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Opinion

Setting the right culture is the key to success in any sporting environment

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Roar Guru
15th January, 2022
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Culture in any workplace is a key to success, or often, the cause of failure.

Creating a positive workplace can bring out the best in everyone, including those with limited capability, and in some cases can take people beyond their own expectations. In contrast, without the right environment, no matter how much talent there is, success rarely follows.

Sport is no different. The teams with the most sustained success are often those who operate in a healthy environment. Leadership is of course the key to this.

The Geelong Cats in 2006 had a season that was full of disappointment, and coach Mark Thompson was nearly sacked. However, a major culture shift post that season set the tone for the Cats to build an environment that sees them still among the top teams year in year out, some 15 years later.

Players started taking responsibility, the right leaders were chosen and an environment where everyone was accountable to high standards built trust at the club.

Thompson, Bryan Cook (CEO), Frank Costa (President) and Tom Harley (captain) set the tone. They have all left but the culture – which brought success – continues.

The Cats appeared in four grand finals from 2007 to 2011, winning three. Since then they have had several top-four finishes and missed finals only once, an amazing achievement in an era of salary caps and drafts.

Richmond Football Club made Peggy O’Neal president in 2013. After three decades of failure and disappointment, O’Neal took her wealth of experience in the corporate world and brought it to Punt Road.

Richmond have gone on to be the modern day powerhouse, three premierships from 2017 to 2020, and more than 100,000 members.

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Shane Edwards and Jack Graham celebrate.

Shane Edwards and Jack Graham (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

It all came from creating a culture that fostered success and refused to accept failure.

In football, the Western Sydney Wanderers had an outstanding culture under Tony Popovic. A proven leader from the Golden Generation, Popovic led the club to three grand finals in their first four seasons, a premiers plate and an Asian Champions League title. The results said it all.

Popovic had outstanding leaders like Shinji Ono, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Mark Bridge, and Michael Beauchamp, who were experienced professionals who set the tone for their teammates to follow.

Popovic also ensured players were empowered to do their roles, while understanding the part they needed to play in a team environment.

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Once Popovic left, the lack of success at the Wanderers has been the source of much frustration for fans of the red and black. With no stable leadership at the coaching or playing level, it has led to individualism with everyone pulling in different directions.

Disrupting a good culture can have disastrous impacts, too. Challenging the way things are done can be healthy, but changing something for no good reason can cause irreparable damage.

Take Brisbane Roar’s A-League Women team for example. They had an excellent culture last season under former coach Jake Goodship.

It was an environment the players loved. The senior players thrived in their leadership roles while younger players flourished. The likes of Jamilla Rankin and Wini Heatley found their feet, learning from the best and lapping up working in a professional environment.

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Everyone worked for each other and was treated with the same level of respect. There was a one-team mentality. The players even socialised with the fans, underlining the tight knit environment they had.

It is easy to sell an environment like that to players and inspire them to bring out their best.

Brisbane came second in 2020-21, losing only one game in the home-and-away season, before bowing out in the semi-finals to eventual champions Melbourne Victory.

Fast forward to this season, Goodship was mysteriously moved on and Garrath McPherson has taken over.

One win in six games and the Roar’s finals hopes are fading fast. While fans can point to the missed chances in front of goal, the reality is Brisbane don’t look the same team.

Changing a positive environment clearly has had an impact. The spirit of Roar teams from the past few seasons isn’t there. Even fans appear disengaged.

The Matildas are another example of this. Alen Stajcic had them sitting at No.4 in the world. Players were made accountable for performance and were held to professional standards.

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When he was sacked in 2019, it led to a downward spiral that Tony Gustavsson is desperately trying to fix.

Assistant coach Tony Gustavsson of the United States

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The Matildas’ problems go well beyond the field and the dressing room. There is a nasty element in women’s football that has had a major impact on culture, which has badly impacted the team and coaching staff. Poor behaviour has been ignored and those striving to fix this have been silenced.

There is clearly a lack of leadership and trust in the national set-up. With 2023 fast approaching, the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.

Sydney FC, in contrast, have an outstanding culture across the club. CEO Danny Townsend has set the standard. He is one of the most engaging CEOs in Australian football.

A person who is always willing to talk to everyone, from corporates to fans, Townsend creates an open environment where every person is treated with respect and given a chance to contribute. To achieve success, every piece in the puzzle needs to fit in. There needs to be alignment from the top to the bottom.

Townsend’s philosophy flows through to the coaching level: Graham Arnold and Steve Corica with the men, and Ante Juric with the women, have followed the club’s values and principles.

On the field Sydney FC have had outstanding leaders like Teresa Polias, Alex Brosque and Alex Wilkinson who have contributed to maintaining that positive culture.

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Between the mens and women’s teams they have made ten grand finals in the last seven seasons, a remarkable achievement.

Culture is something that cannot be underestimated. Setting the right environment and having the right leaders to sustain it, is always the difference between success and failure.

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