Building Upon Team Culture After Established Leaders Graduate

Written By: Adriana Contreras

What is the one most important aspect of our jobs as coaches? Is it to produce the fastest athletes? The most technically polished? I would argue that our most important job is to develop athletes who have the tools and skill sets necessary to make a difference in the world. I’ve had the pleasure of working with three different clubs and a college program during my coaching career so far and while that’s definitely not a huge sample size, it has given me a lot of insight as to how different team dynamics and cultures can feed into performance and vice versa with how high performance can feed into team culture. By no means am I an expert on things, but I am extremely passionate when it comes to discussing team culture! I believe that if you’re able to successfully establish and maintain positive team culture you’ll be able to achieve more with your athletes. People want to work hard for a program they believe in and help contribute to.

Coming to DART Swimming - Sacramento last year, I had the opportunity to observe the established team culture where I saw not only a swim team, but a family environment fueled by a common desire to reach for excellence. This team culture comes through not only in the way the athletes conduct themselves during training and the way the coaches carry themselves on the deck, but also the way that parents and community members experience and see the team. Through the years DART has produced a number of high achieving athletes and that has brought both great opportunity and big shoes to fill. As those athletes have graduated out the team environment has changed. As we all know, any time athletes graduate it leaves the opportunity for a new group of athletes to step up and lead. Last fall, when I first started with DART, we definitely had a few leaders step up, but we initially struggled to expand that leadership beyond the Senior Group.

To work on this, one of the things we did was start the DART Buddy program. This program paired our Senior swimmers with an Age Group buddy. The program had benefits for both our age groupers and our Senior swimmers. The Age Groupers immediately felt a sense of belonging with the program. They felt connected to other aspects of the program beyond just showing up and swimming laps every day, they innately look up to the “big kids” and for those same “big kids” to know their names, write them letters of encouragement, and come to coach them on occasion-well, it was HUGE in the eyes of our 12 & under swimmers. On the senior end, these athletes often forget what it's like to view swimming through the eyes of a younger teammate who thinks it's the BEST day ever if they get to do cannonballs in the deep end (oh to be young again!). Our senior swimmers were reminded that they not only are leaders within their own group to their peers, but they are role models to the future of DART Swimming.

Another benefit that we saw from the DART Buddy program was the connection it gave to our team parents. It gave the families something to connect over besides just sitting out on a pool deck together night after night. When your more “veteran” families help introduce your newer families to your program you help set yourself up for long term success. Good culture and environments are passed on not only from athlete group to athlete group but also from parent group to parent group!

There are so many activities teams can hold to help build team culture and this buddy program is just one of the things we did at DART Swimming - Sacramento to help build on team culture over the last year and a half. I think it's important to remember that as coaches we must invest energy into establishing/maintaining the team culture we want to represent our programs. Team culture is an aspect, beyond just meet results, that can help attract new members, sponsors, and even coaches. Similar to things we’ve all said to our athletes at one time or another - you’ll get out of it what you put into it!

Professional Background

- Senior Group Coach at DART Sacramento

- Head Coach of St. Francis High School Swim Team

- Assistant Coach for University of the Pacific Men’s & Women’s Swimming Teams

- Senior Group Coach for California Gold - Lodi Swim Club

- Age Group Coach for Tiger Aquatics

- Has served on the following USA Swimming Staffs: Zone Diversity Select Camp, Zone Select Camp, and National Diversity Select Camp

- Currently serves on the Sierra Nevada Swimming Board of Directors

Swimming Background

- Grew up swimming for Swim Club of NorCal and Tiger Aquatics in Stockton

- Swam at Cal State East Bay

- Favorite events: 50 Free, 100 Free, and 100 Fly

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