What is Your Culture?

I was lucky enough to be in the room a few years ago for a conversation with a very successful and prominent coach. There were about 12 coaches there to hear him speak.

The coach asked a question, “What do you center your team around.” Not all responded, but most said, “our culture.”  All around the room.

His response, “I don’t know what that means.”

He went on,

“For me, I center everything around one simple question, What’s best for the team. Every decision. The players do the same.”

He explained a bit more and answered more questions, but this one response has stayed with me.

Don’t talk about “culture”–talk  very specifically about your team.  The word culture is like the word technology–overly broad with too many different interpretations.

What is your team culture?  Do your players know? Can we see it from the outside?

When you have a very clearly defined culture, a set of values, shared language, a plan, principles that you believe in, and accountability, all your decisions get easier.

This does not mean executing them is always easy, but making the decision to act gets easier.

So, what’s your culture?

Recently I was in Utah to help lead a retreat for a very high-end, high-quality sporting goods store.  They sell great stuff that’s way out of my price range, but super valuable for people who spend their lives on the slopes or outdoors and need quality.

The owners were in the room, as were the leaders of each of their divisions and all of their stores. It was a funny, bright engaged group.

The view out the window was stunning.  Fortunately I was facing the window, and the group  was not, or we would never have held their attention.

Here’s a photo from my morning hike!

What is your culture?


Basically the retreat was a positive experience on many levels.

The company asked us to center the retreat around the book The Culture Club by Daniel Coyle, which they were reading in a company wide book club.

The Culture Club seeks to answer the question: why do some groups excel while others fail?

He says culture.

But more importantly he tells us his three keys to setting up this culture.

First Key: Make it Safe. Foster Belonging.

Each member of the team must feel comfortable speaking his or her mind. Strong groups foster a sense of belonging and understand how to develop this through common language and “signals of belonging.” 

These signals must be consistent and used often in order to foster this.

You can’t toss it out every now and again and think it will have an effect.

The Second Key: Be willing to Share Vulnerability

 Of course these two (safety and vulnerability) are linked, but he makes  a very interesting point that we often wait until we are certain that it’s safe–until we trust a situation–before we show who we are:

“Normally we think about trust and vulnerability the way we think about standing on solid ground and leaping into the unknown: first we build trust, then we leap. But science is showing us we’ve got it backward. Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust–it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.”

The Third Key: Have a Sense of Purpose. Tell Your Story Well.

This third point circles me back to that prominent coach I started this post with: What do you center your team around? What are the defining values everybody is aware of?  What’s the story you tell internally and externally?

In The Culture Code Coyle gives some great examples of this including touching briefly on the All Blacks, the New Zealand Men’s Rugby Team.

He does not mention the book Legacy , but it is one of the best examples of a clear culture I have ever read.

They know how to tell their story. How to create a sense of belonging.  And, how to be willing to take a step back, be vulnerable, and let others shine.

James Kerr, Legacy’s author, writing for The Telegraph reminds us of 5 of the values they focus on:

Sweep the Sheds— literally everyone cleans up after themselves as a reminder of their value of personal humility

Follow the Spearhead–all three points as one; they don’t tolerate anything else

Champions do Extra–Speaks for itself, but the focus is on incremental gains

Blue Head–Maintain their calm and demeanor, but read the book to see the contrast to the “red head”

Leave the Jersey in a Better Place–Again, speaks for itself, but a clear picture of legacy.

Common language creates a sense of belonging. Values that remind us to be vulnerable to one another. And, most importantly a common sense of purpose and story.

I highly recommend Legacy when you get a chance. It’s a blueprint for building the team you really want.

In the meantime–stop speaking about “culture” and start speaking about the specific culture you are creating and why it matters.



Changing My Habits

Getting Better Every Day

I buy the idea that changing habits happens in small incremental steps every day.

James Clear who appears to be one of the experts on this uses this image to make the point.

changing habits in small incremental steps

Or as Aristotle put it, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

But, damn if it isn’t hard to change a habit even if you look at it in these small bite sized increments. Or, at least that’s what I’ve found.

I find most of my bad habits can be broken into two categories–completely thoughtless and stubbornly hard to break. That’s how it goes for me.

