Directors of Coaching (DOC) are notoriously time-poor. Focusing on everything from coaching recruitment to defining the club's sporting philosophy leaves little room for anything else. That can make it easy to overlook less tangible aspects of sporting success, in particular club culture.
It might sound like a vague, nebulous term, but the internal culture of your club or organisation has a huge impact on the way your coaches and players behave, and the standards they expect from each other. In short, no DOC can afford to ignore it.
What is 'club culture'?
Club culture is often referred to in a negative way. A poorly performing team might mention dressing-room bust-ups as a reason for disappointing results. Outside of the sporting arena, we often hear talk of a 'toxic' culture at major corporations. But at its heart, club culture should be viewed in a positive light. If you get it right, your job as DOC will be easier and you'll encounter much less friction. Consider the following definition from sport psychologist Jim Taylor:
"A culture is the expression of a team’s values, attitudes, and beliefs about sports and competition. It determines whether, for example, the team’s focus is on fun, mastery, or winning, or whether it promotes individual accomplishment or team success. The culture is grounded in an identified sense of mission and shared goals - for instance, the goal of qualifying for a regional championships or winning a state title."
The language within this definition is overwhelmingly positive. As a DOC, why wouldn't you want to instil a sense of shared goals and achievements in your coaches and players?
How does team culture develop?
Whether or not you've done anything to influence its development, your club or organisation already has a culture. Broadly speaking, it develops and adapts in two ways:
Left to their own devices, your players will build their own shared culture, based on the behaviours and personalities of individual members. A club culture that develops naturally often proves to be the strongest, but there are some significant strings attached. There's a risk that the culture will be shaped by a core group of players - or sometimes even around a single dominant individual - at the expense of everyone else, which can lead to feelings of alienation. If that subset of players becomes more focused on their own importance than on what's best for the club, this situation can quickly produce a toxic environment.
It's often more effective - and less risky - for the DOC and their coaching team to take an active (but not dominant) role in shaping club culture. Hold open discussions with your players; encourage them to think about the type of atmosphere in which they'd like to play. Which values and behaviours do they believe are most important? What standards would they expect to be held to? Guide these conversations by offering insights into your own experiences and beliefs.
By building culture collaboratively, you stand a much greater chance of gaining buy-in from players. After all, there's little to be gained from a top-down approach that excludes the opinions of the very people you're seeking to engage.
The benefits of building a positive club culture
Instilling a positive club culture offers benefits on and off the pitch. Here are some of the biggest reasons why a DOC should focus on shaping the culture within their club for the better:
Creating a safe environment for players
It's all too easy to forget that soccer is meant to be fun. From international stars to amateur enthusiasts, everyone got into the game because they enjoyed it. If your players are afraid of repercussions for making a mistake, or dread coming to training because their coach acts like a military drill instructor, you're unlikely to get the most out of them on the pitch. Instead, players - particularly at younger age levels - should feel free to express themselves, and should look forward to matchday. Concentrate on building a culture that takes collective responsibility, rather than looking for scapegoats.
Bringing in new sponsorship
If your club stands for something positive - whether that be promoting an inclusive environment, fostering a strong sense of teamwork, or simply bringing groups of youngsters together to have fun - you'll find it easier to lure potential sponsors. That makes a big difference when it comes to retaining and recruiting coaches, buying new equipment and improving training facilities.
Encouraging your team to fight for each other
To be clear, fostering a positive culture isn't about forcing your players to be best friends with one another. In any large group of people - and especially in a competitive environment such as sport - there will be those who simply don't get on. This doesn't have to be a problem, provided you get the culture right and everyone knows what's expected of them.
To take a high-profile example, former Manchester United and England forwards Andrew Cole and Teddy Sheringham famously never spoke to one another off the field. Despite this, the rock-solid culture instilled by manager Sir Alex Ferguson ensured that both played integral roles in their club winning the Premier League and FA Cup multiple times - not to mention becoming the first English team to lift the Champions League trophy in 15 years during the 1998-99 season.
Attracting skilled coaches
The job of a newly recruited coach is made far easier if they walk into a positive dressing room on their first day. It means they can instantly start to have an impact in training and on matchday, rather than having to spend weeks - or even months - rebuilding a damaged and toxic environment. If you can demonstrate to potential new recruits that you've worked hard at building a strong, inclusive culture, it makes it far more likely that they'll want to be a part of your club or organisation.