How to Create a Champion Culture

Every coach wants to create a culture that produces a champion. What makes a good team? And in individual sports, what’s the point of good teamwork?

In my experience competing in individual sports (cross-country running, rowing, alpine skiing, cycling, and tennis), the team dynamic has tended to detract from the experience. Insecurities fester and self-confidence often wanes. The best athletes win while the rest of us are just “pack fill.” It never occurred to me that a supportive team could help foster good results for everyone.

But as I was researching my 2016 book World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team, I realized this is what had been happening on that team, as well as in several other Olympic sports that I cover for TeamUSA.org.

For the few years leading up to the 2018 Olympics, it wasn’t just Kikkan Randall making it to the World Cup and world championship podium anymore. Her teammates—Jessie Diggins, Sadie Bjornsen, Ida Sargent, Sophie Caldwell, Rosie Brennan, and Holly Brooks—were making their own way on the World Cup, too. When I asked the women what was behind their improved results, they credited teamwork. They were pushing each other in training and racing while supporting each other, no matter where they finished in a race.

I began to consider the ingredients that go into making a positive team dynamic. As I watched and interviewed the U.S. Team’s cross-country skiers, along with their coach, Middlebury graduate Matt Whitcomb, patterns emerged. A good coach is important, but so too are the character traits that the women bring to the team.

I met with friend and fellow journalist Edie Thys Morgan, a two-time Olympic alpine skier who has for years wondered the same thing: How do you create a team environment where everyone thrives? She had had experience on the U.S. women’s alpine ski team in the 1980s—far from the team’s heyday—and knew how other countries, namely Norway, are doing it right.

From our experience, observations, and interviews, we came up with a list of ingredients that we believe are key to creating a positive team environment. We call it a champion culture—an environment where everyone on the team can strive to reach their potential. What follows are excerpts from a presentation that we have given to teams around New England.

A Safe Environment for All

On a good team, athletes feel ‘safe,’ both physically and psychologically. A good coach helps create this environment where each person on the team feels safe speaking up, making suggestions, giving and accepting feedback, and taking risks (to improve performance, not ones that reduce physical safety). Everyone on a ‘safe’ team feels like they belong, whether they finish at the front or near the back.

Team Leaders

Good team leaders perpetuate this ‘safe’ environment and set the tone for the team. They are excellent communicators and work hard, striving to become the best they can be. Even if they are a better athlete than the others, they still train with them, at least part of the time, so that they are challenged and can see what it takes to be the best.

But team leaders do not necessarily have to be the best performers. In a champion culture, the team leader is humble and respectful of teammates,  and they celebrate their teammates’ accomplishments, including “milestone” goals.

A Role for Everyone

One of the misconceptions is that “team leader” or “winner” is the only important role on a team. This is not true. Like on a soccer or football team, or in a corporate environment, everyone has a role based on their skill set. And every role is important. In individual sports, the winner needs a support system—someone who helps make the journey fun, someone who has a different skill set (for example, is a better sprinter or better at downhills) to challenge weaknesses in training, someone who helps organize the team and gets everyone to the starting line with their bibs, etc.).

While giving our “Champion Culture” presentation at a Vermont high school, we brainstormed team roles. We started with roles like winner, organizer, team mom, mediator, and even clown (every team needs a clown). And the list grew from there. Someone even suggested “cookie maker.”

The key is that every role deserves respect. The kids who make the best chocolate chip cookies may not be the fastest on the team. But they deserve respect for sharing their awesome baking skills.

A role that well-functioning teams do not need (but often have) is “negative ninny” and/or “whiner.” We have probably all experienced a situation where one person can bring the whole group down. Negative behaviors can be tough to address without hurt feelings. Often, a one-on-one conversation with the coach or captain can go a long way.

Best Teammates

Group dynamics are often tricky, especially when performance matters. Personalities can clash, and athletes often have different routines on race day when tensions run high. Negative attitudes can also flare up.

But on good teams, I learned that there is an “I” in team—teammates who commit to bringing the best of themselves to practice, competitions, and team gatherings, even when they are nervous or have a bad day (or a bad race). They celebrate their teammates’ victories and successes, even if they did not meet their own goals that day. They see the good in their teammates and respect them as people and for the roles that they bring to the team. And they speak up, kindly and politely, when irritations or problems emerge. If they have a tough day, they leave the negative attitude at home, choosing to learn from the experience with the hope of doing better in the future.

Most importantly, good teammates get to know each other—their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, family histories, and everything else. They talk on long runs or skis, on the chairlift or on long drives to races, during team dinners or on trips to an amusement park. They get together and make team headbands. Or capes! Who wouldn’t laugh when a team steps off a bus wearing matching capes?

When athletes get to know their teammates as humans—not just as people who can run a fast 400 or who can squat 50 more pounds—then a team becomes a family.

As U.S. Cross Country Coach Whitcomb likes to say, “You don’t have to be best friends with everyone on the team. But you have to be best teammates.”

Peggy Shinn is the author of World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team. For more information on the “Champion Culture” presentation, or if you would like to bring it to your team, contact Shinn at [email protected]

Featured Photo: “Best teammates” make champions. Here, Sadie Bjornsen, Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall at Craftsbury during the Super Tour Finals in 2018. Photo by Reese Brown

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