Team Culture Matters – Even When They’re 5

Dr. Jenny Etnier has tips for building positive team culture and group identity with kids of every age

Alex Frost

| 4 min read

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Sometimes, a young soccer team just has it. They click. They gel. They’re having a ball – even when they’re not winning the game.

But 70% of young athletes will quit playing organized sports by age 13, because, put simply, It’s just not fun anymore. Coaches play an integral role in keeping those kids on the field, even in the youngest rec leagues. (And they also have the power to drive them off the field, even when they don’t mean to.)

Dr. Jenny Etnier, professor of kinesiology and sports psychology at UNC Greensboro, has been researching, playing and coaching soccer for decades, as well as training other coaches for the US Soccer Federation. Etnier gives coaches her secret ingredients to building a positive culture on any team, from a child’s very first little league team to their final years as a high school or college athlete.

You’ve gotta go beyond fun

Etnier says children will pick a sport for two main reasons: It’s fun, and it’s enjoyable.

And yes, those are two different things.

“I say enjoyable because that encapsulates ideas that are not just fun,” she explains. “What makes it enjoyable is what they are doing in that practice or competition is valued. They feel they are seen and that their performance and effort and improvement are rewarded by the coach.” 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Kids are always watching. A coach who throws down their hat or clipboard, rants about the other team or the officials, or otherwise disrespects people on either side of the field is setting the wrong precedent. They’re also destroying their own credibility within the team environment.

Young kids, especially, can find this type of behavior distressing, and may not want to come back, even if they can’t vocalize why. Respect, says Etnier, is “such an important overarching construct that will allow kids to have trust in the coach and environment.” 

It’s about relationships. Period.

Sometimes, building a relationship with the athlete is the reward — and a positive word from you when they’ve improved makes all the difference. “Welcome them with a high five or elbow bump and a big smile. Have fun nicknames that are respectful and that maybe capitalize on a player’s strength,” Etnier says. Ask about their holiday, find out about their siblings, interests and pets, she says. By getting to know each individual child, they will feel like a part of the heart of the team. 

Winning isn’t realistic

It’s a cliché because it’s true: Winning isn’t everything. Etnier says winning at all costs is not a realistic construct, and in most cases, isn’t anyone’s first priority.

The parents have signed them up to be good sports, work hard, be good teammates and improve at the sport – and that’s it,” she says. “When people put winning as the top priority they don’t get the other things that matter, [like] working hard.” 

Day-to-day, on the field, building team culture might look a little different depending on who you are and who’s on your team. Is it about starting and ending practice on the dot, to show respect for everyone’s time? Is it about including just-for-fun games that have nothing to do with soccer, to give kids new ways to connect and build relationships?

However you choose to build your team’s culture, keep the focus on your young athletes and you’ll do your part to keep them on the field for seasons to come.

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