Creating a Winning — and Caring — Team Culture

March Madness is officially over, but college basketball fans of all ages just enjoyed the most exciting NCAA men’s tournament in years. From the first round to the Final Four, we saw that anything can happen. The tournament is a high pressure time for coaches and players, as talent, competitiveness, and pride go on full display in a battle to be the best of the best. It also shines a spotlight on the best (and worst) in team dynamics and leadership.

This year’s number one seed, University of Virginia, is a team that has been both praised and criticized for the playing style they’ve cultivated. Their slow, defense-focused approach to the game is a hallmark of their coach, Tony Bennett, has earned recognition not only for his success on the court, but also for his values-driven coaching. While his team didn’t end up with the trophy this year, Bennett stands out for his heart-based leadership in an arena where the pressure to perform, even at the expense of integrity, is often high.

From the beginning of his career, Coach Bennett focused on recruiting players that not only had the skills to win, but also had the character to be part of a team that cares about more than just the numbers of the scoreboard. Bennett’s coaching philosophy is built around “five pillars”: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. Many other college coaches have tried to replicate what Bennett has built, with some even incorporating his five pillars into their own coaching vocabulary, many have been unsuccessful. Colleagues who know him, at UVA and beyond, believe Bennett is successful because he truly models the behaviors that he demands of his teammates, leading by example and living out these character traits in all aspects of his life.  

As children, we learn “there’s no ‘I’ in team,” and the best teams are able to develop a true sense of shared purpose and trust in one another. In an interview on the sports website, The Ringer, one of Bennett’s players talked about the deep bonds the team has forged, saying, “When something goes wrong, we fix it together. We lose together, and we win together. That’s just who we are.” This sense of unity has to be cultivated, and leadership plays an important role. This is done through creating a culture of trust, in which all members — players and coaches — are invested growing and improving together and treat one another with respect. Where you often see coaches losing their cool on the sidelines or with players who’ve made a mistake, Bennett is notably calm and collected.

UVA President Teresa Sullivan has said of his coaching style: “He squats down to their level and talks with [the players] — like a teacher. He really coaches. He doesn’t yell. I think that just sets such a great model for what coaching is. Coaching is a form of teaching, and I particularly appreciate that.” This respectful, constructive approach to coaching lays the foundation for a team that is willing to take risks, make mistakes, and grow together.

UVA didn’t end up with the tournament run the players and Coach Bennett hoped for. However, with their strong team culture and passionate leadership, not only will they recover from this disappointment, but they’ll come back next season with new insights into their game and themselves and I have no doubt we’ll continue to see them at the top of the NCAA tourney bracket.