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Building A Value-Driven Culture In College Athletics

9 min read

What are your organization’s “core values”? Here’s a list of common ones adopted by college athletics departments across the country: Excellence, Faith, Integrity, Leadership, Service, Humility, Passion, Innovation, Perseverance, Unity, Servanthood, Responsibility, Thankfulness. It’s a safe bet that your department has at least one, if not several, of these on its own list. Powerful, evocative and succinct phrases that have allowed you to build a successful and admired athletics program. Canons which reflect the true character and makeup of the individuals that make up your organization. Values that you proudly share with the many college athletic departments and universities that have come under fire or ridicule for some major scandal in the last decade.


Wait, what?


That’s right. Every single one of the values listed above – the very same ones you have adopted as your own – were also used by any number of departments that in their pursuit of athletics glory, shamed themselves with some infraction or total disregard for the ideals of amateurism those values were meant to uphold in the first place.


This shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering most organizational values usually aren’t worth the paper they are written on. They are hollow, impotent and sometimes even deceitful manifestations of what we want the rest of the world to believe we stand for. Worse yet, they often undermine our credibility with employees and the university community because before long it usually becomes clear that we have little intention of actually living by any of these “standards”.


None of this means that your department shouldn’t have any values; to the contrary, having a set of standards which clarify your identity and make it clear what types of behavior you expect of your employees is critical for any organization that wants to be successful. Rather, where most leaders fail is coming up with a durable set of values that they can adhere to regardless of the circumstances and choices they are facing. The inherent purpose of a value is to create a set of operational boundaries that focus you on conducting business in a certain way. They constrain your behavior, holding you in check when you become tempted to compromise your ideals in search of shortcuts and workarounds. They aren’t stop signs that you can simply blow by, but rather speed bumps that force you to slow down and consider your behavior in the moment.


Take for instance Fort Wayne men’s basketball coach Jon Coffman, who like many of us believes that the essence of authentic leadership means that you must practice what you preach at-all-times. While it’s certainly an admirable philosophy, it relies heavily on the assumption that the values you are evangelizing are worth living at all. Moreover, many times people within our organizations (particularly young ones like student-athletes) may interpret core values as a set of strict rules that can be bent and subverted. Coffman’s then four-year-old son illustrated this point for his father quite astutely.


As Coffman tells in his own words, “One day during dinner my son refused to eat his green peas. I calmly explained to him that his behavior was unacceptable, and that our family’s rule was going to be that ‘Coffmans try everything.’ Fast forward a few weeks later when we stopped for some frozen yogurt- my son was running around with one of those sampling cups trying to eat every possible flavor in the store. When I told him to stop, he turned to me with this ‘I got you’ look and said, ‘but I thought Coffmans try everything?’”


The cunning response by the young Coffman illustrates an important point – values, standards and principles are worthless without understanding why we have chosen to adopt them in the first place. It also highlights a common mistake that many leaders make – confusing different types of values. Coffman wanted his son to be open minded about new things, he didn’t literally want him to try everything there was to try in that moment. Yet we make the very same mistake within our own organizations and teams, creating lists of values WE WANT our employees to live up to when instead we should start with a list of the values WE ARE already living. Indeed, your organization’s values should fall into three very specific categories; core, aspirational and must-be.


As we’ve already touched upon, core values are ones which are endemic to every single aspect of your organization and its culture. They create an outline to help to “do the right thing” no matter what the circumstances.  They are values which cannot be compromised, and which you have committed to never stray from no matter how painful or restrictive they might be.


On the other hand, aspirational values are those which your organization does not currently embody but would one day like to. If your department has chosen to pivot in its approach to doing business – for instance the execution of a new strategic plan – it will require the formulation of a set of aspirational values that will be developed in conjunction with that new plan. It is important to note that aspirational values do not change core values, they only complement or augment them.


Lastly are minimum values, which define the bare minimum behavioral expectations of your employees or subordinates. These values are shared by most college athletic departments and do little to distinguish one program from another. For instance, when a coach says he only recruits “tough” and “gritty” players, those characteristics are not considered core to his program because pretty much every coach looks for the same qualities in their players. Unless that coach is very specifically targeting players that embody some sort of unique standard of resilience on the field or court, toughness and grit should be classified as minimum values.


