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A Master of Culture Building

As you probably know if you’re a football/soccer fan Jesse Marsch was appointed manager of Leeds United this week. He’ll be coming in on the heels of the legendary Marcelo Bielsa. Becoming manager of a club like Leeds is an incredibly high profile appointment for any coach- x100 for an American soccer coach. x1000 for trying to replace Bielsa. 

 I’m a huge admirer of Marsch’s- and for the record a huge admirer of Bielsa’s. Conveniently, a big part of Chapter 5 of Coach’s Guide to Teaching is taken from discussions with Jesse about how he builds culture. For those Leeds and US Soccer supporters who are on tenterhooks, I thought i’d share a few vignettes that reveal a bit about Jesse and what he’s like as a coach:

“When I came to New York,” former New York and now Salzburg Reb Bull FC manager Jesse Marsch told me, “I realized that positive energy was really important to me. The feeling of wanting to work. All of us. Of loving effort. I wanted to be about that every day. It was important to create the environment physically and to embody it. I wanted them to see that I was first there in the morning and left last at night. When people saw me, I was them to see that I loved being there. To have them see me smiling, happy to see them. I wanted them to hear me thank them for the work they do.” I learned this myself when I visited Marsch at the Red Bulls’ training facility in New Jersey. I arrived early one morning with few people around. I poked my head into the first office by the door, expecting to find a reception desk and saw instead…. Marsch himself, smiling, in the midst of greeting a player. He invited me and a colleague in and welcomed us. The energy was palpable and his expression of culture the first thing I experienced because he had planned it that way. He had moved his office to the place where he could shape the culture he wanted. It wasn’t just that his office door was always open it was that it was always busy. People constantly coming and going, Marsch greeting smiling, asking about their families. Players and staff. He knew everyone’s name. Everyone was important.

But he went further. “Ali Curtis was Sporting Director at the time He was big on measurables. When I started putting together a description of how we wanted to play, he kept asking me about KPIS [Key Performance Indicators]. ‘How will we know if we are successful at playing the way we want to play?’ He’d ask me. So I came up with words to describe what I wanted that we would try to measure. I wanted guys to be all in every day. I wanted everyone to empty the tank and leave nothing on the field, so those ideas became part of our terminology: ‘empty the tank.’

You can hear the level of intentionality of the design in Marsch’s story. He reflected deeply on who he wanted the team to be, on the field and off. He planned how his culture would be expressed, thought about how he’d measure it. This is the Yin: Designed Culture. But he wasn’t done.

“I asked the players to define it.  I said, “What does ‘empty the tank’ mean to YOU guys?” They got together and defined it as ‘giving everything you have every day to the group especially when it’s difficult for you.’ And so that’s what we used as our definition. Because it can’t just be about me; it has to be a reflection of everybody involved.” You can hear in this part of the story the Yang starting to emerge. Shared culture. His concept; their definition.

We developed other phrases. Like Roger Banister.” Marsch continued. This was intended to evoke the story of Roger Bannister who set out to break the four-minute mile when people said it could not be broken. “When after years he finally broke it, something like 23 other guys broke it in the next ten years. It tells you that fatigue is mental. Break that barrier! That’s what the word means. I had them read the article and then we talked about it.”  There were more phrases. Dozens of them. They became the language of the team. The expressed its ideals and culture.

“Muhammad Ali was another one,” Marsch said, referring to the phrases they used to mark the touch-points of their evolving culture “In NY they had never won [The MLS cup]. They wanted to be the first to win so badly. It resulted in a lot of fear, actually, at playoff time. They were waiting to fail. That’s where  Muhammad Ali came from. I read this article where he said, “All that talk. I was trying to convince myself that I was a champion, could be a champion, before I actually was a champion.” I told them that story and we used the phrase. We’re going to Muhammad Ali the hell out of this, I told them.” The phrase meant something like walk right up to opportunity bravely and with a bit of swagger; act like you’ve been there.

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“[Culture] cannot merely top down,” Jesse Marsch told me. “If the players hold each other accountable it always has more weight. It’s interesting though, when I got to [Red Bull] Leipzig”—as sort of apprenticeship where he coached in between New York and Salzburg—”my office couldn’t be out front, so I had to adapt. I had to constantly spend my time out walking around.  Now this team [Salzburg], the win all the time “In NY we had to teach them how to win. This team I have to teach how to lose. That it’s normal to lose. Its normal to fail. It’s the only way to get better.” I’m sure there’s a word for that on the wall in Salzburg, though I didn’t ask what it is. The principle at work here is the second one. Same coach; same plan. But different team and so the culture has to evolve.

In discussing Marsch’s efforts to build culture, though, I have not gotten to what may be the most important part yet.  Because the key to culture is building habits. It’s what you do every day, often when you don’t realize you’re doing it, that expresses what you believe. All the talk and the painting of the walls would be meaningless unless Marsch could build habits.

