Changing the Culture of a Club by Michael Brooks (2011)


1. Who am I, and why am I speaking here?

Coach of York YMCA Swimming for the past 5 years
2 years as head age group coach in Phoenix, with Dennis Pursley
5 years as coach at York branch of NBAC
Small team in rural Pennsylvania, ca 100 year round swimmers
We have come a long way in 5 years, from a local rec program to:
2 National Junior Team members
This summer, 10 kids at Junior & Senior National level
3 YMCA national champions
Last two years, 5 NAG champions & several NAG IMX champions
Approx. 45 national top 10 rankings last year
Moving up ranks in Virtual Club Championships: [probably] top small team in the country
Middle Atlantic JO team champion 2011
Silver Medal Club
Consistently contending for invitational team titles
I wrote a book, Developing Swimmers

2. Quotations to set the scene:

Ancient Persia: “From soft countries come soft men.” Cyrus, the Great King

Homeric Greece: “Hippolokhos is my father, I am proud to say. He sent me here to Troy commanding me TO ACT ALWAYS WITH VALOR, ALWAYS TO BE MOST NOBLE, NEVER TO SHAME THE LINE OF MY PROGENITORS. THAT IS THE BLOOD AND BIRTH I CLAIM.” Glaukos, from Homer’s Iliad

Finland (the “Flying Finns”): “‘From the time they are kids, Finnish youth are ingrained with the idea that Finns are great athletes, and so we have that mentality. There is something Finns have that makes them think they can overcome incredible odds.’ That something is ‘sisu,’: The ability to persevere under the most adverse conditions, when others would have quit. That’s the main point, never giving up.'” Lasse Viren, Olympic champion runner

U.S. Navy SEALs: “My Trident is a symbol of honor and heritage. Bestowed upon me by the heroes that have gone before, it embodies the trust of those I have sworn to protect. By wearing the Trident I accept the responsibility of my chosen profession and way of life. It is a privilege that I must earn every day. My loyalty to Country and Team is beyond reproach… I lead by example in all situations. I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight….Brave men have fought and died building the proud tradition and feared reputation that I am bound to uphold. In the worst of conditions, the legacy of my teammates steadies my resolve and silently guides my every deed. I will not fail.” (from) The SEAL Ethos

Gist: it MEANS something to be a part of this group. We stand for something important.

3. What culture is and why it matters.

a. Several attempts at description, not definition: Culture is:
= “the common attitudes, assumptions, behaviors, expectations, outlook, goals, and habits of a group.”
= “what you do without thinking.”
= “the way we do things here.”
= “a shared and understood tradition of high performance that must be maintained and surpassed.”

b. In an excellent culture, all these parts are weaved together in a tapestry. Everything “fits.”

c. What behaviors does the team culture encourage? Discourage? Tolerate? Not tolerate? I can watch ten minutes of a practice and know a lot about a team.

d. Culture in action, swimming:

Swimming Team A:
Kids leave on time on repeats Turns and finishes are done legally
Dryland looks like synchronized perfection Kids know their times and set goals continually
Kids encourage each other, respect the coach Tempo of practice is brisk, disciplined
Kids taking care of and picking up equipment Etc.

Swimming Team B:
Kids leave early or late on repeats Turns and finishes are often illegal and sloppy
Dryland is chaotic, cheating rampant Kids have no clue about what a clock is for
Complaining and whining are everywhere Kids do a lot of standing around
Pool deck a disaster Etc.

e. Culture in action, history: compare Tyrtaios’ Spartan Creed with Pericles’ (Athenian) Funeral Oration: completely different attitudes toward life, different assumptions about what is important.

f. Culture in action, music: compare Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier with Beethoven’s 3rd.

4. Coaches can create a team’s culture
(And they have to, if they want consistent performance from their swimmers.)

a. Quotations to set the scene:
“An army of deer led by a lion is more to be feared than an army of lions led by a deer.” Philip of Macedon (Alexander’s father)

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs

“The old man, Peleus, urged his child, Achilles,
to do none but great feats, to be distinguished above the rest.” Homer, Iliad xi

b. “Learning” a culture:
= A child isn’t born “American”: he learns what that means, from parents, siblings, peers, teachers, from television, movies, school, etc.
= A swimmer, likewise, must be taught how to be a swimmer and what that means.

c. If you let nature take its course, the current will flow toward the slovenly, the sloppy, the mediocre.

d. So, a coach who wants to be in control of his results, MUST take charge of this education, this enculturation, this socialization into the group’s norms.

e. The more effective the education, the more the kids themselves take on the responsibility of policing themselves and preserving the culture.