In the completely thoughtless category I put things like reading twitter when I should be working. I am working and then something pops up and I pop over and then it leads to another things and then I’m like–“right, I was working, but now I’m knee deep into an article on …..”

Gretchen Ruben in Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives says that fully 40% of my day is governed by habit. I’m betting most of my habits fall in this category of thoughtless.

That’s why actually tracking what you eat is so powerful. Dark chocolate almonds add up when they are grabbed as you walk past the pantry. Each time you walk past the pantry. Surely a thoughtless habit.

But if you write down everything you eat that awareness may help you to forego the handful of nuts. Just by bringing awareness.

These are the habits I’m going to tackle first. The thoughtless ones.

I’m going to start with one habit.

I’m going to read more novels. Specifically I’m going to read a novel for 30 minutes of my day.

I used to read novels all the time. When did I ever stop? Slowly they’ve been replaced by non-fiction books and too much time on the internet.

A novel brings something entirely different into my life.  The best novel allows us both to lose ourselves and expands our perspective. It explains the world and capture it’s complexity. Think, To Kill a Mockingbird or The End of the Affair.

Now I know in many ways this is a ridiculous place to start. I should be doing something harder. After all I enjoy reading novels.

But, why did I ever stop?

Because I allowed myself to drift thoughtlessly along. And, because I started to read only to get information. For utility.

The irony is that I think we learn more from a novel at times. The book  The Art of Fielding contained a character who was as effective a coach as most coaches I’ve studied. Only he wasn’t a coach. He was a teammate. The novel anticipated a book like The Captain Class, which makes the case that the leader on the field is the most important leader.

In other words, I bet I can be a better coach or a better professional by reading novels. Charlie Munger would agree.

But that takes me back to the place where it’s only about utility, where I justify my decision by making a straight line to productivity.

Maybe that’s the habit I’m really working on.

Breaking this notion that I need to read to be more productive as opposed to reading a novel simply to  be more fully human.  More compassionate, kinder, thoughtful, open and aware.

Simply because I will be a better person.

Why did I ever stop reading novels in the first place?

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Practice Kaizen

Make a plan–One habit at a time

Breaking Habits

The Mind is Always There

The Way of Baseball Finding Stillness at 95 MPH by Shawn Green

the way of baseballThe title of this post comes from a great book,  The Way of Baseball Finding Stillness at 95 MPH written by Shawn Green. You do not have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this book.  I am not one and yet I found this book incredibly compelling.

A coach I respect recommended it as a companion to The Inner Game of Tennis.

I love The Inner Game so I picked this book up. And, it’s been well worth it.

Shawn Green was one of the best hitters in baseball. His career stats are impressive, but that success was not inevitable.

This book describes his journey from a frustrated young professional baseball player into an All-Star and incredibly successful power hitter.

As is true of all stories of success his path was not linear.


The book begins with a Chapter entitled “Stillness,” but the start of his career was anything but still.

Green was frustrated. His coach wanted to change and limit his batting style. He and his coach disagreed on his potential and the path he should take.   So he momentarily turned to a different coach for guidance.

The result? He was banished from the team’s batting cages unless supervised.

Pissed, rebellious and a bit desperate he turned to a batting tee in a tiny space on the team’s training campus.

What begins as a ego-driven rebellion shifts to something else:

“However four or five days into it something changed. I began to enjoy it. After the first fifteen or so swing, my mind would quiet and the swings would start to be fluid…. I even made a ritual of placing the ball on the tee the same way every tie…my tee work had started out as a form of punishment, yet it suddenly felt like something else, something more than just a hitting exercise. 

Was it becoming meditation?”

He continued the routine even after showing significant improvement and a return to the lineup.

He stayed focused on his breathing and on the ball. He kept his focus external and concentrated.

The deeper he dug into his routine the less he was affected by other people, critics and fans alike. The more still he became.

Peer Influence

He describes how his peers around the league actually became his mentors and surrogate coaches.  He fulfilled the same role for others.  They picked each others brains in search of information and keys to success.

