Building and Enforcing Your Team Culture

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This transcript has been modified from the original podcast for easier reading.


Jonny Gamet: What’s up Bruin Nation! Jonny Gamet and Coach Tony Miller on the What’s Bruin podcast, and we have with us Coach Burton Uwarow of the men’s basketball team joining us. Today we’re going to talk about another topic in our summer series that we’ve been doing.

Coach, I know you came onto the program this last year, but you’re no stranger to the bench in basketball both at the high school level and now at the college level. This is something that I think a lot of coaches talk about, but even before the show you were talking about how some coaches don’t really get the idea of building a team culture or having a culture around your basketball program. You know so many guys see the X’s and O’s of it. And for them it’s all about winning. It’s all about championships and those kinds of things. And they don’t really think about how there are ancillary things that make a program successful on the court and also successful off the court.

So today, Coach Uwarow is going to talk with us about some of the aspects of building the team culture, and Coach Miller’s going chime into it as well. But Coach, maybe just to start off the discussion, we have a lot of coaches who listen to this, student athletes, players, parents. So from your perspective as a coach, what is this idea? What is this culture that we talk about, particularly for basketball?

What is team culture?

Coach Burton Uwarow: Well, before we went on the air, I was telling you about a coach who was getting ready to go into his first year of coaching, and it really just stems from that old quote: “People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.” That’s where your culture really needs to start. And it’s really—I think especially at our level and at the school that we’re at—it’s probably 75 percent of what’s really important more than the 25 percent X’s and O’s. And the teams that you see like the Boston Celtics that overachieve—all of Brad Stevens’s teams have probably overachieved from the time he was at Butler—Quentin Snider’s team this year with the Utah Jazz, one of the reasons why they overachieve is because of the culture that they have. They’re able to do things because they bought into what they’re doing together.

And so that really leads to my definition. Your culture is really your vision for your program. It needs to be a subset like my culture needs to match with what my school is. My culture can’t be something else. It can’t be an island unto itself. So it has to be a vision that they can buy into, where if they’re going to make a choice, it’s the filter through which all their choices should come. So if they’re doing things off the court, in their classroom, at home, away from school, with their girlfriend, anything like that—it is everything that happens on and off the court, and what you allow and what you won’t allow. So I think that’s a really good place to start with the definition of culture. We could spend an hour talking about it, but for the purposes of this program, I think that’s what culture means.

Why is team culture often overlooked?

Coach Tony Miller: Before we get into the practical things you could do to help build the culture, can you maybe talk about why you think culture is often overlooked by coaches? Jonny kind of touched on it in the beginning, but from your perspective why is it often overlooked or maybe why is it not done well, whether that’s on the high school level or on the college level?


Coach Burton Uwarow: I think the reason that it’s overlooked is usually we coach how we were coached. And while culture has been a part of things in the business world for a long time—for the past 30 years it’s been a buzzword in the business world—it has not been a buzzword in the coaching world until probably the last seven or eight years. And I think a lot of coaches just aren’t used to that being a part of of what they need to prepare for.

I think the reason why it’s not done well is because it takes a lot of time, and people are fooled into believing the X’s and O’s are the most important thing of coaching. They see the things that are celebrated on social media or on ESPN, and cultural things are not celebrated near as much as things that you see (highlights, things like that).

But your culture is revealed when problems come. In an organization, if you see the way maybe the Patriots have handled problems over the years, they’ve done some things well; they haven’t done some things well. You see the news that came out yesterday about Colangelo and the 76ers. That reveals a lot of things about the 76ers’ culture. They’ve had problems with tanking for the draft, trying to get draft picks, and stuff like that, and they’ve done things to try to short-change the process. And I think your culture is revealed when you don’t spend a lot of time on it and when it is overlooked.