5. When it is determined that a fundamental change of course is necessary – how to go about it.

a. Know what you are about, what you stand for, where you want to go

1. Quotations to set the scene:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of controversy and challenge.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I don’t know what the key to success is. But I do know that the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” Bob Bowman

2. Stand for something. Know where you want to go. Be as determined about reaching your goal as you tell your swimmers to be.

3. When I came to York I knew what I wanted to build: a program that would consistently develop swimmers to national levels of performance and beyond, and where the program would never get in the way of a swimmer’s reaching his goals.

4. I also knew what kind of swimmer I wanted to coach. And I set out to design a program that would create a certain type of swimmer, with the following characteristics (among others):

Tough (sisu) Self-reliant
Competitive (agon) Confident
Committed Focused
Poised With high expectations
With a sense of craftsmanship (arête) Striving for improvement (kaizen)

5. These traits do not come naturally to most kids. But if you can help swimmers to cultivate and to make these traits second nature, you will have a group of kids who are fast and fun to coach.

b. Understand where you are now: program assessment.

1. You have to start from where they are, if you want to get them where you want to go.

2. Survey the scene.
a. Ask a lot of people (swimmers, coaches, parents, administrators) a lot of questions: listen for surface answers and deeper layers; realize that everyone has an agenda.
b. Understanding the parts:

Roles? Strengths and weaknesses? How good are the age group coaches???
How attached to previous regime, or amenable to you and your changes?

Facility schedule
Do you control your water time? Sufficient and affordable water time?

Program structure
Training group progressions?
Levels and lanes and coach/swimmer ratios?
Transitions, move ups?

Meet schedule
Frequency: too much, or too little, or just right?
Level: too high, too low, or just right?
Each level of the team taken care of?

Performance level
Local, or regional, or national? Is this acceptable to them? (to you?)

What are the constituent parts and how are they put together?
Who is really in charge?
Role of and strength of the parents and the parents club?
Who are the real influencers here? (informal as well as formal)

Means? Quality? Frequency?

Local demographics
Socio-economic level of the town and region? Impact on team fee structure?
Local swimming culture and how it works? Where does your team fit?
Number and size and strength and ethos of local competitors?

Team demographics
By age group, by sex?
Are there any holes, what caused them, and how to fill them?

Are there any? Do they coincide with yours?

Policies and procedures
Do these coincide with goals/vision?

Budget (the budget is your actual philosophy, irrespective of the purported philosophy)
Does this coincide with goals/vision?
Do you have enough money to reach your goals? (excellence costs)
If not, most effective means in this locale to bridge the gap?

Team morale
What are people unhappy about? Happy about?
What does this mean for your proposed changes and how you intend to make them?

Note that even a small team is a complicated organism with a lot of moving parts. Be careful not to tinker with too many of them at once.

c. Bridging the Gap: Tools for changing a team’s culture

1. An apt quotation: “He [Lycurgus of Sparta] took care to render his men capable of meeting all calls on their endurance; he filled their hearts with confidence that they were able to withstand any and every enemy; he inspired them all with an eager determination to out-do one another in valour; and lastly, he filled all with anticipation that many good things would befall them, if only they proved good men. For he believed that men so prepared fight with all their might…” Xenophon

2. Figure out how to get them from where they are to where you are. Then do it.

3. This is a matter of rhetoric, meaning persuasion.
=You must convince them that your vision for them is better, more worthy, more valuable, more satisfying, than what they previously had for themselves. Give them a reason to follow you and do what you ask.
=You are changing minds; behavior changes follow from changed minds.

4. To plant a performance culture where one did not exist before:
=Teach them that it is good to achieve and show them what is out there for them to achieve.
=You have to be ahead of them, above them, but not too far. Reasonable goals.