Developing your organization’s values – particularly core values – is not something that is done once and then forgotten. Nor should the result of the process be shaped by the response it receives – just because individuals in and around your organization may not agree with your values does not mean their opinion is more important than the authenticity of those values. In fact, if you’re doing things correctly, your values will rub people the wrong way because they are intentionally exclusive and limiting; they specifically lay out only the types of behavior you want within your organization and people of different persuasion need not apply. That is why the formulation of value statements are not intended to build consensus, they are explicitly designed to impose a set of fundamental operating principles on the very broad and diverse group of people.


“Core values should not be used as strict guidelines, but rather an operating framework that individuals within your organization can reference in any circumstance they face,” explains Coffman. “If your employees, players or followers perceive your values to be rules, then they will either find ways to subvert them, or live in fear of breaking them. Your goal should always be to teach the members of your organization how to think for themselves while concurrently having a basis to make the right decision every time,” he elaborates.


Even assuming you’ve formulated the right values, none of it matters unless you properly integrate those values into every single process and task that occurs within your organization. Whether it be the hiring of employees or the recruitment of players, day-to-day management or in-game situations, and even in deciding whether someone should remain a member of your department or team. Members of your organization should not only be constantly reminded of their core values, but those values should always be reflective within the actions that they take (and vice versa).


Keeping in mind that pertinent lesson from his son about the application of values in everyday life, when Coffman became head coach at Fort Wayne he set out to develop his own set of core values that he was certain would hold deep meaning for his players and staff in every situation they encountered. Ultimately, he formulated four core values for his program: Positive Mindset, Mutual Respect, Interdependence, Pride. 


At the beginning of each season Coffman has his returning players present the values through an outline coupled with their own examples of each value in a different life context (social, academic and team).  The team then discusses and adds other examples through a group discussion to apply the values within everyday situations.  This way, it becomes easier for his student-athletes to see how each value is linked to one another in seemingly independent situations.

For instance, if a Mastodon player misses class, Coffman explains to the group that the student-athlete had: 1) failed to take pride for himself and his team when it came to academics; 2) failed to show mutual respect for his professor and his fellow students (e.g. he showed the class that his five minutes are more important than both the professor and his peers’ own time); 3) failed to apply a positive mindset to his commitment towards school; and 4) failed to recognize the consequences of interdependence (e.g. the professor would assume his behavior was reflective of all Mastodon basketball players, and would likely be biased towards future generations.) It’s one thing to scold a player for not showing up for class, it’s another to make them appreciate just how far reaching the effects of their behavior really are.


Yet another example of the weaving of core values into everyday life is Coffman’s insistence that the team take pride in how they operate as a program on a day-to-day basis, and always recognize that their actions shape how the program will be perceived long after they leave Fort Wayne. Coffman recognizes that a set of values are not synonymous with a rigid set of rules; individuals within an organization or team should live out values because they understand and appreciate their role in painting a much larger picture than they may ever be able to perceive themselves.


To this end, when the Mastodon’s visit another team, they are expected to leave the visiting locker room cleaner than it was before their arrival. This reflects on mutual respect, interdependence and pride.  Likewise, Coffman regularly picks up trash each day on his way around campus as he believes that it is vital to operate by the same core values he expects his team to live by. Through setting an example, Coffman helps insure that his players develop a pride for their program, university and their campus. Moreover, by making it clear that it is everyone’s responsibility to care for their campus, Coffman has done away with a culture of expectation and entitlement.


“It’s not easy managing a group of 18-22-year-old student-athletes whose generation speaks an entirely different language than we do. I joke with them that at times it appears as though they value their self-worth based on how many likes or retweets they get on a day-to-day basis,” reveals Coffman. “The challenge becomes getting them to make the right decision for the betterment of the organization in different contexts when their generation’s characteristics promote focusing on oneself. That is why our program’s core values are designed specifically to make them reflect on their actions, and to remind them that they are part of something bigger than themselves and that they should be constantly aware of how their actions affect others. They understand the difference between right and wrong, but sometimes they just need a little help to see the forest for the trees,” he adds.


The truth is that if you’re not willing to take the time to develop values that matter and that you’re willing to live by, then don’t. It’s certainly easier to ask for forgiveness after breaking your values than it is to stay true to them in the first place. But as Coffman and the Fort Wayne Mastodons have proven, developing and implementing an authentic core value system that really matters may be hard work, but if done right can help elevate your organization far above the competition.