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Developing a Team Identity

Many coaches talk about team identity. But what does ‘identity’ mean? And how does it affect the athletes we coach? In this article, we’ll learn that the significance of identity is far-reaching, for both individuals and teams, and that it’s vital for coaches to understand the concept of identity and how to form a positive sense of self.

Likewise, we’ll discover that our team identity is important for a number of reasons:

  • It has a huge impact on the experience we provide our athletes. 
  • It underpins team culture.
  • It influences the character strengths and values that individuals develop within our coaching environment. 
  • It provides opportunities to empower athletes and give them ownership of their learning.
  •  And, ultimately, it impacts how each member of our team — both athletes and coaches — perceive themselves.

As we delve deeper into the topic of team identity, we will discuss:

What Is Identity?

Before trying to forge a team identity, we need to understand what the word ‘identity’ actually means. ‘Identity’ has become somewhat of a buzzword in modern sport, so, if we’re to derive meaning from discussions about team culture and identity, we must first define those concepts and understand why they’re important.

To assist us in this process, we’ll use the work of Dr. Ralph Pim, a global expert in character and leader development through sport, which describes a person’s identity as the sum of their beliefs and visible behaviours. As such, in simple terms, a team’s identity is the product of the individual identities of the athletes and coaches within it. “The best coaches, athletes, and teams,” writes Pim, “identify character strengths they want to exemplify, and create their identity through purposeful planning.”

Accordingly, understanding character and character strengths is key to understanding identity.

The Components of Character

The concepts of identity and character are intrinsically linked; our identity is the sum of our beliefs and behaviours, and our behaviours are driven by our character (which, according to Pim, is the product of our various character strengths).

“Character is who you are as a person; it’s your values and beliefs in action,” says Pim. “It consists of a multitude of character strengths, which we define as ‘positive traits that lead to positive outcomes’.”

Further to this, Pim separates character strengths into two categories:

Performance Character Strengths, which relate to mastery and success in a specific environment,

and

Relational Character Strengths, which promote ethical conduct and harmony.

Common examples of these character strengths include:

Performance Character Strengths

  • Confidence
  • Competitiveness
  • Discipline
  • Resilience
  • Being hardworking
  • Having a strong sense of commitment
  • Possessing high levels of focus

Relational Character Strengths

  • Empathy
  • Humility
  • Honesty
  • Respectfulness
  • Trustworthiness
  • Caring about others
  • Valuing teamwork
  • Kindness
  • Acting with fairness and integrity

In order to possess certain character strengths, we must consistently exhibit the behaviours that underpin them. Thus, our character strengths help to define our identity, and, if we wish to develop a specific identity, we must first develop the associated characteristics. This approach applies to both individuals and teams. 

Why Character and Identity Matter

But why do we value character and identity? “We’re in the people business,” answers Pim, emphasising the power of sport to teach valuable life skills. “Our job is making a difference in the lives of the young people that we coach. The percentage of athletes who make it as professionals is incredibly small — so it’s the life skills that we help them develop through this experience that are really important.

Put simply, trying to help individuals and teams develop character strengths and form positive identities is a key part of coaching the person, not just the athlete. And this is the essence of coaching.

As Pim summarises: “Having a good grasp on what ‘makes up’ character is the first step in becoming a skilled leader — someone capable of helping young people and athletes to develop their character.”

What Is Team Culture?

Pim defines team culture as “the sum of all your people and their behaviours.” Essentially, the characteristics and beliefs we help our athletes to develop will determine the overarching identity of our team.

He also identifies five key components — Purpose, Vision, Core Values, Standards, and Results — around which to build a team culture. A positive team culture won’t be led by one individual, but by a collective, whereupon the team identifies the characteristics it wants to exhibit and seeks to turn them into visible behaviours. 

Ultimately, creating a team culture goes hand-in-hand with our work to help individuals form their own character strengths and identity; the character strengths and values that they develop will shape our team culture; but, in turn, our team culture will impact the character strengths and values that athletes develop within our coaching environment.

How to Create a Positive Team Culture

Once we appreciate the meaning of identity and culture, we can try to build a positive team culture within our coaching environment. A great starting point is to create a set of shared values within our team — not just through discussion, but by facilitating shared experiences, through which athletes can develop shared values and beliefs. In some settings, such as schools, there may already exist a set of core values that athletes are familiar with, and around which we can build our own team standards. But no matter how we create values within our team, it’s vital that we empower athletes to collaborate and take ownership of the proces.

Shared ownership of values can be integral to achieving ‘buy-in’ from athletes, and to creating a culture in which teammates hold each other accountable for maintaining team standards — a powerful tool in transforming character strengths from mere words into observable behaviours.

It can also be beneficial to explain why we think a particular value is important, rather than merely repeating it. For instance, explaining that arriving late costs the team valuable training time will likely be more impactful than simply telling athletes to always be early. It’s also essential that we exhibit the behaviour we expect of our athletes; if ‘always be early’ is a team value, we shouldn’t be hurriedly setting up cones five minutes before the session starts.

Finally, it’s worth noting that team culture is fluid; it will change and develop on its own, whether we think about it or not. As such, it’s vital that we’re proactive in creating and maintaining a positive culture within our environment.

There are a number of ways in which we can do this:

  • Regularly assigning time to revisit our team values and observable behaviours (for instance, in the form of 10-minute team discussions every several weeks) — not just at the start of the season.
  • ‘Onboarding’ new team members so that they instantly learn the values shared within our team.
  • Inviting new team members to give feedback and engage in team discussions, so that they also feel a sense of ownership of our team values.
  • Asking athletes if they believe their behaviours match our shared values during sessions; the act of thinking about this will reinforce our values and, over time, help athletes to turn them into ingrained behaviours.

Again, this will be easier if athletes feel a sense of ownership over their team culture and are therefore inclined to police standards on their own.

By forging a positive team culture, we can create a learning environment that helps individuals to develop as people, not just athletes, and build character strengths that will benefit them throughout their lives. “Coaches set standards and identify behaviours they want their athletes to exemplify,” concludes Pim. “The best coaches ensure that their athletes completely understand what those behaviours look like and feel like. As coaches, we can be some of the best teachers of character strengths.”

In Summary

  • A team’s identity is the product of the beliefs and visible behaviours of the individuals within it.
  • Similarly, our character is the sum of our various character strengths (which, in turn, can be separated into Performance Character Strengths and Relational Character Strengths).
  • As coaches, we should strive to develop people, not just athletes. Helping individuals and teams to build character strength and forge positive identities is a crucial part of this.
  • Team culture stems from all of the people (and their beliefs and behaviours) in our group. It is formed collectively, not by a single individual.
  • Creating shared values and empowering athletes to take ownership of the process is key to creating a positive team culture.
  • A team culture is fluid, constantly evolving, and will exist without our input. As such, we must be proactive in helping our athletes to develop and maintain a positive culture.

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