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Culture, Social Facilitation, and Strength and Conditioning Success

Written on October 8, 2016 at 1:38 pm, by Eric Cressey

Last week, in the midst of a great conversation with a college pitching coach who is a good friend of mine, he said something to the effect of, "You guys do a great job of creating a culture where guys want to work hard to get better."

Culture. That word seems to pop up in almost every discussion I have, whether it's on the training or business aspect of things in the strength and conditioning field. And, it seems to pop up a ton of time at this time of year with playoff baseball, the NFL and NCAA football regular seasons, and NBA pre-season all in swing. 

There's no recipe for an ideal culture, but if yours is poor, you'll probably have terrible results. Click To Tweet

Everyone talks about how Joe Maddon drives a clubhouse culture where guys have fun and play relaxed - and the Cubs have won 100 games. The New York Times celebrated his "Zaniness" earlier this year in a detailed article.

Meanwhile, Bill Belichick drives a culture of preparation, accountability to the team, and personal responsibility ("Do your job."). The Patriots have won four Super Bowls during his tenure, and he's 3-1 in the 2016-17 season without Tom Brady under center. I'd highly recommended you read this fantastic collection of quotes from his players and coaching peers.

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Source: Keith Allison

From the outside, Maddon and Belichick couldn't be more different, yet they have both had tremendous outcomes. Each culture is unique and successful for different reasons. As my business partner, Pete Dupuis, has written, there is no single recipe for a great culture - and it actually might have subtle changes depending on time of day. Our gym culture is very different when our adult strength camps are running at 5:30AM, as compared to a crew of professional baseball players getting after it at noon. If you look the Wikipedia entry on culture, they cite anthropologist E.B. Tylor as defining it as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." In other words, there are plenty of different ways one can tinker with it to suit their liking - whether this tinkering actually improves the culture or not.

With that said, I do think we can look at commonalities of success. And, there are three things that I think every successful culture shares:

1. Good People

As has been often said in the fitness world and beyond, "They don't care what you know until they know that you care." This is why some corporate and athletic cultures improve dramatically just by getting "bad apples" out of the mix. I call it "addition by subtraction" - and it's one reason why we look really heavily at "fit" on the personality front before bringing someone into Cressey Sports Performance family as a staff member or intern.

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On this front, here's an outstanding article on this front: Why Investments in the Right People - Not Analytics or Scouting - is Key to the Texas Rangers' Success. Very simply, people deliver the systems, and your perfect programming and pristine facility won't matter if you don't have great coaches using them.

I think Josh McDaniels (Offensive Coordinator with the Patriots) is an awesome example. From the outside, he seems like the complete opposite of Belichick. McDaniels is a younger, high-energy, super emotional guy. However, maybe it just works so well because Belichick understand how to complement his skill set and personality - and they both work well together because of a common vision of continuous improvement. This leads us to...

2. Dedication to Continuous Improvement

As I look around the country at the most successful strength and conditioning facilities, companies in other industries, and sports teams, the thing that stands out to me the most is innovation. Whether it's Apple always trying to improve on its product offering, Amazon taking convenience to a whole new level, Joe Maddon employing never-before-seen defensive shift approaches, or the Patriots finding creative ways to use their personnel, the best are always finding ways to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Regardless of your industry, it's really easy to get comfortable and stop innovating, or to drift away from the practices that made you successful in the first place. The best cultures preserve the good while always finding ways to bring up their weaknesses. 

3. Targeted Approaches to Social Facilitation

Referencing Wikipedia again, social facilitation "is the tendency for people to perform differently when in the presence of others than when alone. Compared to their performance when alone, when in the presence of others, they tend to perform better on simple or well-rehearsed tasks and worse on complex or new ones."

"Facilitation" is a bit of a misnomer, though, as it implies that performance gets easier or better in front of crowds. For this reason, social facilitation is often referred to as the "audience effect" instead.

In a strength and conditioning culture, social facilitation can be wildly important and helpful. It's the loud music and energetic training partners you want around when you're trying to set a personal record. It may also be the driven individuals around which you want your impressionable teenage son training in order to foster habits that will lead to long-term success in sports and life.

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It can be easily problematic, though, too. Putting a rehabbing athlete in a high energy environment can force him to skip steps in his return-to-play progressions. Likewise, some individuals who are new to exercise may be intimidated in these environments. Having lots of eyes on an athlete who is learning a new skill may put too much pressure on this situation for optimal learning to occur. Finally, social facilitation tells us why a 350-pound offensive lineman probably isn't going to be sold on a 120-pound female training him, and why a 14-year-old female gymnast isn't going to be too keen on a 300-pound monster with a 500-pound bench press training her.

For this reason, the best coaches, leaders, and business owners understand how to specifically target social facilitation to drive athletic and business success. 

Culture vs. Systems

A few years ago, a strength and conditioning coach from another facility came to observe at our Massachusetts location, and she remarked to me, "I love your business model!" Apparently, at the facility at which she worked, it was a "one program on the dry erase board" model where coaches would wind up coaching large volumes of athletes through the same exercises all day. She liked the fact that our coaches had a lot of autonomy; they interacted with a wide variety of clients and coached dozens of unique programs each day.

What she might not have realized is that our business model would fail miserably with the wrong people. If I had incompetent coaches who weren't able to work across multiple populations or able to think on their feet, they'd really struggle. And, if they weren't dedicated to continuing education and always delivering the best quality product, we'd be forced to use more "mundane" programming. She actually really liked the Cressey Sports Performance training and coaching cultures; the business model is just structured to allow them to shine through.

Systems are important, but it's your culture that determines whether those systems actually work. Click To Tweet

In the aforementioned article's title, Bill Belichick is referred to as the "Greatest Enigma in Sports." I don't think there is anything puzzling about his success, though - especially after reading this article. He's an immensely driven person who is wilding committed to avoiding complacency, and he surrounds himself with people who are like him in this regard - but complement his personality in other ways. Then, he uses social facilitation to foster an environment of continuous improvement and accountability to the team. That's one approach to a great recipe for a winning culture over multiple decades.

However, what flies in the NFL might fail miserably in MLB, the collegiate realm, or the private sector of strength and conditioning. The trick is for you to find the right mix that works for you in establishing the right culture in your world. 

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  • Val Fujii

    Love this post Eric. Over the years I have found myself become complacent and less innovative, due to personal struggles/challenges…just going through the motions and focusing on the process rather than the people…created a very low mojo in everything I did. However, cleansing my body and thinking has allowed me to get back to the roots (the basics) and be consistent with a new game plan and vision. True that…I’m trying to figure out and find the right (culture) mix that works for me and my business. Thanks for sharing and keep up the great work you do.

  • Good Stuff EC,

    Love the new website appearance too. I like that you mentioned Autonomy in coaching. This goes back to the old teachings from the book: “Outliers” where Gladwell discusses the three things necessary to make work meaningful:

    1. Autonomy: Although a staff can be connected by a shared goal, outlook, culture, or mindset, it is their individual differences that add value to the product and allow them to thrive as coaches.
    2. Complexity: There is little to no complexity in the WOD approach or white board programs that lack individuality.
    3. Connection between Effort and Reward: Develop in coaches and athletes a culture that drives them to push the upper limits of the profession and not be satisfied with mediocrity. As much as I dislike the Pats (sorry New Englanders), they do a great job at this with their “Next Man Up” approach. To think where people like Brady or Edelman were prior to their starting roles, it teaches the others a connection between effort and reward and to be prepared should opportunity arise.

    #culture #success

    SG


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