One of my most frequently asked questions is how to organize “what to teach a team” and “when” in order to find the most successful season. As I have transformed as a coach, I have changed my approach drastically and not everyone is thrilled with this answer at first, until they try it and realize it works! I used to teach defense, then offense, then transition. As the season went on, I would attempt to address culture issues when I saw them arise. I'd tell people to be positive, relied on the ones that were positive and excited to sort of cancel out the ones that weren’t and keep building on the skills at an incredible rate. They learned full defensive and offensive setups from day one and we drilled it until it was perfection with the first game as the looming deadline. It may have been stressful.

This was actually quite effective in certain aspects of building a team. It brought wins early on and created very solid regular season records. The problem I was running into is that I couldn’t maintain that growth curve. I was leaving some players behind who couldn’t keep up. I was putting a huge amount of stress on the team to master things and ignoring the signs that come with a focus on X’s and O’s. Some would call it peaking too early. It was a plateau or a downhill slope right about playoff time because they were no longer hungry, no longer absorbing new info, losing interest, losing excitement, sometimes feeling unimportant, misunderstood, lost, or just plain BURNT OUT.

It’s several weeks and games into our season right now, and I literally just introduced our defense to my team for the first time yesterday. We spent 10 minutes or less on it just to see what it looks like. It’s a defense that will take weeks to master, something they’ve never seen before. The offense has only been taught basic rules of engagement, a simple foundation that the team will, in fact, design themselves now that they have a working knowledge of how to cycle and shift through movement. The only way to get better at that is through trial and error at game times. We are building a base. We are building it piece by piece and with enough time to make sure it sticks. Transition and stick work have been an important focus because those carry a lot of weight and need the longest to develop, master, and need daily reinforcement. But again they aren’t my primary focus as the season gets rolling. So what is my primary focus? Shooting? Clearing? Checking?  What’s the magic ingredient that gets a team to grow as much as possible in just one season? How do we make sure teams are not limping along at the end after a huge early momentum burst?

My primary focus, my main objective when a season starts is culture. Culture comes first. Culture creates unity, internal motivation, excitement, and a mindset that is ready to absorb and apply new knowledge effectively.  Culture is what takes a team from wherever they are and propels them into wherever they can imagine and believe they can be. I changed my learning curve from a steep uphill that led to a plateau or drop off, to much more effective steady climb with a steep jump that hopefully peaks right around those playoff games. Every season that climb builds on itself until the team is consistently becoming greater.

So how does that look, that culture building stuff? It’s not a big circle where we sit around and discuss our feelings and I say, hey no sticks the first three weeks.  We still have to be learning and growing, mastering our craft, playing a sport we love to play, conditioning, and studying. But when the focus is placed on culture,  those “drills” and activities have a slightly different feel.  The stress to perfect it right away is gone and the patience of just teaching, trying, asking questions, and getting to know each others’ strengths and weaknesses becomes easier. Its no longer all about that immediate win, it’s about the end game. Its about development. It’s about building an experience so much greater and yet also going for limitless goals and a vision of accomplishing incredible feats.

As the strength of the players belief in themselves grows, as the feeling of connectivity between players grows, and the feelings of mastery start to build, the learning capacity begins to grow exponentially.  They fear the new information less, trust trying it a little more, get more excited about applying it out on the field, and the communication gets stronger.  The trust between players, between players and coaches, and maybe even players, parents, and coaches, has been built. The foundation is there and every piece of information that’s built on top of it as the team enters the most important part of the season becomes incredibly powerful.

Try this. Sit in a chair with both feet on the floor. Stand up putting 70 percent or so of your focus and weight in your weaker/non dominant leg but keep your core straight up so no one can see you are shifting your weight.  Essentially you are still standing up, still balanced, still getting it done. But your focus is on building that one leg’s strength that has been weak or sometimes gets neglected. Imagine your focus is on that leg for a few weeks every time you just do what you do all the time, stand up. Now that you’ve built it up, stand up using both legs equally. You’re going to be stronger now that you have both legs working at full capacity and your weak leg has been strengthened.  Here’s the thing about our culture that we so often allow to sit. That we usually don’t put a primary focus on –  think about your legs:  Even if you are trying to kick a ball with your dominant and more powerful leg, the weak leg must balance your body and give you stability. If it buckles the kick will never happen. STRENGTHEN YOUR WEAK LEG, the one that supports your team, that keeps them going, the one that really all other things stem from, FIRST.

Put your focus on culture first. Build it, guide it, grow it, and then as they are excited and learning at top capacity with a strong belief system in each other, go and reach new heights!

Kate Leavell is a high school varsity and youth girls' lacrosse coach now living in Minneapolis, Minn. A US Lacrosse Coaches Education Program trainer, she is the author of the Coaches Emergency Practice Guide. Read more of her thoughts at and follow her on Twitter: @kateleavell