Who Before What: Building Relational Equity

Activate – “the warmup”

Questions To Consider:


• How do healthy relationships correlate to success on the court?


• What is relational equity and why does 


•  What if my players don’t want a relationship with me?


• How do I strike the balance between maintaining respect and building trust?


To get the wheels turning, check out this quote by NBA legend Greg Popovich.

Dec 7, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich during the first quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center. The Spurs won 119-68. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Engage – “the workout”

Engage is the ‘workout’ segment of the program – the meat and potatoes. This is the time where we will more closely explore how a particular topic affects our ability to be transformational leaders.


Ready? Here we go…


Building strong, lasting relationships is one of the keys to achieving lasting success with your team.


If we look a few of the great programs in college basketball (UConn Women, Duke Men, Michigan State Men, etc etc), one thing they all have in common is they have coaches who view relationship building as a key component to their success.


Sustained excellence is impossible without building up relational equity with your players.


So what does building relational equity look like? Why is it so critical to sustained success and how does it help your team?


Let’s find out:


Founded on Trust

The foundation of every solid relationship is built on trust. Trust is the currency that buys you relational equity with your team. Trust is crucial to building a sustained culture of excellence.


When a coach has earned a high level of trust with their players, they are able to make difficult decisions in the best interest of the team without compromising the equilibrium of the team.


A great example of this is when Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors asked former All-Star Andre Iguodala to come off the bench because it was best for the team if Harrison Barnes started the games.


Iguodala wasn’t thrilled with the idea initially, but he eventually bought into the idea because Kerr had built up relational equity with the Golden State Players even in the short time he had been with the team.


How did Kerr do that?


After Kerr was named the head coach, he assembled his coaching staff and met with all of his players (even flying to Australia to talk with Andrew Bogut).


Here’s what Curry had to say about Kerr’s relational effort:

 “Coach Kerr did a good job of reaching out to everybody on the roster over the summer explaining he wasn’t going to come in and be the hero that’s going to change everything and make us 10 times better.”


I think Kerr’s commitment to building relational equity with his guys gave him the credibility to make a difficult decision like asking Iguodala to come off the bench.


Even though Iguodala wasn’t happy with the decision he trusted that Kerr was only trying to do what was best for the team and didn’t have a personal vendetta against him.


Collective Buy-In

A strong relational foundation creates emotional points of connection that make it easier to play as a team. Strong relational ties create a collective buy-in to the central mission and purpose of the team.


Relationship is the glue that holds teams together during the ups and downs of a season; and this culture of prioritizing people over projects starts with the coach.


When the coach makes it clear that people on the team are more important than results, this encourages a collective buy-in from the players.


Everyone on the team works harder for one-another when they know that the person next to them has their best interest in mind.


Psychologists who have studied conflict management make the point that hate is not the opposite of love: rather, indifference is the opposite of love.


Anyone who has ever been in a conflict knows this to be true: it is really hard to hate someone when you get to know them as a person and learn more about their story.




It is easy to pass judgement on someone when you don’t know them personally. You can hate the person when you view them as an object instead of a person.


When people are treated as people, they work harder for each other.


Who over What


When coaches make the decision to prioritize who before what they are able to operate from a greater sense of purpose than simply winning basketball games.


•When a coach makes the decision to prioritize who over what they will watch their team play with a greater sense of intensity, unity, and passion on the floor.


•When a coach makes the decision to prioritize who over what, they will build uncommon levels of trust with their players.


•When a coach makes the decision to prioritize who over what they deposit relational equity with their players that they can withdraw during times of crisis in the season.


•When a coach makes the decision to prioritize who over what they will see their impact extend beyond the basketball court!


Start prioritizing WHO over WHAT today!!!


Assimilate – “the cool-down”

All week we’ve been talking about how to build relational equity with your players. Building this rapport with your players have very specific benefits, including:

  • Greater levels of Cohesion


  • Chemistry


  • Trust during Difficult Decisions


  • Higher levels of intensity and togetherness


  • Buy-in to the process


Next Steps

In a sense I will be “systemizing” this idea, but the key to building relational equity has to always come from a genuine concern for your players.


Effective leaders always take a hearts-first approach to investing in people.


People can spot a phony from a mile away!


So don’t be a phony…Remember this stuff only makes a difference to the extent that you have an invested interest in seeing those around you grow as players and people.


