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Team Culture, Cohesion & Inclusion

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 11/12/19, 8:30AM CST


Establishing a positive, inclusive culture and a cohesive unit is often job one for any coach, in any sport, at any level. This is particularly true at the youth levels of hockey, where players with a variety of skill sets, backgrounds and personalities come together to form a team.

There are many benefits of a positive culture both on and off the ice. The team and individuals will likely be more successful, create deeper friendships and have more fun. One of the least transparent – but perhaps most significant – results of a positive team culture is the reduction or elimination of bullying, an often misunderstood but extremely serious issue that has plagued hockey programs as it has much of society.

According to Andy Shriver, trainer for Positive Coaching Alliance and a USA Hockey coaching certification instructor, bullying is an ongoing problem that is best addressed before it starts.

“One of the best things about playing hockey is being part of a team and getting bullied absolutely undercuts and reverses that. You go to this activity and now you feel ostracized and excluded, alone and isolated. And that’s the opposite of what’s so great about the sport,” said Shriver, who played college hockey at Gustavus Adolphus. “Often the participants are unclear about where the line is between good-natured teasing and flat-out bullying. The grayer that line is the more likely it is that some bullying will happen, unintentionally or not.”

Identifying the Problem

Bullying can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Shriver says it can begin as seemingly benign as a joke or nickname that becomes a common theme. It’s persistence that makes it so tough for the target.

“(Bullying) can be any negative, mean or demeaning behavior. It doesn’t need to be physical, but it’s usually persistent,” said Shriver. “There’s also a power structure between the person or people doing the bullying and the person being bullied. It could be social status, big kid picking on little kid or just age, picking on the younger player.”

Coaches or authority figures can also unwittingly exacerbate the situation.

“Leaders can make things worse when we don’t have a recourse when bullying exists,” said Shriver. “So if the message given to the target after the fact is, ‘sorry, you’re on your own kid,’ that’s going to make the situation tougher, because now the kid needing help has basically been told by the people in charge that we’re not going to protect you.”

Shriver added: “The worst possible scenario is if the coach is problem. Sometimes coaches use humor to develop relationships and credibility with players. But some things coaches say may hit closer to home for kids than we realize. So, coaches need to be careful, even if it’s good-natured teasing and the locker room gets a laugh out of it. We might think an older player, a big, strong kid, a leading scorer or a captain may be able to take it, but those are dangerous assumptions. Coaches need to be the ones standing up in defense of the target.”

Creating an Anti-Bullying Playbook

Shriver has conducted over 100 professional workshops, coach trainings and player clinics throughout the Midwest on behalf of PCA. He offers advice for coaches, association leaders and parents on the subject of building a cohesive group, both on and off the ice:

  • Set team expectations early – “The key job for leaders happens before the season starts, setting expectations and guidelines for what we expect culture-wise for the entire organization. At PCA, we often come in and help convey that message to coaches, players and parents. Then it’s their job to maintain it. At the first meeting of the year they should share written guidelines – from the nuts and bolts of running a team, to what we expect from the culture – to set the tone. Then, they need to walk the walk during the season.”
  • Develop a positive culture, where everyone is accepted – “If a coach is able to establish a positive, safe, inclusive culture, you’ve gone a long way to eliminate the desire of people within the organization to bully other people. Kids should feel like if one of our teammates is feeling down, it’s tougher for us to accomplish what we want to. It’s the ‘link in the chain’ theory. We should have a whole team full of kids who want to help.”
  • Go beyond a zero-tolerance policy – “Responsible organizations have all outlined zero-tolerance policies in their rules and guidelines. That’s step one. The more advanced and higher functioning organizations have gone the extra mile to create a culture – whether by bringing in an outside guide (such as PCA) or by developing specific anti-bullying efforts. Just mentioning bullying as the 17th item in a team meeting may cover liability, but if we really want to help, we have to dig in and invest the time it takes.”
  • Encourage Upstanders, not Bystanders – “Responding to incidents with consequences is important, but it’s more important to create a situation, before the problem manifests itself, where everyone wants things to be a certain way. So, even if something slightly crosses the line, someone will step up and say, ‘hey, that’s not how we do things around here.’”
  • Reinforce expectations throughout the season – “Make a commitment that if you’ve declared ‘this is our culture and how we do things,’ that you follow through. The first time something comes up, how it’s dealt with will influence the target’s thinking about how it will be dealt with in the future. It will set the tone of the culture. People should believe that when we say something, if expectations aren’t met, we’ll do something about it.”

Ensuring Lasting Change

Having a clearly articulated game plan that encourages ‘upstanders’ and is reinforced over the course of the year should go a long way to reducing incidents of bullying on any team. Shriver also sees an opportunity to create long-term change, both within an organization and with the bullies themselves.

Focusing on a unifying goal can make a big difference.

“Our reason for getting together is to play great hockey, and that’s the easiest place to find common ground,” said Shriver. “Coaches and parents can articulate the benefits that go outside of hockey and will last for years beyond their last game. Maybe we’re not best friends but because we have this common goal, that’s a great starting point for why I care about every kid on the roster. And to be great at hockey, we need everybody feeling good, and then there’s a great chance for it to happen.”

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