We meet Tony Fernandez a key influence on Green. He impacted him in many ways, but one method stood out: Fernandez was willing to take a temporary step backwards in the results he achieved in order to take a more meaningful leap forward:

“Tony wasn’t one to put Band-Aids on his swing just to scratch out an extra hit or two when he was struggling; rather he remained committed to finding his true swing.  If that meant going hitless for a game or two by swinging the heavier bat, he was willing…His mere presence had a profound impact on my personal success.”

The book reminds us that we often don’t give enough credence to the role models on our teams or the power of peer leadership.

We need to pay more attention and leverage this more. ( The Captain Class, another recent read, really drove that point home.)

Locus of  Control

His account is a fascinating look at the locus of control in sport. At this point he feels as though he has gained a measure of control over the ball.

I had reduced hitting, an extremely difficult activity, to its most basic form. As a result, I took each swing with full attention.

Previously when a pitcher threw a ball to me, the ball was in control. I reacted to the ball’s speed and movement.  Since the pitcher was the one with the ball I also reacted to the pitcher. Of course, in my tee routine I no longer worked against the pitcher and the ball. Now, there was no pitcher,and the ball was simply sitting there waitingfor me to hit it. I didn’t need to speed up or slow down. …In essence I reversed my relationship with the baseball.

And, on a deeper level,I was learning to step out of time.

This is a critical paradox. He learned the timing of hitting by placing himself outside of time. He becomes both proactive and less reactive. Awareness specifically indicates awareness of the ball, the pitcher, the movements–not himself.

Of course, this has profound implications for his life off the field as well.

Life also becomes calm.

Work With What You Have

Green details the imperfections of his stride and his swing.  But the bigger point is that all hitters, even the best, have flaws in their swings.

The key is to navigate these flaws and “work with what you have.”

He credits the tee work with giving him the mental space to finally solve some of these flaws. He recognized he had always been too analytical.

He was trying too hard to solve problems.

When he got quiet and allowed space, the solution emerged. He got a picture of what was going on.

The actual problem with his swing is neither here nor there to me. The important thing, is the process by which he solved it. This movement into calm, the growing awareness, the solution through intuition.

The lack of force.

The power of simply doing the work.

Green’s solution to his flaws, “Instead of fighting where my body wanted to go, I went with it.”

He, of course describes this thoroughly, but it’s an excellent description of how to get out of your own head.

I think I could have done better with my left foot if I had read this book at 18 years of age.

Here’s a thought for coaches. We often say get out of your head, but do we create environments where people can?

Have Fun and Compete

Another important factor was how much fun he had with the other great hitters. They used competition in training as a form of cooperation.  They enjoyed this and it ingrained the competitive habits that he would need at the plate in real-life competitive situations.  The athletes created these environments for themselves.

“Coaches had always wanted me to hit for power, but, oddly, they’d never told me to practice hitting home runs during batting practice. Instead they’d give me mechanical suggestions as to what changes in my swing or approach would help me hit more home runs, but they never suggested I simply practice hitting the ball as far as I could.

Often the simplest ideas are the best.”

Here it becomes clear that the tee is only one piece of what propelled him forward. He needed this batting practice time to “bring his tee time into the real world.”

Green also does a great job of describing the way the mind can get in the way even when you are aware and experienced at managing it.

As he says “the mind is always there.”

He developed detailed routines and habits in order to manage the mind’s chatter and keep his awareness focused on the pitcher’s movements.

Success got to his head at one point even as more experienced people around him tried to guide him. Without vigilance and constant practice it was easy to slip into old habits and negative spaces. His journey back from that was fascinating and filled with many more insights. He reconciles with his former coach and comes to understand the interaction a bit better.

All in all a really insightful and entertaining read.

If I were still coaching I have no doubt The Way of Baseball Finding Stillness at 95 MPH  would be a useful tool for a thoughtful athlete.

I’ve written about baseball before

One Shot at Forever

A Short list of soccer books

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A Revelation: Life Wasn’t Meant To Be Easy

I was burning through a fitness blender yesterday followed by blistering 4:30 minute half mile intervals (ha ha) and it occurred to me that life wasn’t meant to be easy.

