Can team culture affect high performance?

The secret to success is consistently doing a lot of ordinary things right.

Team culture is a term that gets a lot of use in sport circles without benefit of a definition. Like mental toughness or athleticism it's a convenient catch-all phrase that pops up occasionally, sounds useful, but lacks specific meaning. I've written about athleticism before here and here. In this article I suggest that team culture is not, as many think, the most important factor in high performance.

At the society level, culture is a collection of ideas, customs, and social behaviors. It's sometimes described as a way of life within a society that has evolved over generations. A team culture is more narrowly focused. It consists of values and beliefs that can help the team achieve its collective purpose. A team culture is formed by a much smaller number of people and over a shorter period of time than the overall social culture, but since the team also exists within the social structure many of the team's customs and behaviors are determined by the social structure. In most cases a team's culture is organic and forms without awareness or direction from team members. This is changing as more coaches realize that a positive team culture can be crafted through deliberate action. But does a positive team culture explain why some teams can boast of high performance success stories? Is team culture the key to unlocking the mystery of high performance clubs vs. the large, but surprisingly unproductive club? Maybe, but probably not in the way you’re thinking.

Obviously a positive team culture is an important factor in sport. Changing it though can be challenging and it doesn't happen overnight. I've read many posts in a swim forum I follow from coaches that have taken new jobs and want to change their new teams' culture. They want to know how others did it and how long it takes. I suspect they believe--as many coaches do--that their influence is the decisive factor that can determine team culture and that once positive changes take place then performance improvements will follow. But this strategy is unlikely to yield the results they're hoping for and the reason can be found, as it is in so many other social endeavors, in demographics.

To explain why this is, I refer to The Mundanity of Excellence by Daniel Chambliss. The 1989 article offers an interesting look at how top swimming performance is the result of doing a lot of things correctly and consistently. Chambliss' analysis was qualitative i.e. describing what was done and what he observed. Since he was not an insider in the sport he was unbound by the sociology of knowledge that might limit his conclusions to a certain silo of information. His conclusion in the article was that excellence is the result of ordinary things done consistently:

"But of course there is no secret; there is only the doing of all those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of one’s everyday life."

One of Chambliss' observations in the article is that swimming is stratified in a way that disproves one of the bedrock notions about sport performance, that working harder produces better results or, in other words, that there is a quantitative difference between the amount or intensity of work top athletes do compared to those at a lower level. Instead, he argues that the difference is qualitative: Top athletes just do things differently and that the stratification we see in the sport is due to this qualitative difference. The stratification, long assumed to be continuous in sport, is actually discrete. Working harder is not, by itself, the secret to moving up the performance ladder.

"Stratification in the sport is discrete, not continuous. There are significant, qualitative breaks—discontinuities—between levels of the sort. These include differences in attitude, discipline, and technique which in turn lead to small but consistent quantitative differences in speed. Entire teams show such differences in attitude, discipline, and technique, and consequently certain teams are easily seen to be “stuck” at certain levels. Some teams always do well at the National Championships, others do well at the Regionals, others at the County Meet. And certainly swimmers typically remain within a certain level for most of their careers, maintaining throughout their careers the habits with which they began." emphasis added

If Chambliss is right about this then why is it this way? By applying some demographic analysis one curious thing about national level clubs stands out: They are usually in multi-club markets with larger populations. Even now, in 2022, population is often seen as the most important demographic factor shaping club success but I don't think this is correct. It's actually the number of clubs competing for athletes in the same market because athletes or their families can select the club they want to join. This self-selection has more to do with the success of a club than we realize.

What sets successful clubs or athletes apart from others? Chambliss suggests:

"...they do things differently. Their strokes are different, their attitudes are different, their group of friends are different; their parents treat the sport differently, the swimmers prepare differently for their races, and they enter different kinds of meets and events. There are numerous discontinuities of this or between, say, the swimmer who competes in a local city league and one who enters the Olympic Trials."

Athletes and families choose to join sport clubs and if their experience is not satisfying, in whichever way you define that, they may seek another club. This suggests that high-performing clubs are qualitatively different because of the kind of athlete or family they attract and only partially due to other amenities they offer such as coaching, facilities, etc. So it's easy to imagine that the team culture of a national level club, whether it is deliberately defined or not, is different from one at the regional level. So in any attempt to define or change a team's culture the attention to detail, doing things correctly and consistently may be the most important component.

Chambliss wrote about swimming so his take on stratification may not apply to other sports because of the way other club systems are structured. But he makes a strong and universal case for understanding excellence in terms of quality rather than quantity. While a certain amount of physiological effort is required for top sport performance, the secret to success is focusing on doing ordinary things right.