The culture of a college athletic program is invisible. You can’t touch it, yet coaches are constantly searching for the elusive prize of a positive and inclusive culture. Many factors, including cool uniforms, state-of-the-art facilities, and catchy team slogans can influence the culture of a program, but building and maintaining a compelling culture centers around one word—Trust.
During my long career in technology and corporate real estate, I had the good fortune to work with leaders who motivated me to dedicate myself to the mission of the organization every day. I trusted them. The same is true for many of the head softball coaches I have worked with.
Unfortunately, some coaches choose a different approach. They are not trustworthy. This causes players and assistant coaches to question their motives. It tests everyone’s faith in the program and diminishes the motivation to perform on and off the field.
Trust is also critical in our personal relationships. When the bonds of mutual trust are strong, our relationships flourish. But, when trust is broken by either party, relationships suffer and seemingly strong bonds can be easily broken. If you think about the relationships in your life that are either strong or precarious, I bet trust plays a pivotal role. A player’s relationship with a program is no different.
Coaches come and go, especially in college athletics. When coaches leave a program on bad terms, the primary reasons for their demise is often a lack of trust. The importance of organizational trust should not be underestimated in developing a positive and enduring team culture.
Here are four areas of organizational trust that impact players, parents, recruits, and alumni. I encourage you to grade yourself if you are a coach or your program if you are a player.
Are your coaches honest and authentic? Do they actually care about the people they lead at every level of the program or are they distant? The most effective coaches don’t have to intentionally do anything to prove they are transparent. Their daily interactions tell the real story.
The goal of all coaches should be for others to tell a positive story about them. When recruits and their parents hear anecdotes about honest dealings, authentic conversations or acts of kindness and compassion, the news will travel fast until there is consensus. Without ever meeting the coach, any interested party will quickly develop a sense of confidence and yes, trust.
Transparency can be a challenge for coaches. Some naturally lack interpersonal skills, but they can still choose to be genuine. A quiet leader who is transparent can be as trusted as an outgoing and charismatic leader. Both will enjoy the allegiance of their teams, but not solely based on their personalities. Rather, loyalty will stem from the trust they earn through their openness and honesty.
The uncertainty surrounding the upcoming spring season can be the biggest enemy to an athletic program. The stress to student-athletes can be reduced if they are well-informed. Even when the news is not encouraging, Coaches who are transparent with their players will be rewarded with increased admiration and trust.
Do your coaches look to the future with optimism or do they react quickly and negatively to adversity? Americans have seen an abrupt shift from record prosperity to economic threats and grim forecasts caused by the current pandemic. Employees at every level of organizations throughout the country have no choice but to trust their leaders in these difficult times. The same holds true for athletic programs.
This pandemic will surely pass, but until then, coaches and athletic directors will continue to face tough decisions. Finding the right balance between the need to streamline operations due to financial pressures and strategic positioning for growth post-COVID is not easy. Too often, leaders take drastic steps without fully considering the long-term ramifications to the organization and loyal employees.
Players and coaches don’t mind enduring some short-term pain if they are convinced their sacrifice is a contribution to the long-term success and even survival of the program.
One tactic coaches and administrators can use to foster trust is effective communication. Empathetic, candid, and encouraging messaging during challenging times will calm nervous teams. Securing trust in the mission now will propel the program to even greater heights after this temporary bump in the road.
Is your program truly collaborative? Many coaches boast a collaborative culture, but they underestimate the impact inclusiveness has on player and parent trust. Collaboration inherently requires a coach to give up some level of control to their players. This shift in control leads to player empowerment, which leads to enhanced trust between both parties.
A true collaborative culture will cause players to feel a stronger sense of ownership, motivating them to take more risks. This type of risk taking is positive and often results in significant contributions to the team. Examples include new and innovative training techniques, real input into practice plans, and higher levels of self-governance. But, any time risk levels increase, so does the need for trust.
Think about it. If the world was free of any risk, trust would be unnecessary. Unfortunately, risk is everywhere, so trust is critical. Coaches who are truly collaborative trust their players to make decisions in the best interest of the program.
Collaboration means more than hearing the thoughts and opinions of players. Programs that shift the appropriate level of control and risk to players will establish a strong culture of trust that will lead to new heights of morale, motivation, and performance,
Does your program value players above everything else? The most successful athletic programs in the country have a simple formula. They place the needs of their players as the highest priority. Some coaches prioritize the needs of the program or school before their players. This is an outdated and flawed strategy if the goal is to establish a positive and enduring culture.
Of course, athletic success on the field is critically important. But, unless players feel valued and appreciated, they will lack the consistent motivation to go above and beyond for their teammates and the program.
So, what does this have to do with trust?
When players are keenly aware of the unconditional support and personal commitment from their coaches, dedication to the program increases dramatically. If players are trusted and given the tools and encouragement to be successful, their hard work and commitment to the team will be positive byproducts of this trust.
Why don’t more athletic programs focus on trust to build culture?
This is an important question for coaches. Instead of focusing on empty slogans or espousing the importance of culture without substance or material evidence, why not focus on developing trust in every aspect of the program?
I encourage coaches to place trust in the program ahead of any other initiative. Let your players know that mutual trust will be the foundation of the program. Then, seek unbreakable trust from you and your program every day.
Trusted programs led by trusted leaders will result in a culture that is shared and not administered. A shared culture based on trust will endure and continue to thrive in difficult times and will be a model to be admired at all times.
** Pictured above is Katie East, former head softball coach of Wheaton College (IL), and some of her dedicated players. The positive team culture Katie created during her tenure was based on mutual trust. The results were record breaking.
About Paul Petricca
In addition to writing this hitting blog, Paul is a college softball hitting coach and the author of the book Hitting With Torque: For Baseball And Softball Hitters. He also provides unique customer engagement training through his company Torque Consulting. Paul teaches a Customer Relationship Management class to undergraduates at Wheaton College (IL) and MBA candidates at Loyola University Chicago and the Benedictine University Asia Program