Team Culture is Hard Work
When I played hockey for the University of Toronto, we had a fairly old team. Some players were back from playing a few years of pro hockey, we still had grade 13 in Ontario and I would guess the average age of the players might have been 23 or 24 years old. Almost every player would have played either Junior A or Major Junior A before going to university. The culture was such that we wore jacket and tie to all of our games and in the winter, a trench coat over our jackets for the cold. We didn’t think much of it and it was what we did.
Playing minor hockey growing up, the most important part of game day dress was the association hockey jacket and matching toque. I don’t remember ever having to wear dress pants or certain shoes, I am pretty sure it was jeans and boots (dating myself, but furry boots to the knee were the rage in PeeWee and Bantam!). I am pretty sure that no teams would ever have worn a shirt and tie - even up to Midget hockey. Personally, I think it looks a little goofy seeing 12 year old hockey players rolling into the rink in shirt and tie with a hockey jacket over top. But, that’s probably just me.
I came across the online article “GM's dress code is only two words” a few weeks ago. It talks about chief executive Mary Barra changing a dress code for all of General Motors employees to simply state “dress appropriately”. Now, the article is more about leadership in the business world and what is actually acceptable dress in the work place but, one line jumped out at me. “Instead of immediately focusing on high-level restructuring strategy, Barra surprised her colleagues by tackling the small, seemingly inconsequential policies she knew were foundational to company culture. Her first battle: The dress code.”
We have a number of “small, seemingly inconsequential policies” for our teams as well and they are also “foundational to (team) culture”. How important is team culture? Listen to Mark Messier at the 1:15 mark of this short YouTube video talking about the culture of the 1994 Stanley Cup Champion New York Rangers.
(I think one of the things I really love about “dress appropriately” is the simplicity. The article reports that the old GM dress code was a ten page document. I believe in simplicity when it comes to systems and on-ice play, I think that can translate to “policies” as well.)
One of the “foundations” of culture is a team having good “habits”, and observing good habits creates pride in what you are doing as a team. Having pride in what you are doing fosters team success, and team success often leads to more wins in the standings (and in some cases a Stanley Cup).
Simplicity, habits, goals and success can be summed up in two words for a hockey team as well: Work Hard. Policies to support Work Hard:
1) Be on time. Nothing can disrupt culture more than team members not being where they are supposed to be at the correct time. This can be anything from being in the dressing room on time to getting to the gym for a team workout. Arriving in the parking lot of the rink at 5:00 is not the same as being in the dressing room at 5:00. “Team time is five minutes early” can be a team catch phrase.
2) Dressing Room pride. I walked into a dedicated high school team dressing room a couple weeks ago. It was the day after the team had lost their last playoff game and the season was over. I can confidently say there was not one piece of equipment that was not put back perfectly in each player’s stall. There was absolutely nothing on the dressing room floor. The room was simply immaculate. That’s great team culture!
3) Respectful intensity. This can be anything from holding doors and saying hello to people in the rink, to not taking retaliatory penalties. I like players who can fight tooth and nail to score on a scramble in front of the net, then skate away from the pushing and shoving after the whistle without pushing back.
4) Be prepared. Preparation avoids distractions from the task at hand. No water bottles on the bench at the first break in practice? Distraction. Forgot to get skates sharpened? Distraction. Didn’t replace the missing helmet screw after the last game? Distraction. Forgot about the off-ice workout after practice and don’t have running shoes for the gym? Distraction. Preparation defines culture.
5) Pick up the pucks. Metaphorically, this is about being conscientious, being thoughtful, being kind, being reliable, being selfless, being part of a team. Culture often starts there.
6) Go full out. This should be an all of the time thing - games, practices, workouts. Nutrition, hydration, sleep. Academics! Going “full out” is the epitome of Work Hard.
7) Dress appropriately. (I guess this HAD to be on the list!) When the team is together, proper attire is important. Whether its game day dress, workout attire, or the putting on the correct practice socks, looking like a team and dressing like a team are important parts of building team culture.
Feeling like you are part of something bigger than yourself is crucial to “team”. Everyone in the team community embracing and celebrating good team culture will necessarily foster a successful season. As coaches, we can’t expect positive culture to develop on its own. It needs to be nurtured, cultivated and modelled by the entire group.