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Some Reflections On Team Culture, Authenticity, & Success

Updated: May 10, 2022

Written By: Gregg Parini

We've heard it before. Culture trumps strategy nearly every time. But is it true? Does team culture matter? Does team ethos count? Culture, it seems, is the glue that keeps teams together. Just as “dark matter” is believed to be the invisible stuff that hold galaxies together, team culture includes the educational philosophies, the training principles and, more practically, the behavioral expectations of everyone (i.e., coaches, athletes, and parents) involved in our program. It’s most definitely difficult to measure but it’s most definitely felt and observed. More than simply a background, culture is the living/breathing soul of our team … and my experience has shown me it’s the single most important factor in determining the success or failure of organizations, programs, teams, and individuals.

A great training plan means nothing in a vacuum. And a great strategy gets no traction in isolation. It doesn’t matter how good a practice you write if your athletes aren’t receptive to it or aren’t on the same page. As a young coach, I spent far too much time trying to write the perfect workout – too often at the expense of developing a receptive and productive team culture … too often at the expense of developing strong and authentic relationships with my athletes … too often at the expense of creating the right team environment which would make our workouts more effective. I made the assumption all my athletes were as competitive as I – that they understood and shared my goals, my philosophy, and my methods. I couldn’t have been more wrong. That lack of understanding most certainly delayed our program’s development into a more elite one … and, more certainly, delayed my development into a more effective coach.

Ultimately, team culture drives our performance. Good or bad, it’s how we get things done. In other words, culture precedes the X's and O's of training and preparation. Years ago, I gave up the expectation that I’d write the perfect workout every day. First, it was an unrealistic expectation and an impossible goal. Second, it wasn’t a particularly good use of my time when balanced against the other needs of the program (and my family). And third, the power of making my workouts more effective centered on my team and I agreeing to intentionally share a similar path and approach.

Experience has shown me that a great team and culture will make a mediocre practice good and a good practice great. Conversely, a mediocre team and culture will find a way to make a great practice good and a good practice nearly worthless. When you invest in building a quality team culture, the X's and O's will take care of themselves. It only makes sense coaches invest their time and energy into developing a team culture that maximizes the positive impact of their training and competitive plans.

We all want to bring out the best in our athletes. We all want them to have unprecedented success in the pool and to grow into their full potential out of it. For me the key step comes when our coaches and athletes are committed to developing authentic relationships through intentional commitment to and behavior centered on honesty, integrity, self-discipline, humility, loyalty, trust, resilience, and compassionate.

People first. Relationships first.

So what is “authenticity?” For most, it’s about presence. It’s about living in the moment with conviction and confidence and staying true to oneself. The dictionaries agree – at least in principle. Defining what it means to be authentic, they write … “not false or copied; genuine; real … representing one’s true nature or beliefs; true to oneself or to the person identified.” This means we identify and desire to develop a workplace … a team culture … that is consistent with our core beliefs and behaviors.

On this path, we find that we don’t have time for those who don’t deal in the truth. We don’t have time for phoniness. We don’t have time for those who say one thing and do another.

Every athlete you’re working with has a unique background to the sport. Understanding these backgrounds allows us to have a more authentic and productive relationship with each of them. What's their history with sports? How athletic are they? What's their history with authority figures? What kind of support do they have at home? What's their experience with success and failure? Be sure your daily expectations are in line with your standards and the developmental maturity and personal history of your athlete.

So, what are the key steps in developing authentic relationships with your athletes? Developing trust and an authentic relationship with our athletes begins with having an authentic relationship with ourselves. Knowing ourselves. Knowing our goals. Knowing our strengths. Acknowledging and working on our weaknesses. Having enough humility to look at ourselves honestly and generously. Until we get real with ourselves, it’s going to be very hard to be real with others – including our athletes.

So here are some key steps in developing an authentic relationship with your athletes.

• Say what you mean and mean what you say.

• Keep your promises and commitments.

• Model and live into the standards you have set for your athletes.

• Avoid double standards for yourself and for your athletes.

• Be vulnerable with your athletes -- but gradually.

• Remember, this is not a peer relationship. You are an adult. Your athlete is a minor.

• Always show respect for your athletes - especially in public.

• Give your athlete the benefit of the doubt.

• Collaborate with your athletes and take risks together.

• Be willing to give as well as receive.

• Admit fault and apologize when required.

• Step into your athlete’s world. Understand his/her history and background.

• When in doubt, err on the side of compassion.

I think any coach willing to enter into this kind of relationship with his/her athletes will quickly develop a team culture built on mutual respect and trust.Who doesn’t love a good story? I certainly do. While not a particularly big fan of either school, last weekend I found myself watching a particularly competitive and entertaining football game between Indiana and Wisconsin. IU won the game 14-6. While I’m sure there are a number of things that contributed to the win, the post-game interview with Indiana Head Coach Tom Allen is something that really stuck with me. We should all be so well-loved and affirmed by our team …

Relationships are the conduit through which our training and preparation moves. And the quality of those relationships determines the level of success we can achieve. An authentic relationship is built on TRUST. All of us want to work with athletes who are fully invested in the process, in the team, and in the sport. Can you imagine investing your entire self into a relationship you did not fully trust? Build a trustworthy team culture and you will have truly invested athletes. Develop a relationship built on mutual respect and trust with your athletes and you have taken a significant step in securing the success of your team.

