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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The Golden Rule of Coaching Communication

Communication is the lifeblood of every team; and teams are filled with individuals who must come together to achieve their common goals. Coaches must learn to communicate to their players effectively and just as players must learn to communicate in a respectful way with their coaches. It is the coach’s job to set the precedent for how communication will operate within the team context. Part of their job is to nurture relationships and foster quality communication. In short, the Golden Rule of Coaching Communication is this: All great communication happens first-hand, with honesty, and in the context of a relationship.




Honesty is the most important aspect of great coaching communication. If your players have trouble believing the validity of what you say, it will be that much harder for them to take ownership of your system. Honest communication is at the heart of creating healthy relationships and developing team chemistry. When coaches communicate poorly or dishonestly, they inhibit team growth, and create barriers between themselves and their player. However, when coaches communicate well they help they become a catalyst for team development.

When players believe that a coach is being straightforward with them, a relationship of trust will begin to grow. But if players feel deceived, doubts about the trustworthiness of their coach will start to creep in. Regardless of the topic of communication – even difficult topic like playing time, role on team, personal development, etc – must always be handled truthfully so that a spirit of hypocrisy does not take hold. A precedent must be set that difficult conversations are not something to be avoided, but embraced. Although awkward at first, in the long run the fruit of these honest conversations creates a healthy respect between all parties involved.



One of the most neglected aspects of great communication is the power of relationship. Many coaches fail to leverage the incredible access they have into their players lives by making a concerted effort to develop a relationship with them.5524419083_89ec639f01_z The countless hours of practice, film study, and team activities are prime opportunities for a coach to take an interest in his/her players lives beyond basketball. As a coach learns the interests, problems, and circumstances of their players lives, their credibility grows and a relationship develops.

Anytime a player feels like a coach genuinely has their best interest in mind, communication about difficult topics becomes much easier. When a coach has made an concerted effort to show interest in a player, they have earned relational equity that makes the communication process much easier and smoother. It almost goes without saying that, all great communication takes place face-to-face. Digital technology is incredibly useful for certain types of communication, but first-hand communication has the amazing power of personal presence. Body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions give first-hand communication valuable context that other types of communication does not.


  • Honest communication builds chemistry and creates trust
  • Relationships are key to great communication
  • Coaches gain credibility by investing in their players off the court
  • Communication is the lifeblood of any team!

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