Positive Culture and Positive Coaching (part 2/5 Inside the Mental Game of a State Champion)

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Positive Culture and Positive Coaching

As I addressed in Part 1, the 2019 Franklin High School men’s soccer team had tons of talent and depth coming into the season, but you can never really tell how the chemistry is going to be. To fuse the talent with the heart, it takes the right environment, the right balance between structure and freedom, and a place where everyone feels valued.  In other words, it would take having a positive culture.

According to m-w.com, culture can be defined as:
the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization

Build a Positive Culture and Evolve it over time

Culture doesn’t happen overnight. And it never really ends either. It’s always a work in progress.  Finding and shaping shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices is constantly changing and evolving.  I don’t want to give away all of our secrets, of course, but I do want to share some of the general ingredients to creating a winning culture. 

So what made this team’s culture so powerful?  In a word – Positivity.

First of all, Franklin High School is not an athletic powerhouse. The school opened in 1914 and had produced but two state championships in over a century (boys basketball, 1959, and boys cross country 2019). The boys soccer team had only once made it past the first round of the playoffs.  So there was no “championship culture” to speak of. However, the culture had been built slowly by a couple dedicated coaches over the past 12 years or so. 

Enter current head coach, Ty Kovatch, this year’s Oregon Coach of the Year, who joined in 2014. Here is my take on some of the key elements on how he has taken the program to the next level, and has built the culture of a state champion.

A Positive Culture Attracts Positive People

Over his five years, Ty has built a culture that is overwhelmingly positive. It’s a program that people want to be a part of.  When you intentionally set a culture, one of the big benefits is that you attract the right kind of people to the program, people who embody those same attitudes and values. Part of Franklin’s lack of previous success was that good players wouldn’t come out for the team because it wasn’t worth their time. This is definitely not the case anymore.

This is true not only of the players, but of the coaches who have come on board. Each coach has come in because it’s an environment they want to be in. For example, when I joined the staff last year, I wanted to implement my sport psychology knowledge and be not just an assistant coach, but the team’s mental performance coach.  That’s been added to the culture of the program – a strong mental game, with time and focus dedicated to mental training.  But more on this later, in Part 3.

And this year it showed up beyond just the players and coaches.  As I mentioned in Part 1, many friends, acquaintances, and neighbors have commented to me about how fun it was to watch our team play.  That fans came to watch us play (including our semifinal match, which drew over 2500 fans! *see photo below) was a byproduct of our culture.

Culture of Inclusion
One of the attractive qualities of the FHS program is it’s culture of inclusion. There are 4 teams (Varsity, JV, JV2 Grey and JV2 Maroon) – that’s nearly 80 players in the program. There aren’t many schools who have more than 3 teams.  We had just under 100 boys try out each of the last two seasons. Instead of cutting half of them, Ty created another team.

And it’s not just a place to play, it’s a place where you can contribute and find success. On top of the varsity team winning a state title, our other teams had success too: 

  • JV went 11-1-2 and had a stretch of 7 1/2 games without giving up a goal.  
  • The JV2 Grey and JV2 Maroon teams had success as well, often playing and holding their own against more talented opponents.
  • JV2 Grey and JV2 Maroon played a season finale game in the stadium, under the lights, with JV players as referees
  • At times during the season, players were able to move up or down to give more playing time.

A culture of inclusion also includes how to handle conflict, academic, attitude, or behavior issues. When players make mistakes off the field, we do our best to include and not exclude.  We give players second chances but are firm with expectations moving forward. 

Culture of Ownership

Ownership basically means that every player on the roster feels valued and has a role on the team, and that their opinions matter.

All of the coaches are available to the players for questions and for feedback. Many players end up taking advantage of this throughout the year. We don’t always use the player’s ideas, but they always feel listened to. And that is extremely important for effort and buy-in of what we are trying to do. One example of player feedback that was implemented this season was that they didn’t like the pre-practice warm up. After a discussion between the team captains and the coach, the players took over the warm up. Giving players ownership makes the whole experience more intrisincly motivating.

