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.

New Global Alliance Making Waves In Mental Health

Last month, I was afforded the privilege and honor of being invited into a newly formed Global Mental Health Alliance as an ambassador for changing the stigma around how Mental Health issues are viewed and dealt with in today’s society.

Eric Kussin, the founder of the alliance that exists under the colloquial tag “We’re All A Little Crazy”, launched the initiative after a two year battle with a debilitating mental and physical breakdown. Leveraging his connections in the sporting world after a 15 year career as a Professional sports executive, Eric hustled to gather as many high profile athletes and also leading mental health practitioners to come together as one voice, raising awareness of the prevalence of the myriad of mental health issues that affect all of us in some way.

I was fortunate enough to be connected to Eric through New Zealand rugby legend Sir John Kirwin, who has been an instrumental figure in raising awareness about depression, while creating and supporting suicide prevention programs for many years. Sir John, who suffered with depression himself even during his illustrious career, is also a member of the Alliance, along with several other prominent sporting figures such as NHL legend Theo Fleury, USA Olympic Gold medalists Amanda Beard & Anita Nall, Cycling Olympic Gold medalist Tyler Hamilton, former NBA star John Starks and many more…

Most of these athletes are already outspoken advocates for mental health, and this Alliance allows the platform to make a louder noise, both individually and collectively.

The official launch party for the alliance was in New York where many of the athletes flew in from all over the country to be joined by family, friends and supporters of the cause, resulting in a resounding success. Also revealed was the official alliance logo that features a single hand in a sign language formation meaning “same here”. This has become the mantra for the coalition and a vehicle for people around the world to connect, raise awareness and share in the understanding that every body experiences mental health challenges, no matter how great or small.

I invite you all to show your support by firstly sharing this post, and then to join the alliance by clicking HERE. You can also show Eric some love by following his We Are All A Little Crazy social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram, and even submit your own photos of you and friends making the “same here” hand sign.

It’s about time mental health issues were viewed in a similar way to the common cold or a muscle strain, and I believe Eric Kussin has come up with a winning formula.

Can We Go Deeper When Dealing With Depression In Athletes?

The week following the passing of my friend and former rugby colleague Dan Vickerman was both mournful and reflective. Many articles have come out regarding the implications of suicide and depression among professional athletes, even prompting several fellow rugbymen to step courageously forward and share their own struggles both during and post career. It also pleases me to see a number of high profile individuals come together to spark campaigns of support, encouraging sufferers of mental and emotional anguish to speak up seeking help.

However, I can’t help feeling that many of the points being raised and calls to action in the name of suicide prevention, still fail to address a deeper issue and in my opinion the most important with regards to mental health problems in elite athletes, especially upon retirement.

This is an issue close to my heart, because I am seven years into my retirement after a 12 year professional rugby career. While I am fortunate to say that I have managed to navigate my way around any cause for deep depression, I have certainly stood at the edge of the slippery slope into those depths.

The dark period I refer to occurred shortly after breaking my neck in a professional match in France, from which I was extremely lucky to walk away, but it ended my career and left me with an arduous road to recovery. I was wrought with fear and uncertainty, and immediately felt a loss of identity, causing bouts of depression and anxiety that led to excessive alcohol consumption as a coping mechanism.

I was definitely comforted however, by the fact that I had saved enough money, combined with a career ending insurance policy to not have immediate financial concerns. But it was the lack of identity factor that lingered, and which I believe is a deeper, often neglected layer when considering causes of depression for retired athletes.

Athletes are often warned of the potential hardship associated with retiring from sport. Perhaps they are not as readily and forcefully communicated as they could be, but there is by no means an absence of information. From early in my career, I received plenty of advice from various sources about preparing for life after sport, such as the need to consider having a career back up plan and even some form of financial safety net to endure the inevitable decrease in salary. I felt that Rugby organizations and player unions for the most part were considerate of player welfare in terms of physical care, nutrition education, media training and networking opportunities to cultivate business relationships which could become useful both during and post career. I even recall a member of the police department giving a presentation to the team about legal implications and appropriate action when confronted with compromising situations in public bars. Players also had access to sports psychologists to coach them on how to develop their mental skills in order to optimize performance on the field.

But among all the tools provided to the players to ensure we performed and behaved up to expectations while being clever with our finances, in hindsight there was a glaring omission. There was no form of emotional intelligence or self-awareness education, in a unique environment of extremes that can provide great joy and opportunity, yet can also lead you down a dark alley.

Let me explain further...professional sport can develop an unhealthy relationship with the ego. There are not many professions where tens of thousands of people turn up to watch you “work”, children wait for hours just to get your autograph or shake your hand, and you see your face in the newspaper or on TV on a regular basis. Let’s not forget the free products, VIP access, the recognition from strangers, police escorts to games. etc. etc.

