Promoting Positive Gym Culture [ARTICLE]

Promoting Positive Gym Culture

By: Mike Hebert

Originally Published in: Thinking Volleyball

Provided by: Human Kinetics

Many years ago, while sitting on a plane for almost two hours readying for takeoff from Istanbul, Turkey (I had spoken at a volleyball clinic arranged by my friend and former graduate school roommate Umit Kesim), I was becoming fidgety and looking for something to do.

I took out my calculator and started adding up the number of hours I spent annually in the gym as a college coach. This included practices at home and on the road; conditioning; team meetings for scouting and other matters of internal concern; team meals; meetings with auxiliary personnel such as equipment managers, athletic trainers, and facilities coordinators; and the hours spent running camps and clinics.

That number turned out to be close to 1,600 hours per year and 4.5 hours per day, based on a seven-day work week. Considering that I might average around nine hours per day on the job, this meant that I was spending at least 50 percent of my workday in the gym.

I had never thought about it that way. I was spending over half of my professional life in a gym. After letting those numbers sink in, I was left with the uneasy realization that I had never addressed this very important question: If I, along with my staff and players, were going to be sequestered in a gym for half of our volleyball-related lives, shouldn't that environment be structured so that we all felt good about being there?

Knowing that I was facing a minimum of 10 uninterrupted hours of work time, I decided to step back and take a good look at the atmosphere in my gym and determine if there were any changes to be made. I wanted to be sure that I was creating a positive, efficient gym culture

This defining moment for me occurred while high above the Adriatic Sea sometime in the mid-1980s, well before the term gym culture became one of volleyball's buzz phrases. No matter what level of competition a player is considering as a participant in today's volleyball world, he is going to want to know something about the program's gym culture. He is going to want to know about how people behave when they are around each other and about the value system that governs their interactions. Some of what he wants to know is already outlined in other chapters of this book. The program's infrastructure, team goals, and the lesson plan to nurture team trust are all laden with directives intended to shape the athlete in the image of the program's value system or culture.

Think about gym culture as the application of the program's value structure as it applies to activities occurring in the gym. This includes practice, competition, and team meetings. I will attempt to catalogue each item that I used in piecing together the elements of a gym culture that I believed would succeed. I will also let you know which items were significant in their presence and which were not.

Positive and Efficient Gym Culture

Let's take care of one possible misunderstanding right away. For as many of you who will respond favorably to the term "positive" (as in positive gym culture), there are just as many who will respond unfavorably. This latter group can sometimes equate positive with soft or non-demanding. This would be a mistake and would deflect attention from the intended meaning of positive, which I will clarify right now.

It's OK to get mad at your team. It's OK to penalize your players following a poor performance. It's OK to withhold praise when it isn't deserved. My mind races to the often-repeated scene where a coach, whose highly favored team has just defeated an opponent of lesser skill in a sloppy match, and the first thing out of the coach's mouth is, "Nice job. Great win!"

This is not positive coaching! It is deceptive coaching, and it doesn't belong in a gym where positive coaching is the order of the day. Positive coaching is not the absence of intense emotion. It is not the absence of the iron will of the coach. It is not the absence of significant and sometimes dramatic confrontations between player and coach. Positive coaching encourages the coach to tell the truth to players and then teach them how to listen and deal with its consequences. Tim Crothers, in his 2010 book The Man Watching, tells us how Anson Dorrance, coach of the NCAA champion University of North Carolina women's soccer team, described this from the perspective of coaching females:

[We are] fighting against a sociology that discourages most women from being competitive. So much of what girls have been taught growing up is about cooperation and acquiescence. Women have the superior understanding that friendships are more important than winning the game, and there's really nothing in their culture that encourages them to be competitive. Girls who compete are considered bitches. Girls would rather be accepted and liked than be competitive and respected. We want girls in our system to understand that we don't want you to be popular, we want you to be respected. My job is to change their natural course.*


Of course, the coach must be attentive to the emotional and physical welfare of the athlete, but resorting to worn-out, sugar-coated, and ill-deserved phrases like "Good job, Mary" to simply make the athlete feel good does not capture the essence of what I mean when I talk about positive gym culture. For me, a positive gym culture closely resembles the atmosphere I describe in chapter 8 of this book, where mutual trust is the common goal, and the term positive stands for a coach's character and not for a coach's inability to convey the truth.

You will also notice that I used the term efficient when announcing my intention to create a positive and efficient gym culture. I am going to assume that we can all agree that the definition of an efficient gym culture goes something like this: Participants in this culture, functioning under the guidance of competent supervisors and in the best possible manner with the least waste of time, join together to accomplish a specific social task; in this case, conference and national championships.
*Tim Crothers, The Man Watching: A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever (New York: St. Martin's, 2010), 94.

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03 Jan 2018


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