5 Tips to Create a Better Culture: Lessons from My Son, a 19-Year-Old Coach


Ever wondered why some teams flourish while others falter? Could your team's culture be the missing link? Dive into lessons from an unlikely coach and unlock the power of positive team culture.

Have you ever caught people talking about your kids?

My 19-year-old is a club soccer coach for the U-14 Concord Fire.

As he reminds me, they’re ranked 514 in the nation if you’re curious.

I recently had a weekend at home and spent Saturday afternoon watching him coach his team to a 3 – 0 victory. If you have children, you can appreciate the joy of seeing your kid lead something—even 14-year-old soccer.

While I was on the sidelines, I did some eavesdropping on parents. Sports parents can be the worst version of parents. I imagine these people are wonderful people who turn into monsters when on the sideline. I may or may not have been this parent before, too.

Needless to say, I was curious to listen to the parents of my son’s team. This isn’t rec ball, either. These parents are paying thousands of dollars for their teens to play on a club team. With a 19-year-old coach.

Culture Is Everything

As I sat listening, I heard plenty of comments. This will sound like bragging, but look beyond the fact my son is the target of the comments for a moment. 

I heard multiple comments about how much their kid loves playing on this team. I listened as a few parents mentioned their kid hadn’t enjoyed previous teams as much. Some said they quit or switched teams in the past. One or two parents wanted their kid to remain on this team as long as possible.

And then it happened.

The comments turn into compliments. The reason this team was fun and successful was because of the coach.

I leaned in. They began talking about how they were nervous at the first practice meeting a kid coaching their kid, but they quickly realized this “kid” wasn’t just a kid. He was a leader. He was a builder of culture.

These are the words they spoke. They specifically talked about the “team culture.” They noted that Coach Aaron:

  • Makes practice and games fun, but also holds the kids accountable.
  • Communicates clearly and consistently with players and the parents.
  • Removed a kid (with the league’s permission) from the team after the kid and parent repeatedly behaved poorly.
  • Created an extra “Fun Friday Practice” where the players play against the parents and siblings.

It was evident that this team had a unique culture.

The Culture You’re Creating

Leaders set the pace and tone for the organization (or team), including culture. Watching my son create his team culture gave me some tips we should all embrace in our leadership space.

1. Culture Happens…by Accident or Intention.

Culture is a real, living entity in your organization. Even if you’ve never attempted to define it or refine it, it’s there. The less focus you place on culture, the more your hidden culture will impede your mission.

Aaron knew this, so he began on day one addressing how they would play, not just where they would play. In doing this, Aaron established the values defining their cultural norms and behaviors.

2. Your Players Played in a Different Culture.

Before you hire an employee, staff member, or teammate, they were on another team with another culture. They bring these previous cultural experiences with them to your organization.

Aaron acknowledges this in their first week of practice, encouraging his players to be open to new ways of playing and enjoying soccer. Recognizing this reality helped the players move past what they’d previously known.

3. Behaviors Must Align with Cultural Values.

(Most) Every organization has values written on the wall. Yet few organizations experience these values happening down the hall.

The reason is simple: leaders ignore the value-to-behavior link.

Culture is the set of values, norms, and behaviors common in an organization. When values are written but misaligned from promoted and celebrated behaviors, the culture is split. When this happens, behaviors always win. Worse, misaligned behaviors work against your stated values, creating new, unwritten values.

Aaron wants his players to learn the beautiful game of soccer while having fun playing it as a team. Each value must be aligned to supporting behaviors. To do this, Aaron created his Fun Friday Practices, incorporated teamwork into practice, and placed a high priority on passing during games (rather than just kicking and dribbling). These behaviors reinforce the values he wants present on his team.

4. Celebrate Effort, not Success. 

Organizations must reinforce behaviors to remain. Leaders can support values by celebrating the aligned behaviors. Staff meetings or company-wide emails are perfect places to reward what we want repeated. FYI: This is a great parenting technique, as well.

Aaron does this at every practice and game by publicly celebrating when a player works hard, plays as a teammate, and thinks strategically. If a player scores an incredible goal instead of making the easy pass, Aaron privately confronts the player while publicly discussing HOW to play the game with the team. Aaron celebrates the behaviors that align with the team values, not the results.

5. Be a Private Critic and Public Fan.

Accountability is paramount to creating and sustaining culture. As a leader, it’s your job to confront team members who don’t work within the values, norms, and behaviors you’ve intentionally established.

Many people have suggested that leadership is often defined by what is allowed. When we allow a player to behave outside our value set, we enable a toxin to enter the organizational bloodstream. It may feel harmless at first, but over time, if not addressed directly, the misaligned teammate will harm the morale and productivity of everyone on the team.

This may be what Aaron does the best. I coached my fair share of children’s sports. I tend to be a bit too vocal. I frequently coached non-stop from the sideline. Aaron has a different (better) approach. He coaches them up in practice, then releases them to do what they’ve learned in the game. When a player makes a mistake, Aaron makes a note but says nothing from the sideline. When the player comes out of the game, Aaron calmly discusses the mistake with the player, suggests what he should have done, and encourages him to make the better choice when he returns to the game.

This approach doesn’t make the player feel criticized but coached up. The player doesn’t feel bad for making a mistake. They feel grateful to have another opportunity to try again.

How Much Attention Do You Place on Culture? 

If your answer is, “I’m not sure,” may I suggest that adjusting some of your focus might be the difference between some success and a thriving organization.

Peter Drucker once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He was right. No matter how well-planned your strategy, how well-crafted your mission, or how much success you’ve had, eventually, culture will determine your future. It’s your job as the leader to define the culture and reinforce the aligned behaviors that keep it from drifting sideways.

If you’d like help with this, consider my course: “Filling Your Leadership Toolbox.” This course offers six modules to improve your leadership. The first conversation is on culture. With the course content, I give you some free materials to help you define, refine, and reinforce your desired culture.

I’m in this with you. Let me know if I can help.