Coach Tony Miller: I think one of the reasons why culture has been overlooked is because we’ve kind of had an improper view about it. I think you would agree with me that it’s essentially character building. Character building makes up a huge part of building your culture, and there has been for years this idea that sports builds character. It’s almost become kind of a passive thing. So if we make our teams work hard, if we make them get along, then they will learn these things that will help them in their character, that will help them later on. And I found that even with this generation—I don’t know if it really has been different with past generations, but especially this generation—they do not get things passively. They need to be shown very specifically the correlation. This is hard work. This is honesty. This is integrity. And this is what it looks like. I don’t know if you agree with that.


Coach Burton Uwarow: Yeah, that’s a good point. Nothing good ever really happens by accident. It only happens when you plan it out and when you work it, work it, work it.

We were away at the beach. It’s so important for us to talk about us coaches and for us to be on the same page. I don’t know how much time we spent, but I think we spent probably an hour and a half, two hours just talking through every aspect of our program. And really, what it boiled down to is what is the culture of our program going to be? What do we need to do in the off-season to make sure that the program is as good as it can be next year and we have all the plans ready to go? What are some character traits that this group of individuals is going to need that last year’s team didn’t need?


Jonny Gamet: I know I’ve had the experience. So many coaches will sit down in those early days of pre-season, and you go over the three pillars or the five pillars or the fist or whatever analogy the coach wants to use. You have your principles for the year, and I think often times you have coaches who visit that so early on and then never touch it the rest of the year or even in the off season. And that’s almost like a checklist for them, or they can say, “Okay, I’ve done my ‘culture talk.’ Now we can get into the X’s and O’s.”

One of the things you stress is how you can consistently enforce that culture so that a guy who comes in his freshman year—whether high school or college—knows that, by the time it’s his senior year, this is our program. This is what we stand for. Hopefully by the time the guy gets to be a senior or even a sophomore or a junior, he is getting that culture over and over and over again. So how, as a coach, do you reinforce that culture so it’s not just this thing that we do the first session of our year every single year, and then we never touch it again?


Coach Burton Uwarow: We do that a lot of ways. I split the team in half this year between Coach Miller and I—and because of our college schedule I’m not going to say that we were perfect in our execution of it—but we gave the effort (we will continue to improve in that). But we met with each individual player and talked. We were supposed to talk thirty minutes a week, if we were able to meet with them weekly, about things that had nothing to do with basketball. Basketball was not allowed to be brought up during that time.

Really getting to know your players and what motivates them, what scares them, what their hopes and dreams are—all of those things go into building culture. If you’ve already defined what your culture is with your team, then once you’re meeting with them individually again, that’s the filter through which you’re having all of these conversations. You’re relating your conversation with that young man back to that.

We have the Group Me messaging app where we’re constantly sending players podcasts or short video clips or a meme or something that reinforces our culture.

We go through a book every year. I’ve gone through all of of Tony Dungy’s books recently from Leading with the Heart to Uncommon. We went through Four Pillars of a Man’s Heart this year with the team, just talking about how to be the kind of man that we’re supposed to be so that we will be the kind of husband and father that we’re supposed to be.

We go through articles. We have a team notebook, and we go through articles where we’re reinforcing what we’re talking about by handing out a recent article about something that’s happened in the news. Something that they can see where it really happened well and we’re reinforcing that way. Or we see the danger of when it doesn’t happen and what disaster it brought on to somebody. Maybe it was a professional athlete who didn’t have good character. So, those are just a few ways that reinforce what we’re trying to do through our culture.

What are some practical suggestions to build a team culture?

Jonny Gamet: Again we have we have coaches who listen to this, and you just a short time ago were a high school coach. You had to balance a lot. A lot of high school coaches teach four or five different classes, at least. They’re the head basketball coach, the bus driver. Maybe some guys are listening to the podcast now going, “That sounds great. That sounds like a wonderful thing. But there’s no way I could meet with my guys on a weekly basis. There’s no way I could send out articles because I have barely enough time to get through practice every single day, much less all this other stuff.”

So as we move on in the podcast here, what are some practical suggestions that you would give a coach—or maybe an assistant coach who’s looking to get his first head coaching gig, is trying to grow himself as a coach and expand his abilities in that way—what are some practical tips to get started for somebody who maybe hasn’t ever looked at this culture topic seriously?


