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“I see you and by seeing you I bring you into being”. Ah. This quote is a bomb! Prettyyy genious.

If and when we see people, we really bring them into this life in a whole different way than if we don’t notice them and give them the space and chance to express themselves. As humans, we want to be seen. At least if the environment is safe. If it is not safe, then we might rather stay hidden, to protect ourselves. So what are some things leading to a safe culture that we could be authentic, competitive, trusting, and successful? Winning team culture that supports the people?

PILLARS OF A SUCCESSFUL TEAM CULTURE

I gathered information and believe that some of the important matters leading to great team culture are authenticity (including self-awareness and knowing yourself), honesty, courage to serve and celebrate others as well as your own small successes plus I tried to find out some tips on how to have difficult conversations.

And yes sure we all know that we should work hard to be successful and being passionate helps but I think of those quite a bit as prerequisites in the world of competitive sports. I wanted to take another angle here to examine what the great teammates and leaders are in addition to passionate and persistent hard workers that build great team culture instead of a just an ok one.

Courtney Thompson, former setter in the U.S. National Team, described their team culture in the NT brilliantly in one podcast. She was talking about keeping others accountable, how hard it is and how often it is approached as like being bitchy to your teammate. She told that they all dug deep in themselves looking for what they are about as human beings on the national team when they started to create a culture of trust.

They wanted to win the World Championship Gold and set the team culture as a way to get there. They agreed that everybody needs to be supporting each other and others’ growth. There is no bitching, no eye rolling, no bad mouthing, but also, not being quiet when something happens that isn’t within the values or in the standards that they all agreed to.

So when someone for example was not behaving the way that benefits them and the whole team, it was made as a norm that then someone can/should go and say to that person that “hey, I think your attitude is not helping you to be your best right now”. Saying that takes courage. Accepting the feedback takes courage too. And it definitely is not easy to take that feedback in if being pissed at your own performance and frustration is your thing. It definitely was my thing haha.

But that is the way to get out from that situation – having someone holding you accountable and knowing that this kind of frustration I am showing now is not the best for my growth and therefore, it is not the best for the team either. So I better fix it, otherwise I am holding our World Championship Gold dream back and that is not ok. Pretty powerful way of thinking right?

That is being a good teammate. That is how to make the person better, to make the team better. And if you agree on the right terms, being straightforward and receiving straightforward feedback can work. The terms need to be discussed first so you know what to say, how to help each individual.

One good thing to remember too is no matter which position you are, it is almost impossible to regulate others if you cannot self-regulate yourself. It is so hard to trust someone that does not act according to their words. For example, if we are talking about not losing our temper at referees but then end up screaming and yelling at them – I am not convinced those two actions are aligned ;).

Personality in sports emails

Honesty and integrity are crucial in successful team culture. The half-truths or b.s. we sometimes say to make our friends, teammates, coaches, athletes feel better is really not that beneficial. It is not urging them to grow. Think it almost as like hindering their growth if you are not honest with them. We (or at least I am) are often doing it so we can make ourselves feel more comfortable too. And we feel like we are helping but the truth is that we are not.

We need truth. We need honesty to grow. We need more authenticity to become better.

PROBLEMS IN TEAMS – WHERE THEY COME FROM?

One of the reasons why there is a lack of honesty and authenticity is that we are not being strong and courageous enough to step into that uncomfortable area that is often needed to build trust that leads to feelings of safety. As an example in a team sport setting, it might be that there is never any talk about feelings. We never use or hear words like fear, feeling, anxiety, vulnerability, loneliness, kindness, belonging and so on. And yet they very likely are in the core of building that trusting and authentic team culture in many settings.

So who would want to have a discussion about those topics if the language around them is never used in the setting you are in? Oh yikes I would not want to be the first one to raise my hand and say that “I am scared to lose/fail” or “I feel like I don’t belong here” or “I have anxiety and it gets worse when you yell at me”.

It is easier to keep these kinds of matters inside.

It is easier to walk away from those possibly uncomfortable discussions.

It is easier to not to talk about the messy side aka human side we have outside the court.

If you think that team culture in sports should be solely about sports and those who have other issues can search other help … Are you underestimating the courage it takes to have those discussions? Are you possibly underestimating how much more athletes could be if they would feel safe in a team environment?

Many coaches feel that the emotional side of sports is a waste of time. So let’s just take a little peak on the consequences’ side…

When people feel unsafe and disconnected from the team, it will also show in their performance. It is normal to withdraw and isolate yourself in those situations, agreed?

And when it shows in the performance, it is not that easy to solve by giving technical feedback –it kind of misses the point. So we want athletes to be coachable, to become better. I’d encourage us to even try to create safer environment. The used language and words can be a really good start to support matters that make people feel safe: trust, belonging, permission to be themselves meaning also authentic and vulnerable.

Why?

Well, psychological safety makes it possible to give and receive tough feedback and have honest and difficult conversations. In environments where people feel psychologically safe, they feel that if they make a mistake, they will not be penalized, humiliated, or thought less by others. They are open to receive feedback. They are open for discussions. They are open for growth. They are open.

But none of this rarely happens if the coach/environment/other athletes are not open too. So there is a mutual respect and trust of each other in the group. And hey, it does not mean that everyone needs to be close friends either.

This part, this next part is so important to understand in a bigger scheme of things. If we are not supporting honest, courageous culture and understand that holding others accountable to do the right thing according to their ethics and values, according the rules and stuff we have agreed to, then the culture is likely to be facing a problem of ethical decision making at some point.

