Before talking about team culture, think about what you mean

Debbie Kniffin | Iowa State middle blocker 2008-11


Please, please, please, can we think twice before using the word “culture” when describing our volleyball programs? This may be the most overused word in the sport. Every interview, you hear coaches give answers like:

“We have worked hard to develop our [insert adjective] culture.”

Maybe it’s “winning culture” or “gritty culture” or “healthy culture.” It’s always some kind of culture, and the references are seemingly endless.

And here’s my issue with it: Hot-button words, if not clearly defined, can clog coach-to-player communication. Coaches use these words because other coaches use them, but copying another coach’s language doesn’t necessarily work any better than copying another coach’s training methods. There’s never a one-size-fits-all game plan, and there can’t be a one-size-fits-all definition for the word “culture” either.

Without defining what healthy culture or gritty culture or winning culture means in your context, you have no ownership over the concept, so the term loses significance and your message is muddled – both outside the program and within.

Why does that matter? Think about how outsiders might misunderstand your brand if you and a very different program both brag about a gritty culture. Or if your players hear you talk about the healthy team culture when they don’t see it that way.

Locking down your language allows you to clearly communicate your program’s values, objectives and standards in a way that empowers players and staff to engage in the process.

Make sure people know that gritty culture in your gym means point-to-point playstyle, intense practices, mental toughness training and embracing the underdog role with a chip on your shoulder. And make sure they understand it doesn’t mean a do-anything-to-win (even cheat), volleyball-above-all-else kind of culture that’s in place at program X.

Players need to know if your definition of healthy involves open communication lines, peer accountability and clearly defined + appreciated roles rather than fair playing time, zero conflict and micro-managed relationships. Clearly communicating your definition of a culture allows expectations to align so everyone can advance together.

Before using the word culture again, challenge yourself to define it within the context of your gym. If you want to clarify with an adjective like gritty or healthy or winning, make sure to also define that word. Have an answer to these questions:

  • “What does culture mean in my program?
  • “Do my players and staff know what culture means in our program?”

Finally, don’t forget to test your definition of culture against your actual culture. If they don’t sync, bridge the gap by correcting your definition (or your culture). One doesn’t work without the other.