Culture Trumps Talent

The key challenge for any hockey coach is to create the necessary bonding, team chemistry – or what I call culture – to get the job done.  In other team sports, we have seen superstars with enormous individual talent come together for the olympics, for example, but were not able to gel as a team, either because of their egos, their inability or unwillingness to play as a team, or simply the inability to bond as as group to get the necessary chemistry. The gold medalist for this tournament will not necessarily be the team with the most talent, but rather the team with the best culture. Culture trumps talent.

I’ve been watching culture in action in the development of my daughter’s soccer team. Eleven years ago, on a U8 team with barely enough players, Chandra moved out of recreational soccer to a competitive team. But, the team wasn’t very competitive to say the least. Not only did they not win a game, they scored one – that’s right – one single goal that year. It happened in one of the last games of season. Their team performed so poorly that scoring one goal resulted in so much cheering you’d have thought they just won the championship!

That was eleven years ago, when their coaches, Andy and Deedee Cook, began devoting themselves to developing a team out of this group of girls. Culture began that year, several seasons ago. While not always explicit, the values, and thus, the priorities, of this couple and of the team they built were abundantly clear:

  • Fun – in everything they did
  • Friendships – among every player and
  • Fundamentals – of both soccer and of character

It was always clear that on this team it is more important to be a good person than a good soccer player. These amazing coaches understand that the game is a tool for something far more important.

In the seasons that followed, the values remained consistent as the friendships grew and the skill levels developed. It wasn’t much about winning in the early days. If they lost, they were more interested in where they were going to go eat after the game. The parents seemed more attached to the win/loss records than the girls ever were. What mattered most was the effort they put in, not the scoreboard. There have been times over the years where they won by a large margin but the coaches were not happy with their effort or application of the skills they had learned,  just as there were games they lost where the coach was thrilled with their execution.

Over time, with these values clearly in place, and as the girls kept having fun, bonding with each other through social events, hard work and discipline, plus strategic coaching and technical sessions for skill development, the team has became an attraction to soccer players and coaches around the province. The team is now attractive, not just because they are winning, but because they are connecting. The are also attractive because of the power of their presence: respect for themselves and others, a commitment to put the team above their self-interest, a positive attitude in everything they do, and a bone-deep commitment to excellence and integrity on and off the field. The coaches have relentlessly modeled this strength of character and have this expectation of everyone. They know how to assess and build on the strengths of every player, creating an environment where every girl knows they belong and contributes to the success of the team in their own unique way.

Over the years this core group of girls have stuck together and grown into a U16 team that is absolutely magical to watch. From a small town with essentially the same group of girls for sixteen seasons (eight years of indoor and outdoor), this team now beats teams from the cities where upwards to 100 girls may try out for the team. This year they are in the midst of an undefeated season in the second highest division in the province, and are currently in the process of progressing to Tier 1, where they will compete with the best players in the province in their age group. Deedee and Andy frequently get calls from girls in the city who would be willing to drive a great distance just to have a chance to play on this team. They are drawn to the culture of this team. Strong, aligned cultures are an attraction. At this stage, it’s all about winning, and, simultaneously, not at all about winning.

Fun, friendships, and fundamentals: culture trumps talent… in sports and in life.