How I Squandered a Season by Failing to Create a Team Culture (and What I Do Differently Now)

Matt Richards, the winningest head coach in Southern Maine Community College history, reveals how he strives to create a strong team culture.

Matt Richards is head men's basketball coach, as well as Associate Dean of Students and Director of Athletics, at Southern Maine Community College. He is the all-time winningest coach in SMCC history. Richards' teams have qualified for 15 consecutive Yankee Small College Conference (YSCC) playoff berths, captured three YSCC titles, and gained bids to seven United States Collegiate Athletic Conference (USCAA) National Tournaments.

We were on the brink of a fantastic season. I had a strong core of returning players and a highly-touted recruiting class joining our men's basketball team at Southern Maine Community College. This was several years ago, and as Head Coach, I was looking forward to besting the previous year's 18 wins and playing in our conference finals.

Six months later, we were watching other teams compete in the postseason. We had not even reached 18 victories, let alone surpass them.

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Matt Richards is head men's basketball coach, as well as Associate Dean of Students and Director of Athletics, at Southern Maine Community College. He is the all-time winningest coach in SMCC history. Richards' teams have qualified for 15 consecutive Yankee Small College Conference (YSCC) playoff berths, captured three YSCC titles, and gained bids to seven United States Collegiate Athletic Conference (USCAA) National Tournaments.

We were on the brink of a fantastic season. I had a strong core of returning players and a highly-touted recruiting class joining our men's basketball team at Southern Maine Community College. This was several years ago, and as Head Coach, I was looking forward to besting the previous year's 18 wins and playing in our conference finals.

Six months later, we were watching other teams compete in the postseason. We had not even reached 18 victories, let alone surpass them.

What went wrong?

I did not work on creating team culture. I assumed it would develop on its own. We had a lot of talent, but I never took the time to define what our team was about and mesh personalities.  

Like all coaches, I focused a lot on recruitment, practice preparation, player evaluations, scouting and film breakdown. Building the right environment was not on the top of my list that season. That was a mistake.

Recently, I've decided to make developing a positive environment a larger priority. What are some ways to do this?

The first step is to define expectations. We start by asking players to develop individual goals. Then, as a group, we compile goals for our team. As part of this discussion, I explain what each player can bring to the program by defining what I call "chemistry creators" and "energy suckers."

Chemistry creators are players who:

  • Care about the team outcome over their personal accolades
  • Put teammates' success ahead of their own
  • Hold each other accountable (regarding team rules, use of social media, classroom expectations, practice effort and so on)
  • Find a way to help a teammate each day
  • Place an emphasis on succeeding in the classroom to the best of their ability
  • Acknowledge unselfish efforts by others

Energy suckers are players who:

  • Are only satisfied when personal accolades are received, regardless of team outcomes
  • Are negative and believe it is someone else's fault when we don't succeed
  • Complain about shots, playing time or their role on the team
  • Don't give their best effort academically
  • Exhibit negative body language when receiving instruction

Once expectations and goals are set, the next step is to emphasize positive behaviors over negative ones. One method is to start practice by asking players what they did that day to help a teammate. Answers shouldn't always be related to the sport. Encourage small things like an upperclassman helping a freshman find a classroom or sign up for next term's classes.

It can help to place a value on unselfish intangibles. A colleague of mine gives out a gold practice shirt each day to the player on his team who took the most offensive charges in practice. Another idea is to hand out a reward to the player who was the most encouraging in practice.

Along with bolstering actions associated with chemistry creators, you have to be on the lookout for energy-sucking behavior. When you spot it, correct it immediately. I usually bring the player into my office and pull out the goals he shared in the beginning of the year. I ask how his particular behavior meets those goals. This helps him understand what he is doing wrong. Sometimes I'll ask our team manager to film the player during practice. The player and I will then watch the video together. Film doesn't lie. This has proven to be a great corrective tool with instant feedback.   

Winning is a by-product of many factors. By creating a team culture that promotes chemistry creators and stops energy suckers, you'll put yourself in a position to be successful, as well as enjoy each day.

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Photo Credit: Southern Maine Community College Athletics on Flickr

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Topics: LEADERSHIP | MOTIVATION | COACH | HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL | YOUTH BASKETBALL | COLLEGE BASKETBALL | BASKETBALL COACH | SPORTSMANSHIP