4 Critical Ways Captains and Coaches Shape the Team’s Culture

By Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

As a leader, you have a HUGE impact on your team’s culture. It doesn’t matter whether you are a captain, coach, athletic director, principal, etc., the behavior you exhibit, endorse, and enforce sends a strong and clear message about what kinds of attitudes and actions are both acceptable and unacceptable in your culture.

In fact, the things you practice, promote, and praise as a leader soon become acceptable behavior and the things you don’t do, discourage, and decry become unacceptable in your culture. As a leader, you set the standards of behavior and thus play a significant role in shaping your team’s culture.

As a Culture Shaper, you must do 4 key things to impact your culture on a regular basis:

1. Compliment
2. Challenge
3. Comfort
4. Confront

Let’s look at each of these valuable Vocal Leadership skills more in depth and as we do, please consider how well and often you do these things on a regular basis. I’ll also provide you with four practical challenges you can use to implement these strategies with your team. Are you up for the challenge?


1. Compliment

Most of your interactions with your team should involve complimenting and praising positive behavior. Be on the continual lookout for winning attitudes and actions that are aligned with your team’s Vision, Values, and Standards. When you see an athlete dive for a loose ball, win a 50/50 ball, put down a great bunt to advance a runner, sprint over to help up a fallen teammate, and/or go the extra mile in any way for your team, be sure to call it out and compliment them for it. Consciously and enthusiastically praise the positive behavior that best exemplifies your culture.

For example, Charlotte women’s basketball coach Cara Consuegra makes a point to acknowledge her players who best demonstrate their core values of HEART at the end of each practice. Coach Consuegra, her staff, and team call out the positive things they saw, acknowledge the player with “snaps” for their efforts, and award them with a small heart symbolizing the team’s core values. It is an easy yet effective way to emphasize and accentuate the positive, culture-building behaviors of the team.

Sincere compliments coming from leaders are super-meaningful and taken to heart. Not only will your praise reward the players who do the right thing, but it also incentives those who aren’t to upgrade their behavior so they too can earn your respect and praise.

As a leader, roughly 50% of your interactions on a daily basis should involve complimenting and accentuating the positive. In fact, PAUSE reading this article right now, think of someone on your team who has done a great job recently, and invest the time RIGHT NOW to compliment and appreciate them by sending a quick text, making a quick call, or actually visiting them in person to share your praise. DO IT NOW! (It is just as important and valuable to your team’s success as the other things you have on your busy to do list.) BOTH YOU AND THEY WILL BE GLAD YOU DID!

Complimenting others is a simple way to call out their positive behavior and will likely lift both their spirits and yours. PRAISE THE BEHAVIOR YOU WANT TO SEE REPEATED.

(You are not allowed to read the rest of the post until you have complimented someone!)



Effective leaders also positively push and challenge people to give more, do more, and be more. Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck, who transformed the culture at Western Michigan, says one of the key moments in the transformation occurred when he challenged his team when they were down 31-14 at halftime to a team with a 1-4 record. Looking into their eyes, Coach Fleck simply and sincerely asked the team,

“When are you going to be tired of being average?”

That’s all he said for the entire halftime speech - but the challenge echoed through their minds and was enough to get the team to do some critical soul-searching. They came back determined to be much more than average, won the game, and won the next five games in a row.

Do you too have some athletes on your team who need to be challenged to be more than average?

Effective leaders know how good their athletes and teammates can be and know they must sometimes challenge them to reach their full potential. They aren’t satisfied with average, good enough, or the status quo. They know people are capable of achieving more and they know they need to challenge them to get there. So roughly 25% of your interactions should be invested in positively pushing and challenging people to improve themselves and expand their comfort zone.

Who on your team needs to be challenged to:

  • stay focused throughout the entire practice
  • finish the drill to completion
  • touch the lines in conditioning
  • know the playbook better
  • accept their role and contribute more if they want to earn an expanded role
  • do the right thing in their social life


Who specifically on your team has settled for average and could achieve so much more with a little better effort, a higher level of focus, and a more positive attitude that could really make a difference for your team?

PAUSE reading this post again and invest the time to challenge them. Send them a text to come 10 minutes early to practice today and you’ll help them work on their game. Challenge them to go for a run with you tomorrow morning. Challenge them to finish a drill with at least 8 out of 10 successful attempts. Challenge them to dedicate their performance in the next competition to someone who means the world to them and put the person’s initials on their shoes.

