Behind the Whistle: Culture and Communication


This story initially appeared on Behind the Whistle, the official blog of the IWLCA, and is being republished with permission from the organization. Evan Mager is the head coach of Farleigh Dickinson University.

The two biggest things I have learned over the years in coaching, and even more so when I transitioned to college coaching, is how important culture and communication really are. When I was asked to write a blog entry, I was excited, but also nervous, as I was not sure exactly what to write about. I wanted it to be something different from others’ articles but also have value. My focus in this article is how culture and communication impact a team.

As I was finishing my master’s degree and looking for teaching jobs, I was presented with an opportunity to apply for a girls’ lacrosse coaching job at a local high school. After I submitted the application, I went to a mentor that had women’s lacrosse coaching experience to discuss the opportunity and try to get some advice. The first response I was given was, “I can’t stand men trying to coach women.” I wasn’t really sure how to take that, so I made the decision at the moment to never be “that guy.” 

To me, culture has always been one of, if not, the most important things in sports. I think it’s pretty simple — if you do not have a positive culture within your team, success just isn’t possible. Why would any player want to perform or even want to show up to a place without a positive culture? There wouldn’t be anything to look forward to.

As a 22-year-old fresh out of college, I really didn’t know what impact a team culture could have. I was fully committed to learning women’s lacrosse. I believed and understood that the men’s and women’s games were two different things. So, the mindset of bringing men’s lacrosse to women’s lacrosse really could never even be a thought. I will say that over the years as the game changes, there are definite similarities and techniques that are the same that can be used; but overall, I still think they are two different games, and any male walking into the women’s world with the mindset that you are still playing, or coaching, men’s lacrosse is going to have a hard time.

So back to the culture piece and why I think my thought process was off. I immediately related culture to success or to winning. If you aren’t winning, how can you have this positive culture? The high school I was coaching at was not the most successful team in year one, but we had strong players with a lot of ability. What was great was that the following years the game was growing in the town and the young talent was coming through. All I saw were the possibilities to be successful and to win. In my head, that was the focus which ultimately would create a great culture, right? Not so much.

As a few years went on and the young, talented players now had experience playing at a high level, winning was normal, and it became regular. Everyone was happy — me, the players, the parents. All was good. When you go on a 12-game winning streak as a part of a program that normally didn’t win, who wouldn’t be happy? The moment I realized the culture was off, that my coaching style needed to be refocused and changed, happened to be after a win, and it was brought on by my captains.

We won by a lot. I think at halftime, the score was 12-2 and the final was something like 19-3 or 19-4. After the game, the focus wasn’t on the score and it wasn’t on the success; it was about knowing we were a better team, but there are things that we need to continue to work on and we can get better at going forward. Coaches will say sometimes those games are tougher — tougher to manage to keep it respectable, and tougher to keep players motivated. Honestly, what I have learned now is those games definitely can and should be learning situations, but there is a real opportunity to have fun as well and to also try different things. My captains came up to me as a group after we talked as a team, and in one simple sentence, I felt like my world shattered. They said, “Coach, we are not having fun at all. It’s great we are winning, but we don’t even want to be here.” I honestly just wanted to cry. I didn’t even know how to respond. I had so many thoughts and was so confused to why they were saying things were so bad.

At that moment, I learned a TON. One: my mindset as a coach had to change. Two: the culture of the program had to change. Three: I needed to really listen to my players (the communication part will come later). As important as winning is (probably more so at the college level as your job is also evaluated on the success of the program) in this moment, I realized winning would come from the players’ ability on the field, but if they aren’t enjoying that experience, what is the point? 

I got home that night and my mind just raced. I was trying to think of ways to change their experience immediately without forcing it and without doing things to show I was forcing it. We were about two weeks away from playoffs, so I knew I could do little things for the remainder of the season, but the big change needed to happen in the future and primarily with me. Without going into every detail of what changed that season, we can leave it as we won our school’s first section championship and honestly really enjoyed the rest of that season.

As the summer came and the new year would be starting, I really did everything I could to learn about culture. I learned about players, what drives an athlete, how the culture and experience can be put before anything to make the overall experience something players will not forget. Interestingly enough, every one of those captains at that point all had sisters either on the team or entering the team as freshmen. What better opportunity to change the experience of their siblings? One of the best moments was at the end of that next season when one of the moms of one of those captains, who had a current freshman on the team, came up to me after a game and said, “I do not know what you are doing, or what you have changed, but the conversations after practices and games are completely different with [the freshman] versus [the captain who graduated].” I told her that her daughter (the former captain) changed how I viewed coaching, viewed the game, and what was most important. 

