Updated: Sep 14
I have so many stories about how an organization or team has all the tools in the world to be great but something gets in the way of that prevents that from happening.
The foundational element of success that is grounded at IncubatorU the challenge and ability to TRANSFORM TEAMS.
I love going into a situation and observing the dynamics, people, product, expectations, and frustrations that are in place for any group of people whether it is a category team, business unit or athletic team.
I have transformed many teams with the IncubatorU approach but my favorite one to tell is about a high school team I was asked to lead beginning in 2012.
Central Catholic High School in Portland Oregon is a small Catholic High School that competes in the largest division in Oregon located in South East Portland.. The school is in the city and does not have any on sight stadium, track or field for the teams to practice. The school’s track team had some amazing individual athletes in the past including Olympian Galen Rupp. The men’s distance program excelled at the state and regional level but the co-ed track team was in need of help. The school had pockets of excellence in the athletic department from Football, Basketball, Baseball, and Volleyball. Each of those teams had talent walking the halls but many of them focused on their one or two sports and thought of Track and Field as an elective.
My wife observed a team (coaches and athletes) meltdown at the 2011 district meet that was an embarrassment for the school, athletes, parents, and league. It had hit rock bottom. Coaches were yelling at each other, athletes were in tears, emotions at all levels were running high.
During the Fall of 2011, I was approached by the Athletic Director who asked if I was interested in helping with the track program the following spring. These conversations continued through the fall and into the winter with me politely declining since I was still working at Nike in Product Creation and Sustainability full time.
The requests continued and I did see the issues with the program and politely suggested what changes should happen in order to start getting the team moving toward a functional and higher performing team. While on a flight over to Asia for Nike in January I put together a PowerPoint presentation on how the team should be organized from coaches to training to culture. When I shared with the AD how I would approach changing the program.
Sometimes you just have to take a risk and see where it takes you.
These were the barriers I was facing and following my instincts on how the approach could make positive social change for this group of student-athletes:
Obstacles that needed to be addressed:
A full-time job at Nike-I was not in school with the students every day.
Practice Facility 3 miles from the school in a city park.
120 Student-Athletes needed to be transported by bus daily to practice.
Coaches from the 2011 season were still on staff and not entirely welcoming or helpful.
There was not one female coach on the staff partly because of the toxic culture that had emerged over the years.
Equipment and uniforms were old and in disrepair.
Team Culture and Unity were fractured and nonexistent.
The Central Catholic Team at the beginning of Spring Break at our facility located in a city park.
My suggestions were:
Create a culture of One Team, One Vision-Everybody counts from Varsity through Freshman beginner. We are ONE team.
Elevate the Girls Program-Traditionally the school was a very male-oriented and football-centric culture and the girl's program was an afterthought from coaching staff to the training.
Event-Based Coaching-An athlete is an athlete. A sprinter is a sprinter. A jumper is a jumper. This mind-shift from top to bottom needed to happen. Coaches were assigned by event or discipline, not by athlete’s talent or gender. This enabled the One Team, One Vision to thrive.
Year One- 2012: Storming
Change does not happen overnight but I set the vision and mission from the beginning and took the first year to observe, adjust, process, gain insight and make sure that the focus was on the student-athlete experience and everything around that north star became the foundation of each decision. It is not about the coaches. It is not about the parents. It is not about winning or losing. It is about the experience that the student-athlete can gain from culture and structure created to maximize their individual a collective potential.
I had to create a culture of trust among the student-athletes that they would see the fundamental change in the culture that would encourage them to bring more people out to benefit from this new culture.
Difficult decisions had to be made at times including the removal of a superstar athlete that was using Track and Field as a conditioning class vs a primary in-season sport. I dismissed one athlete from the team when I made it clear on our expectations for workouts and events and even called to check on his attendance while I was at a leather tannery in Thailand on one of my 2 business trips to Asia. He did not hold up to his side of the agreement and therefore was taken off the team. It sent a shockwave through the entire team but I was consistent in my expectations and followed through with my commitment to supporting those that put in the time and effort vs those that are talented and are used to doing things their own way. This did not go over well with some of the older coaches who in year 2 ended up leaving because they did not agree with my approach to supporting everyone on the team. We advanced 6-8 boys to the state meet and not one girl.
