How to Build Great Team Culture — Reflections from a College Tennis Captain

Alex Yang
9 min readApr 4, 2024

Building great culture doesn’t happen overnight. And whether you’re an athlete or working professional, team culture holds a lot of weight in helping you enjoy the work that you do.

Crappy team culture creates the feeling of dread to show up to practice or work, a lack of connection with those on your team, and it can often lead to talented members leaving the team. But great culture energizes us to bring our best self to the team and to even empower those around us. However, if you’re a leader on a sports team or a professional manager who cares about their team, how do you go about building culture, which can often seem opaque and hard to describe?

In this article, I’ll draw upon my two years of being captain of the NYU tennis team, where I spent dozens of hours working to build culture within our team, taking notes on what worked and what didn’t. A lot of my language and examples about culture will be in a sports context since that’s what I’m most familiar with, but I think it will be clear how these ideas also apply to other organizations and corporations. I’ve found that there are 4 key components to a great team culture.

  1. Members of the team feel cared for as people
  2. A high standard for work ethic and discipline exemplified and communicated by the team leader
  3. The leader empowers others to become leaders in their own way
  4. Shared optimism for what the team can achieve and belief in each other’s potential

1. Members of the team feel cared for as people.

At the center of great culture is an environment where people feel appreciated and cared for not just as players or workers, but as people. No one wants to feel like just another cog in a machine and we all know that we have way more to offer than just our athletic performance or our technical skills on the job. A great culture recognizes this desire to be acknowledged.

There are several different ways to achieve this kind of environment. A big first step is for leaders to help teammates with aspects of their lives outside of their sport or profession. At NYU, student-athletes on the tennis team were very serious about their academics and career aspirations, so we’d make a conscious effort to help out underclassmen with internships, resumes, and networking. I remember in my freshmen year I received so much career help from my upperclassmen leaders and this made me feel so happy to be a part of the team. I felt like my teammates genuinely cared about my success and well being in college, which in turn cemented my commitment to the team and working hard. Their eagerness to help motivated me to extend that same level of support to the new freshmen when I became an upperclassman.

Another simple way to build this aspect of culture is to encourage individuals to always extend a helping hand and lift someone up. As an example, what I noticed in our NYU tennis practices was that because college life was difficult and there was a lot of academic, personal and social stress, people would bring that stress with them to practice. I would see when someone wasn’t themself or appeared to be super negative, and just go up to them and ask if everything was ok. Sometimes that would lead to a longer conversation about something going on in their life and sometimes it didn’t, but more importantly it showed my teammates that I was there for them. My teammates have also done the same for me when I’ve been visibly upset during practice, and I always ended feeling much better and optimistic after talking with them.

As you start to understand your teammates better this simple gesture of kindness goes a long way in creating a strong culture. It tells the team that “although we’re serious about what we do, we care about everyone on the team as a person first and foremost.” This is the kind of environment that people are willing to show up for and work their tail off for, which leads to….

2. A high standard for work ethic and discipline exemplified and communicated by the team leader

It’s clear that hard work is required for a team’s success. But where does a culture of hard work actually come from?

Rarely do you actually find a team where everyone is an absolute workhorse from the very start. People come from all sorts of different backgrounds and when they join the team there are different expectations for what “hard work” looks like.

Without a common definition for “hard work,” it’s up to the team leader to set the bar for what hard work should look like. They should be the hardest working, most disciplined, and always on-time to things. This then establishes the credibility for the leader to begin communicating this high standard for work ethic to the rest of the team.

It’s easy to imagine what happens when a leader without great work ethic starts to preach a high standard. They look like a hypocrite. How can the team take a high standard of work ethic seriously when their leader doesn’t follow that standard?

But if a leader works extremely hard, then they can begin to start communicating those standards to their teammates. Communicating standards doesn’t necessarily mean having constant team meetings to emphasize the importance of working hard. In fact, words communicated outside of the court, field, or conference room often don’t work as well as holding teammates accountable during practice and giving reminders when they’re slacking or not doing the right things.

Many leaders may find it uncomfortable at first to call out their teammates when their effort is poor, but I personally found that if I had done the correct things outlined in Key #1 of great team culture and showed them that I cared about them as person, they would see that I wasn’t trying to personally attack them. Rather, I was coming from a place of trying to help them.

There is however a danger to just the team captain holding others accountable. The leader puts themselves at risk of always looking like the “bad guy” who’s critical of others. That’s why….

3. The leader empowers others to become leaders in their own way

Being a leader on a team does not have to be a solo endeavor. In my first year as captain I really thought that it was. It gave me a feeling of extreme self-importance. However, this prevented me from lifting up my teammates, and encouraging them to be leaders and hold their teammates accountable.

