What My Collegiate Experience Taught Me About Defining Team Culture
"What defines any team is leadership and the ability to deliver a consistent and simple message, daily."
The foundation of my baseball knowledge and the backbone of how I teach and instruct my athletes today came from my collegiate experience at the University of Connecticut. Just last week, I was having a conversation with a regional scout up at our facility that had recently been relocated from his southern territory up north. It was two days after the Houston Astros remarkable World Series victory with former UConn great and teammate of mine George Springer taking home the Hank Aaron Most Valuable Player award and naturally the topic of UConn baseball was at the forefront of our conversation.
"It must be something in the water.... guys like Springer, Ahmed, Barnes, Olt, Oberg (and countless other draft picks) all at once? I mean, what's the secret sauce there? Only one of those guys went drafted out of high school (George Springer, 49th Round) and the rest were "under the radar" recruits coming out of high school" he stated. I laughed immediately. Something in the water? Maybe. After all, UConn has endured a variety of athletic success over the past 15-years in all facets of its athletic department. But I knew that it had nothing to do with chance and everything to do with how our team was mentally and physically designed. We had to embrace the grind. We played on the road for the first 25% of the schedule. We were a gritty, work oriented team. We embraced our "cold-weather" status much to other programs in the Northeast facing the same adversity. Simply put, we were forced to elevate our abilities individually and as a group on a daily basis.
But why UConn? How did Head Coach Jim Penders and recruiting mastermind Justin Blood construct one of the most talented lineups in the history of college baseball? They have developed a winning culture.
When you play for the Huskies, it's very evident that you are a part of something much bigger than yourself.
From the moment I stepped on campus in 2007, I knew this program was right for me. Coming from a hockey background, I was used to a blue collar, hard working mentality of being pushed both physically and mentally to the brink each practice. It was those characteristics that led me any remote success as a 5'9" 170 lb. infielder. For me to have success it meant maximizing everything within my control and believe me, this wasn't always easy. As a freshmen, I would get to the facility early or stay late the night before and prepare for practice. My audition was any opportunity in practice and that's how I had to think to survive the competitive jump from high school to collegiate baseball. I may have put a little more on my plate at times than necessary, but I wasn't in any state to not work harder than the next guy. I had to earn it.
With the intense workload, there was also purpose to everything we did. Whether it was our "facial hair policy", the "blue cards" for academic accountability or our code of responsibility of "Whats Important Now (W.I.N)", the answer always needed to be our "Attitude, Concentration and Effort. (A.C.E)". Heck, it was mandatory to have a digital watch, calendar and blue pen for the first team meeting of the year. Yes, a blue pen. Not a black pen, a blue pen. And Coach would survey to make sure we were all prepared, precisely syncing our watches to "Husky Time" so that we never had any excuse for being late. There was always an accountability factor and proper reasoning for our actions and an emphasis on being present. I can remember taking bus rides through Washington, DC on our weekend series against Georgetown as Coach Penders went through fact after fact, educating us on the various monuments and buildings. He had a habit of getting us to embrace and learn pieces of culture in every city we visited. I can event remember him giving me (and the rest of our team) a lesson on proper hotel etiquette, instructing us to leave a tip from our meal money allocation to the hotel staff members cleaning our room. These were the small details that went into designing a culture.
When you are in the moment as a collegiate player, you often take for granted the circumstances that surround you. It's not because you devalue the experience or are unappreciative. It just becomes normal. The attention to detail, the structure all become routine. On a greater level as coaches, how we construct our daily interactions with our players and staff begins to create a level of normalcy in our own team dynamics. If there is limited attention to detail and organizational structure, our team takes notice and responds accordingly. If there are high expectations, clear objectives and standards, our team takes notice and responds accordingly. If your coach instructs you to leave a tip for the housekeeping staff because their job allows us the comfort to do ours, this begins to shape the teams perspective and culture. It shapes the way the team thinks, what we value and the decisions that are made collectively.
What I came to isolate from my time as a Husky were three characteristics that ultimately defined our team culture and shaped a road map for a highly successful stretch of player development: Culture, Competition and Consistency.
"I want to lead the nation in dirt-ball reads and hit by pitches."
I can remember hearing Coach Penders say that the first time we were going over base running during individuals the fall of my freshmen year. I thought to myself, "You want us to lead the country in what?" I can vividly remember taking batting practice and having incrediballs thrown towards us to make sure we were holding our ground in the box at all times. Seemed silly, but it was our culture. It was the simple execution of two small tasks that were the cornerstone of our team offensive approach. Sure, we took countless of swings and were fortunate to have tremendous support from our coaching staff. Guys like Coach Blood, Coach Dez and Coach Malinowski that were always willing to spend extra time, their personal time, to help you get better. Shoot, I can't tell you how many "one more's" I cut loose and those guys stuck in for all of them. I can't thank them enough for that.
The culture that was established for our team embodied doing the little things with the best attitude, concentration and effort (A.C.E) possible. We were absolute workhorses. We limited our focus onto the things we could control and eliminate what we couldn't. As an team from the Northeast, we battled the elements and struggled to see dirt until April. That was no excuse to not be prepared. We didn't have a 5,000 seat stadium with lights and a full clubhouse. We didn't need it. What we had were coaches that set the standard for how our work was to be done and that led by their actions.
I can remember a change going into 2008-2009, the fall of my junior year. Competition was everywhere! Every single day we were competing against one another and this was most evident in our weight room. Everyone was held accountable for their performance at all times and that accountability was visible. Athletes moving the most weight per body mass were promoted to platforms in front and we would change platforms with each lift. It was a big deal to remain in the top-3 platforms for the duration of a team lift. This was a massive shift in culture as accountability was everywhere around us. After practice we began playing flag football as a team in inter-murals and forming pick up basketball games in the rec center playing other students to stay on the court. One of my best friends and current client Nick Ahmed was a freshmen at the time and would even stay after our pickup games to take extra jump shots once everyone else left the gym! While it goes without saying he was a 1,000 point scorer in high school, the mentality of our program was that we were going to keep working because our performance and preparation mattered. While I'm not too sure the coaching staff was always pleased with some of the venues we chose, our desire to compete was off the charts.
What I came to later realize after speaking with Coach Penders about this very topic was that it was all by design. Not only was the facilitation of competition presenting an opportunity each day to win something, It also taught us that failure was real and ultimately inevitable, especially in the game of baseball. Competition is a healthy function or team dynamics when constructed the right way. The fact that we competed in the weight room away from the field gave EVERYONE an opportunity to win each day. It was your choice to manage that opportunity.
And then on the first day of practice returning from winter break, there it was again.
"I want to lead the nation in dirt-ball reads and hit by pitches."
I do believe consistency is the driving force behind all coaching principles. Coaches adapt and philosophies evolve, but what drives us is consistent. Our values and core beliefs are consistent with the message we must preach each day. When I look back at my time spent at the University of Connecticut with arguably one of the most talented rosters in college baseball, I equate the success and much of the continued success of the program to these three guiding principles and their execution. So when people ask me if I am "surprised" by all of the success that my former teammates and coaches have accumulated in the 8-years since my departure from campus, the answer is no. It's not to say that we could have predicted George was going to be an MVP caliber center fielder or that Nick Ahmed was going to become one of the most elite defensive infielders in the major leagues from day-1. All I know is that our leadership and the expectation to challenge greatness daily put us in a position to succeed and value success in the present moment. It was part of the design.