(I recognize that for far too many people life is far too hard and it would be great if it could be significantly easier. It would also be tremendous if we went out of our ways to make it easier for the people around us. Friend, family and stranger.)

But, specifically for me at this juncture I recognized that I am just not happy when it’s too easy. I don’t want to just hang out at the beach.

There is a tremendous pleasure in taking on a really difficult project and seeing it to completion.  Most people have heard of the concept of Flow, but not as many have read the wonderful book Finding Flow, by social scientist Czichzentmihalyi.

In this book he alerts us to the remarkable finding that people self report that they are happiest while in the midst of work. Later, however, when asked to report what activities they believe will make them happy, they say they prefer to sit and watch something, or hang out and relax.

But, they don’t actually report the same level of satisfaction while in the real-time  activity.

It makes sense, right?

We are happiest when fully engaged.

But we are sold this idea that we need to be relaxing.

Who sells this idea? Everyone who can make money if you choose to watch cable, drink beer, or make netflix binge watching the destination.

Every now and again that’s a fun thing to do because it’s a contrast to a purposeful life.

I’m working on getting fitter right now. There is no focus on weight or even health, although that’s good, but actual fitness. Why? I love working hard when I’m doing it and after.

I just think I hate it all the rest of the time.

It would be great to increase my capacity to train hard at this point in my life.

Recently I read the book by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness called Peak Perfomance.

The important nugget in the book is their growth equation:


Throughout the book they redefine stress and rest and growth.  As a result I have redefined them for myself as well.

What is stress?

Reframe stress as a challenge. Challenges are good for us physically as well mentally.

Put yourself out at the edge of your ability and work on getting better. When I chug around the block at a 4:30 minute half mile pace that is a challenge for me especially by the third interval. I hope in the near future that I’ll be discussing a 4 minute pace, but I’m not right now.

When I hit publish on a blog post that is stress for me right now. What will people think? Did I write it well enough? Tell too much? Too little?

This is where I have to dig deep into my Stephen Pressfield mindset and hit publish.

What is rest?

life wasn't meant to be easyWell, it’s not just sitting on my butt.  I like the example in the book of the Norwegian cross country skiers.  On their rest days they ski. Very slowly.  I’ve started to adopt this for myself.  On my rest days I go for slow contemplative walks in the woods.  I get a lot of steps on my fitbit, but at a super slow pace.

You can take this philosophy and apply it beyond sports. I am thinking about this in terms of work.

The book covers much more ground than this when discussing rest.

What is growth?

This is such a good question. We know objectively what growth is in many ways. If you hit a personal best or your team wins a championship that is an obvious sign of growth. But what if it leads to burn out? Or can’t be sustained?

What if you never win or get better, but the actual effort is satisfying? Is that growth?

What if it leads to excellence in something else, or deep insight?

These are all important questions. In the book the authors are trying to help us reach higher levels without burning out. That is an incredibly valuable effort and important even for us amateurs.

There are also natural endings or ascensions in life. Sometimes we are just done with an activity and ready for the next one. This is also growth and requires of us the wisdom to move forward.

Vacation’s Over, Catching Up on Reading

vacation's overVacation’s over. I’ve been on vacation for the past week which means I’ve been reading and watching quite a bit, but not writing, blogging or tweeting. I know I’ve missed some interesting stuff, but I’ve also had a chance to read some books and catch up on articles and magazines I’ve been putting aside.

Back to work I go.

Coaching Book :

In honor of March Madness I read John Feinstein’s book The Legend’s Club

In the past, I have read and enjoyed other Feinstein books including A Season on the Brink and A Good Walk Spoiled

Continue reading “Vacation’s Over, Catching Up on Reading”

Pete Carrill, Legendary Princeton Basketball Coach

The Smart Take From the Strong

Pete Carrill, legendary Princeton basketball coach, wrote one of my favorite coaching books.  The name of the book is The Smart Take from the Strong is a play on the quote “The strong take from the weak, but the smart take from the strong.”

When I was a young coach working at a very academic school, I read it multiple times. (The other book I read often during this time was My Life on a Napkin by Rick Majerus)

Pete Carrill, legendary princeton basketball coach Continue reading “Pete Carrill, Legendary Princeton Basketball Coach”