Coach Burton Uwarow: I think first of all you make time for what’s important to you. For me when I was in high school, I was the principal of a large school. I was also the history department head. I was head of a basketball program that had seven teams. And it was important enough to me. I felt like that’s what God called me to do. And if God calls you to do something, God calls you to do it in an excellent manner. He doesn’t call you to do it in the time that you have left over. I personally believe that if you’re only dealing with it in the time that you have left over, then it would be best if somebody else did that job. I think if you’re going to do something you need to do it well.

That doesn’t necessarily mean X’s and O’s, but I would say you can get up earlier. You can do a lot of stuff in the off-season that prepares you because we do only have x amount of time during the school year. But there’s a lot of stuff that you can do in the summer and over your breaks if it’s what’s really important to you. You can read ahead. You can listen to those podcasts, and you can edit things out so that during the school year you can send things out that you’ve already been preparing for. You don’t have to actually find all of that material during the course of your 16-hour workday or whatever it turns out to be. So that would be my first advice.

One of the books that as a resource has been really helpful to me is Three Dimensional Coaching: The Heart Behind the Jersey. When I talk to the elite campers here, that’s something that a school like Bob Jones can provide that maybe you wouldn’t get at another school, at a state school. They’re not really allowed to, in the way that we do, touch the spiritual side of a human. With a 3-D coach you can touch the brain, you can touch their heart, you could touch the physical aspect of them. That book was very transformational in the formation of my coaching philosophy.

We go through the team captains’ leadership manual with my captains. You have to have your leaders buy in, and your leaders can help build the culture, too. That’s a twelve week program, but again when I was in high school, I got all the captains from all the teams, and we met a six o’clock in the morning for twelve weeks, and we went through that program. We met once a week for twelve weeks, and we went through twelve chapters. And it was transformational to our school’s athletic philosophy. Did I want to get up at five thirty to be there by six? No, I didn’t. But I think part of what a leader does is sacrifice. I didn’t intend to do that, but I think that was a really good thing for those kids to attend that leadership class because it showed them that to be something special you’ve got to do things a little bit different than other people.


Jonny Gamet: We talk about building the culture from a coach’s perspective. But when you go down to it, that next generation (as Tony alluded to just a little bit earlier)—and i feel like it’s going to continue to be this way—really needs that active influence. How do you feel like that second tier of having that team captain or that leader on your team to reinforce that culture, why is that so important, particularly that leadership class or your captain’s last year or whatever it may be? Why is it important to get them to buy into the culture and then to allow them to take it kind of to the next year? Maybe, Tony, you can speak to that a little bit more.


Coach Tony Miller: I think it’s empowering. We had our Bruins basketball show a couple weeks ago, and Dustin Killough was talking. When he was first chosen as a captain, it took him by surprise. Kids like that who may not view themselves as a leader or somebody who has the potential to lead—when you give them that kind of responsibility for their own personal good and long term success, it kind of empowers them and encourages them to lead. Then some really neat things could happen.

I think for a kid like that then, he has the opportunity to lead others. And then they can say, “If Dustin can do that”—he was kind of a mild-mannered guy (off the court)—”then I can, too.”

There’s a quote that goes around in the coaching circles: “A player led team is a whole lot better than a coach led team.” So if you can pass that on, what you’re actually doing is creating more leaders. We talked a lot this year about the next fourteen. As coaches we empower those fourteen and lead those fourteen, and then they go out and make fourteen more, and then those fourteen— your impact now exponentially increases.

Again it’s usually more about the here and the now and the wins and the losses. If you take care of the culture stuff everything else takes care of itself. I don’t think people really believe that. That’s something that you tweet. That’s something they put on a T-shirt or something like that. People are like, “Yeah, okay, that sounds great.” But it really is true. If you value it, then you will put time into it. And if you put time into it, I guarantee in the long run—it may be slower than a gimmick or something that happens on the court—but in the long run your program is going to have lasting success.

