New Zealand rugby team performing the Haka

Cultural leadership in Sports

How to think alike, talk alike, and act alike so members can support and reinforce the best in one another.

The Haka is a type of ancient Māori war dance traditionally used on the battlefield, as well as when groups came together in peace — and it is a manifestation of culture. It is the tradition of the New Zealand National Rugby team the “All-Blacks” and a number of other New Zealand sports teams to perform the Haka before international matches. Although not from New Zealand I do admire how the rich culture of the Māori is a central part of the New Zealand national teams. It symbolizes a fierce display of a tribe’s pride, strength and unity.

Contemporary sport psychology and culture

In contemporary sports it is a common goal for clubs and national teams to strive for a high-performance culture. That is, a culture where the whole performance is greater than the sum of all it’s parts. However, from a sport psychology point of view not much is known about what constitutes such high-performance cultures. This has long been described as a twilight zone in the field. We do know a lot about the individual and how to enhance performance. Likewise, we do know a lot about the team and how to create synergi and cohesion. As the pressure on performance directors and coaches increases, sport psychologists attempt to use a range of approaches to help them create and sustain high-performance.

Knowing what is required of you and managing power flows

Recent findings in sport psychology research suggest that inter-group, intra-group and individual level approaches are qualified to enhance a culture.

At the inter-group level high-performance relies on the successful management of power flows. It is a constant acquisition, negotiation, and configuration of multi-stakeholder perceptions and flux of values, assumptions, and practices of the culture. Maintaining a balance and managing this requires great expertise. Hopefully by doing so, your super-star forward does not go to the media and makes a fool of himself just in order for club legends to turn against him as with Liverpool FC’s Raheem Sterling did during last week.

From our extensive knowledge on group dynamics we can aid the intra-group processes. Team cohesion is a very dynamic construct and varies a lot over time and can be affected by team building. A famous example of a team who utilizes team building is the pro cycling team Tinkoff Saxo. For years they employed former elite soldier B. S. Christiansen who helped them build social cohesion on the team. Most of these team building activities included military exercises and survival trips. These might be fun and challenging, but the relevance to and effect on high-performance in sport is negligible. Real and impactful team building is achieved on the field of play. Through intense problem solving and adversity in the sport. While team-building is an important process in shaping group culture; paradoxically group culture shapes the success of team-building. Hence, team-building seem to work as a function of culture rather than the reverse.

One of the most important aspects of a high-performance cultures is knowing what is required of you. Not only the athletes, but also the coaches and support team must be cognizant of what is required. Role clarity and awareness is crucial for building and maintaining culture. It ensures that everyone is aware of what they are required to do, thus minimizing doubt in the organization and negativity among members. As it is continuously becoming more necessary to employ a multi-faceted and multidisciplinary support team it is also becoming more important that there is role clarity in order to engender group harmony. A famous anecdote from the world of sport psychology practitioners involves a sport psychologist running on to the field to celebrate a win with the athletes before the coach; as the rest of the support staff including doctors, physios and fitness coaches withdrew to the changing rooms.

How to think alike, talk alike, and act alike so you can support and reinforce the best in one another.

A new wave in high-performance culture advocates the utilisation of the coach or performance director as a “cultural leader”. It takes it’s starting point in the personal values and characteristics, which are important in a club. These are engrained in the athlete during daily practice of integrated mental training and form an overarching philosophy. A basic premise in this line of thinking is that the culture in a club or group is developed over time and requires patience in order for common history and stability to develop. The group culture is then learned as problems are solved with regards to the group’s survival under pressure. Group culture then shapes how new members are integrated into the group, as well as how to think alike, talk alike, and act alike so members can support and reinforce the best in one another. A “strong” culture can be presumed to exist because of a long common history and low turnover of members.

This brings me back to the Haka. It is a physical manifestation of the shared history and culture of the “All Blacks” and symbolizes the values deemed important by the Māori. Pride. Strenght. Unity. Their shared history dates back to 1888 and the values that pervades the team to this day leaves the New Zealand All Blacks at the top of the World Rugby Rankings and not dropping lower than second in a decade.

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