The Culture of Losing
I know it doesn’t sound glamorous. I know it sounds insulting. I know it is rarely the fault of one person. But the reality is: I know it exists. It’s a living, breathing thing that can consume a program and leave it downtrodden and lost for years on end. I am talking about “The Culture of Losing”. Everyone wants to talk about the culture of winning and what makes winning teams great. Few spend time looking at the opposite approach; why are teams losing? What goes into a “losing culture”? More importantly, how can a program rid themselves of this culture? This article explores all of these concepts.
Five Characteristics of a “Losing Culture”
A coach once told me, “Our players aren’t trying to make mistakes. They are trying to do their best and it is our job as coaches to turn those mistakes into learning opportunities. That way, those mistakes are not wasted and they are instead turned into gains.” I think these words are important to remember when discussing the intricacies of coaching within a losing culture. Nobody deliberately creates a losing culture. It just happens! Growing up, I was part of some programs that did not win very many games. In college, I played for a program that had struggled to make it past a .500 record year in and year out in a difficult conference. In both situations, I never felt like I was part of a “losing culture”. Our culture was good. Our coaches exhibited all of the positive leadership and coaching characteristics that you’d see in successful program. We were just void of enough talent to be competitive consistently. That was no fault of our own, but it demonstrates that losing alone doesn’t create a culture of losing. Additionally, I’m not trying to argue that winning doesn’t improve a team’s culture because many times, it does. However, winning is a byproduct (usually) of other things that go on during the week and during the cultivation of a program. Winning is rarely an accident.
Programs that are marred in a culture of losing typically have the following characteristics embedded in their program and, in many cases, these characteristics are visible to the average eye.
1. Self-centered coaching. Coaches, it isn’t about us. It never has been. It should be about the players. Too often coaches are so engrossed in their own character as a head coach that they forget what it is all about. When you see coaches humiliating players on the field, grandstanding during the game, and making self-centered comments in the media, you typically have a recipe for a losing culture.
2. Disconnect between players and coach. Coaches must be in tune to the needs and struggles of their players. They need to instill a certain level of buy-in by players. When players are constantly arguing with coaches, there is a disconnect. There should be an understanding of mutual respect for one another and a respect for authority. When this breaks down, it manifests in disengagement by players and argumentative actions.
3. Poor body language & composure. Players must know that they are not only representing themselves, but their community and program as well with their actions on the field. If players are constantly arguing with officials, looking dejected on the sideline, throwing their helmet in frustration, and showing disgust through demonstrative actions, that demonstrates a lack of discipline and leadership. Both are critical responsibilities of a coach to develop properly.
4. Poor attendance at team functions. When players don’t want to spend time with one another outside the framework of a practice, there should be cause for concern. Football is a team sport that requires a high level of team cohesion to be effective. Team building is done both on and off the field of play and if players cannot stand to be with their teammates, there is a breakdown in the cohesion of the team. As coaches, we must build the family atmosphere within our programs. We cannot assume that players inherently know what it’s like to be part of a family, because the sad reality is, some have never been part of one. Some have also come from very dysfunctional families. We must create a familial culture within our programs that makes players feel safe, valued, and perceiving football as, what coach Garrison Carter once described as, “something they cannot live without”. Like any successful family, this will take maintenance and patience; however the gains will make your efforts all worthwhile.
5. Absence of joy. Sports are supposed to be fun. Players should feel a certain amount of joy when they succeed, and a certain amount of anguish when they do not. However, if you cannot celebrate the good times, which are a reflection of your time and effort, then why play? I understand there are many reasons why players choose to play the game of football, but the game of football is hard. It takes a certain level of joy to be successful and remain committed. If players seem to not enjoy coming to practice, do not look forward to the season, and seem relieved rather than excited after experiencing success, there is something wrong.
Google is widely considered to be one of the premier technology companies around the world. Their business structure and employee satisfaction have made them a model for how to build a successful business. Google recently published their findings from a two-year study that sought to unlock the secrets of team effectiveness. Their results indicated that the most important factor contributing to a team’s effectiveness is psychological safety. According to the study, “Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of taking a risk, and the response his or her teammates will have to taking that risk.” Google describes psychological safety in another way. According to Google, “In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”
This is what a successful culture looks like and the findings of Google reveal a model that teams should strive to follow when it comes to eliminating the culture of losing. By looking at the keys to effectiveness outlined by Google, we can identify the shortcomings in programs’ saddled by the culture of losing. The list of effective traits (trust, listening, empathy, authenticity, setting an example, helpfulness, humility, transparency, disagreement commitment, and specific and sincere praise) serve as a mirror that coaches can check their program’s reflection in. Do we do these things? If not, why not? If so, how well?
None of the characteristics should require a high level of effort to complete, but they do demand a high level of commitment to succeed. Choosing to ignore these effective habits is choosing to endanger your culture. Some cultures will still make it on talent alone, while others will see their teams experience yearly ebbs and flows. Choosing to embrace these values merely creates a framework for success to be cultivated in. That doesn’t mean that it will always work out, but it gives you the recipe for success and the support necessary to handle adversity.
When it is all said and done, it all comes down to psychological safety like Google insists. Do your players feel valued? Are they afraid to fail? Do they understand the value of failure? Do they feel like themselves? Are they proud of being part of the team? Are they afraid to express themselves and their opinions within the confines of the program? Do they feel trusted? Ask your players these questions and their responses may surprise you. Your players are often times the best barometer of your program. Parents will be parents and boosters will be boosters, but it is your players that you get to directly influence day after day. It is their development as young men/women that you are responsible for. Cherish this opportunity and don’t saddle yourself with losing characteristics that distract you from your true purpose: to coach and give players lasting, meaningful memories and lessons they can take with them for the rest of their lives.
Google has shown, if employees feel trusted, safe, valued, and committed to the vision of the company, program-wide success can be had. Follow their lead. Ask yourself as coaches, what are you doing to be successful?
Written by Brian Wille