Started From the Bottom Now We're Here Part II

In last week’s newsletter we outlined some of the key factors that contributed to our program’s rise from a one-win season to being ranked #1 in our just our third year at Mount Vernon. You can view Part I HERE.  

Starting over is A LOT of work. Learning a new league, building new relationships, aligning new staff, starting a grassroots program… The to-do list when taking over a new program is endless, and that requires coaches to make difficult choices in the early years about where to invest their time and energy. Not everything can be improved in Year One.

I want to emphasize that talent is important - it’s nearly impossible to win at a high level without it. However, talent alone is rarely enough. Last week we discussed the importance of creating an experience that players want to be part of. I cannot stress this enough. When our players are asked about what’s made the biggest difference in our dramatic turnaround, the same words keep coming up.


  • “I just love playing with my friends.”
  • “It’s the laughs and the memories we make every day.”
  • “More than any other team I’ve ever been on, this one feels like home.”
  • “Looking forward to seeing my teammates every day.”
  • “Everything is just more fun.”


We are committed to building close relationships and “creating something worth missing.”

Where else did we invest our time? I’m glad you asked…

Building Connections - After reading Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code, we committed to creating time for connection to happen. With our players, that meant starting practice everyday with triangles (groups of 3) or partner walks around the gym. Each player rated their day on a scale of 0 (bad) - 10 (great) and explained why they chose that number. Then we gave them a question to discuss. Those questions were sometimes silly, sometimes serious, sometimes relevant, sometimes not. The whole process took about three minutes - and they LOVED it. 

For our coaches we went on a 24-hour retreat before the season started. Some friends had a lake house about an hour away, and we used that as a place to talk shop, play games, cook food, and have a few drinks. The entire staff from the previous regime stayed on, and that provided a perfect opportunity for me to learn more about the program, how things were done in the past, and what changes we would be implementing going forward. Perhaps most importantly, we had time to hang out and get to know each other better. We shared our coaching journeys and talked about our “why.” And yes, we went on partner walks there too.

Consistent Check-Ins - Another important investment we made to build relationships was to have consistent 1-on-1 meetings with players throughout the year. This has taken different forms from year-to-year. We have tentpole meetings at the beginning, middle, and end of each season. These are longer sit-down conversations where we discuss the team, the player’s role, what they do well, what they can improve, etc. We explain to the players (and their parents) that we want to create a system for them to receive feedback, ask questions, share frustrations, and receive encouragement. Lately, I’ve also gotten into the habit of following up with our varsity players after every game. These usually take about 3-5 minutes but it helps me to gauge the story they are telling themselves after the game, and gives me an opportunity to frame their perspective in a positive way. This has been especially important for players who have critical parents at home. 

Captains Council - Another important part of our communication system has been the implementation of a Captains Council. Prior to our arrival, the team captains had no responsibilities other than to attend the pregame meeting with the officials. That seemed like a missed opportunity. We have since met weekly with our captains to talk through the week, identify any issues, and brainstorm solutions to any challenges we may be facing. It also allowed us to mentor our team leaders and help them refine their influence. 

The feedback we received from the team reflects the value of these regular meetings. As one player said in an exit interview last year, “As a team we knew that if there were any issues they would make it to the coaching staff so you guys could address them.” 

There are many ways to organize a Captains Council, and JP does an excellent job detailing his approach in The Culture System. The most important first step is establishing a time to meet consistently with your leaders and allowing them to participate in your decision-making process.

At the end of the day, we can make no greater investment than building relationships with our players, and facilitating ways for them to build relationships with each other. If there is one magic elixir to culture change, this is it.

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson

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