I made sure that we had fun on a regular basis. A common thing I say to players and try and base the culture of my current team on is this: “When we go to the field, we go to work, but we are always going to have fun doing it.” I think it creates an understanding that we have a job to do, we have to play to a certain level, we need to push each other, and we need to compete, but we are going to enjoy every second of doing it. Practices are intense, but also relaxed. We are serious, but also loose. We enjoy being around each other each day and constantly want to push ourselves and teammates to another level, but we always have time to laugh and joke around and just know that being on the field for two hours a day is a place of freedom from stress that comes from everything else in our lives. I tell players all the time how lucky we are, not everyone can say that for a certain period each day you get the opportunity to focus on one thing and one thing only, and during that time, nothing else going on in your life can bother you. You don’t have your phone; you are basically unreachable. How many people in today’s world can say that on a regular basis? 

It’s something I decided to change about my mindset. I think often players and coaches can get content, especially when something is working. Games will be won, and games will be lost, but the experience you have is something that will always stay with you. It’s something every player will always talk about. I always want players to feel they were impacted by me in a positive way; and my hope is that when they leave, I played a small role in the people they become and the success they have in the future. So, I think a big part of what creates a great culture is the relationship between player and coach. Coaches want to coach for the players and players want to play for the coach, with a positive culture everyone wants to work for each other and enjoy the experience at its highest level.

Communication in my mind is the key to everything. I constantly think about if those captains came to me earlier and let me know what they were feeling about the season about what was happening every day, I could have made changes in myself that much sooner. Communication is key to every team. But it needs to be both ways. Coaches need to communicate expectations; players need to communicate what they are feeling. There have been multiple times since starting college coaching as I am building relationships with players that I know the players want to say something but for some reason hold back. I haven’t quite figured out why in all honesty, is it I am still a new coach to them? Is it I am a male and they aren’t sure if they can come and talk to me? I try to approach the situation when I think something is wrong, or something is going on in their heads that they want to express but haven’t figured out why. There have been times players have exploded, and times that players have just started talking about literally everything, but in either situation what I have found is the player feeling that much better because not only did they get out what they were keeping inside, but they learned they had the ability to come and talk to me whenever and about whatever. It helped build our trust and relationship but also gave them a positive mindset which ultimately made their experience better.

I think being a newer college coach, building that relationship with players is so important. I have found that we constantly talk about needing more communication. I do not want players to feel like they can’t come to me. I don’t want to see players explode because of frustration. Coming and talking to a coach about their thoughts should be something that is easy. It will allow for a coach to know what is going on, and it will allow a player to know they are always able to be heard. It all leads back to the experience and being able to play at the highest level while enjoying each day doing it. As their coach, I want them to know I believe in them, and I believe they have the ability to do anything. I have had the experience of coaching boys ice hockey, and now high school and collegiate women’s lacrosse. Women are tougher, it just is what it is, so I think the impact that female athletes can have on the world is an amazing thing. As  male coach, I seem them, I see their ability and I see their strength and I want them to know they have my full support always. But I think one of the hardest things about being a man coaching women is building trust, and communication. I think often players are not necessarily afraid  of talking to me, but more not sure if I will understand if they are having an issue or are not performing or just that maybe it wouldn’t be “normal” to talk to a male coach about. I constantly try and show that there does not need to be a barrier because I am a male. I think it definitely takes time, but I also believe if you asked the players from my first full season in college, they will for the most part say, I was OK with any conversation that happened. I would rather us talk things out and be on the same page on a daily basis because in the end I feel they will feel better. And if they are feeling better, they will perform better, which again goes back to a better experience.

My experiences over the last 10 plus years coaching high school and now collegiate lacrosse have taught me so much. Coaching young women has made me a better dad (one boy/one girl) and a better husband. I want my family involved in my coaching life. I want my daughter to be around the strong women I get to work with everyday so she can see that anything is possible. I think what has allowed me to build relationships with players at every level I have coached, whether it’s a high school team, a college team or a club team is completely based on the communication I build not only between myself and my players, but between the players to each other. The communication builds into the culture that we have every day within our team. Culture is something that is definitely unique, and every team will have their own. The videos we see on Instagram after games of teams singing or dancing or whatever traditions they may have are all built into the cultures of those programs. Being a part of a sport that allows me to be around such strong women, within my own team, and among my colleagues is an amazing experience. I think it honestly has made me a better person because it has opened my eyes to understanding people better. 

Culture and communication have been the key to me developing into a better coach and a better person. I think it has helped build the programs I have been part of and the successes we have had. I know there is always going to be more to learn and more to build on. But I think that if culture and communication stay at the forefront of what we constantly try to build, the experience for the player will always be amazing. At the end of the day, every player should be able to look back at their experience playing this game and be proud of their accomplishments and happy with the environment they were part of.

What I will leave with is that my hope my mentor can see me and honestly say that I am not the version of the male coach they “don’t want to see coaching women.”

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