Giving players ownership helps the balance between freedom and structure.   Soccer is a game of solutions: Too much structure, and players won’t be able to come up with their own solutions. Too much freedom, and they won’t play together as a team. Teams whose culture is too structured, more of a dictatorship, aren’t typically as adept at solving problems when the pressure is on. This team was very easy to motivate game in and game out, because they mostly did it on their own.

Ty makes sure that every guy on the roster feels like he has a role in the team, and like they always have opportunities to prove themselves. And they delivered! Over the course of the year, 25 players got playing time on the varsity level. 15 players scored at least one goal. 13 players notched at least one assist. Here are some of the big moments in the playoffs:

  • Game winner in overtime of the second round came from a player playing out of position
  • Won the quarterfinal without our two leading scorers (injury) and our leading assist man (red card in previous game). Non-starters provide both the goal and assist in the game’s only goal.
  • 3 JV players saw action in the quarterfinal
  • Backup goalkeeper scores game winner in overtime of the semi final
  • State Championship opening goal came from a player who hadn’t scored all season
  • State Championship game winner with 6:42 left in the game, the assist and the goal came from players who didn’t start most of the season. 

The best part?  No one cared who got the glory, because they all had ownership in how they played, in the outcome of the games.

Franklin players celebrate the game winning goal in the 2019 OSAA 6A Championship game.
Photos by Leon Neuschwander, for The Oregonian/OregonLive

Positive Coaching

This one seems obvious. Ty is a positive guy. He’s a high energy guy. And the boys feed off of his energy. And so do the coaches. We strive to be encouraging and enthusiastic in our communication. I can count on one hand the number of times that the players were punished by extra fitness, which is extremely rare in my experience with soccer. But I want to make it clear that positive coaching is not just “rah-rah,” “you-can-do-it!” positivity. That’s only a small part of it.

Positive coaching is more about setting expectations, having clear goals to work toward, and problems to solve. It’s about a culture that brings people together. It’s about not only creating, but living the positive culture you are trying to set.

Positive coaching is about using all the tools available for players to succeed. For Franklin, we give all our players access to video of our games through Hudl so they can study film.  We do mental training all season. We put them in uncomfortable situations in practice to prepare them for uncomfortable situations in games. One example is the 6:15am Saturday practice. Which seems negative. They all hate it. But, they hate it together. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s uncomfortable together. And bringing a team together? That’s positive coaching.

A side note on Positive Coaching: In this day and age, negative coaching and negative cultures still exist. I really don’t get it. There are amazing organizations out there from AMPlify Sport Psychology and other mental performance coaches, there’s Positive Coaching Alliance, and Changing the Game Project, and Proactive Coaching. All of them teach how to build a positive culture that athletes are strongly motivated to be a part of. They teach not only why positive coaching is important, but give the tools to do it. But so many coaches still use the shortcuts of yelling at players, being demanding and negative, blaming referees and everyone else for their failures.  

One of the things I am most proud of is not that we won a State Championship, but it’s that we won it the right way. That’s positive coaching. And. It. Works!  I don’t know why more coaches don’t do it. Not only is it effective, but it’s FUN!

So that’s the culture that has been built at Franklin. It’s not all of it, but it’s the basics, and all you really need to know. The rest is up to the coach or the leader to determine what’s right for their program.

What’s Next?

On a final note, I’ll go ahead and say it: we have most of the pieces back for another year. Returning will the Oregon Coach of the Year, the Oregon Player of the Year, 2 All State players, 3 All PIL players, and tons of experience. This will be the first time playing a season as defending champions, and the expectations are sure to be sky high. It will be the first time that every opponent we play will be excited to play us.

So our culture from last year will need to be updated to match. We can’t just sit back and say “we’re good, let’s just do what we did last year.” I am looking forward to the challenge of growing and evolving our positive culture.

In Part 3 of the series, I will go more into the sport psychology of our team.

More to explorer

BOOK REVIEW The National Team

A great primer for the 2019 Women’s World Cup! The 1999 USA women’s soccer team did what no one would have thought