I think that what was said was, we value time more than we value anything else nowadays.That is our most valuable asset. But you can find time here and there to send your players a tweet or to send a group message, and to be honest if you asked our players, they probably would say, “I didn’t even know these things were actually happening at this time.” They may look back and say, “We didn’t meet every week for for thirty minutes.” Yeah, but they came over to our house. They got multiple messages from us. They were in group texts. They were in individual texts. They came by our office and talked for fifteen minutes here and there.

Just really value the time and redeemed the time and really look for a time because you are so busy that you’re probably not going to be able to chunk out huge, huge segments of time. But in the long run you reach those three or four. Splitting them up is a great idea if you have the opportunity to give them to an assistant coach or somebody else like that. The impact is going to go much much further than you trying to do it all and getting burned out.


Jonny Gamet: Absolutely. I feel like the more responsibility a high school coach or a college coach takes on, as you said, Coach, the fewer things you could do really, really well because you’re just so bombarded.

So for that high school coach, particularly, or that college coach, other practical suggestions that they could use? We talked about making the time for it. We talked about doing things in the off-season, delegating your responsibilities (maybe you don’t drive the bus; maybe you get a parent or another person with a CDL to drive the bus or something like that).

But what are some other practical suggestions for a coach who maybe has just been about the wins and losses, has been about the X’s and O’s, and really is starting to come back and see now that you can have wins, and you can have consistent championships. But at the end of the day, is that really all that matters? When you guys talk about impacting those fourteen and then those fourteen impacting another fourteen, I guarantee you there’s a coach listening or assistant coach listening who may have thought about that for the first time. “Wow, you’re right. I want this legacy to go on past the last time those guys hang up their shoes. I want them to impact somebody else.” So building on that culture. Other practical suggestions for coaches or maybe a captain?


Coach Tony Miller: Wouldn’t you say where you’re making them think and give responses was probably one of the biggest tools in building culture? Where we all sat in the classroom together and went over something?

The simplest thing is to get a book, some sort of leadership book, and it’s not just, “Here, read the book.” And we come back together and answer some questions together. I felt like when we all sat together in that room looking at each other, and you ask them questions or you had a guy lead the discussion it made them invest something into it.


Coach Burton Uwarow: Yeah, and that takes a little bit off the coach for having to prepare for every type of meeting that you have together. But you don’t learn best by just hearing. You learn best by doing. And I think having the players lead those sessions was really, really uncomfortable for them, but it really grew them.

We went away before the season started to a camp in North Carolina, and that’s something that I’ve tried to do with my teams. You don’t even have to get out of town. You can meet at your school and do that. But if you meet away from everybody before the pressures of the season start, and you really talk about what you want to be about and let them tell you what kind of program they want to have, I think that’s a great way to start that process. If you get buy-in from them with that, then when you ask them to lead a session, they’re going to be that much more invested in leading that session and doing a good job than just checking it off a list or trying to just get through their session so the next guy can have his turn. It’s going to be something that’s more important to them, I think.


Coach Tony Miller: If they never take ownership of it, it doesn’t matter how great your personal culture is. The program’s culture is never going to change, and they’re never going to do that unless they have something vested in it.


Coach Burton Uwarow: I agree.


Jonny Gamet: Good stuff, guys. We got a lot of content here. Got a lot of good stuff.

I want to put this out there as we’ve done the last couple of weeks: If you have further questions or comments, those kinds of things, please feel free to look up our staff directory on our website Coach Uwarow’s information is there. Coach Miller’s information is there, as well. You can follow them on social media as well. They would be more than happy to send resources or to answer some questions for you coaches or others out there that are looking for further clarification on this topic.

That’s going to do it for this week’s episode of the What’s Bruin podcast. Again you can listen to former episodes and other episodes online in a variety of ways. You can look at our website We’re also on Anchor and iTunes. We’d appreciate if you rate and subscribe on iTunes so that helps us in our rankings. But with Coach Tony Miller, I’m Jonny Gamet, and that’s what’s Bruin.


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The BJU Bruins is Bob Jones University’s intercollegiate athletics program.