3 Principles to Building a Successful Team Culture


“To win takes talent… to repeat takes Character” - John Wooden

Take a look at any team dynasty through the years in sports, and behind it all, you’ll see a coach that created a culture of success.  Any team can win it all one season, but to repeat success time and time again takes something more.  

Reading books like “Eleven Rings” by Phil Jackson, “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations On and Off the Court", “Legacy” the story of the All-Blacks culture, you start to realize that having a successful team is much more than X’s and O’s, and for performance coaches, it is more than sets and reps.

What transfers the most out of the weight room and onto the field?  

Certainly getting faster, stronger and more robust are massively important, but is there something else, that might be even bigger?  

I would say yes, and that is the creation of the “culture of athletic and personal transformation”.

When it comes to team culture, there are the classic staples; things like accountability, discipline, self-esteem, selflessness, honesty, expectations and communication.  There are a lot of books, as well as great coaches and mentors who pass this knowledge on.

Building on these values, I have found that there are three things that make great team cultures really stand out.  

These are:

  • Stressing servant leadership
  • “Following the spearhead”
  • Harnessing the transformative energy of the weight room

Team Culture Principle #1: Servant Leadership

An area of culture that cannot be mentioned enough is that of servant leadership.  Unfortunately, this ideal is rarely demonstrated on the team level, and often unfolds something like the following:

The freshmen or sophomores are in charge of things like grabbing the water cooler, racking the weights, bringing the equipment out to the field, or other menial tasks, while the upper classmen who have clearly put their time in, sit back, chat and relax while the lower peons do their service on their way up the ladder.  

Sounds a bit like the corporate world, doesn’t it?  

As “par for the course” as this is, it isn’t an optimal situation for the growth of the team or the community.  One of the biggest reasons athletics and physical competition exists is it’s extension into developing the mind, body, and the spirit, which we can also tag as “character”.  

Take what Simon Sinek, author of “Leaders Eat Last” has said regarding the difference between the corporate world and the military: "In the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain. We have it backward," 

To this end, one of the most successful university rugby programs that I know has their senior players get out all of the equipment for practice.  Those who have the most “skin in the game” are those who are the caretakers for the other players.

They are the ones who make sure that things are running as they should, and they do it demonstrating service for their teammates.

Take a look at a mantra the All-Blacks (New Zealand rugby team that is the most winning professional organization in the world) live by: “sweep the sheds”.  At the end of games, you won't see the team captains sipping champagne while the janitor and staff clean up their locker room for them.No… they are cleaning up for themselves.  

No… they are cleaning up for themselves.  

Take care of others, and take care of yourself, and most importantly, don’t expect someone to do it for you.  

The most loved and well-known coaches of our time have clearly had success in terms of championships, wins, and losses, but there is a common trait seen amongst these individuals. That is the development of the person superseding winning in itself.  Why?  

Because a coach who is not coaching for himself likes winning for the sake of seeing the joy of the athletes, and the fruition of the work put in.  

Mark Watts, former director of education for EliteFTS puts a lot of emphasis on whether or not you are coaching for yourself or your athletes, posing the question,  “Is that ass-chewing you just gave for you, or your athlete?”  

Without being aware of this facet of coaching and serving young men and women, it’s hard to make real progress.  

As Simon Sinek has said, amongst other leadership experts, any coach can put together a winning season at the expense of their athletes.  To have lasting success, you need to be invested in people and build a culture centered around servant leadership.  

Leaders create more leaders.  Generally speaking in any given program, 20% of athletes are totally bought in while 60% of athletes are in the middle, and the final 20% are on the outside.  The key is getting the 20% to reach the 80%; it’s much more effective than the coach trying to chase down and motivate everyone on his or her own.  

Philosopher Lao Tzu said it well:

“To lead people, walk behind them.”

This is the epitome of servant leadership.  Real leaders don’t stand out front and boast and take in the glory.  They stand, encourage and equip their peers from the place of a servant.  They are like military officers who let all lower ranking officers eat before them.  

Team Culture Principle #2: Follow The Spearhead

In the book “Legacy” by James Kerr, the story of the All Blacks, there is a term, “Whānau”, which in Māori, refers to a very deep meaning of family, and in the local mythology, is pictured as a flock of birds in a “spearhead” formation.

To the All-Blacks this means all players must move forward to the same point.  The idea of a spearhead also puts a great visual in the mind of a player.  

In creating an effective weight room culture, everyone must be on the same page.  This means a few important things:

  1. Everyone is held to the same standard of conduct
  2. Niches of athletes within the weight room, particularly niches of less motivated athletes must be broken up and avoided
  3. Athlete conduct that is harmful to the dynamic of the group must not be tolerated
  4. Athletes should be steered towards a “group mind” whenever possible, respecting the ability and jobs of other players on the team

Great coaches are willing to cut players loose, even the most physically gifted players on the team, if those players aren’t following the common team vision.  It’s a necessary step for the success of the team.  

Phil Jackson has said, in his book “Sacred Hoops”: This is the struggle that every leader faces, how to get members of the team who are driven by the quest for individual glory to give themselves over wholeheartedly to the group effort.  

Take a look at how Michael Jordan went from a league-leading scorer who had never won a title to eventually winning 6 championship rings, and you’ll see the fruition of Jackson’s mentality in action.  

A big reason that the All Black rugby team has seen massive success is not only because of talent, coaching and hard work. It is also because of character, as the program has repeatedly ejected very skilled players from the team due to a lack of character and common direction.  

