Great teams have great teammates. No disagreements there, but it isn’t easy to find great teammates. Not everybody that makes your team will come in as a great teammate — and that is where your presence and team culture kicks in.
The clearest signal that you have an athlete that is a great teammate is their desire to serve others. When athletes have the mindset of serving other team members, the entire program benefits. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden put it well when he said, “It’s amazing what you can achieve when you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Serving others is at the very core of sports — and it’s paramount to your team’s success.
4 ways we can help our athletes become better teammates by learning to serve others.
- Setting the standard
- Performing community service
- Reward the behavior
- Give them opportunities
This article is loaded with different actionable tips that will give you inspiration for how you can get your team serving each other and their community.
Setting the Standard
The leadership expert, John C. Maxwell, says, “A leader knows the way, shows the way, and goes the way.” It’s not enough for us to simply tell our athletes how to act. Not only should you set the standard, but you must be the standard. By modeling the appropriate behaviors, your athletes understand that your expectations are serious.
When your athletes see you serving administrators, teachers, custodians, other coaches, or even parents, they see actions aligned with words. This provides them with a blueprint for how to act themselves.
If they see you cleaning up, picking up trash themselves becomes normalized. If they see you doing managerial-type tasks, then carrying bags or setting up for practice is no longer a demeaning activity. Former NBA head coach Mike Dunlap likes to say, “Never be the guy who doesn’t want to grab a mop.”
10 ways you can lead by example as a servant leader…
- Be on time
- Be humble
- Serve others at your school
- Resist the urge to criticize in public
- Send thank you or congratulations notes
- Say “please” and “thank you”
- Pick up trash
- Sweep the floor
- Help carry the equipment
- Give gifts
Gone are the days of “do as I say and not as I do”. Your athletes are watching you as a coach — and their trust is hard to earn and easily broken. If you’re hypocritical or inconsistent in your actions, athletes get confused. That sends the wrong message. If you operate by a different set of rules or expectations, then how will your athletes learn to serve one another?
You’re in this together. You win and lose together. You overcome challenges together. You celebrate successes together. A mentality of togetherness starts with you as the coach.
Performing Community Service as a Team
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Anyone can be great because anyone can serve.” Community service not only benefits others, but also serves as a powerful team-building activity. When your athletes engage the community, they’re taking part in something bigger than themselves – similar to their role on a team.When you vocalize this to your team, athletes begin to understand
Let your athletes take ownership in the process by picking a community service activity. This should be fun for them — you can even consider having it take the place of practice one day so the team can do some simple planning and reflecting on the people they’ll serve. It could also be centered around special days like MLK Day. The goal of these different decisions is to use ownership of their service as a way to get them committed to serving on their own accord.
10 community service ideas to get us started …
- Bus trays in the cafeteria for their peers
- Pick up trash in your community or school
- Rake leaves or shovel snow in their neighborhoods
- Host a thank you breakfast for the teachers your athletes learn from
- Volunteer at blood drives
- Host a free Saturday basketball clinic for young kids
- Fill up shoe boxes with toys and trinkets for underprivileged kids
- Paint or do small maintenance tasks at the Boys & Girls Club or YMCA
- Tutor or read to kids
- Do regular yard work for elderly people that need help
Once you’ve done this as a team, you can then start finding ways to get them active in smaller groups.
One year, our basketball program did more than 30 total community service activities. We did one per semester as a team, and each athlete did an extra activity that year as well. The only stipulation we gave them was to do the community service activity with at least two other teammates, so there was a team component to it. We also had committees (also called mini-teams or groups) that were tasked with generating ideas so the activities were not just “coach’s ideas”. By creating ownership in the process, the team began to serve in ways that affirmed our culture and values.
Reward the Behavior When Your Athletes Serve
The great Hall of Fame football coach Bill Walsh always said, “Culture precedes positive results. Champions are champions before they are champions.”
A strong culture takes time, and won’t happen overnight. To complicate things more, you don’t necessarily get the culture you want — you get the culture you’ve earned. Your culture is a collection of the behaviors you’ve allowed, permitted, reinforced, or rewarded.
