Creating A Winning Team Culture Through The Power Of Feedback

One of the most powerful tools for the growth of a person is feedback. Athletes in particular rely on feedback simply to learn and refine a new skill, which may come from many sources, both verbal and non verbal, usually through trial and error. For top level athletes, information provided by feedback is a vital tool existing from a young age, up to the stage of peak performance.

Another important area of an athlete’s development, is growth of character. The higher the level of sport the athlete reaches, the more challenges and pressures they are subjected to, often requiring personality characteristics suitable to not only thrive, but in some cases simply survive such stressful environments.

The character of an athlete, is a crucial ingredient for their success, particularly in team sports. Enhanced emotional intelligence (EQ) is what allows them to be more “coachable”, resilient against factors that threaten optimal performance, and contributes to a healthy team culture by being a better teammate, and inspirational leader. 

A winning culture is built on the collective efforts of individuals striving to fulfill their potential physically, mentally and emotionally, with a consistent adherence or “buy in” to team strategies and values. The key ingredient to ensure that this philosophy is upheld, is the effective delivery and receipt of constructive, or ‘forwarding’ feedback.

During my 12 year professional rugby career, this ideal was often overlooked or taken for granted. The most common form of feedback came from the coaches to the player, and most often it was directed specifically at performance. Even then, some players, particularly rookies, were emotionally ill-equipped to allow certain feedback to land in a way that maximized their learning. A less common scenario, was players offering each other forwarding feedback, especially beyond the senior, more respected members of the team. The inability to provide and receive feedback was detrimental to the cultivation and improvement of a healthy, winning environment, and in some cases, even led to the destruction of it.

For one of the pro rugby teams I played with, there was an agreement established that we would strive for excellence and hold each other accountable by “calling each other out” when we made mistakes or our attitude waned. We did this by creating a trigger or buzz words i.e. “Not Good Enough”, which could be simplified further by the acronym “N.G.E.”! This proved mildly effective, as it resulted in a heightening of individual and collective focus on the task at hand, for example.

However, there were also several negative effects, such as self beat up that caused nervousness and fear of failure in certain individuals, especially the younger, more sensitive players who placed a high value on acceptance from their peers and coaches. Furthermore, it inevitably became a practice exercised only by those who held a senior or authoritative position in the team, like the Captain, thereby diminishing the empowerment of players who didn’t hold those positions.

Later in my career, I played for a team that introduced an end of season feedback review, whereby each player was required to write down and submit to the coaches the strengths and weaknesses of every player on the team. One by one the players would stand in front of the panel of coaches and have their colleagues feedback read out to them, without knowing who had written them, as they were submitted anonymously.

Once again, this proved effective in the way that each player received valuable information about their performance and character, which they may not have otherwise received or even realized was the case.

The downside of this, is that it left the players susceptible to taking things personally, diminishing self esteem, and also wondering why they never received this information in the first place from their peers, therefore questioning the bond of trust and “brotherhood”. It is also important to add that players were not educated on how to receive feedback in a way that does not produce self-beat up, or feelings of resentment and broken trust toward those providing the feedback. 

On reflection, this exercise has me wondering how the practice of giving feedback could be improved for maximum benefit, while also providing valuable tools for the athletes to apply in their lives outside sport, which would inevitably circle back around to enhance their sporting performance, hence value to the their sporting organization.

Firstly, I believe implementing an effective feedback practice starts with providing an introduction to the definition of ego. Understanding the relationship with, and being able to detach from the ego is a good primer for education on how to give, and more importantly receive authentic feedback.

Secondly, it is important to understand that authentic feedback, delivered with the intention of facilitating improvement, comes from a neutral standpoint, and therefore should be received from a neutral standpoint. In other words, if we view feedback as neither positive nor negative, but merely information, it is easier to not take it personally, or allow it to define who we are. This awareness will allow the recipient of feedback to remain open to the information, rather than being closed off or defensive.  To take it a step further, developing a “bring it on” mentality toward feedback, and actually being excited at the prospect of receiving feedback to the point of seeking it, is the most conducive mindset to maximizing growth.