It’s quite easy for players to become attached to exterior sources of validation, and even addicted to the hedonistic perks that come with this newfound status and increased wealth. What’s worse, is they also tend to define themselves by it, even developing a sense of entitlement.

I myself battled with this notion throughout my career, which in some ways was my eventual saving grace. What I mean is that I was never completely comfortable with the ego boosting spoils and often didn’t feel deserving of them. While I enjoyed the challenges of building character, pushing my body to the limits and the intense camaraderie forged with team mates in high pressure situations, I was still searching for my purpose, and never fully understood what it meant to play sport for money. Even now I am still transitioning, or in life coaching jargon, searching for my “why”, and I do believe that my self awareness and curiosity about emotional development has made it easier to detach myself from the professional athlete identity, and I have learned to enjoy the journey of reinventing myself.

For others, this is not necessarily the case, especially for the Dan Vickermans of the world, who played on a much bigger stage than me for a decade, exposing him to even greater highs, which can lead to crippling lows when those highs become a thing of the past.

I want to be clear that I am not suggesting this was an underlying reason for Dan Vickerman’s decision to take his own life. Rather, I am theorizing that this may be the case for many high profile athletes and am merely using Dan’s tragic circumstances to raise awareness of these possibilities.

So yes, there needs to be a more concerted effort in creating a safe environment for those suffering from mental illness to talk about their problems, but I am proposing that there should also be an educational component involving emotional intelligence and mindfulness. Where players are introduced to and encouraged to contemplate topics such as:

- Positive and negative aspects of the ego and self esteem.

- Seeking self worth and validation from within and not exterior influences.

- Considering and possibly re-evaluating ones metrics for success.

- The stigma of what it means to be a man in the intensely aggressive contact sport environment.

- The origins and management of fear based thoughts.

- Humility, gratitude and the art of giving.

In the seven professional organizations for which I played, there was not one which properly assessed or provided extensive coaching in the above subjects. Most coaches were well versed in character building, leadership skills and enhancing team culture, but rarely did they communicate lessons about vulnerability, emotional attachment and self-identity, and neither is it necessarily their job.

Just as our physiotherapists and trainers prescribed "prehabilitation" programs to help us avoid physical injuries, why shouldn't the same be done for the mind?

I believe there are a number of ways organizations can introduce some of the aforementioned topics. For example:

1) Yoga classes – not only is it great for prevention of injury and increased movement potential, but classes which include the spirituality element can start players on a positive path to self awareness, the mind-body connection and the meaning of happiness.

2) Player led discussion groups – one hour per week can be devoted to talking in groups about various topics pertaining to the emotional aspects of being a professional sportsman.

3) Influential Guest Speakers – Several motivational speakers were invited to talk to my various teams throughout my career, but it was almost always in an effort to inspire us to win the big important game that weekend or pull us out of a form slump. Why not have leaders in philosophy and/or mental health address the team?

4) Book or podcast of the week – why not have players taking turns in recommending their favorite audiobook, podcast episode, or even just movie scene which provides insight into mastering our thoughts and emotions (perhaps combine it with point #2). My life turned around when my teammate Xavier Rush recommended I read “The Power Of Now” by Eckhart Tolle and set me on a relentless crusade for self-growth. With regards to regulating our thoughts and emotions surrounding fame, fortune and happiness I also recommend the following, to name just a few:

- The Consolation Of Philosophy by Boethius

- The subtle art of not giving a f#*k

- Tim Ferriss podcast episode 221

5) Meditation – This is becoming increasingly mainstream, with many leaders in business acknowledging regular meditation practice as a key to their success. Professional Rugby can be a highly stressful vocation, therefore calming the mind and achieving clarity should be just as important for athletes as lifting weights, and will also benefit the process of approaching retirement and beyond.

6) Volunteer work – It is wonderful that teams can be seen devoting their time for various charity work within the community, such as visiting the local children’s hospital or attending fundraising events. But I feel it would be even more beneficial for the player’s personal growth if they tried to also give back with total anonymity, rather than under the guise of a celebrity, or just fulfilling an obligation as a contracted player.

By incorporating such practices into the team’s regular playing and training schedule, the issue of mental health management will be seen as more “normal”, and hopefully will result in players being less reluctant to express their own struggles. Furthermore, it will cultivate a more informed, empathetic audience upon receipt of those difficult, vulnerable confessions.

Another huge factor that I haven't addressed and should not be discounted, is the correlation between head injuries and depression. However, I will save that can of worms for another discussion and give it the proper attention it deserves.

The passing of Dan Vickerman has left us all in a state of shock, sadness and in search for answers. We must not let the death of Dan, and the many before him under similar circumstances be in vain. Let us keep discussing, but more importantly implement measures that empower our elite athletes to take control over, and comfortably communicate their thoughts from a stable place, rather than letting it become a desperate plea of hopelessness, or in my young, fallen friend and colleague’s case, irrevocably worse.