If you want your athletes to serve one another, you must reinforce and reward this behavior. When they go out of their way for a teammate, sacrifice for the team, quietly go about their business, you need to praise their commitment to the culture and each other.
10 ways you can start rewarding athletes…
- Give out daily awards (goofy or memorable awards can be even more impactful for teenagers)
- Keep a chart in the locker room and regularly refer to it
- Reward athletes for certain accomplishments that go beyond the expectations
- Look for at least one “little thing” to publicly recognize for each athlete
- Do a team activity that requires your athletes to praise one another
- Write private notes commending their character
- Use social media to make your praise reach beyond the team
- Acknowledge the positive “little things” first
- Reach out to the school website/newspaper about your athletes serving
- Lots of high-fives, fist bumps, and other forms of physical contact
Rewarded behavior is repeated behavior. Positive reinforcement is a great long-term strategy to build a strong culture of serving.
Above all else, you must catch your athletes doing good. Instead of looking to jump on them for the smallest mistake, find ways to recognize when they are serving others and being a great teammate. This encourages more of that same behavior and creates an atmosphere in which all team members are thinking about something other than themselves.
Give Your Athletes Opportunities to Serve
It’s not natural to serve others. It may take some practice because a service-mentality doesn’t happen automatically. Be on the lookout for ways to give your athletes opportunities to become better servant leaders on the team. This helps them grow, as a person, which only strengthens them as a player.
Community service is the most obvious way for athletes to serve, but there are many other options that serve as stronger reinforcement for serving others. By providing daily opportunities to serve within the team, you set the tone that serving isn’t something you put on your calendar — it’s a daily choice to make. When you let them do tasks that the coaching staff normally does, they understand that their impact on the team goes beyond their play on the court. Once the team shows that they’re adopting a serving mindset, challenge them to come up with their own ideas of serving one another so that they can practice looking for ways to serve others.
10 ideas to get you started …
- Plan and prepare team meals
- Take turns fulfilling certain duties (cleaning locker room, setting up for practice, carrying things, etc.)
- Rotating leadership or captain responsibilities based on their commitment to serving
- Leading a drill or stretching session
- Forming committees or groups to make serving decisions
- Gift exchanges or meetings where they take turns praising each other’s character
- Running the social media account and promoting servant-minded ideas
- Organizing fun team get-togethers (e.g. creative meals, Christmas party, gaming tournaments, movie nights, karaoke, fashion shows)
- Put on community events (e.g. fall festival, trunk or treat, camps/clinics, babysitting service during holidays for boosters or teachers, Easter egg hunt)
- Community service activities
The key is to get feedback about what your athletes would enjoy. The opportunity might not be big. It might not even seem like much at first, but every time they serve someone else, it starts to build positive habits that compound. It gradually becomes easier the next time and eventually, you have a locker room of great teammates that put each other before themselves.
What Do You Want?
At the end of the day, you don’t build a culture by saying “this is our culture”, or handing out a piece of paper that has your values listed. You get the culture you earn. You get the culture you fight for on a daily basis. Your culture is what you intentionally practice, nurture, and promote. This isn’t something you stumble upon.
If you want a great culture where your athletes serve each other, then you need a collection of great teammates taking ownership in the process. If you want great teammates, then you need athletes willing to serve one another. Try these ideas. Get feedback from your athletes. Do what works for your team, and double down on it. When you’ve built a strong culture, you’ll be able to have the tough conversations about playing time and other issues that would crush a team with poor culture.
Jamy Bechler is the author of four books including The Captain and The Bus Trip, host of the Success is a Choice Podcast, professional speaker, and trains organizations on creating championship cultures. He previously spent 20 years as a college basketball coach and administrator. The Leadership Playbook is Bechler’s online program that helps athletes become better teammates and more positive leaders while strengthening culture. As a certified John Maxwell leadership coach, Bechler has worked with businesses and teams, including the NBA. Follow him on Twitter at @CoachBechler. To connect via email or find out about his services, contact speaking@CoachBechler.com. Subscribe to his insights on success and leadership by clicking here.