Challenge them to do the little things now that will make a BIG difference for them and your team! Sell them on themselves and how good they could be! Sell them on what a positive difference they could make for your team!


(You are not allowed to read the rest of the post until you have positively challenged someone to do more, give more, and be more for themselves and your team!)



Odds are, someone on your team is struggling with something right now. They might be in a performance slump, struggling in school, stressing because of an injury,  despondent because they just broke up with a boyfriend/girlfriend, or devastated because they recently found out a close family member or friend has a serious illness. Whether the issues are minor or major, we all fight inner battles few people know about.

North Carolina women’s soccer player Paige Nielsen tragically lost her mom Kathy to cancer the summer before her senior year. To support Paige and honor Kathy’s memory, Paige’s coaches and teammates dedicated the season to Kathy and created a pair of custom cleats for Paige with her mom’s name on them. They also started a hashtag of #TeamKathy so alumni, fans, and friends could support her with messages throughout the season. “My team knows that’s who I’ve played for all these years, and that is what has driven my successes as an individual,” Paige said of her teammates' and coaches' special support. (Check out the video below on how Paige’s team supported her.)


As a leader, roughly 15% of your time should be spent on comforting people. Be on the lookout for people who could use an encouraging word and your support today. Take the time to truly listen, empathize with their struggles, provide a shoulder to cry on, offer to help in any way you can, and leave them with an encouraging word to let them know you care. Be sure to follow up with them as well to see how they are doing. Having the strong support of teammates and coaches during the rough patches of life helps get athletes through the tough times and builds a bond of unity and respect for a lifetime.

Again, to make this most meaningful and relevant to you and your team, take a moment and consider someone who might need your support today.

  • Has someone been struggling with their game or recently been demoted?
  • Is someone challenged with something going on in their personal life?
  • Is someone worried about a health issue of a friend or family member?
  • Does someone seem extra stressed lately for whatever reason?


Once again, PAUSE reading this post and invest the time to reach out to them. Send them an encouraging text to let them know you are thinking about them. Invite them out for a coffee or lunch to check in and catch up. Or go find them, give them a huge hug, look them in the eye, and tell them you know things have been tough for them lately and you are there for them. DO IT NOW! NO EXCUSES!!!

(You are not allowed to read the rest of the post until you have comforted someone!)



Last but certainly not least, good leaders must safeguard their team’s culture and confront anyone who is not aligned with the team’s Vision, Values, and Standards. You can’t tolerate attitudes and actions that significantly distract, disrupt, or destroy the team. Good leaders have the courage and conviction to quickly confront and crush problematic behaviors.

For example, Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn talks about the pivotal time when he first took over the program. They were on an early season team trip to Hawaii when a couple of their players decided they were going to have a few drinks at the hotel pool bar, behavior which had not been confronted by the previous coaching staff, but was clearly against the current rules. Coach Van Horn confronted the players and immediately put them on a plane back home, sending an unmistakable message to the players and the rest of the team that the new standards on and off the field were for real.

Keep in mind, you confront because you care. You confront because you care about your team’s success and reputation and don’t want to do anything that might jeopardize them. You confront because you care about the culture of your program so you want to make sure people live up to your standards. You confront because you care about your own credibility as a leader and know it will be tarnished if you don’t address the issues. And finally, you confront because you care about the people who aren’t doing the right thing because you want what is best for them.

All these reasons prompt and push you to speak up, despite the fact that you might be uncomfortable with conflict, because ultimately you care about your team. Only 10% or less of your interactions will likely be confrontational, but it is still an important and necessary part of leadership to serve as a caretaker of your team’s culture.

Who is someone that might be:

  • trashing one of your athletes or coaches
  • acting like a fool on campus
  • doing something that would embarrass your program
  • sabotaging the success and/or reputation of your team


If someone comes to mind when considering these questions, you need to quickly figure out how to address it. PAUSE reading this post right now and devise an appropriate plan to address it. Either go have a private, candid, caring, and confidential conversation with the person yourself and let them know you are concerned about how their behavior is affecting the team. Or if you are a captain or assistant coach and the matter is too complicated for you to handle on your own, seek out a sensible person you trust and confidentially discuss it with them to get their insights and guidance. You have worked too hard and have too much at stake to let someone disrupt, derail, or destroy your season.

So there you have it captains, coaches, and ADs – a practical, four-step strategy to successfully shape your culture and serve as a competent and caring leader for your team. Effective leaders invest the time to Compliment, Challenge, Comfort, and Confront on a regular basis.


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