Creating a High Performance Culture

Imagine you’re sat in the changing room, about to go and perform for your country on the international stage in front a capacity crowd.There’s been a change of coach, and it’s the new coach’s first game in charge; you haven’t had much contact time with him yet so the coming weeks and months should be an interesting spectacle as you get to know him. Forget that though. It’s all about the here and now – the game today. Before heading out, the coach comes and presents you with a framed picture; a collection of messages and testimonials from your family and close friends, describing what it means to them that you are representing your country. Some are short, some are a little longer but every one of them exudes immense pride, happiness and encouragement. 

This was one of Stuart Lancaster’s first acts as England Rugby Head Coach back in 2009 to every single player in the squad –  a lovely touch, and an extremely powerful one at that don’t you think? With Manchester United dispensing of David Moyes recently, the ECB appointing Peter Moores & Paul Farbrace and Andy Murray parting with Ivan Lendl, it prompted the thought of how does a coach go about creating a high performance culture from the outset? How do they get the very best out of their players both on and off the field? Are there any generic ideas that coaches at any level can employ to a point? Perhaps….let’s explore a couple.


Clarity & Communication

Considerable research in the sporting domain has examined the effect of affirming individual roles in a group setting, and the positive impact it can subsequently have on performance (Bray and Brawley, 2002; Cantelon and Murray, 1993; Shoenfelt, 2003).  If players are able to focus solely on the demands that their task presents without confusion or conflict, it is acceptable to assume that they are likely to experience increased feelings of confidence and efficacy. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Make sure that individuals know what they’re doing and you’re halfway there. Not quite! Of course role clarity is essential, as is outlining your overall aims and objectives for the long term. Going back to the word ‘culture’ though, what about the general practice environment? What behaviours, attitudes and standards do you want your players to adhere to? 

Many coaches at the high level talk about ‘non-negotiables’, be it fitness or conditioning levels, specific skill (e.g. fielding) standards, attendance, punctuality, discipline or dress protocols. These non-negotiables represent the values and philosophies of the coach, and form the backbone of the culture they are trying to create. Do you have any non-negotiables you demand from your players? If so, what purpose do they have? If not, can you honestly say your players represent what you stand for as a coach?

Sir Ian McGeechan spoke a lot about the concept of ‘roots and wings’ during his coaching career – roots being the underlying structures in his environment, both on the field in terms of ‘you must be in this space’ to fulfill the requirements of a position, or off it by players having to be back at the hotel for 11pm. Wings were referred to as the degree of freedom the player has within the structure. So although the player might have to ‘be in a space’, they have the choice of how to operate within it, and likewise off the field – as long as they are back by 11pm they can do as they wish (within reason!). Some may argue that too much freedom can be a dangerous road for a coach to take, but again it all comes back to making things clear through clarity and communication.

The ‘Right People in the Right Places’

Dan Hunt (British Cycling Women’s Endurance Coach) talks about how important it is to get the right people in the right places for a high performance culture to emerge. Now at the elite end it might be easy for a Manchester United to buy in the players deemed as ‘right’. At most other levels coaches don’t have that luxury! So how do you get the right people in to foster the culture if no-one new is forthcoming? The role of senior players becomes particularly important for coaches in this instance. In most dressing rooms there are what we call ‘setters’ and ‘followers’. The senior players (the ones who have been around a little longer, and know how things work) more often than not are the setters. If the coach can sell themselves and their vision to the senior players, with a view to them ‘buying into’ it, then all of a sudden the followers in the group (usually the majority) adopt the behaviors and attitudes of the setters. Now this isn’t a process which necessarily happens overnight, but it ideally needs to happen relatively early into the coach’s tenure to avoid them ‘losing the dressing room’. Funnily enough I can hear the words clarity and communication pop up again!

Respect & Desire

If you as a coach can gain respect as quickly as possible, then it is not unreasonable to suggest that ‘buy in’ has every chance of happening. That said, respect is not something that you are rewarded with instantly; it is something that takes time over months and even years as you build rapport and relationships with your players. Can you speed up the process though? Arguably you can. The example of Stuart Lancaster’s framed pictures is a prime example. Showing your players that you are prepared to go the extra mile for them, that you care, that you value them as people as well as players is a fantastic way of building positive relationships and gaining respect. Subsequently players will want to play for you, will have a desire to subscribe to the ideas and structures you put in place.Think to your own coaching behaviours? How do you show your players that you really care about them? It is the same as a teacher, manager, team leader or CEO – you are likely to get the most out of your students and employees if they can see that you care about them.

Needless to say it will be fascinating to watch events unfold for both Peter Moores and whoever takes charge at Manchester United as they try to establish their own performance culture in two contrasting environments. It might be fair to suggest that the one with the best man-management skills has the best chance of success.


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