Relational Cards

Here’s the next step:


Make a list of every player/person that you want to invest in relationally and make each person on that list their own separate card.


I’ve created a PDF of a player card with three sections: If you want a copy of this PDF for your own personal use send me an email at quinn.mcdowell@aretehoops.com


  1. Personal
  2. Interests
  3. Growth


As you grow through your interactions with each person (during practice, games, film sessions, etc) look for small details that could fit in each category.


Keep an ongoing list with tidbits of information that you pickup from listening to conversations, talking with the player, or just by observation.


DON’T TELL them about the card!


This card serves a purely administrative purpose.


It is a way for you to actively notice things about their life that you could bring up or ask them about in future conversations.


You really are becoming a STUDENT of your players by learning more about their:


Personal Life – their family background, relationships, home situation, friends. If they come from another culture what about their culture to do appreciate? What parts are difficult?


Interests – what they like to do in their free time, if they weren’t playing basketball what would they be doing instead. What parts of culture interest them, who do they view the world.


Growth – areas that you can help them grow in both as a person and on the basketball court, you can find a space to encourage in the progress they’ve made and challenge them to places they’ve never been before!


Small Touches

Make it a point to find small times of relational interaction outside the context of the basketball court.


Try to set a time to grab coffee, meet in your office, interact in a separate setting at another sporting or school event, etc.


Find and Schedule small touches!


The more that you can build these times of relational connectivity, the more relational equity you can build.


Remember when you prioritize WHO over WHAT you will see a massive change in the chemistry and cohesion within your program. You will earn the trust of your players and it will bring the entire team closer together as a group.


Finally, jot down the times when you’ve been able to make these small touches and don’t let yourself go any longer than a few weeks without finding time to do this with each player.


This might seem like a lot of work, but in the long-run it will reap huge dividends both on and off the court.


Your team will not only start to perform better ON the COURT but your impact as a coach will be extended long after the players step OFF the COURT as well.


If you want a PDF of this entire post (including the template for “player cards” send me an email at quinn.mcdowell@aretehoops.com)


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Building Culture

Building Culture

 (the majority of this content was originally created for our friends at Basketball Coaches Weekly


The word “culture” has become a buzzword in basketball circles as coaches across the country try to help their teams forge a winning identity. The idea of creating or building a team culture can become a cliché if we fail to appreciate the importance of the concept. Put simply, your team lives and dies by the culture it creates. Talented teams without healthy culture can easily lose to less-talented groups with great culture. The benefits of culture are obvious; togetherness, selflessness, chemistry, and continuity are just a few of the intangibles that allow your team to perform at high level.

What can get lost in discussions about how to build culture are practical suggestions on how to promote healthy culture on your team. I want to focus on the challenges that high school and college teams face. This is not to dismiss the NBA (although the forming of the USA national team with NBA stars like Lebron James and Kevin Durant is an interesting case study itself) but chemistry at the professional level has some significant differences. 

For college and high school teams the players in the program are spread across three a number of years and seniors graduate as the new crop of incoming freshman arrive. For high school coaches these players are also spread across multiple levels of teams. Consider the following suggestions that could help your program build and sustain a healthy culture for years to come.


Create Collective Buy-In

Coaches will often (and should) have a list of “core-identity” values that are consistent from year-to-year – i.e. selflessness, hard work, toughness, excellence etc. However, to ensure that these values infiltrate themselves into the culture of your team, you will need 100% buy-in from your best leaders. Your leaders must take ownership of these values or they will be in danger of becoming another mute talking point. One great way to do this is to meet with your leaders before the season and have them come up with a list of standards that reflect the core values (these can and should be extremely practical). For example, if one of your core values is toughness, then a corresponding standard could be “no offensive rebounds”. Now, during practice your leaders can enforce this standard – for example making everyone who misses a box-out do 10 pushups etc. Remember coaches create rules but only players can enforce standards. Once you come up with a list of standards get creative how you choose to communicate it with the team and make sure to ask for buy-in from everyone – ex. you could create a poster with the list of standards and have everyone on the team sign it.


Create Mentor Relationships

The best way to ensure consistent culture is to encourage great relationships. It is natural for teams to segment into their own age groups/ability levels, but anything you can do to encourage cross-pollination between teams will go a long way in building sustainable culture.This process starts with your older players.

