Culture in Athletics — An Exploration

Members of the middle distance corps of High Performance West Elite readying for the workout's next rep.

Members of the middle distance corps of High Performance West Elite readying for the workout's next rep.

Every so often Vern Gambetta, a mentor, colleague, and friend comes to Oregon on business. We always find time to grab a cup of coffee and chat — for hours and hours. What I enjoy most about Vern is he’s honest, transparent, curious, and humble. He has more questions than answers, but much of what he does know, I do not. I always leave our coffee talks having learned and questioned more about the art of coaching than from any conference, clinic, or continuing education course. 

One particular morning a couple years ago we centered our discussion around culture in athletics. The good. The bad. And the ugly. 

We coaches frequently talk about culture. It is important. Necessary for success. Without it, you can’t win. With it, the world is your oyster. In many ways, a good culture is the holy grail of athletics. However, despite confirmation regarding the value of culture, it is still an elusive moving target for many. 

So what really is culture? 

To begin my exploration, first, I'll take a counterintuitive approach, by examining what culture is not. 

Culture By Omission

A popular definition of culture is the following: 

Culture is a way of life of a group of people — the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.

I am not satisfied with the above explanation.  While accurate, I believe it is too superficial and misses the mark for our needs as coaches. Instead, culture can be more powerfully understood via omission. Allow me to offer and dissect the following description: Culture is what really matters to your tribe — and what you omit is more far important than what you include. 

The retired American 800m ace, Pheobe Wright, had a blog post regarding what she deemed the main things to success on the track. It resonated with my earlier Babe Ruth Effect essay. Her post contrasted what she viewed as the two most important things which really mattered to running a competitive 800m versus a laundry list of “little things” which did not. Yet, despite her credentials and expertise, she admitted to wasting years worrying about the impact the irrelevent "little things” had on her capability and performance. This is a common trap, one too in which I fell victim.

From my experience and observation, I’ve noticed there is a sentiment among many to obsess about perfecting a smorgasbord of skills that have little, or no, impact on competition acumen. Or accomplishing a variety of tasks which have marginal physical transfer to increased competency in competitive situations. What effective culture allows is a filter to distinguish fruitless activities from critical opportunities. It is a shortcut. When we know precisely that "people like us do things like this," then we are equally as crisp on what avenues and activities not to engage. Our preparation time is precious, and coaches must separate quickly what has merit and is worth doing from junk. Strong culture drives such. 

In his book, How to Fly A Horse, author Kevin Ashton examines research by chess master and phycologist Adriaan de Groot. He adapted this section of his book into an article titled “How Experts Think.” de Groot noticed higher skilled Grandmaster chess players chose the most effective and correct moves in uncommon endgame situations because they eliminated the ineffective options much more rapidly than the lesser skilled players. Ashton remarked, “Expertise is efficiency: experts use fewer problem-solution loops because experts do not consider unlikely solutions.” 

The rapid omission of the unlikely solution and incorrect moves allowed the Grandmaster the space to better focus and contemplate the potency of the correct move. Same holds true for effective culture. Knowing what to omit affords you the capacity to sharply focus on what to include. 

But the resulting question is then: how do you know what to omit? 

Simple — ask an expert. 

The Wisdom of Expert Coaches

The value of mentorship and expertise of Vern — an introspective master coach with nearly 50 years experience — is priceless. Ashton outlines it concisely, “the expert’s first impression is not a first impression at all. It is the latest in the series of millions.”

The price of a cup of coffee and 2 hours time with Vern affords me access to his decades of unique coaching impressions and wisdom. He has trained so many athletes, coached so many teams, evaluated so many competitive situations, and accumulated so much experience that his first impression today is worth a least several more years of my yet to be had on the job experience, if not much more. 

An expert like Vern knows the core elements of what counts when it comes to culture. Simply, he recognizes a good or poor culture the instant he sees it. Therefore, I try to game the system and ask advice from my mentor coaches at every turn.

A quality mentor coach is like the cheat codes in video games, they allow us less experienced coaches to skip levels 3 & 4 and get to level 5 more rapidly. The more conversations you have with your mentors the more opportunity you can ask questions and learn. This will increase your likelihood of avoiding common dead ends and pitfalls.

In turn, it allows the up and coming generation of coaches to fail more often and rapidly at higher levels to help advance our athletes, the sport, and profession of coaching to new heights. Ashton summarizes the value of mentors: “ Even the greatest individual contributions is a tiny step on humanity’s way. We owe nearly everything to others. Generations are also generators. The point of the fruit is the tree, and the point of the tree is the fruit.” 

Having rock-solid mentor coaches is critical to any successful culture. While a mentor can point the way to help the coach shape their team, ultimately a decision must be made about what really matters to your tribe, and what that is rests with you. 

The One Thing  

When I was younger and less experienced of a coach, I required my collegiate athletes at the time to pack a suitcase for every practice. They had to have the following on them at all times: mini-bands, PB pillow discs, jump ropes, foam roller, yoga mats, training shoes, flats, spikes, protein shake, fruit, nutrition bar, water bottle, and on and on and on. I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but at the time I didn't know what to omit. While all those tools do have some merit in their correct application, the proliferation of those tools does not — it detracts from the one thing. 

In his book, The One Thing, author Gary Keller encourages his readers to focus on the one thing which will yield the greatest return on their time and energy spent. He suggests, “extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.” At first read, this seems like a call for intense specialization, which I vehemently oppose. However, a deeper reading understands he is signaling to omit the fluff, riding yourself of unnecessary distractions and simplifying so you can be more effective. In essence, you are being charged with choosing between hanging a Monet or Rembrandt on the wall of your art gallery. 

Coaches must be curators. We can choose many different drills, training methods, workouts, vocabulary, gear, equipment, environments, etc. to include when constructing our athletic culture. But we must be ruthless with our selection just as a museum curator is with what portrait hangs on the wall.

If you elect to hang a painting by Picasso, Pollack, Van Gogh, Matisse, and DaVinci all on the same wall, they will drown each other out. Their impact lost. Each deserves their own wall, so you can focus exclusively on each piece for a time and truly appreciate their unique magnificence.

Newer cultures only have one wall. More established cultures have more walls allowing more fine works to be hung. But you still have to pick what goes on each wall. Which painting you choose to hang is at the cost of knowing what you did not select. You can swap out paintings down the road, just as you can emphasize different elements surrounding your culture later on. But be fully focused and content with your choice right now — this will yield maximum effectiveness. 

Nowadays, I am happy to report athletes I currently coach are asked to carry only the most important items: water & food. Proper nourishment is the one thing right now. You can’t recover from training and get better if you're not well fed. As my friend and mentor, 2017 USATF Coach of the year Jerry Schumacher of the Bowerman Track Club says, "take care of The Temple." We’ve left the other toys at home or in the gym for later use. A training run is now solely about getting in the running needed for that day’s intended stimulus and then replenishing The Temple quickly afterward so the athlete feels better for training efforts soon to come.

Our working mantra these days is: Feel better. Run better. Get better.

Simple. Effective. Hard to forget and easy to remember — much like a good culture. 


Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. // jm 

*note: a previous version of his post was originally published by Jonathan Marcus on on February 10, 2016. It has since been revised and updated.

Jonathan Marcus