That is when things start going south if we don’t stand up when we see the first little unethical things happen, things that are not aligned with our values, but we let them happen instead of taking responsibility to step in. And to be honest, it is not a big surprise that those unethical cultures are so prevalent in sports when we have been so used to see sports as a world where it is normal and encouraged to bury feelings and think that success is the only thing that matters in the end…

Ok back to the so called “small scale” scenarios. It is just good to keep in mind that how we do little things is how we do all things as the quote says. Same with this. Be honest and stand up to your values – that creates trustworthiness and accountability.

If we think of the other pretty common counter argument, in addition to not having time to focus on the emotional/mental side, we often hear that “I/we don’t do vulnerability”. Well, we all get vulnerable. It is not about if you “do” it or not. But if you don’t realize it, you can’t own your own vulnerability which leads to the situation where you are letting the armor come up and then you lead behind that – “wrongly” thinking you are not vulnerable.

I have absolutely been that person. Thought that it’s safer to just be lonely and own the loneliness, feel disconnected because if I reach out, I will get hurt anyways. So then what happens? The feeling of loneliness and disconnectedness – my vulnerability – does not disappear anywhere, I am just acting differently around people so they would not know that about me.

Instead of this, I wish I would have raised the issue back in the day that I think this team is disconnected and I don’t feel like I or we can be our best in this kind of environment. I was not brave enough. I rather hid behind my armor and pretended to be happy. I did a disservice to all. I did not help my teammates to become better or happier either that year. I was not honest.

Now I understand that vulnerable situations will never stop coming, it is more about understanding them and my own behavior, what do I do to avoid the uncomfortableness and to self-protect myself. I am pretty bravely announcing here that I am done with that, I am done hiding behind some armor that better fits in the situation to please people and make myself comfortable because I know I am burying the best possible version of me if I do that and rob the opportunity to grow and develop from others too.

HOW TO ENHANCE MORE OPEN COMMUNICATION?

So we need these tougher discussions instead of the nice and polite ones. Building a great team culture requires connecting and the difficult conversations are big part of it. I found a useful tip from Brene Brown’s book called Dare to Lead that I wanna share.

Let’s say there is a discussion needed about underperformance of the team or problem in the team spirit or something that is just making the majority a sweat a little.. So, we start the discussion and feelings are getting little heated. For those moments, we need to define some boundaries on behavior.

All feelings are permitted, and they should be allowed. Therefore, it is ok to feel mad. But the idea is to create boundaries for behavior – even if you are mad, rolling your eyes is not ok. That is showing disrespect.

It is ok to feel frustrated but kicking a referee is probably not, right? You got the idea – feeling vs. behavior.

So creating these kinds of boundaries in a team setting can be super helpful – feelings are allowed but be mindful of your behavior. If your behavior starts to be against the agreed boundaries, having someone to remind you what the agreed boundaries and your own values are to become better, should be a sign of a great team spirit and courage. This “boundaries tip” works in these discussions but also in the future in other team settings when modified to the individual.

Personality in sports emails

Lastly, I want to touch on serving and celebrating others. For example in volleyball, the competition between teammates can be fierce – who is going to get that starting six spot? It is forgotten too often that the better your teammate does, the better it is for you because then you need to bring your best self in the arena too. That is gonna make you better. That is going to make the team better. That is going to help you both and the team to succeed.

Forget that egoistic side where all the fame should be yours – focus on being an authentic version of yourself where growth is the most important thing. Not the comparison to your teammate. Someone’s growth should not be a danger to you, it should be a sign that growing is limitless to all.

If you can use the time to get better and celebrate the growth together, leave envy behind, that is a thriving team culture. That is team culture that is set up for success. And ps. Success/fame is not finite, it just doesn’t magically run out in this world so you don’t have to think that if your teammate or opponent is getting the praise now there is none left for you when you succeed.. 😉

It does not mean tho that there would not be competition. Sure there is. And competition is a good thing, we don’t need to be afraid of it. Compete as much as you want and need but the competition against yourself is very important. Think. Which is more under your control: trying to be better than you were yesterday? Or, trying to be better than your teammate? You can’t control how your teammate is going to perform today. All you can do is put all the eggs in your basket and do your best. Don’t waste the eggs. Especially if they are chocolate eggs. The little delicious ones that have kinda minty crust and chocolate inside. Yum yum!

SUMMARY: SUCCESSFUL TEAMS

So time to wrap things up! Here is a summary of the above on how to create a great team culture in addition to just hard work, persistence and passion…

  • Great team culture contains also authenticity, vulnerability and honesty – so those things and words need to be brought in the daily living as well. (If you want to read more about authenticity and vulnerability in sports, read my previous post about it here)
  • Defining and agreeing on some values and standards on attitude and behavior, that the team can hold each other accountable to, is very efficient instead of guiding people to “kick others assess” and letting accountability be like a random gunslinger in the wild wild west.
  • Courage is choosing the right road also on days when it feels difficult – that can also be called as an accountability but courage is the part that makes accountability turn into an action from an intention.
  • Psychological safety is the way to give and receive also hard feedback because then people are open to it. All this is crucial for the viewpoints of success and honesty.
  • Serving and celebrating others’ growth should be an accelerator to your own growth so you can all get better.

Thank you for reading <3

Saana

Ps. I am collecting informational and inspirational pieces related to this topic too and share them in my emails that will drop in your inbox about weekly so CLICK HERE TO JOIN  ! You can unsubscribe anytime! Would love to have you join my awesome email gang!

Ps part 2. I also created a free workbook for athletes how to break free from frustration and achieve new levels faster after a break in sports – you can download that piece clicking HERE .