(5 min read)
Sean Kibyuk - Client Success Manager, HONE Athletics
Culture is not an unfamiliar buzzword in the sport realm. But do coaches understand how to translate this concept of culture into real life action? There are two key components that need to be examined in order to create a meaningful team culture: the cognitive culture and the emotional culture. We take a look at the under-appreciated and much needed emotional culture and the four things you can do now to nurture it.
Step inside any dressing room these days and you are quickly hit with a litany of powerful words, quotes, and pictures. They are great! They help define the culture of the team and set the tone for how athletes will think and behave – in other words, they set the tone for the cognitive culture or the way we understand the rules and expectations for the group.
But there is another overarching aspect of culture that is part of every group as well – the emotional culture. Emotional culture explores how our players feel about their environment, their teammates and their leaders. Both of these aspects of culture are important in our athletes' lives. One sets the mission and values for the team, the other lets you know how the team feels as those missions and values are being lived day to day.
"Both of these aspects of culture [cognitive and emotional] are important in our athletes' lives. One sets the mission and values for the team, the other lets you know how the team feels as those missions and values are being lived day to day."
Oftentimes as leaders we have a good grasp on our team's cognitive culture. In fact, we spend most of our time focusing on the cognitive components of team structure and external perception. We take pride in how our locker room looks, we pay careful attention to what quotes we use and what the team's mantra will be. Much time is poured into the process of trying to figure out team missions and values.
All of this is great. It gives our athletes parameters for understanding the norms for behaviours.
However, we need to spend the same amount of time exploring how the players actually feel about being part of the team. It is the leader's job to think about these things and to create an emotional culture that is as robust as, and supportive of, the cognitive culture.
Talking about and dealing with emotions is not an easy task. You are not alone if you feel inexperienced or intimidated when it comes to having such conversations. In fact, many leaders will shy away from discussing or handling emotions in their organization for those reasons.
While it may seem daunting - with some guidance and direction you can develop an emotional culture that will help build the strength of the team and increase overall performance. It is our job as leaders to build an emotional culture in which our players can thrive by considering:
Do our players genuinely care about one another?
Do they enjoy being part of the team?
Are they excited to come to the field, rink, or court?
Do they feel like they belong?
Emotions are present in every single organization. They impact performance every day. If emotions are left unattended, they can have dramatic effects on performance and outcome. The great part about being a leader is that you get to influence what emotions are in focus at any given time within your organization.
"Emotions are present in every single organization. They impact performance every day. If emotions are left unattended, they can have dramatic effects on performance and outcome."
Building a Positive Emotional Culture
As a company invested in supporting mental well-being, this is the aspect of team culture that we want to shine a brighter spotlight on. It’s one thing to identify the rules of the group, it’s totally another to prioritize how our team feels as we move through and live the rules of the group.
Why do we need to pay attention to the emotional culture?
When positive emotions like joy and a sense of belonging are brought into focus, we see an upswing in player commitment. We see an increased satisfaction rating surrounding their personal role and about the team as a whole. Your team will start to build collective accountability and hard conversations will be handled with more compassion and respect.
If we can tap into what people are feeling we can get an idea of where we are today and where we want to go. How connected and emotionally well-adjusted are we REALLY as a team? The cognitive culture alone cannot tell you that.
What can you do to nurture the emotional culture of your team?
There are some easy actions you can take that will help share the emotional culture of your team.
- Embrace small gestures for big impact.
Smaller actions can go further to building an emotional culture than a bold declaration. Grandstanding can actually have an adverse effect if the words sound motivating but fall short of having a real impact on the team environment. A simple act such as hosting a low-key conversation with your players to hear what they say about the emotional state of the team can have a far bigger effect than a dramatic motivational speech. Words are easy. Actions are where it’s at.
- Modelling the culture you desire.
As leaders, we have to look for opportunities when we can insert the emotion / behaviour we want to see. For example, when your players are fearful or anxious, show compassion or bring some fun back to the game. Feelings and actions are contagious and, as the leader, it falls on you to demonstrate the desired response to circumstances. Athletes will look for feedback on how to react to situations and, if you aren’t the guiding force and model for behaviour, they will turn to look at whomever is the dominant personality on the team. For better or worse.
- Acknowledge reality.
Having a positive emotional culture doesn’t mean there isn’t room for less-than-positive emotions or experiences. When tough times land on the group, recognize what’s happening and validate the natural responses that people are feeling. It’s ok to feel frustrated, angry, disappointed, shaken or whatever is floating to the top for the team. First we have to land on the reality of the moment before you can do the work of shifting it.
- Re-frame for growth.
At times you will feel like you are a “Mood Manager” and, truthfully, you are. Even if it feels forced or unnatural at first, look for ways to switch in a positive response for a negative emotion. After acknowledging the reality, look to switch up the way your athletes view the moment. What have you learned? What have you gained? How has this scenario benefitted the team? This will help with group cohesion and neutralize the negative emotions that might otherwise bog down the players.
Being willing to tackle the underlying and (sometimes hidden) emotional culture of your team will yield significant benefits. The mental well-being of your athletes is dictated far more by how they feel than what they think or know about the team rules of engagement.
When our players enjoy being around one another and genuinely care for one another then we have a team that can really achieve something special.
Sports are always going to have a multitude of complex emotions attached to them. If we can balance the emotions and create an environment where emotions are normalized and recognized, then we can be sure we are doing right by our players and building towards a meaningful overall culture; a team that has a strong cognitive culture paired with an even stronger emotional culture is a team bound for success.
"If we can balance the emotions and create an environment where emotions are normalized and recognized, then we can be sure we are doing right by our players and building towards a meaningful overall culture; a team that has a strong cognitive culture paired with an even stronger emotional culture is a team bound for success."
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