Note – This is a re-post of a post I did in 2017, with some changes made to update it a bit.

When I hear a coach or a team use the term “family,” I am often swept back in time to the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates and their use of the Sister Sledge song, “We are Family,” as a theme for their championship season. While I am not from Pittsburgh nor a Pirates fan, I remember that team. The music from those years formed the soundtrack to my young life, so the concept of a team being a family brings me back to those days with that song and that team.

When I became a teacher and a coach myself, I saw the merit in trying to establish what would be considered a family type of atmosphere for a team and program.

 However, I came to realize that I was always projecting MY family experience into my image of a family atmosphere for a team. I never really considered that each person on the team is probably doing the same thing, and their family experience may have been drastically different than mine.

The Variety of Family Dynamics

I began to realize that the family dynamic that I had was different than that of everyone else, just like everyone else’s family dynamic was different from each other’s.

Therefore, I started thinking that when we talk about creating a family atmosphere for our teams, different kids are going to have different feelings and reactions and ideas about what that means and looks like.

Then, a term that I heard in my early years of teaching and coaching popped up—Dysfunctional Families.

The more I taught and coached, the more I saw and understood the concept that many families out there are dysfunctional.

I also realized that the concept of the dysfunctional family itself wasn’t a singular concept: there are many different kinds of dysfunctions that can occur within families.

So, while many of us want to create a family environment for our teams, we must make sure that we work to keep that family environment a positive, functional family environment instead of a dysfunctional environment.

However, for this happen, we must define and then work to create the “family” atmosphere we seek.

By simply stating to their teams that “We are a family,” coaches do nothing to actually create the environment they are after. In fact, because every family is different, they may be creating more confusion if that is all they say, for each player will think of something different when it comes to family.

One kid may look forward to the team being a family because she has such a great family environment.

Another kid may be worried or scared because what he deals with at home has nothing positive, supportive, encouraging, or loving about it.

Still others may feel that since their family experience is not a good one, maybe this team can be the family they have always wanted.

Each of these children may approach the family atmosphere of their team from a little different perspective, in a little different way, with a little different goal.

Create a Positive, Supportive Family

So how can coaches be intentional in creating a family environment for their teams?

First, define what you mean by a family. Explain that this team is founded on love. Tell them, “We are going to be a team where we support, encourage, lift up, and help everyone within the team. Just like in a family, we may have our differences. But because we love one another and are counting on one another to help us and support us, we can deal with the differences that we have in a respectful, caring environment.”

Some coaches will read that and think, “There is no way I am going to say that or anything close to that. That is just not me.”

I get that there are some coaches who think like that. It is not necessarily the specific words that I am focused on here as much as the message that those words express.

Great teams love and respect one another, just like great families do. If you can’t express the concept that great families love one another and therefore teams that are going to act like families have to love one another, too, you probably don’t want to create a “family” concept for your team.

In fact, if you can’t get with that concept, you probably need to take a good long look in the mirror and decide if coaching is for you. What I said up above is not all that earth-shattering for coaches to have be their guide in this day and age. It doesn’t mean you have to be overly emotional or soft or touchy-feely to be a coach.

But it does mean that you better be providing a place where your kids feel safe, nurtured, supported, encouraged, and loved, no matter what kind of person you are. If they can’t count on that from you, you need to really think about your choice to be a coach.

Be Intentional . . .

Once you have defined what a family looks like for your team and program, you need to be intentional about communicating what that looks like in your program.

Create Core Covenants (standards & values) for your team based on the concepts you feel most embody the family atmosphere you are talking about. Define your covenants, and then attach specific actions to the covenants, so players understand what the covenants will look like in action.

For instance, if you decide that one of your covenants will be Selflessness, make sure you define what selflessness means in your program and come up with a list of actions that demonstrate what it looks like. These could be things like, “Make the extra pass,” “Help younger players learn the plays,” “Clean the bench and locker room after games/practices,” or “Be a study buddy for players struggling in classes you excel in.” (For more on Core Covenants, check out Bruce Brown’s booklet, “First Steps to Creating a Successful Team.”)

Finally, if you truly are creating a family atmosphere, there will be accountability. Family members must be held accountable for their actions if the family is to be strong.

When a child displays poor behavior, parents will punish the child in some fashion—timeout, loss of a privilege, grounding. This is meant to teach the child that “in this family we behave in certain ways. If you choose not to behave in those ways, there will be consequences for your actions.”

Similarly, coaches must hold team members accountable for any actions that run contrary to the behaviors (covenants) that have been established as appropriate for this team.

Also, just like families have older siblings who parents count on to be the example and sometimes help out with holding younger siblings accountable, teams have captains and other leaders who coaches count on to behave in a similar fashion. Enlist their help to intentionally create a strong, positive, supportive family atmosphere.

. . . or Else

The alternative to being intentional about creating a family environment is to do nothing about it. This will breed dysfunction, whether you call it a family or not.

Too many coaches say they want a strong family or team culture, but then say or do nothing more with the idea. They simply hope that it will happen because of the dynamic of sport and everybody wanting to win contests.

Unfortunately, what will happen is what happens in dysfunctional families.

There will be no discussion on how to get where they want to go, no evaluation of how they are doing in terms of getting there, and no accountability for actions that are detrimental to getting there. This team is left with team members fending for themselves, worried about getting their own needs met, and nobody coming together to solve the problem and move forward in a positive direction.

So, if you are a coach who loves the idea of creating a family atmosphere, consider what exactly you mean by that and how you plan on creating it.

If you are ready to put in the time and effort to building a positive family-like team culture, then go for it. But make sure you realize that, as is the case with families, it takes work. You have to be willing to put in the work to become the family/team you want to become.

Understand, too, that it is a never-ending process. Great teams, just like great families, are always evolving and developing over time.

The best ones evolve and develop because the team/family members actively engage with one another to make it the best experience possible for everyone. If this is what you and your team members are willing to do for your teams, you will all be rewarded greatly for your efforts.

Here’s to building the best team and family possible!