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In high school for example, on girls teams it might be as simple as assigning a “little-buddy” for whom you can buy gifts or encourage by decorating their locker etc. For guys, you might assign a “buddy” but you would also want to create some kind of competitive environment where that relationship could flourish – i.e. hold a shooting competition before or after practice, or a dodge-ball tournament. In addition to these personal relationships little stuff like having the varsity team form a tunnel and high-five the JV team as they exit the locker room can go a long way to meld three individual teams into an entire program.

Time and again we see some of the most successful college teams are the ones that have the strongest core of seniors. The media tends to focus on the high profile “one and done” players that play one year and move to the NBA, but many of the programs that are successful year in and year out have strong development of their players. One of the greatest legacies a senior class can have is to know they have raised up the next generation of leaders to continue the tradition where they left off.


Create Memories

Memories resulting from shared experience are a powerful way to build culture. Not only do shared experiences bring teams closer together, but also begin to build a tradition in your program as stories get passed down from one generation to the next. The type of activities could vary as widely as taking a camping trip, planning an amazing race around campus, reserving a bowling alley, or having a pie-eating contest after practice. How you implement this idea can largely depend on the personality of your team and its type of leadership. Be sure that you study your team and understand how to accomplish this without coming across as corny or forced. Creating memories (particularly ones outside the basketball court) allow for nuanced relationships to develop which creates a stronger team and more dynamic culture.

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Q&A: Lee Roberts on Life, Pro Ball, and Hoop Dreams

Lee Roberts has been a professional ball player since he graduated from Findlay University in 2009. He has played in countries all over the globe including: Germany, Australia, Venezuela, and Argentina. His 4 years at Findlay University set the stage for his success as a professional, where he learned the value of hard work, consistency, and teamwork.

His team lost only 12 games in 4 years at Findley and Lee’s senior season ended the way all athletes dream of finishing their careers. The Oilers finished the season 36-0 en route to winning the NCAA II national championship. Lee currently plays for Olimpico LB, one of the top teams in Argentina. He sat down with us to discuss life, hoops, and his journey as a professional.

by: Findlay Athletics
by: Findlay Athletics

Lee, thanks for taking a few minutes to hang out with Arete Hoops today, I think people will really appreciate hearing about your journey. To start off tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you ended up playing basketball for Findlay U.

Well it’s always funny answering this question, both of my parents were in the army. I was born in Seattle but was only there until I was 7 and then we moved to Alaska. We were there for about 2 and half years and until we moved to Cleveland, Ohio. I was in Cleveland for middle school and high school.

I went to Midpark High School right outside of Cleveland, we had one of the best classes to ever go through that school for basketball. That’s where I got my recognition from Findlay.

Got ya. Did you know all along that you wanted to play ball in college or what was the recruiting process like for you?

I was actually recruited for high jump, I was waiting for a couple of schools to ask about basketball and then Findlay offered me a full scholarship. I went to visit them and I was sold.

How did you deal with the transition from high school ball to college? What areas of your game/approach to the game changed during your 4 years?

Well I had a great coach to start with. And my team was all about winning so I had some great examples to look up too. There was a lot of pressure to be good and it took work to get up to speed in the system.

I think that my aggressiveness and tenacity is what changed the most and the guys on my team in college changed the way I looked at basketball. I think it became a hunger then.

Sounds like you had special team culture, what were some characteristics of that team that set you guys apart?

It’s hard to describe, we knew each other in and out, on and off the court, and we held each other responsible in the same regard. There were 6 freshmen that came in my year, one redshirted so there were 5 that were seniors that stayed together through the 4 years.

It was like a family, we only lost 12 games over 4 years.

by: Ohio Hall of Fame
by: Ohio Hall of Fame

That’s incredible. So after having such a great college experience was the choice to play professionally an easy decision?

Well I wanted to play but it wasn’t easy to get a first job.

I’ve been there…

When I was looking for a job, a coach told me that you have to act like a professional before you become one. Can you relate to that advice? What was your first pro job like?

Well it’s a little bit of a longer story; I signed with an agent from Germany which was the first call I got. It was a Wednesday, he asked if I could be in France in Friday. Of course I got right to it and was there on Saturday because of some passport issues. I got to the team and the first thing the coach said it’s you aren’t 6’10’’!

After about 2 weeks I got cut and then went on a train with everything I owned to go to Germany to stay with my agent.

European coaches are paranoid about height…

The height thing is crazy in Europe.

I tried out for about 4 teams and money was always the issue. I landed at Bayern Munich for a month and then had an injury and was cut again after that.