Unfortunately, in our current setting of athletics, where athletes parents are suing for their kids being cut from a team, it isn’t very conducive to being able to create an environment that not only sets up athletes for success through their sporting career, but more importantly, as a person and in life itself.  

Team Culture Principle #3: Harness The Transformative Energy of the Weight Room

Moreso than a list of things to do as a coach, I wanted to use my last point on the list to help coaches understand just important their role is in defining the weight room as a transformational entity.  

This last sentence might seem a little out there, and this whole section might not be “politically correct” as far as what most coaches care to think of in their role, but to be honest, many of the most effective leaders and difference makers in life aren’t politically correct.  

Before I get to the rest of this point, I write this section with the humility of a fairly young coach who is still working on improving that which I write about.  Much of this I am still learning and improving on a regular basis.  

The strength coach carries a unique position in the hierarchy of sport's culture.  I personally feel that a comparison can be made to that of a “ritual elder” as cultural expert Robert Moore describes in his book, “The Archetype of Initiation”.  

The weight room is not only a place to build muscle and might but a place of initiation into the group.  

Our current society no longer has any sort of formal initiation for our young men, and although perhaps we are better off without subjecting young men to wearing a glove filled with bullet ants, in some ways, we are not.  We are not brought to a point where we must approach our physical and mental limits in a manner that leads us to a greater sense of personal fulfillment and belonging in our early lives.  

In many cases, athletes are driven into the ground by a coach looking to instill “mental toughness”, but with no greater meaning behind it.  

Any coach, and anybody in charge of workout design for that matter, can prescribe a workout that is physically difficult.  What makes the weight room special is that it is a “sacred space” as far as the process of athletic initiation goes.  

If you are going to have workouts that push limits, it is important to find a place to frame them in the context of something greater.  I think one of the best portrayals of this that most of us are familiar with is from the classic “Remember the Titans”



Would this workout have had a positive effect if it was done slogging around the football field?  

Hell no.    

This workout is what it is because of the journey, and the sacred space of the graveyard.  Almost every classic “guy movie” that we know has this sequence, such as Star Wars, Batman Begins, Rocky, the Matrix, and the list goes on.  There is a journey to a revered or isolated place, and a learning process led by a master.  The initiate then returns to regular space with a new level of awareness and state of mind.  

One of the biggest things we miss out on as coaches (and that I missed out on for years) is an understanding of initiation.  

Even within the weight room itself, there is the place where the mind meets the body.  I don’t prescribe things like this all the time, but there is a good place for reaching set failure within the overall context of performance.  A coach I really respect, Elliot Hulse lays this out well in his piece on “The Transcendent Rep”.  



As far as that journey within the weight room itself, the lesson is this: “Everything you’ve done to this point leads to this single sweet spot, it is here that you become the strongest version of yourself… There is an alignment, there’s a unity that happens between your body, your mind, and your spirit only because you are courageous enough to cross that threshold.”

Many athletes have never had someone hold them accountable and responsible until they set foot inside the doors of the weight room.  In modern times, I believe the weight room is a sacred space of transformation.  People come to gyms looking for an elder/guru/expert to help them transform themselves.  

This is why people like CT Fletcher and Wim Hof are so popular.  Their work is much more than just a formula and exercise prescription.  

Something I’ve seen over time, particularly in groups of bought in athletes, is that a very difficult workout can be a transformative experience.  

We are seeking boundaries in life, such as the ocean, the mountain, or the desert.  The weight room is a physical boundary land where we can take athletes to the edge of their ability and mental strength.

To this end, what is the energy you are bringing into the weight room as a coach?

How are you preparing yourself physically to communicate this energy to your athletes?  There is a damn good reason that strength coaches are almost in every case, in great shape compared to other professions.  It instills confidence and belief in the “elder” and helps to proliferate the space of the weight room.

“I grew strong only that I might strengthen you, I faced pain so that I might show you through” Elliot Hulse (Going back to servant leadership here)

Does your athlete look you in the eye and fully believe that you are capable of taking them to new physical limits?

Do you bring the right energy into each workout to create a space where athletes can fully push themselves in multiple levels?  If not, why?

As a leader in multi-lateral transformation, it is also truly important to make an effort to say every athlete’s name in the course of a session, even if you are one coach with 30 athletes.  

Find what athletes are doing in their sports (if you coach multiple sports) and mention it to them when you see them.  Invest yourselves in athletes, so they will invest themselves in the space of the weight room.    

You can only give what you are.  Improve yourself to improve your coaching.  Bring energy, and create a sacred space, both in terms of exercise, and even a journey, to create a culture of strength and transformation.  


If I had to sum up my thoughts on the role of the strength coach here, I would say this:

  • You are more than just a physical trainer; strength training and the related personal disciple has multi-lateral ramifications
  • Make sure that you hard work on yourself as the “elder/master/leader” to the point where you can carry the shield of taking athletes in your care
  • Develop the proper relationship with athletes to the point where there is a point of mutual trust and respect
  • Find strategic places to create an opportunity for personal transformation within the scope of the workout or even outside the weightroom

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About The Author

Joel Smith, MS, CSCS is a NCAA Division I Strength Coach working in the PAC12 conference. He has been a track and field jumper and javelin thrower, track coach, strength coach, personal trainer, researcher, writer and lecturer in his 8 years in the professional field. You can connect with Joel on his website.