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Titan Coaches Winning the Culture War


Every team has a culture. Every school has a culture. Every organization has a culture.

The question isn’t whether or not your team has a culture. The question is whether your culture is good or bad.

It’s sort of like a GPA (Grade Point Average). Every student has one. It can be 0 to 4.0 or any point in between – but they all have one.

My role with FCA has afforded me the privilege of spending a considerable amount of time with coaches on the Illinois Wesleyan University campus. The three coaches I’ve learned from most recently are Norm Eash (football), Kim Nelson-Brown (volleyball) and Tiffany Prager (softball).

One thing is quite clear; all three of these coaches are very aware of team culture and intentionalabout building it.

Norm Eash is entering his 33rdseason at the helm of the Illinois Wesleyan football program. His long history of success at IWU is steeped in tradition and attention to detail, including an emphasis on creating and sustaining a culture of excellence.

A key ingredient to the culture of IWU football is the Titan Leadership Council.

At the end of each football season, 5 seniors, 6 juniors and 8 sophomores are selected as the Leadership Council for the upcoming year. Freshman are not included on the council because they are not at school yet when the council is formed.

The council helps give the players a voice in team goals, player discipline, recruiting, and even assistant coaching hires. The council serves as somewhat of an apprenticeship for team captain roles, and provides Coach Eash a sounding board and mechanism to keep a pulse on team morale, issues and concerns.

Keys to the effectiveness of the council include:

  • Council members are determined by a vote of the players, not the coaches
  • The council is determined annually – so just because you are on the council as a sophomore doesn’t guarantee you will be voted on as a junior
  • Council member positions are coveted – seen by the teammates and coaches as a key leadership role on the team

Coach Eash is the ultimate decision-maker, but he clearly leverages the Leadership Council for valuable input on key program decisions and direction.

Does strong culture equal on-field success? Eash has been head coach for 33 years; 200 wins; Nine CCIW conference championships; and six NCAA playoff appearances.

The level of talent Coach Eash recruited has certainly played a vital role in the success of IWU football – but Coach Eash will tell you the culture of the program is very important to the success as well.

The IWU softball team is coming off the most successful season in program history. A season record of 40-14-1; conference champions; and a 2ndplace finish in the NCAA Division III national championships.

The first official day of the NCAA D3 softball season was January 27th. How did the Titans softball team spend the first day of practice? Working on team culture.

Before a ball was thrown or a bat was swung, the Titan softball team gathered in a conference room at the Shirk Center.

The very first topic the coaches covered was team GPA. A loud and raucous cheer erupted when the coaching staff unveiled the team’s first semester result of 3.48! Sort of sets the tone for what is most important to the team culture, doesn’t it?

Then two seniors stood at the white board and recorded thoughts from teammates on questions like the following:

  • What does a positive attitude look like, on and off the field?
  • What does great energy look like on and off the field?
  • What does a great teammate look like on and off the field?

The coaches were in the room for this discussion, but shared thoughts sparingly as the TEAM developed these descriptors.

Once the team had completed this exercise, the coaches left the room and asked the team to take the thoughts laid out on the white board and develop a set of team “standards” for the 2019 season. A set of standards unique to this team, and a set of standards this team would own.

The team is also reading Jon Gordon’s new book “The Power of a Positive Team,” and thirty minutes of practice time once a week is devoted to the players talking about what they have read and how it can apply to their team.

Does this focus on culture translate to wins? After finishing second in the nation last year, the team is united in the goal of a national championship this season.

On Friday mornings at 6:30 am Kim Nelson-Brown participates in our FCA Coaches Huddle at the Shirk Center. Recently the group worked our way through the Coach’s Edition of “Called to Compete: Doing Sports God’s Way.” The book was authored by Wes Neal, Gordon Thiessen and Josh Thiessen. The video was narrated by Ron Brown, University of Nebraska assistant football coach.

Goal-setting was one of the key topics one week, and Coach Nelson-Brown discussed an exercise she goes through with her team each and every year.

The team starts by identifying their ultimate goal. This year, as with many years and many Titan athletic teams, the goal was a National Championship.

Many NCAA teams may share that goal. But what makes the “culture” difference was how the Titans then developed a few more layers of goals, standards and expectations.

The purpose of the exercise is to create an identity,specific to that particular team and group of players. The players discussed discipline needed – in terms of academics, training, and healthy habits. They discussed team chemistry, including the communication, support and respect needed and expected from teammates.

This annual exercise is critical to the culture of IWU Volleyball. Creating culture has been an important factor in Nelson-Brown’s 23 year run as IWU volleyball coach, which includes 472 wins, 3 CCIW championships and 4 NCAA playoff appearances.

These Titan athletic programs operate within the larger culture of IWU athletics. If you go to any Titan athletic event you will generally find athletes from other sports watching and cheering. Supporting other Titan teams is part of the culture.

And that culture was on full display this past weekend when over 130 IWU students representing several different athletic teams participated in the annual “Polar Plunge,” and in the process raised over $20,000 for Special Olympics. Community service – another part of the Titan culture.

Getting a chance to spend time around several IWU coaches and seeing some of these programs up close, there is absolutely no doubt a focus on culture shows up in the “win” column. Last year 13 Titan athletic teams advanced to the NCAA tournament, and 8 teams won conference championships.

If you are a coach, you certainly spend a significant time thinking about practice and game strategies. I encourage you to spend time developing strategies for your team culture as well.

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