5. Tools for a coach: Getting kids excited about being fast:

a. Physical environment: implicit education
-Use the pool and its walls to define fast, show what is important, and set public standards for recognition and praise. Examples: Time Standards, Words of Wisdom (great quotations), IMX Special Forces, Super Sets, Kaizen list, Road to the Top, Team Records & Rankings, Honor Clubs [and t-shirts for members]

b. Cognitive environment: explicit education
-Program philosophy: in brief, The Credo
-Team policies
-Newsletters, purposes:
=educate about process of becoming excellent
=& recognize and praise excellent achievement and high performance
-Parent meetings: let them know what to expect
-Team meetings: teach them how to think

c. Training environment: brain-washing under the radar
-Defining excellence as normal, then expecting excellent habits
-Atmosphere of daily and continual competition
-Atmosphere of daily and continual goal-setting

d. Competitive environment: raising their sights
-Enlarge the pond: regional invitationals to redefine fast, awaken them from complacency
-Consistent schedule for 2-3 years, so they can see relative improvement
-Set goals for higher level championship meets & accomplishments as they improve.

e. Intra-team peer relationships
-Recognize that we are swimming against the current; we are attempting to overcome the general culture (of low expectations) and their school/peer culture
-Create a peer group of like-minded kids right here (you cannot choose their friends for them, but you can try to steer them in one direction over another)

d. My year in Hell: Year One at the York YMCA

Many changes seemed to me necessary and obvious if we were going to progress as a team and become nationally oriented and nationally competitive. But there was much resistance, in particular during the first year and a half. For instance:

The meaning of the YMCA.
=The Y’s 4 core values (respect, responsibility, caring, honesty) had come over time to be interpreted and defined as “friendly mediocrity with no accountability or acknowledgement of performance.” Thus, I was a heretic. (I think this is fairly common at Y’s.)
=NO!!!!!!! Performance matters, not just participation!
=So we reinterpreted the core values, re-connecting them with excellence.

Meet schedule: from chaos, toward a much cleaner calendar, moving toward USA Swimming and away from local league meets. Less frequent, but bigger and longer meets.

Event lists: from swimmers and parents decide, to coach decides what events a swimmer will compete in.

Relays: from much parental involvement, to coach’s judgement: who ever is swimming fast on the day swims on the relay.

Training lanes: from a rigidly established hierarchy, to the law of the jungle: to stay in a lane, you need to swim their intervals.

Training duration: from everyone of whatever age trains the same time period, to seniors swimming much longer and more frequently than novices.

Training intensity: from low expectations, to expecting best times and fast swimming in practice, every day.

Training volume: from low mileage, to: we do a lot more swimming.

Training variety: from kids do what they want, to we train one stroke a day, with little choice involved.

Training frequency: from 3-4 practices a week, to six days a week. And we rarely take off holidays.

Training breaks: from a seasonal team with long breaks, to a year-round team, with short vacations.

Parents’ club: from a renegade group, to an organized and very supportive group.

Relationship between high school and club swimming: from HS swimming rules the waves, to here is where the fast swimming is happening.

Coach’s personality, and approach, and tone, and expectations: all were drastically different from the previous coach.

There were mini-rebellions about all of the above. I was called down to the Executive Director’s office weekly to answer another round of allegations that I was destroying the program. It seemed I was never allowed to feel good about anything. As soon as we took a step forward, we took several steps backward.

6. Suggestions, Hints, or Warnings for Changing a Culture

a. Know where you want to go, what you stand for, and stand your ground

=Without a strong backbone, you will not survive the buffeting.
=Decide on a credo/belief/principles. Then make sure that desired behaviors follow from these principles.
=Then praise or blame accordingly. Your rewards system must be aligned with your philosophy. Principles need teeth.

b. Don’t underestimate how hard it will be, especially emotionally

=“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Nietzsche
=Younger kids and parents are easier to bring on board than the ones who have done things the same way since forever. The grizzled veterans are set in their ways, more resistant to change.
=I had no idea it would be this difficult. Many many times during the first two years I figured I was going to be run out of town, so I kept an eye on the job openings. It seriously felt like everyone hated me. There may have been a silent majority on my side, but they were being very silent, whereas the ones who didn’t like me were screaming and hollering.
=Have good friends you can commiserate with.

c. Never underestimate the strength of people’s resistance to change, even necessary change.