Why does this matter? Isn’t it enough to have just one or a few leaders?

No, in the best team cultures everyone is holding each other accountable and demonstrating leadership qualities. The answer lies in the power of conformity. If I’m the leader of a team and the only person telling my teammates to work hard, a bad teammate might think that “Oh it’s just Alex who has a problem with my work ethic, he’s probably just out to get me.” However, if more people start to call out the bad teammate on their behavior, suddenly the narrative changes to “Oh shit, I must be doing something wrong.” The pressure of norms and wanting to fit in is a psychological power that can get a newcomer to meet team standards or allow a repeated bad teammate to see just how poorly they’re doing.

In my second year as team captain I made a goal to encourage some of the sophomores and juniors on the team to be more vocal and hold their teammates accountable. I told them that if they saw something that was off, to not be afraid to call that person out and encourage them to do better. I told them that I wanted them to be more of a leader on the team. Over time, I wasn’t the only one on the team trying to reinforce the standard of work ethic on the team — there were several voices doing the same thing. Encouraging someone to be a leader can also lend them a great deal of confidence — they can start to see how they play a fundamental role on the team and this can motivate them to work even harder.

Of course, sometimes even when a team works hard together, the results can be discouraging. How does a team with an excellent culture navigate these results? By having a….

4. Shared optimism for what the team can achieve and belief in each other’s potential

In my freshman year at NYU, the narrative around the team was overwhelming negative. Phrases like “we all get worse at tennis here” or “we suck” were thrown around constantly. This kind of talk undermines any sort of motivation on the team and is devastatingly contagious.

Sometimes however it’s difficult to be positive on a team. Losses or failures can sting bad. When we think of dealing with loss or failure it’s common to just think about resilience after the loss. While that’s extremely important, I believe a lot of the groundwork for responding well after a loss starts before any matches begin.

The foundation for responding well after a tough loss is an unwavering belief that the team and its individual players are capable of doing better. But where does that unwavering belief come from? It comes from the leaders on the team being optimistic and communicating to every single person on the team that they believe in them.

As captain I would have 1 on 1 lunch check ins with everyone on the team. A large part of the conversation was to see if I could help them in any way and to also see how life was going outside of tennis (Key #1 of excellent team culture). If the person was also struggling with work ethic or practice, I would be sure to point that out and also get their perspective (Key #2 ). But at the end I would always emphasize that I believed in them and their ability to do better (Key #4). This was very important to me. In an excellent team culture that demands great work ethic and discipline, it’s not easy to reach that bar. But instead of immediately punishing people who don’t meet the bar, leaders in an excellent culture show that they still believe in them and try to figure out a solution.

For example, a leader can call out a player in practice for not being focused but in the same conversation reinforce their belief in them:

Hey I really need you to start showing more intensity on the court, your effort level has been low this entire practice. I know you can do better and I’ve seen you show great energy in practices before so let’s start doing that right now so that we can practice bringing that same energy to matches.”

“You’re a very talented player and you have the tools to be great but your discipline isn’t there yet. You’re showing up late to practices and I need you to start coming early so you can do your full warmup and reduce the chance of you getting injured.

I know on first glance this can look like babying someone and I totally get it. You certainly don’t want to lie just to make your teammates feel good. But what I’ve found is that belief in your teammates isn’t just about making them feel better. If an individual player is struggling with their performance, what they have left to continue working hard is their belief in themselves and their ability to improve. Otherwise people can’t see the point of continuing to work and believe failure is imminent again. However, if an individual feels as though their teammates really believe in them, this can be the catalyst in fueling them to continue working at their game, especially after times that they’ve failed.

There have been many times where I’ve felt as though I couldn’t win and I didn’t have what it took to be a good tennis player. At those points my belief in myself was very low, but I had great teammates who talked to me and helped me to believe in myself again and get right back to the practice court.

If a team can establish this habit of believing in one another, then when failure inevitably arrives at some stage of the team’s journey, the individuals within the team will each have the ability to believe in themselves and continue to practice harder.

Together, these four keys of team culture create an environment where people work hard together and consistently hold each other accountable. People are eager to put in the work because they know that the team believes in their potential and that the team cares about them as a person.

If you’re working to build culture on your sports team, work team, or other organization, let me know if any of this helped you! If you also know of any great examples or stories of excellent team culture, send them my way!

Email: alexyyang15@gmail.com

--

--

Alex Yang

How I Decided Podcast | Articles about Career Choices and Decision Making