Denison University and the men’s and women’s swimming & diving program has become synonymous with success. Since 1987 the driving force behind Denison swimming & diving has been Gregg Parini.Over the past 33 seasons, Parini has built one of the most successful programs in the history of Division III athletics, highlighted by six NCAA Division III national championships, 16 national runner-up finishes and a streak of 64 consecutive top-10 national finishes across both genders. As new personal bests are set, records are broken, and new banners are raised to the rafters of the Trumbull Aquatics Center, there has been one constant, Sempre Avanti. Translated from the Italian phrase meaning “Always Forward,” the motto has provided the foundation for personal growth and competitive drive that has become Big Red Swimming & Diving’s calling card. Parini began his coaching career in 1984 as a volunteer assistant women's coach at Michigan State University where he earned his master’s in counseling psychology. Since then he has held coaching positions for the Upper Arlington Swim Club, Mount Union, and East Lansing High School. He was also the National Coaching Advisor for the Isle of Mauritius. He is a 1982 graduate of Kenyon College where he was a member of Jim Steen’s first national championship team in 1979. A tri-captain for the 1981-82 season, he led the team to its third NCAA crown in as many years. Parini was an 18-time All-American, a seven-time Division III National Champion, and left Kenyon with five national records. He was voted the team’s most valuable swimmer in 1981 and Senior Athlete of the Year in 1982 by the Kenyon athletic department. In May of 2002, he was inducted into Kenyon College’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Seven of Parini’s swimmers have gone on to compete at the US Olympic Trials in 14 events. In 2004, Darius Grigaliunas qualified for the Olympics in Athens, Greece as a member of the Lithuanian national team. In addition to his coaching efforts, Parini has also made an impact in the community of Granville. He is a volunteer youth baseball and hockey coach for both the Granville Recreation Commission and the Newark Ice Hockey Association. He also volunteers with the Market Street Pantry and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Parini is currently a member of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America, the American Swimming Coaches Association, United States Swimming and the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association. He resides in Granville with his wife, Alice, and is the father of six sons; Joseph, Solomon, Gabe, Andrew, Ted, and Simon. Coach Parini in the classroom Parini currently holds the rank of Professor in the Department of Health, Exercise and Sport Studies where he teaches classes in exercise physiology. Parini served as the chair of the major from 2008-10. In 2007, he was awarded the Charles A. Brickman Teaching Excellence Award which is given annually to one Denison faculty member who has demonstrated a vibrant interest in the learning process, as well as an understanding of teaching as a continuously evolving art form. Parini was described by his colleagues as someone who embraces the teaching and mentoring of students, not just as a profession, but as a calling. In May of 2011, he the recipient of the National Collegiate and Scholastic Trophy, which is the highest award given by the Collegiate Swimming Coaches Association of America. Parini has represented the athletics department on the Board of Trustees recruiting panel and he has been a faculty representative on Denison’s Judicial Board. In 1999 he was a facilitator in the college’s SWOT analysis Think Tank. He is also a regular keynote speaker at coaching conventions across the United States. Women’s Swimming under Coach Parini In 2001, Denison women’s swimming captured the college’s first-ever NCAA Division III national championship in Buffalo, N.Y, unseating the defending champion by 16 points. The individuals and accomplishments that led up to the program’s first national title started upon Parini’s appointment as head coach in 1987 and have continued to mature to the present date. The numbers surrounding Denison women’s swimming & diving are astounding: 12 consecutive top-four team finishes at nationals (dating back to 2008); 28 individual event national champions; 22 relay national titles; One national swimmer of the year and one national diver of the year; 10 conference championships. Parini has been named the Division III Women’s Swimming Coach of the Year four times (1990, 1996, 1998, and 2001). He is also a nine-time North Coast Athletic Conference Women’s Coach of the Year. Fifteen Denison women’s swimmers have received Postgraduate Scholarships from the NCAA. In 2005, three-time national champion, Jill Boo, was a finalist for NCAA Woman of the Year. Three student-athletes, Kristen Goldthorpe (1997), Kristen Hohl (2009), and KT Kustritz (2020) were named Academic All-American’s of the Year by the College Sports Information Directors of America. Six women’s swimmers have gone on to receive Denison’s most prestigious award upon graduation, the President’s Medal, and 18 of Parini’s former female student-athletes have been inducted into Denison’s Varsity D Association Hall of Fame. The women’s swimming & diving team is consistently recognized by the College Swimming Coaches Association of America for its prowess in the classroom. Parini’s squads have received the CSCAA’s Scholar All-America team award every semester since his arrival in 1987. Men’s Swimming under Coach Parini In 2019, Denison men’s swimming & diving won its fifth NCAA Division III national championship since 2011 and they did it in emphatic fashion, winning the title by 115 points over the second-place finisher. From 1988 through 2010, Denison’s men had logged 20 top-5 national team finishes but the breakthrough occurred in 2011 when the Big Red shocked the swimming & diving world by snapping Kenyon College’s 31-year streak of national championships, a streak that Parini helped start as a collegiate swimmer in 1979. Denison ended the streak by rallying from 36 points down on the final day to win by one point, marking the closest finish in the history of NCAA swimming, at any level. Academic success and remarkable achievements in the pool has been a constant throughout Parini’s tenure. He has been named the Division III Men’s Swimming Coach of the Year six times (1994, 1996, 2006, 2011, 2012, and 2016) and has been voted NCAC Coach of the Year, 10-times. Aaron Cole was named National Swimmer of the Year in 1999 and 2000 and Jack Lindell was voted the nation’s top swimmer in 2016. Since 1996, 12 male swimmers have gone on to win 35 individual event national championships and 16 relay national titles. Currently, the Denison men are riding a 14-year streak of top-3 team finishes at nationals. At the conference level, Denison has won 12 NCAC Championships and enjoyed a streak of 11 consecutive NCAC titles from 2009-2019.10 men have been awarded NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships under Parini and 19 have been named to the CoSIDA Academic All-America team. Denison’s Varsity D Association has inducted nine of his former male swimmers into its Hall of Fame through 2018. Parini’s men’s teams have received the CSCAA’s Scholar All-America team award in 31 of the last 32 years.

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