As a high school varsity head football coach, my primary goal is not only to develop talented athletes but also to cultivate a positive and inclusive culture within the program. A positive culture is the cornerstone of any successful team, as it fosters teamwork, discipline, and personal growth. There are essential steps and strategies needed to transform a football team into a thriving program of positivity, respect, and growth.
It’s important to note that developing a positive culture in your football program is an ongoing task. There is never a point where you “arrive” and you can take a break from the process of building that positive culture. Each year players leave and join your football program. This is why football coaches must be persistent in the development of their program and continue to work on fostering and maintaining a culture of positivity and respect.
Here are a few things coaches must consider when tasked with changing the culture of a football program.
Define Your Core Values
The foundation of a positive culture starts with establishing clear and well-defined core values. As a coach, take the time to identify the principles and qualities that you want your team to embody both on and off the field. Common values in successful programs include integrity, hard work, respect, accountability, and teamwork. Communicate these values to your players, coaching staff, and parents consistently, reinforcing their importance at every opportunity.
I had the fortunate opportunity to play football in high school for a head coach who clearly communicated core values that were important to the football program. These core values were Trust, Team & Commitment. These three pillars resonated with me as a high school and collegiate athlete and continue to make an impact on me today. When I was hired as a first year Head Coach in 2022 to take over a program that was at rock bottom, I decided to use the pillars of Trust, Team & Commitment to redefine what was important to the football program. It has served me well so far as I head into my 2nd year as the head coach.
Depending on where you are at in your career and the type of program you are in, you can either define these core values yourself as a coach, or you can include your players in this process to help determine the program’s core values. Either way, this step is extremely important to the beginning of building a positive culture because it helps give your a program an identity and sends a clear message about what the program stands for.
Lead by Example
A coach is not merely an instructor; he or she is a role model for the athletes. Leading by example is crucial in developing a positive culture. Show your dedication, work ethic, and passion for the game. Display respect, humility, and sportsmanship in your interactions with players, officials, and opponents. When athletes witness their coach embodying the values they preach, they are more likely to adopt them as their own.
As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. If you’re only preaching the importance of respect, humility, sportsmanship etc., but your actions don’t resemble that, then players will quickly pick up on the hypocrisy.
Cultivate a Growth Mindset
A growth mindset is the belief that abilities and intelligence can be developed through hard work and dedication. Encourage your players to embrace this mindset, emphasizing the importance of effort and resilience. Praise their progress and hard work rather than solely focusing on results. This approach helps create a positive environment where players feel supported and motivated to improve.
Most importantly, with a growth mindset, players will be motivated to improve even when faced with failure. This is vital to making improvement because failure is inevitable and will happen throughout all seasons of football and life. Handling failure with a growth mind set as a coach and the lessons we teach our players in the moment of failure is extremely important to developing their abilities to persevere and overcome.
Foster Open Communication
Effective communication is the bedrock of any positive culture. Encourage open dialogue between players and coaches, ensuring that athletes feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, concerns, and aspirations. Listen actively, without judgment, and be responsive to their needs. Establishing trust through communication creates a cohesive team that works together towards common goals.
Emphasize Team Unity
A successful football program thrives on the strength of its team unity. Foster an environment where players support and uplift one another, both on and off the field. Team-building activities, such as community service projects, overnight camps, or team dinners, can help forge strong bonds among the players. A united team is more likely to overcome challenges and succeed together.
One of my favorite team building activities that we did this year was splitting the program (JV and Varsity combined) into two teams, Green & Gold (school colors). We then had a designed work out competition between the two teams. There was a spin class portion and a HIIT that followed. We tracked certain aspects of each work out to crown a winner of the Green vs Gold competition. This was a great team building activity because we got to see our players compete in a completely different environment than what they’ve been used to. It also tested a completely different skill set which allowed for different players to step up into leadership roles that normally wouldn’t on the football field.
Recognize Individual Contributions
While team unity is essential, recognizing individual contributions is equally vital. Acknowledge the efforts and achievements of each player, regardless of their role on the team. Celebrate progress, milestones, and personal growth to boost player morale and motivation. When players feel valued and appreciated, they are more likely to invest themselves fully in the program’s success.
