallel of exceptional work environments and team cultures, global businesses have their own formulas for creating a stellar culture. Atlassian, an Australian software giant that in 2021 was named one of the top 25 best workplaces in the world, had 95% of their 6600 employees agree that it is a great place to work with former employees praising their “well-shaped work culture” and reflecting that “Atlassian’s live the company values so strongly that you regularly hear them in conversations.”
This common thread of acting with integrity and instilling team values into everyday actions and conversations is what contributed to a positive thriving culture and no doubt also a leading, winning edge.
Improving club culture: How to build team culture in sports
At its core, sport should be about health, fitness and fun. When running the business of a club it is easy to overlook these three elements that should be central to all sports.
Club members need to be able to enjoy not only training and competing together but also spend time doing other fun activities together. Regular group meals and activities build bonds and help team members get to know each other and appreciate each other’s gifts, talents, and capabilities. Team building activities can also help people understand those who come from different backgrounds and appreciate what they bring to the table.
Group activities involving board members, the team CEO, sponsors, team members, and team members’ families can also build bonds of trust. Those who can relax and enjoy spending time with each other even if they don’t agree on everything will be able to stick together even when problems or challenges arise instead of looking for someone to blame when a game or finals don’t turn out as expected.
Even more importantly, ensuring that there is fun connected to your team or club helps people manage after a challenging season or event. It alleviates stress, instead of perpetuating a culture of arguments, put-downs, self-destructive behaviours, and other problems both on and off the field. While personal enjoyment can never take precedence over practice and the team’s core mission, it needs to have its place if a thriving club culture is a genuine goal.
How to develop a thriving team culture in sports of all sizes and at all levels
A positive club culture doesn’t appear overnight, even if team and board members have the right motives and are trying their best to act in a professional, ethical manner.
A thriving team culture in sports comes about by having a strong Constitution, comprehensive policies and a strategic plan in place. However, these mean nothing if they are not widely and clearly circulated. Membership forms must require that everyone agrees to comply with all club policies and its constitution. But that in itself isn’t enough. Education is key. Having ongoing education sessions and sending newsletters that promote messages about inclusiveness, or that bullying and harassment (including via social media) won’t be tolerated is the vital next step to support your culture goals.
At its core, every sporting club’s culture stems from its Club Constitution, policies and strategic plan. When the Constitution is clear and speaks effectively to the current needs of the club and sets clear guidelines about how the club should operate, what should and and should not be done, and what happens if there are grievances or issues to investigate, then everyone can be on the same page and moving in the same direction. Again, it’s about putting life into these governing documents so there is no doubt about the clear rules under which things operate in your club.
Clubs can have the most comprehensive documents in the world but unless there are steps taken to consistently remind the community about the way things are run and done, it’s hard to get buy-in. In the case of a children’s sporting club, parents must also be trained and educated, so they can work with coaches and board members to help their budding athletes learn how to conduct themselves properly when dealing with fellow team members, coaches, board members, and umpires. Regular sessions can help address misunderstandings and give people the tools and knowledge they need to adhere to the team’s policy and core values.
If in your club it’s said ‘we call out bad behaviour’ or ‘we have hard conversations’, and everyone consistently speaks and acts in alignment with the club values, then you may well be on your way to creating a positive team and club culture. If not, a review of your Constitution, policies and strategic plan is the first place to investigate. If the foundational guiding elements in place are up-to-date, relevant to your community today and are easy to make sense of, and consistently part your conversations and messaging, the winning will come. First, everyone needs to be on the same page and moving in the same direction.
Article by Paul Horvath
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