How to Build a Championship Culture (Plus the top 3 mistakes even smart, hard-working coaches make)

At some point, every coach realizes that working hard isn’t enough to get to the top. The truth is that all coaches works long hours trying to do whatever it takes to win. 

But there’s one thing I’ve learned after many years being around some of the best coaches in the world: success is about a lot more than just trying to outwork the competition. 

When you look at the top coaches in your sport or profession, most often than not, it doesn’t appear that they’re doing anything that different than you – and yet they just win more. 

Their teams often seem to outperform others with even better talent. They’re consistently at the top, year after year. 

It’s impossible to ignore the success of these top-performers, and it’s easy to wonder… what do they know that the rest of us don’t?

At some point in our careers, all coaches can inevitably relate to that experience in one way or another.

Here’s the good news: There is a way to uncover this “secret” great coaches know so that you can get to the top and stay there. 

What it really comes down to is understanding a simple formula…

The “results formula” (What the best coaches and trainers know that the rest don’t)

After years of working with many of the top coaches and organizations in the world, I’ve discovered there is something they know (and do) that many others don’t.

The secret is this: The best coaches in the world know that strategy is only half of the equation when it comes to helping teams, athletes, and clients perform their best.

The other half? Culture.

What a lot of people — even experienced coaches and professionals — sometimes miss is that when it comes right down to it, getting “results” (whether that means winning games, helping clients achieve their fitness and performance goals, etc.) is NOT primarily about sets and reps or knowing what play to run.

All of those things are just tools to get your athletes to DO the things they need to do to succeed.

At the end of the day, your athletes’ results hinge on their ability to consistently perform the behaviors necessary for success—and that starts with the leadership and culture behind them.

Stack good coaching strategies on top of an intentionally-created culture and you make the move from good to great; ignore culture and you’re setting yourself up for a long walk on the road to mediocrity.

championship culture

Leadership is responsible for establishing the culture which will drive the behaviours that produce results. Thanks to Focus3 for the inspiration for this from what they call the “Performance Pathway.”

Now, here’s the moment of truth: your current leadership and culture is working perfectly… to produce the results you’re currently getting.

If you don’t like the results you’re getting (or know they could be better), the first place to look is the culture of your team, gym, or organization.

Whether you need a complete overhaul or just recognize the need to “tune things up,” the rest of this article is going to outline some of the mistakes coaches make with culture, and then discuss some specific things you can do to improve it.

The Top 3 Culture Mistakes Coaches Make

More often than not, I find that even smart, hard-working coaches with the best intentions are making at least one of the following mistakes, and it’s holding them back from greater success with their teams and athletes.

I don’t want that to be the case for you.

Keep an open mind, read through the following culture mistakes, and ask yourself if any of these could be negatively affecting you and those you work with.

Mistake #1: Thinking culture is a “top-down” approach.

Here’s something I see happen all the time…

A coach, athletic director, or gym owner has a Jerry Maguire-like vision about what the culture of their team or business should be and—with overflowing excitement—gathers everyone together to proclaim “Here’s what we’re going to do! It’s going to change everything! Just follow my vision!

They don’t lack passion, but everyone they’re working with (the people who will make or break the development of the culture) don’t feel the same way because they didn’t play a part in its creation.

Culture is not something that one person is can say, “This is our culture, this is how it’s gonna be.”

The only way you’ll get buy-in from everyone is if they feel like this new culture is something that’s just as much a part of them as it is you.

In a recent article on leadership, I discussed how being a great leader is about far more than simply telling other people how things are going to be. The same goes for developing culture.

You don’t need a consensus—that will likely never happen.

But you do need to get input from others and let leadership make a decision using that feedback so everyone involved can be heard.

Mistake #2: Thinking that the mission statement you hung on the wall is the same as your culture.

When working with high schools, universities, or corporations, one of the first things I do is ask them what they are doing right now to cultivate the culture they want. Nine times out of ten, they point to a poster on the wall and say “Well there’s our mission statement right there!”

The crazy thing, though?

Ask the people in the organization—the athletes, coaches, or trainers—what the mission of the company/team is and what do they do?

Point to the poster.

Because the truth is that they don’t really know the mission.

Sure, they can read it off of a poster, but none of them are embracing that mission or letting it drive what they do each day.

More often than not, their mission statement is an afterthought—something they came up with on an emotional high at the start of the season or at a seminar.

And if all you ever do to develop a mission and vision for your team is toss words on a 12×12 piece of paper— your mission will die the moment people walk past that poster.

Mistake #3: Believing that culture is all about trendy, cool catchphrases.

I’ve heard coaches and corporate leaders use the word “culture” more frequently in the last year than I have in the previous 10. It’s become one of those trendy buzzwords that all the gurus like to throw around.

You know how this stuff goes:

Things aren’t going as you’d hoped so you call everyone together to figure things out. One thing leads to another and before you know it, you’ve come up with this great acronym using the word “FOCUS” that’s going to completely turn things around.

A week later, your new mission statement is a poster on the wall that you walk past each morning without giving a second thought.

Okay, so I’m poking fun at the way these things are done sometimes — but in all seriousness, there is nothing soft about culture.

It’s not just a go-through-the-motions thing you turn to when things aren’t going well and you’re not sure what else to do.

Creating the right culture is one of the hardest and most important tasks facing leaders and coaches today.