=Even when people agree that something needs changing because they are dissatisfied with the way things are, they will fight your changes to bring about the desired future.
=The three months’ rule: it takes approximately three months for people who had initially protested a change to realize that the new policy is better and become its biggest supporters. They will forget they ever had qualms.

d. Be absolutely committed to reaching your goals, but extremely flexible and patient on the way to them

=There are different ways of getting to the same goal. (Different routes up Everest.)
=You have to earn their buy-in. They have no reason to trust you at first. You have to gain momentum. It’s going to be really hard at first.
=Realize the difficulty of the rhetorical challenge. You are asking them to change their worldviews. Your swimming families have a certain understanding of swimming, and how it works, and how important it is, and how much it is worth, and where it fits in the family’s life/workings/schedule, and how good their kids are, etc. In order for them to become true believers, each of these pieces must be replaced by a new one, and then each piece much accommodate to all the others. This takes time.
=And even the best education won’t always work, because people have their own reasons for swimming here and their own priorities, which coaches often disparagingly call ‘agendas’. We cannot reasonably expect that they will wholeheartedly accept everything.

e. Have or develop a thick skin

=The common advice is: “Don’t take things personally.” “Strictly business.”
=But this is impossible: they are leaving because they don’t like you or your program, and they think someone else can do it better. They bail on you before getting to know you or giving you a chance. It hurts, personally and financially.
=So, at the very least, don’t hold grudges. (See Abraham Lincoln.) Try to be nice when they come groveling back a year or two later.

f. Resign yourself to losing swimmers.

=And know that when they leave, they will not go quietly.
=Appreciate that you are better off without them.
=Programs are different and not everyone is going to fit with your program. Those who do not should go where they will be happy, as opposed to staying in your program being unhappy and spreading their unhappiness. Losing people who don’t belong is necessary, like clearing out the dead-wood so that the healthy trees can grow unimpeded. You can spend your time thinking about the folks who do want to swim for you; they deserve your attention.

g. Mind first, body follows.

=When they think right, they act right. Educate kids, educate parents.
=In the rhetorical battle, we have the natural advantage. The message of excellence and high performance is predisposed to work or be effective or palatable, because excellence is better than mediocrity, more worthy, satisfying, beautiful, ennobling, enriching, pleasing, etc.

h. Control the message: consistency.

=Have one message in a thousand different places trumpeted a thousand different ways.
=In a good program there is a consistent message that dovetails with goals and vision, policies & procedures, budgeting, wet and dry decisions, etc. The principles determined, decisions follow from them. Conversely, bad programs head in several directions at once. Decisions are made on a whim, every time, with the coach telling everyone yes to ‘keep them happy.’
=Inherent advantage of coaching a small team: I could coach everybody. The message was mine, not passed through or interpreted by others with a different understanding or agenda. The bigger the club and the more coaches and training groups, the harder it is to ensure that one message is being communicated through the whole organism. This is a critical issue in a change of regime.
=Find or create good leaders (swimmers & parents & coaches) to help spread your gospel.
-Make sure the “natural leaders” are on your side. Cultivate them.
-Your swimmers can be your best allies. Teach them how to lead.
-Expect your senior kids to model desirable behavior for your younger swimmers.

i. Baby steps

=Baby steps, as opposed to huge, cataclysmic changes. Initially, when people have little reason to trust you, you cannot upend their world all at once and simply demand they love you.
=Gradually expand their horizons. Gradually establish expectations, aiming a little (and only a little) over their heads.
=It is difficult for kids to surpass or overcome their environment by too much. This is a problem if local standards of performance are low. So you have to redefine or remake their environment:
=attend meets out of town or out of state, so they see and race against faster kids;
=emphasize teammates instead of school friends as peers, so their peers have the same values and attitudes. Friends matter – often more than parents or coaches.

j. Expect surprises.

=Always watch your back. On the first sign of trouble, explain yourself to your boss, so he doesn’t get blindsided and hear ‘the other side of the story’ first.
=“West Wing syndrome”: you never realize how important a seemingly insignificant issue is, until it gets traction and blows up in your face. Or, issues that you think will be hugely problematical disappear.
=Things that seem completely normal to you may appear completely outrageous to someone from another planet. (This is a metaphor, of course)

k. You don’t want just anyone. Find folks who are good fits for the program.

=Lay your cards on the table. Let everyone know what kind of team you are, so they can self-select and reasonably decide if they want what you have to offer. Be honest. People resent the bait and switch.
=Either change or get rid of folks who do not fit the new regime. The “who” matters. The best coach with the wrong people will not create a good program.
=Attract the kind of people you want for your team, who are going to stay, and who are going to be happy and helpful (maybe even grateful).

l. Get them to swim fast, or none of the rest matters (they won’t listen or follow).

=When the kids are happy, learning, mastering skills, and swimming faster, everyone is happy. When they are not, no one is. Run a good program where kids are improving absolutely and relatively.

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