His next step was to think as deeply and intentionally about tactical culture on the field as he had about culture more broadly. Taking Curtis’ idea of KPIs, he made a list of the things that made a player a Red Bulls kind of guy-a fit for the team. He started with the defensive side of the ball. “What we did against the ball was always very important to me,” he recalled so his list included statistics most players would be familiar with–steals and intercepted passes—but also ones Marsch had invented. He again defined new words to describe the details of tactics and culture he wanted on the field, especially when Red Bulls did not have possession: forechecking, hunt the ball, ball thief. Things like that. There was a chart where players got scored individually and in groups. “Attitude points.” The video guy would go back after the game and score all the interceptions  “After game if a player won the overall attitude points, we would have him pick his song for the highlight video and in it we’d show the moments of his attitude points to the whole team.”

But it wasn’t just games.  If you want to build culture on the field the same rules for building culture apply: habits are everything. Referring to the scoring of the hidden aspects of on-field culture, he said, “We did in practice as well. We’d have individuals and teams that would win.” Players hunted the ball when defending in games because they hunted the ball when defending in training. It was their habit. And they hunted the ball in training because Marsch and co built it into the culture. It was everywhere.

Many of Marsch’s measurables were tiny things, by the way. Ball-oriented meant staying compact when pressing and controlling space in front of the ball, fore-checking meant preventing an opponent from turning with the ball and facing forward. Some coaches might call an idea like ‘hustle’ measurable but that would be far too vague for Marsch. Culture was about the tiny details that would make us who we wanted to be, captured in precise vocabulary. Only then could it be turned into habit. “Changes that seem small at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them,” writes James Clear. “In the long run the quality of our lives”—and you might add our sporting endeavors—”depends on the quality of our habits.”

The chart is a funny idea. It seems a bit juvenile as far as management tools for professional athletes go but clinical psychologist Russell Carlson mentions something similar when he gives Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller advice in The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: “Start a sticker chart,” he tells them. “Ten stars and you get a burrito… Stars can be used for anything you want to reinforce. The first rule of child psychology is that it applies throughout all of life. They will scoff at it and three days later be checking out how many stars they have.” I read that passage to Marsch and he laughed. “I used to think ‘Oh they’re professionals,’” he said. “I thought ‘it will be too cheesy.’ But I’m never afraid to try things. So I tried it and it worked. Now when someone has an idea, I think: let’s try it.  If Luis Robles wanted to have Olympics in preseasons, I’d say, “Yeah, let’s try it.’

Again, I am not necessarily arguing for a chart here. The point is the importance of measuring and recognizing what you value so it turns beliefs into habits. “What gets measured gets done,” the management adage goes. The outcome was Marsch’s Red Bulls playing tireless relentless team oriented pressing defense without the ball and doing it joyfully as if they were wired to. It was part of the team’s DNA.  Could you accomplish that via other tools? Of course. If you were a small club with limited resources could you have players observe for and chart their teammates subtle actions during games to call them out? Sure? Could you end practice by calling out one tiny easily overlooked moment that expressed “who we are as a team”? Could you let players? Yes. yes and yes. The point is that public recognition is powerful tool in building shared habits.

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In chapter 4 I discussed the phrase culture of error, which describes a classroom—or a training environment—in which learners willingly expose their mistakes to their teachers and peers. They do this because they believe doing so will help them to learn. When this occurs it is far easier to find and remediate the gap between ‘I taught it’ and ‘they learned it.’ In chapter 6 I’ll tell share some scenes from Iain Munro’s training where he encourages players not to hide behind what they can do well but to push themselves to try—and therefore fail, at first—at what they cannot do. This is critical to their learning. These are examples of a characteristic learning cultures and high-performing cultures often have in common: psychological safety, which is what psychologists refer to as a state where moderate risk-taking is tolerated, people can speak with honesty and candor, and where creativity flourishes. When Jesse Marsch sought to get NY Red Bulls over their fear of failure, he painted the phrase fear to fail = failure on the wall.

He delivered a similar message to his Salzburg team despite their differences. Mistakes should be studied rather than punished.

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“When I first went to Leipzig 7,” Marsch told me, “There were a series of individual rectangular tables where everyone ate. They were all separate. It would always be the African players at one table. The French players a another. The German player at another. Staff over here. The first thing I said was we have to totally change the meal dynamic, so the tables are continuous and there’s no separation. We have to sit together. And then we have to tell them why. I tried to bring subtle pressure to sit down where the next seat was. Not to sit where its safe. And then in time you’d start to see on the road that the guys were mixing more there as well. The routine became that we would change where we sat.”

Jesse Marsch

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