Gareth Fox

Gareth Fox – What is a winning culture?

IN  my ongoing quest to stay relevant, I asked on my instagram (@garethfoxhypnotherapy) what people would like to read about. The overwhelming response was ‘winning cultures’.

I then asked what a winning culture looked like – to this I received a multitude of answers, ranging from strictly disciplined to togetherness – and a whole lot in between.

The mixed response would lead one to believe that a winning culture is a subjective thing – each team to their own method. At the end of the day, no two individuals are motivated in the same manner, so naturally, no one collective of individuals should resemble any other. But in terms of winning cultures, this couldn’t be further from the truth. And I think this would be a great moment to dispel the title of ‘winning cultures’ – a culture is successful, winning is a byproduct.


Cultures – successful cultures anyway – resemble each other a lot more than you may think. In fact, to a certain extent, they are identical. There might be certain variables, yes, but all have one constant, and if this constant is missing the rest won’t work. So what is it? What is the secret to success? The answer is in the very origins of the word ‘culture’ itself.

Culture comes from the latin ‘cultus’ which means ‘to care’. All great sporting cultures – and business cultures – are built on the foundation of caring. Brotherhoods, sisterhoods, functioning families – every great, robust, strong, successful and lasting multi-person structure has internal caring at its core.

I brought this up recently with a client (now retired) who had a very successful sporting career. His initial reaction was to say that I was looking to turn everyone ‘soft’ – the plague of any GAA athlete. Yet, when we looked at the club and county teams that he had been part of, it was clear that caring was silently at their centre. But what do I mean when I say caring?

The initial image that we might conjure up is of back-patting, gently lifting people up who have tripped over, and whispering ‘It’s okay, everything is going to be okay.” This softness is no doubt part of it, but it’s only a minor element – perhaps, even, the least important. Caring is a basket full of eggs, the most important and delicate of which is the feeling of belonging. Get it wrong and the egg cracks easily, but get it right and the most beautiful creature will grow.

If you feel like you belong then you feel like you are safe – and if you feel safe then you are more than likely to go beyond your limits, with regards skill and ability, but also commitment, hard work and sacrifice. You’ll feel free to experiment, to progress, to grow, to fight for your cause. And this combination is more than likely, eventually, going to bring success. Belonging is key, but why?

As far as our brains are concerned, if our social system (our team) doesn’t accept us, we could die. So our amygdala – located in the brain – is constantly scanning for threat. This is exhausting, and decreases your ability to perform. But if you receive the right cues that tell you that you are part of the group, of the tribe, then you can relax, you can commit yourself fully to the game at hand. Belonging, on a very basic level, means more eyes watching your surroundings and so less chance of surprise or danger. As I’ve said before, your subconscious mind has no idea what sport is, its only function is to keep you alive on the planet.

But we’re all from the same place, we’ve all grown up together – surely everyone on the team already feels like they belong?

Not necessarily. Belonging is a lot more than a group of people condescend into the same space, or wearing the same uniform. It’s about feeling safe, being allowed to show your vulnerabilities, being accepted. It’s about being seen – no better is this idea highlighted than in James Cameron’s film Avatar. The sign of acceptance or belonging the Na’vi (the blue sapient humanoid clan that the story centres around) give to outsiders, is to say “I see you.” I see you, I see all your strengths, I see all your weaknesses, I see all your vulnerabilities, and I accept them – you are just like me, for I too am vulnerable. I will go to war with you.

We share changing rooms with each other, but how many of us truly see each other? How many of us truly know our teammates? Most of us show up to training, take part, have a bit of banter and then go again. But what have we really learnt about the people around us? And what have they learnt about us? Banter in itself – continuous slagging – might give you the impression that you are getting to know your teammates, but in reality, you are simply putting up a wall that says “I don’t feel fully safe to be myself here.”

The key to successful cultures is that their members feel like they belong, that they are accepted and valued. So how do we create that? In next week’s article we will look at certain seeds that can be planted in order to create the right conditions to grow a successful culture.

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