Derek Shanahan

Lessons In Team Culture From Stanford Men’s Soccer

This post is a part of Startup Edition, an awesome blogger collective.

A team’s culture is an extension of the people on the team.

When Ryan brought up culture as a topic for Startup Edition I initially thought about the culture efforts that I’ve seen in Startupland. There’s a lot of great content out there from the startup community already, though. I’m not sure I have a lot to add, beyond suggesting you be thoughtful about your culture. Spend a bit of time looking at how other’s have crafted their own. I like MOZ’s TAFGEE approach, and Github’s got a pretty interesting lean approach to management. Ev William’s Medium is testing a no-manager approach that probably resonates with a lot of small teams.

I like looking for culture tips where I’ve seen it done well, so in this post I’ll look a one of the non-startup examples I have: my college soccer team.

The times that I’ve seen culture crafted well, both the leadership and role players contributed significantly to the end result. There was a set of principles, attitudes, and beliefs that everyone bought into. There was also always a common goal within the team; a core reason that everyone felt motivated to show up and kick ass.

Stanford Soccer & Culture

As an example, our Stanford Soccer team went from a relative unknown to first-ranked organization in a matter of three seasons. I arrived in year three of that rise. We held a #1 national ranking for about five more years once we’d attained it.

We were a pretty damn good team talented-wise, for sure, but we had less US National Team and big name players on our team than all the other top-ranked schools. We started out as complete underdogs.

What we did have was Bobby Clark, arguably the best soccer coach in the country. He has a system that defines his teams on and off the field.

His attention to detail when it came to our team culture was maniacal. In a good way.

Family First

Our team was a family first. We ate meals together, cleaned up after ourselves, and put our studies and our teammates first.

It was quickly obvious to freshman that they weren’t the only ones who’s joined the team. Their extended family, friends, and roommates were a part of our family, welcomed to the fold and integrated into our mission.

Takeaway: Treat everyone as if they’re part of your team, all the time. Your “team” is bigger than just the people you hire.

Impact Second

Most first-rate people work at things because of the impact they perceive it will have. That impact is different than the goals you set out to achieve. A company might want to IPO or cross $100 million in revenue. That’s impactful, for sure, but impact isn’t binary.

At Stanford, our impact was both interpersonal and as an organization. Bobby made sure we gave back to the community that came out to watch our games; we taught clinics for kids, visited local hospitals, and did charity work.

He made sure that our academics never slipped, no matter how far we travelled or how successful we were in the rankings. We were expected to graduate first, succeed as athletes second.

Takeaway: Your team’s lives aren’t all about work. Make their time with you impactful, even if nobody gets rich.

Impart Discipline

When I talk to friends who played college athletics at other schools, it becomes clear that our discipline was very different. Bobby got a surprisingly high level of buy-in from us. He treated us like adults, but expected us to act like adults.

During our season, we didn’t drink alcohol for 72 hours before a game. That left Sunday and Monday nights to have our fun, which we stuck to religiously. That’s a big ask for college students.

We were always on time, to everything. Weights, light runs, meals, and travel departures were all concrete on every player’s calendar. Standards were high and you didn’t skirt them because your teammates didn’t. Interestingly, it seemed jolting at first, coming from a much looser high school environment; a few weeks into pre-season every guy on the team wouldn’t dream of being late or lax on the structure we’d all agreed to.

Takeaway: Discipline is a product of buy-in. If your team believes in the goals you’re aiming for, and understands the impact they can have, a new level of discipline and dedication is within reach.

Yeah, but building a company is different.

I do think athletics teams and companies are different, but they have a lot in common. In Startupland we ask for a lot of faith from our team members. We shoot for seemingly unattainable goals, and gather small teams together to make sacrifices so that we all might succeed.

Your team’s culture will always be a product of the people you have on your team, but you can learn a lot from any team that’s been successful. Mapping yourself to another team isn’t the answer, so at times it can be helpful to use teams that aren’t much like your own to find inspiration.

This post is part of Startup Edition. If you haven’t, go subscribe for a collection of posts each week from Startupland.



"Enjoy the process" :-). "Understand your role" :-). "Know your limitations". Fulfillment is almost organic when there's a collective understanding and genuine "buy in". Start writing more :-). See you tomorrow...Paz


Great post! Makes me think about the days when my dad coached our soccer team, and we were unstoppable in Seattle for years .

dshanahan moderator

@Chikodi Thanks Chikodi! My dad coached my team as a kid too - Bobby was a step up:)