Going Deeper To Build Team Unity

Many elite athletes profess that team bonding and camaraderie is one of the most valued attributes of team sports, and one of the main sources of the withdrawal symptoms experienced upon retirement from sport. In men’s rugby, as mentioned earlier, we often refer to the team dynamic as a “brotherhood”. However, I often question the depth of this brotherhood, the foundation on which it is built, and whether team culture could benefit from camaraderie that is developed through more authentic, deeper connection, and how that would be possible.

Allow me to elaborate. In a men’s rugby team environment, a unique culture is formed as a result of players spending every day together, pushing their bodies to the limit, experiencing high pressure situations together, not to mention the exhilarating highs of victory, and the crushing lows. On closer examination, the main contributing factors to the bond that develops between players are often superficial, and largely ego based. We would bond over the gratifying perks of our achievements and the privileged lifestyle afforded to us. There is a lot of back patting, high fiving and butt tapping. We enjoyed the acceptance and approval from our peers because of the cars we bought, the women we attracted, and the status we achieved. We connected over knowing that not too many people did what we did, or even understood what it took to be in ours shoes.

Connecting to each other on a social level outside the sport tends to be an effective way to build a stronger team unity. The facilitation of families of the players to interact more with each other tends to be more conducive to creating a healthy, happy and often winning culture.

However, the flip side of team building success, is an unhealthy dynamic that results in team culture collapse, due mainly to a lack of trust, respect and even understanding between players and coaching staff. There are often unresolved personality differences, and the fierce competition for places could form separatism in the squad between bench players and the regular starters, fueled by resentment and frustration.. Add to this the fickle nature of professional sports, with the player roster constantly changing thanks to players being cut, drafted, chasing more lucrative contract offers or retiring, making way for new players to come in, quite often the former enemy, unless they are rookies rising through the academy system. Just like any work place, the rugby environment was also susceptible to rumors, shit talking and gossiping.

So how can teams build trust, respect and understanding given the variable nature of the elite level sport environment? I previously touched on connecting on a deeper human level through social interaction and family involvement. Taking a deeper cut into this notion, could be learning and practicing the art of giving and receiving feedback. It will not only elevate individual and team performance, and will develop a deeper bond and trust through being courageously honest with one another. Think about all the times you’ve been told something that you (your ego) didn’t like hearing, but you actually used the information to make a change for the better. Think about your relationship with the person who delivered the feedback, especially if their motivation was to help you. Did it bring you closer together? If not, do you at least respect them for it? Do you now trust what they say?

With my Winning EQ program for athletes, we have an entire module on Giving and Receiving feedback. To provide an insight, here are some steps to delivering,,. effective forwarding feedback.

·     Ask for permission.

By asking if the person is open to receiving your feedback, it shows that your intention is to help and not just dump your opinion on them for your own benefit. This will also allow them to drop their defenses in anticipation of what they are about to hear, especially if they grant you permission.

·     Own the feedback.

It is important to preface the feedback with “I see you as...” or “my experience of you is...” because you are demonstrating that just because you see them or their actions a certain way, doesn’t mean others experience them the same way. My experience of somebody could also be influenced by my own issues, mood, or triggers. Knowing this will allow the recipient to view the feedback objectively, rather than take it personally or make it mean something negative about them as a person.

·     Be courageous.

Humans have a tendency to want to sugar coat important feedback for fear of upsetting others. When we do this, we are now making it about us, because we are protecting our image and our desire to be liked. Take a risk, and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, remembering of course to tell it from your experience, and...

·     Come from love.

Always stay connected to the fact that you are delivering the feedback because you care enough about that person to help them be the best version of themselves. Your feedback is a gift for them. When the recipient truly feels the authenticity of the good intentions behind the feedback, they will be more likely to soak it in and apply it in their life moving forward. This will also develop trust, and strengthen the relationship. In a team sport environment, the result of this are players being more motivated to play for each other, and their coaches.

The beauty of this practice is that it can be universally applied in any work or team environment, and more importantly, to any relationship in every day life. By enhancing a player’s ability to provide authentic, effective feedback, they can communicate more effectively to clean up and enhance the relationships with friends and loved ones, not just colleagues. When we are happy at home, we are happy and more effective at work, and vice versa. When teammates or work colleagues are real with each other, results improve, and so does morale, and this can be facilitated through the art of delivering and receiving forwarding feedback.

By Marc Stcherbina - former Professional rugby player and now Founder Of Winning EQ.

Posted in EQ in Sports.