And putting together some cool, trendy-sounding words that look good on paper but do very little to affect the bottom line won’t cut it.

4 Steps to creating a culture of excellence for your team, gym, or organization

Without the right culture, you won’t be able to get the people you work with on the same page. Period.

If you are not skilled in creating collaboration and ownership around an organizational mission, vision, core principles, and behavior, you will not get the results you are looking for.

Culture has a very specific purpose and should produce tangible results. The goal is to create an environment that drives the daily behaviors that lead to success.

The best way to begin cultivating a culture of excellence involves the following 4-step process:

  1. Identify the mission, vision, and core principles of your team or business.
  2. Focus on the behaviors and what it looks like to live in alignment with your organizational mission, vision and core principles.
  3. Assess how you are living compared to what you identified in step two.
  4. Create an intentional growth plan based on what you learn from doing your assessment.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps to see how you can begin applying this today.

Step 1: Identify the mission, vision, and core principles of your team or business.

Before you can stand for something, you have to know what that “something” is. The key is to be very specific about the words you choose to define the core principles of your team or organization. These words should mean something to everyone involved, and that meaning should be clear.

When you lack a clear definition, it leaves room for confusion. Take the word “family,” for example—a word many teams like to use when defining their core values.

Some people will think of a family as the group they turn to when they need to get bailed out for making a dumb decision. Others will look at their family as the reason to not make a dumb decision.

Same word—two different meanings.

This is why it’s important to not only come up with words/phrases that define your core values and mission, but to also make sure everyone is on the same page about what they mean.

Check out this article to see a more in-depth explanation of the “MVP” process I use to help develop and implement mission statements and core values. (Remember, though: it’s not enough to come up with some cool acronym and throw it on a poster).

Step 2: Focus on behaviors and what it looks like to live in alignment with your organizational mission, vision, and core principles.

In his book Above The Line, Ohio State Football Coach Urban Meyer calls the behaviors that he wants from his players, “Above the line behaviors”.

When he identifies the behaviors he wants to eliminate in the program, he refers to these as “Below the line behaviors”. I have found this to be a clear and simple concept that coaches and athletes can grasp.

You will want to have clear examples of what it looks like for your organization based on the various roles the members play.

For example, if we were working with a high school or college team, we’d use three key areas: as a (1) person, (2) student, and (3) athlete. If we were working with clients in a gym setting, we might use (1) employee at work, (2) parent at home, (3) person working out.

Use these three key areas to define what “above the line” and “below the line” behaviors look like to align with the mission, vision, and core principles you established in step 1.

Here is an example of this step taken from the LSU softball team: 

championship culture

Step 3: Assess how you are living compared to what you identified in step 2.

This step is all about assessing how our actual behaviors line up with the mission and core values we’ve identified.

How do your current behaviors match up with the ideal behaviors that give you the best chance for success? A simple assessment can be a 1-3 grade scale on how often you live out the identified behaviors. 1 = never, 2 = sometimes, 3 = always.

This assessment process is something you should continue doing regularly to make sure you and your athletes/staff perform the “above the line” behaviors as often as possible.

Step 4: Create an intentional growth plan based on what you learn from your assessment.

You can use the Start, Stop and Continue process to create clarity on what you need to work on and to create a growth plan.

To do this, look at your assessment and determine one thing you need to start, one thing you need to stop, and one thing you need to continue doing to demonstrate more of the “above the line” behaviors that align with your mission, core values, and principles.

Decide what is the one single most important behavior you must start, stop and continue to become more.

Repeat this process weekly.

What you should do now:

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is thinking, “I don’t have time to worry about building a culture. I need immediate results.”

This line of thinking is not only short-sighted, it completely misses the point: culture is the catalyst that drives (or limits) the results you see today and will see years down the road.

So, here’s what you should do now with what you’ve learned:

  • Realize that culture is more than a buzzword. It has a purpose, which is to drive the daily behaviors that align with the mission, principles, and core values of your team/organization.
  • Remember the results formula: Leadership + Culture + Behaviors = Results. Your current results are the product of the culture you’ve created. Don’t like your results? Change your culture.
  • Avoid making the culture-building mistakes we discussed. Set aside 10 minutes and honestly evaluate how things are going… are you making any of the top 3 mistakes outlined above? Don’t feel bad if you are… but DO make sure you’re taking steps to avoid them moving forward!
  • Implement the 4 steps for creating a culture of excellence with your team. This WILL have transformative effects… but only if you actually DO IT. This is a must if you want to see concrete results and become better.

Become a Certified Mental Performance Coach to help your athletes reach their full potential and perform their best when it matters most

What if you had the mental performance strategies and practical know-how to help your team/athletes overcome the obstacles that trip them up by building the habits, routines, and behaviors they need to achieve long-term success?

Think of how that would take your coaching — and the results of those you work with — to the next level…

Starting December 11th, I will be opening up registration for the Mental Performance Mastery Certification. It’s the first certification ever developed for coaches who want to master and teach the mental skills that every athlete has to have to be successful today.

In the course, I’ll teach you how to help your athletes overcome the mental barriers that trip them up and how to make sure they build the habits, behaviors, and routines they need to perform at the highest level—even when it’s hard.

To save $200 off the full course price and to be the first to know when the Certification goes live, get on the free Insider’s List by entering your name and email below.