The relationship between culture and performance in sport is
a fickle thing.
If a team wins, it is often claimed that a strong culture was
the reason for success. If a team loses, a ''toxic'' culture
was to blame.
In many cases, the culture between losing teams and winning
teams is very similar, and yet we clutch at straws to explain
a failure to win, and focusing on culture seems a valid place
to start clutching.
Recently, the cultures of teams such as the Black Caps,
Warriors and Wellington Phoenix have come under scrutiny.
In some cases, the culture of entire sports can be dissected,
as has been the case recently with cycling and Australian
sport in general.
Imagine if the All Blacks had lost the World Cup final in
2011? Fingers would be pointing at the leadership of the
coaches and captain, and the culture of the team.
Fortunately, that didn't happen.
They won by the slimmest of margins and yet the culture of
the All Blacks is often held up as exemplary while the
culture of the French rugby team was considered less ideal.
Would one try to give the French the win have changed that
cultural perception?Independent business consultants
suggested the culture of the Australian swim team was toxic,
following its poor performance at the London Olympics. Many
of the elements of culture revealed in their report tend to
be associated more with pool-side party antics rather than
excellent pool performance. With pranks, inflated egos, a
lack of unity and unrealistic expectations it was more like a
frat party than an elite sports team.
Personally, it is difficult to think of a bunch of swimmers
as a ''team''. For the most part, aren't they a cluster of
individuals doing their own thing in a pool with very little
in the way of social interaction, communication, or
teamwork?It is no wonder therefore, that the report found
standards, discipline and accountabilities were too loose and
there was very little in the way of damage control when
problems did arise.
The father of organisational culture, Edgar Schein, suggests
there are layers of culture within an organisation -
artefacts, values, norms and assumptions. According to Schein
the essence of culture is its core of basic assumptions that
a given group has invented, discovered or developed in
learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and
It seems the Australian swim team assumed they'd be
successful at the Olympics, and when those assumptions didn't
eventuate, the team struggled to adapt effectively and
internally combusted instead.
Researchers have found that when cultures do not support
adaptation, cultural strength can interfere with performance,
but when culture and the need for adaptation are aligned,
cultural strength boosts performance.
And so, the swim team resisted adapting to their environment
and unexpected outcomes in a positive way and decided to get
drunk, misuse drugs, breach curfews, be deceitful, and bully
as a coping mechanism.
It was also a case of united they stood (especially when they
had a winning reputation in the past) and divided they fell.
Divisions between swimmers based on experience, gender, and
performance became more pronounced.
Could it be suggested that the report may not have discovered
a variation from the norm for the Australian swim team, but a
reflection of what is normal in that environment?
Isn't it normal for most Olympians to go a bit crazy in the
Olympic village? It wasn't so long ago that some of our New
Zealand swimmers were under the spotlight for inappropriate
behaviour. What happens when you get a bunch of relatively
young individuals together, mix in a little water, and add a
couple of inflated egos?In the end, the finger pointed at a
lack of leadership and deviant subcultures to explain poor
performance - a much easier and more palatable solution than
highlighting there might be a problem with Australian
sporting culture in general.
Oh yeah, they've also released a report on that as well.