Year Two-2013: Forming
In 2012 the basic thing we did to create a unified team was to update our uniforms so that we looked like a team from boys, girls, varsity to freshman. We no longer looked like the Bad News Bears but like a team on a mission.
The biggest change we made was in the coaching staff. I recruited a diverse group of coaches from male, female, black, white, young, old that brought different expertise into the team and they agreed to the vision and mission. We put those coaches into place and removed the coaches that did not like this new culture and then started recruiting athletes from other sports explaining to them the benefits of running faster, jumping higher and throwing further in their primary sport. We started recruiting athletes. We also pointed out that with our One Team One Vision approach that it was truly one of the only Coed sports in High School. We used these values as key marketing pieces that the athletes owned and started to bring their friends in to join the team. We created an open invitation winter conditioning program at the school so that these athletes could work out in the winter together. All of these things built trust, team synergy and commitment even before the season began. We had a record number of athletes qualify for the state meet and a few of them come home with medals
This team started to win events, set records, and big invitationals. The athletes started to see the benefits of this coaching approach and worked respectfully and diligently together.
We advanced 10 boys and 6 girls to the state meet, the biggest contingent in the history of the program.
Year Three-2014: Performing
The foundation and consistency, as well as team leadership and structure, was in place. The diversity of coaches and each of their unique approaches and experience with the sport allowed me to fine-tune everything from the talent, athletes, culture, training, competition and mental approach to train and perform at the peak times. The training throughout the winter went well. We had other athletes join and realized that they loved the culture we had created. We made people feel welcomed and valued for what each individual brought to the team. We recognized they also had a lot going on in their lives academically, socially, and emotionally.
The personal and school records continued to fall, especially on the girl's side of the program. We performed well at big meets in Oregon and California and in the end, the athletes were loving Central Catholic Track and Field and had a level of confidence and belonging that they carried with them to meets.
This was the same team that does not have a school practice facility.
This was the same team that did not have a vision and mission together.
This was the same talent pool that existed for years but the toxic culture minimized engagement and potential.
They have to bus over to practice. The equipment needs to be taken out and put back every day inside of converted shipping containers. There is no protection from the weather Fernhill Park and we competed for track space with walkers, dog enthusiasts and other programs including football and soccer.
The student-athletes trained hard studied hard and were committed to each other as a team.
The athletes continued to break personal and school records throughout the season and advanced 19 athletes to the State Meet including 13 boys and 6 girls.
We brought a record number of athletes to the state meet which added complexity to the logistics of the program from transportation, hotels, food, preparation, warm-ups and long days at the track. The preparation and maturity that this team showed were amazing. Team meals, team meetings, the discipline of being away from home and being ready to perform but to enjoy the experience regardless of the outcome.
We checked the phones at the door during the team dinners so that they would carry on conversations individually and as a team. The team got through the prelims on the first day as expected but also knew what they needed to do in the finals.
During the team meeting the night before the finals we talked about preparation, team, belief in themselves as well as their training. The team meeting ended with me telling them that regardless of how they performed on Saturday that they were loved and respected for what they had already accomplished and that is what was important. Go out. Compete. Have fun. Support each other. That was the simple message.
I knew we had done our job as I was perched on the top of the weights and measures building overlooking the track and I saw 2 of our high jumpers talking to 2 of our 200-meter finalists who had just spoken to our javelin thrower and triple jumper as if they were walking around the practice. They were relaxed. They were having fun. They were supporting each other.
Viewing spot at Historic Hayward Field when I realized we were about to win a State Championship.
That was the moment I knew that we were poised to take the State Championship Title with a couple of races to go. We finished the meet with a victory in the 4x400 relay and won the State Championship Team Title by 1 point.
The lessons learned and embraced by the 3 years of creating a vision, looking for resources and talent within an organization and then providing an environment to thrive and grow, that can be done with any team, organization or company and build momentum from that point forward that can change a culture or approach to anything. IncubatorU has the methodology to apply to help your team transform and get to a championship level.