Wow sounds like you had some tough luck starting out.3131108_1_O

Yeah it was bad.

I finally went to a 3rd league team in Braunschweig.

Well to start off in 3rd league Germany and end up in first league Argentina is a pretty significant accomplishment. What were the things that helped you make that jump?

God really, trusting that God would bless me. After my first year pro I went to live with a girlfriend and I worked landscaping in my college town. Motivation to make something of the talent I was gifted.

So I worked. Hard.

Any advice that you would give other aspiring players that has helped you along the way?

Everyone has their own path, but talk to God about it. That way you can’t go wrong. And really, hard work and dedication will always help you to be the best you can be.

I don’t want to sound cliché, but hard work pays off.



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Building “Spurs” Culture

Creating Culture

 “The individual becomes the culture and the culture becomes the individual. It becomes hard to deconstruct.”

– Louisa Thomas 

“But to have that dedication and that fortitude to come back every year and try to be the best team you can be by playoff time, it takes character and toughness and that’s all embodied in the players that we have…You can save yourself a lot of problems by trying to do that work early rather than get a guy in your program and then say, ‘We gotta get rid of this guy…First I depend on the fact that bringing them in, we believe they have character as such that they care about the group more than themselves as individual players.”

– Gregg Popovich

The San Antonio Spurs have given us one of the most powerful recent examples about the importance of culture in buildinglarge_5287228411 championship teams. This past June, the Spurs took down the Miami Heat in five games to secure their 5th championship in the Tim Duncan era. Duncan entered the NBA in the 1997-98 season and has lead the spurs to a 5-1 record in Finals appearances while amassing 3 finals MVP’s and 2 regular season MVP’s. Duncan has epitomized the selfless, team-oriented brand of basketball that has captured the imagination of millions of basketball fans and thrust the entire franchise into the national spotlight.

Ironically, the spotlight is the place where the Spurs feel least comfortable. There are countless superlatives that could be used to describe the culture of the Spurs, but the core of the Spurs cultural identity can be summed up in two words: servant leadership. The DNA of Spurs culture was created as a result of thousands of personal decisions – from players to coaches to the front office – to defer personal achievement for the greater good of the organization. For our purposes, we will define culture as “shared consciousness and purpose to achieve a common mission”.


The Priority of Culture

In the Spurs hierarchy of priorities, fostering a winning culture remains their most important objective. Before they decide their offensive sets or defensive schemes, the Spurs understand any chance of success hinges on their ability to recruit players who fit their culture. The Spurs create a cultural expectation for everyone in the organization, and then find players who fit that criteria. The culture makes demands on the player to conform to it’s ethos instead of players driving culture.

Many organizations flip this process by recruiting people primarily based on talent with the consideration of culture taking a back seat. Often, teams will inadvertently amass a conglomerate of conflicting personalities, goals, and value systems in an effort to secure large amounts of talent. The confluence of opposing ideologies and varying levels of character can make it difficult to create championship level culture. It is always more difficult to make the players fit the system than to allow the system to select the players.

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The Expectations of Culture

Think about a fisherman. A good fisherman will understand what type of fish he wants to catch. He will think about the type of water he is fishing in, how the weather will affect his fishing, and any other outlying factors that could affect his fish catching ability. Once this information is compiled, he will decide what type of bait to use. By assessing his surroundings and deciding what kind of system to use, the fisherman has created cultural expectations that limit what lures he throws into the water. It would be counterproductive for him to use lures that didn’t fit with his environment.

In the same way, the Spurs have allowed their environment to limit the types of players they recruit – which means they don’t always get the most talented players – believing that the collective culture will outperform individual talent over the long haul. Teams have the opportunity to achieve prolonged excellence when their best players embody the values of their culture. Organizations become standards of entire industries when they prioritize “who” over “what”, “where”, and “how”. Culture is not a disembodied concept that requires charismatic leadership or grandiose vision casting. Culture beings and ends with people. To borrow a phrase from Jim Collins, leadership starts with getting the right people on the bus.


“In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”

– Jim Collins


Culture will be created one way or another on your team. The question remains then what kind of values will typify the culture of your organization? Will your culture – more explicitly, the teams shared consciousness and purpose to achieve a common mission – be marked by selflessness, character, servitude, and humility or will the destructive behaviors of selfishness, greed, and egoism control your locker room. What kind of culture do you want to be a part of?


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