Highlighting individual contributions can be done in multiple ways. One way that carries a lot of weight can be embedded in your offseason / summer weightlifting program. Highlighting players PR’s in the weight room and overall weight lifted (custom made shirts for 1,100 pound club, 1,000 pound club, 900 pound club etc) is a great way to recognize individual contributions. This goes along way because the strongest lifters are not always the top performers on the playing field, so again different players have a chance at being recognized for their contributions
Another important part of recognizing individual contributions is understanding that positive contributions don’t have be monumental. Recognizing small victories can be more meaningful and impactful because you’re able to capture more players having a positive influence on the program. These small victories can really help shape the positive culture that you’re trying to build.
Encourage Academic Excellence
As a varsity football coach, supporting academic excellence should be an integral part of your program. Emphasize the importance of education and time management skills, encouraging players to excel in the classroom. By fostering an environment that prioritizes academics, you not only produce well-rounded individuals but also demonstrate your commitment to their overall well-being.
Holding your student-athletes accountable for their academics is extremely important. If you say you’re going to prioritize academics in your football program, then you must put forth effort to support them in their classroom throughout the year, not just during football season. This could be emailing teachers, providing study hall times, regularly meeting with counselors, conducting academic progress reports and so on. Consistent efforts to support players academically will help teach your players to be disciplined and accountable in the classroom. These are characteristic traits that will serve your players on the field and in life when they move on from high school.
Sportsmanship is a crucial aspect of a positive culture. Teach your players to respect their opponents, officials, and the game itself. Encourage them to win with humility and accept defeat with grace. A strong sense of sportsmanship sets a positive example for the community and fosters a culture of fair play and mutual respect.
Poor sportsmanship was one of the biggest hurdles that I had to overcome in my first year as head coach last year. When I first took the job I was informed by members of the football community that there was no sportsmanship at all in the past years. It was common for players to cuss out the opposing players, coaches, and even the refs.
I was shocked when I experienced it for myself in my first year. I was challenged with players conditioned to believing personal fouls for taunting, cussing, fighting etc were seen as “cool”. I met that challenge by disciplining each individual immediately when it happened. Usually it was a prompt substitution during games and the player was sidelined for an extended period of time. Often it led to benching of the next game or completely scrapping them from the game plan. I rewarded more playing time to players who were buying into the behavioral change that was desperately needed.
Players soon realized that I was putting a premium on sportsmanship and their on field behaviors needed to model that. For those that were not willing to change their behaviors, they were not rewarded with playing time, no matter how good they were.
Address Conflicts Promptly and Positively
In any team environment, conflicts and challenges are bound to arise. As a coach, it is your responsibility to address these issues promptly and positively. Mediate conflicts between players with fairness and sensitivity, seeking resolutions that promote growth and understanding. Nip negativity in the bud and encourage players to focus on solutions and personal development.
Addressing conflicts was another great challenge of mine in my first year as head coach. I felt like I was getting whip lashed with bad news on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. What I learned in these moments is that I had to be persistent and consistent when it came to addressing conflict. There were countless times where I didn’t want to have the much needed serious conversations, but I knew it had to be done in order to establish a new standard for the football program.
Develop a Positive Culture to Transform Lives
Transforming a high school varsity football program into a positive culture requires dedication, consistency, and strong leadership. By defining core values, leading by example, fostering open communication, and emphasizing team unity, coaches can create an environment where athletes flourish both as players and individuals. Encouraging academic excellence, instilling sportsmanship, and addressing conflicts with positivity all contribute to a program that nurtures the holistic growth of its players. Building a positive culture is a journey that requires collective effort, but the rewards are immeasurable, resulting in a cohesive team capable of achieving greatness on and off the field.
If you are taking over a football program at rock bottom, understand that developing a positive culture within the football program takes time. So, be patient. Don’t expect change over night. Be consistent and continue to lead by example even on days when you think no one is following. If you continue to dedicate yourself to your relationships in the program, things will start making a turn for the better. I can say from experience that my second year is a complete 180 from my first year. There is still a tremendous amount of growth needed in our program, but I’m starting to see signs of football program built on a strong foundation of trust, team & commitment.