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What makes a successful sport team? (It starts with culture.)

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Matthew Bergdorf

Strength & Conditioning Coach, Special Operation Forces, DU Alum, MA Sport Coaching

matthew bergdorf

A real-life account from a seasoned strength and conditioning coach.

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Athletics  •
football players on a football field

Hello there, fellow coaches! I’m a strength and conditioning coach. I have worked within a variety of settings, moved from coast to coast, and I’ve learned a thing or two about what makes a successful sports team along the way. Quick spoiler alert: this often includes creating a positive experience and culture of trust and respect among the athletes, teams, and clients you work with.

I am currently a strength coach in the tactical setting with the United States military. I can’t disclose exactly where or with whom I work, as the communications manager has advised me not to. I know, it’s not ideal, but it’s a drawback I’ll take given that working with the military has been the most rewarding experience in my coaching career thus far.

The key to success is more than just a training plan 

When it comes to building a successful team, there are many angles we can consider. Sometimes, strength coaches get caught up in the set, rep, or loading scheme. Others will eliminate a specific type of exercise, or demonize certain exercises, because they’ve had a negative experience with it (or they don’t feel that know how to coach it effectively).  

We could start a long debate about which method is best to improve the physical strength and performance of athletes. Or, we could dwell on the wish that we could just recruit “better” players. However, if you’re like me, you may not have the power or bandwidth to simply recruit better players. So, what do we do when we can’t recruit only 5-star athletes for a division 3 unfunded sport?  


What does your organization value?  

First, let’s consider three things regarding the organization you coach at:  

  • the ecosystem  

  • the coaching staff  

  • the culture (and how this can affect the outcome) 

Here are a few important questions to ask yourself: 

  • What are the values of your organization? (Sometimes the stated values differ from the values that are carried out.) Do they value high-quality performance from their sport teams each year? 

  • What is the physical space like? Is it conducive to promoting a positive experience for all involved? 

  • Who makes up the coaching staff? Is it people who want to coach? Is it a teacher who needs the additional income?  

  • How qualified is the sports medicine team? Are they fully integrated with the coaching staff and team?  

These are all important considerations when trying to improve athletic performance and build a successful team.  

We can look at Alabama Football as an example. It is clear why this football program is always ranked number one. The school values this program highly, and allocates resources in order for it to be the best in the country. The Athletic Director hires qualified, experienced coaches from around the country. It’s a fully funded program with a robust sports medicine staff, including nutritionists and cognitive specialists. These are all reasons why Alabama is the premier place to play football. 

So, what led them to greatness? I have a few speculations:  

  1. The philosophy behind the entire organization has remained the same since the beginning. They don’t joke around. They do what they say. 

  1. They don’t cut corners in preparing the team for success both on and off the field.  

  1. They are staffed with highly qualified coaches.  

  1. The team environment is top notch. These players are given the opportunity to improve all life skills, not only football-related skills. 

To continue looking at the Alabama football example, let’s consider the coaching staff.  

  • What is it about this staff that gets the best out of these players?  

  • How is it that they are successful year after year?  

  • Why is it that the school invests so much into the coaching staff?  

  • Do the philosophies of each coach exemplify the expectations?  

These are all questions to consider when interviewing for a coaching position. By asking these questions, you can more easily filter out any organizations that you may not want to be a part of. 

Creating a strong culture starts with YOU [the coach] 

There are many ways to create a strong and inclusive culture within your team, some of which I hope to tackle within this blog post. Having gained insight from my own failures and triumphs throughout my 10-year coaching tenure, I feel compelled to share. 

The very first thing a coach can do to help adopt a strong team culture is to look inward, beginning with your own coaching philosophy. When I made mistakes as a coach, it was typically because I was trying to be something I was not. Even though I spoke highly about my coaching philosophy (which was nicely written down), I came to realize that it was all talk. I never truthfully “lived out” my philosophy.  

One day, I was called out for this by a professional athlete. They said to me, and I quote, “Bro, you say one thing, and expect a high standard, but you can’t even hold yourself to this standard. So why do you expect this of us?”  

This shook me. And he was right. I expected greatness from these athletes, while in my own life I was making some poor decisions. My training was solid, but my nutrition was terrible, my finances were a mess, my relationships were suffering, and I wasn’t taking care of myself. I held myself to a mediocre standard at best.  

I realized I would never be able to create a positive team culture if I didn’t participate in it myself. Why is it that I wanted the best for others, but neglected to take care of the one person I spend the most time with:  me?  

I had to change my approach to coaching, and to life. In short, it was time to create a new philosophy, one that I myself could fulfill every day.  

The work that is necessary to cultivate a strong team culture takes time and effort.  

The first step is to emulate the culture that you want to create. For me, this meant the creation of a solid nutrition and wellness plan. With that sort of plan in place, I could more honestly speak to these values, and expect others to place value on their own health and wellness.  

Being strong is fun. Living a healthy, low-stress, and financially stable life is even better. In the past, I couldn’t show up as my best self because I brought my stress and worry with me every day. As a result, my coaching suffered, and this impacted the team.  

With my new coaching philosophy, I vowed that I wouldn’t force my team to do anything that I wasn’t willing to do myself. I also made it a point to address each athlete by their name daily. My goal was to create a culture in which the athletes felt that their coach cared about them as human beings. I pushed each athlete on the team to be the best they could be, both on and off the field. I expected greatness, but this time around, I could hold myself to the same standard. And that changed everything.  

A coach’s job should include cultivating a strong culture and making an impact on the athletes and teams they serve. This responsibility brings wonderful experiences along with it and can also induce some difficult challenges.  

To coach is to motivate, mentor, support and challenge 

Coaches have many lessons to teach, while learning our own lessons along the way. We experience athletes struggling, and in these moments, we aim to support them and help them through. There may even be instances when coaches need to show some tough love to help an athlete grow. Coaches carry the responsibility of keeping their athletes motivated, especially when confronted with a long arduous season.  

Want to know more about how to keep athletes motivated? Check out the full blog post on athlete motivation here

This role comes with challenges, successes, and unknowns (I never anticipated that I would help an athlete through rehab). We are there to help athletes train to gain muscle, to help them attain the best physical condition, and ultimately achieve their goals.  

All things considered, improving athletic performance requires you to take a tailored approach with the X’s and O’s. Stick to that plan and hold steadfast through the season. Does the entire enterprise surrounding the club expect greatness? Does the coaching staff share a singular goal? Does your coaching philosophy match your personal and coaching standards? Do you put the work in to ensure the growth of a strong culture within the team? Do you help guide your athletes through the season, both on and off the field?  

If you can cover these aspects, your team will work more effectively together and ultimately become more successful, regardless of which players have been recruited to the team.


Coach Bergdorf reveals the scoop on Dr. G

Meet Matt Bergdorf, MA, RSCC, CSCS,*D, USAW, FMS 

Matt graduated from the Master’s in Sport Coaching program at the University of Denver in 2017, and is currently a strength and conditioning coach in a tactical setting for the special operation forces (SOF). His role as an exercise physiologist and strength & conditioning coach involves leading this group in its sport science initiatives with a data science team, as well as leading the training for a specific SOF group. Matt has been involved with the strength and conditioning industry for many years now, and he has worked in a variety of different organizations. Over the years, he has worked with club sport teams, private facilities, professional sports teams (NHL and MRL), and now in the tactical setting, which has proven to be an ideal fit. As a former collegiate baseball player, he appreciates the role that strength and conditioning played for him in order to compete with athletes who out-weighed him significantly.

Connect with Matt on Instagram @coach_bergdorf

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