What we did right: Building team culture

Editor’s Note: Yaacov wrote up a number of posts about things we felt we did well as a team last year. We’ll be posting these as we lead up to tryouts next month. We hope you’ll find them interesting and potentially useful.

Winning a championship is a great feeling, but you can’t stay there forever. A day after the medal ceremony for CUC 2014, I was thinking about Crash’s season, what we had done right and what we needed to do better in 2015. In some ways, what we had done right was simple and obvious, but looking back, I realized how long it had taken me as a coach to understand those simple and obvious things.

Crash cheers after winning pool D!

1 Team Huddle

The mythology of coaching is about great play designs and fiery pump-up speeches. In my first year of captaining, those were how I wanted to make my mark. Ten seasons later in 2014, I coached a team with one play and our fiery huddle talk before the finals was basically “Let’s go out and enjoy playing Ultimate on a beautiful day in front of friends and family.” Which isn’t to say that how a team organizes itself on the field or the words that are said in the huddle aren’t important, they are very important, but they have to come from your identity as a team, not from movies.

Our season was about four things: team culture, fundamentals, depth and decision making. This identity was built through team discussion and each player and captain took responsibility for making it happen. I’ll write about team culture first.

Crash’s culture was about hard work, focus and spirit. In every single huddle during the season, we talked about working hard. Sometimes at length, sometimes just as a quick reminder. We celebrated hard work in practice and and at tournaments regardless of whether it generated the outcome we wanted. We pushed ourselves to play every point of every practice and every game the way we wanted to play on double game point in an elimination round. When we were down 4-0 in the semis at Regionals, there were tactical adjustments but we didn’t have to find a new mental space. We just played with the same pedal down mentality that we’d always played. When we had to score two in a row to win the semis at Nationals, again there were tactical adjustments, but we were in a familiar mental space of giving full effort. Hard work was part of every moment that we were on an ultimate field.

Hard work is about physical effort; focus is about mental effort. Being present in the moment, keeping your mind on the disc, on your check, on the stream of information from the sideline without slipping into thoughts of frustration over a turnover, excitement that a win is close at hand or simple lapses from fatigue, is difficult. Keeping a high tempo in practices, eliminating mental breaks when a player isn’t active in a drill and walking and talking on the sidelines are all ways to keep focus high. The more we worked on holding focus, the better we got.

Spirit is one of the best things about competitive sports. It’s also one of the most difficult. Crash committed ourselves to playing with Spirit of the Game foremost. We spent time learning the rules, practiced discussing calls in a respectful way, and made a point of letting teammates know when they had made an incorrect call so that it could be rescinded. It wasn’t easy, and we weren’t perfect. We had great spirit from opponents and help from observers that taught and inspired us to be better. I’ve played a lot of games in the mixed division and this year was by far the best year for spirit that I’ve ever seen. It was great to be part of it.

Our team culture contributed to our success, but it also made us proud of what we’d built as a team. If we had lost an elimination game, we would have still walked away knowing that we’d lived up to who we wanted to be.

There are lots of ways to choose a team culture. Revolver’s Intensity-Humility-Discipline and Riot’s Excellence-Trust-Love are other great examples. Our 2015 team culture may change as our team grows towards new horizons of who we want to be. But it’s guaranteed the culture will be the core of our team, and our plays and system along with what we say to each other will be tools to help us live up to that culture.

4 thoughts on “What we did right: Building team culture

  1. Yaacov, I like what you’ve said about focus in this blog post. I have been learning more about and practicing mindfulness through my work and found that it had some major applications in ultimate for me last season, especially while playing and winning the championship game w/ PPF. Being able to be present in the moment not only improved my consistency in playing and my outcomes, but also allowed me to really enjoy the win in the moment and have no regrets throughout the tournament. It is nice to read that mindfulness principles are present in your team culture.

    • Neenah, last weekend I got to watch the televised version of the women’s final. I definitely noticed a calmness and consistency to your play that was awesome to see. I’ve been reading a lot of sports psych stuff, especially from Alan Goldberg and trying to learn as much as I can. Hard work was a really helpful cultural piece for us in maintaining mindfulness and a present focus. Hope we get to chat about it in person sometime!

  2. Thanks Yaacov. Keep these coming (we’re taking notes here in O-town)… Hope your tryouts go well – and see you on the pitch this summer!

    • Thanks Ryan! I’m excited to see that you guys are combining forces this year! Should make for a pretty formidable team. I’m looking forward to seeing you as well!

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