Culture is king when building a successful program

I’ve had some amazing opportunities over the last 10 years, working with some of the best people players and organizations in the world. And as I write this piece, I’m in the midst of a huge transition to Liberty University as the men’s basketball strength and conditioning coach.

As I look back at the last decade training players, coaching basketball and working at Nike World Headquarters, there are several things worthy of sharing.

As I begin my time at Liberty, three words come to mind that I believe define winners: Culture, community and character.

From a performance and training perspective, there are few things more important than preparation. If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you know that I’m not a big fan of the dichotomy of “strength and conditioning” as it seems to portray isolated aspects of improving basketball athleticism. With that being said, I am a firm believer in an integrated training model where all aspects of training work together in an integrated fashion for the betterment of players. In the same spirit, being a winner is not all about victories. Winning games and being a winner is a byproduct of doing things the right way.

As always, I want to keep this as real and practical as possible for your benefit. Most of you know I’ve spent the last seven years at West Linn High School (Oregon), where we’ve been to the state tournament five of the last seven years and won the last three 6A state championships. I say that with all the pride in the world because I’m so proud of all that went into being a part of it, but I also say it with the utmost humility because I know how fortunate we were to have the opportunity to compete at that level.

Anyone who has experienced what it takes to get to the top at any level knows exactly what I’m talking about. No matter how well you prepare, there are always things you have absolutely no control over, and that’s where the characteristics of a winner come into play.

Culture is king

When I look at the definition of culture, I find references to the beliefs, customs and ways of life of a specific group of people. It’s literally a way of thinking, behaving and working.

There’s a reason some players and programs are better than others. They create culture by the way they prepare. Over the last decade, it has been a regular occurrence to show up at a gym and find players — from high school to professionals — working on their craft. Finding ways to improve their bodies, hone their games and gain whatever edge possible.

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki. | Photo: Keith Allison

One of my favorite moments at Nike was watching what happened after a Dallas Mavericks practice. As the Portland Trail Blazers and Mavericks were in the heat of a playoff run, one of the best players in the world was finding ways to get better. After a full practice, who else but Dirk Nowitzki stayed another 90 minutes to put in extra work.

As other players on his team were coming and going, Nowitzki was cultivating his personal culture, letting each of his teammates know that he was the hardest working player in the league, both in actions and words. The attention to detail was incredible.

Can you imagine the confidence that comes from knowing you’ve done everything in your power to prepare for your opportunity? As he was finishing his practice, I asked him about how he’d continue to improve his game.

“I’ve been doing this the last 15 years he said, every single day this is what I do.” The Mavericks ended up winning the NBA championship.

Every player, program or organization that I’ve ever been associated with that I believe to be a winner has built an elite culture through preparation. The better your culture, the deeper your community goes. As people and players in your program begin to adopt your culture, your community begins to fight for what it believes in.

As I think back on my time as a player and in my professional life, I think about the community of people that I became a part of and how special that became. Winners find a way to build community through culture, and the culture you create sets the tone for what you are trying to do.

Although it can be cliché to talk about character, I strongly believe this is what truly separates winners from those who just compete. This is more than an inspirational quote or annotated picture; it’s the heart of every player and program.

Like culture, character must be cultivated every single day. There is no substitute for this. When you put everything you have into being the best you can be and things don’t work out, how will you respond?

Last year, I had the honor of spending a couple of hours with NBA MVP Steph Curry at Shoot 360 in Vancouver, Washington. I can tell you that all the good things you hear about him are true. I was impressed that his shot only deviated less than 1 percent, and he shoots at the master level consistently on the Noah shooting system from the pro 3-point line, but I was more impressed by his character. From the people he surrounds himself with to the way that he interacts with others. As we’ve all watched him develop into one of the best players on the planet, his character has shined brightly and he’s been a huge part of the culture shift in Golden State.

Winners create their own culture, and they do it by infusing their character into their community.