The Culture of Losing

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In the sports universe, the phrase “culture of losing” is often thrown out to describe a team that has ostensibly sunk itself into seasons of perennial losing without any indication of rising. The phrase can be attributed to a number of existing factors: poor management, incongruent roster configuration, a lack of team effort, poor drafting, key injuries, and disciplinary issues among others. But how about a deeper psychological issue that can actually create such a culture within a locker room – a culture where players actually begin to believe they cannot win. Does this culture exist? If so, can it be overcome? And if it can be overcome, how does a team go about breaking the cycle?

If any of you readers have been on a sports team, you understand that the culture if vastly different from any other type of “business workplace”. It is similar in the sense that the culture is set from the team owner down to the management and carried out by the coaches and players. The culture that ultimately breeds success is the commitment to and belief in winning starting from the top down. Its an organizational commitment and mandate. A look at some recent sports franchises tells us that even a slight wavering in this commitment can have a significantly detrimental effect on the competitiveness and success of a franchise. This includes stability in personnel, coaches and message to the players. But this culture most importantly lies, rests, and is carried out by the players in the locker room. When a culture of consistent losing sets in, it can become the norm. Losing can become acceptable to the point that a team and its players subconsciously begin to accept meeting lowered expectations, not exceeding them. Obviously as this cycle continues, the harder it becomes to break out of the acceptance of mediocrity.

What’s even worse is that as a team begins to waver in it belief at the top and accept mediocrity in its locker room, the fanbase may begin to allow the team to get away with mediocrity. This is especially true in cities where a team is the only game in town, such as Edmonton with the Oilers, Winnipeg with the Jets or even Portland with the Trail Blazers. On the other hand, cities such as Chicago, Boston and Miami would naturally have a lot smaller tolerance towards perennial losers. It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where a team becomes attached to moments of losing that the reoccurence of similar moments in the future leads players in the locker room to believe that the trend is their reality. And then the dangerous part begins, fan apathy sets in and a culture evolves that becomes extremely difficult to buck.

Recent Examples in Hockey

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In terms of reshaping a team culture, the Chicago Blackhawks are often cited as having reversed a spiraling trend. Sure drafting 2 superstar players in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews helped the teams to their recent Stanley Cups, but the fortunes of the Blackhawks really turned when change was effected from the top down. Under their late owner “Dollar” Bill Wirtz, the Blackhawks were vilified for not allowing games to be shown on local TV, jettisoning team legend Bobby Hull, and for notorious frugality in retaining their own players. Stars such as Denis Savard, Dominik Hasek, Ed Belfour, Jeremy Roenick and Phil Esposito were all shipped out for reasons that included Dollar Bill’s resistance to paying up. In the 10 years prior to his death, between the 1996-97 and 2006-07 seasons, the Blackhawks posted only 1 winning season. In 2004, ESPN named them the worst franchise in sports. It was a common sight to see thousands of empty seats littering the United Center, where fans could easily spend their money on the 4 other professional sports teams in the city. Quite a stark contrast from the current Madhouse on Madison.

So what changed? Well, sadly, it was the death of Bill Wirtz and the passing of the torch to his son Rocky. In his time, the Blackhawks have not had a losing season. In addition, they established links with many of their former greats including Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito, linking the past to the present. In addition, games can now be watched locally allowing fans to feel connected to the team. The Hawks have made financial commitments to their present players and even spent millions bringing in expensive, but contributing, free agents such as Marian Hossa and Brian Campbell. Most importantly, the Blackhawks revamped their upper management, creating stability and competence by bringing in longtime Chicago Cubs executive John McDonough as their new President, Stan Bowman as a new GM, underrated coach Joel Quenneville, and coaching legend Scotty Bowman as a consultant.

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Lets consider a team currently entangled in this culture – the Edmonton Oilers. Since the 1992-93 season, the Oilers have posted a winning record in only 8 of those. Outside of a lucky 8th place run in 2005-06, and back-to-back 1st round wins in 1997 and 1998 the Oilers have had next to no playoff success in that time. In fact they will have missed the playoffs in 10 of the past 12 years if you include this current season. Now let me preface this by saying this is not a fire the management article. Rather we have to dig deep to find the root cause of the issue. The Oilers have had the luxury of drafting elite level talents in the last few Entry Drafts and were expected to show signs of success. Rather, they have continued to lag at the bottom of the standings. In the time period above, the Oilers have had 3 different owners, 2 different GM’s and 10 different coaches. The last figure hardly represents the hallmark of stability. Fan apathy seems to be teetering on the edge of a full-blown revolt. The team seems to connect well with fans, have relative stability in ownership and upper management, and sells-out its building. Does the culture then lie within the locker room? Sure, no doubt the room may have now progressed to a stage where the players themselves have begun to accept mediocrity and celebrate meeting that mediocrity rather than exceeding it. A couple of losses here and there may fuel that self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the players see the cycle as a normal progression. The Oilers, rather, seem to be caught with poorly constructed rosters. They also seem to be suffering from a case of an overly emotional President and an absentee Owner that may lead some below them to waver in their belief of success. This situation may actually require an overhaul in management from the top down (i.e., the ultimate person in charge) to create a new, refreshing message that feeds all the way down to the players and creates an inherent belief of success. With status quo at the top, players get accustomed to the status quo that persists in the overall performance of the team.

Recent Examples in Other Sports

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The New Orleans Saints – From 1967-2005, the Saints posted only 7 winning seasons. Then in 2006 the Saints fortunes seemingly began to change. They hired former Cowboys assistant Sean Payton as their new Head Coach. Teaming with GM Mickey Loomis who was hired in 2002, the Saints suddenly became an NFL force culminating in a Super Bowl in 2010. On a side note, it would be curious to consider the effect that Hurricane Katrina had on rallying a fanbase and the team into one cohesive unit. Payton however, brought re-invigoration to the franchise and created a belief within the management and players that they could win. An aggressive style of play with Drew Brees at Quarterback spread this message within the locker room, and support from Owner Tom Benson and the GM created a newfound unity at the top. We saw the effect that the loss of one key individual can have on the team when Sean Payton was suspended last year, leading to a losing season for the Saints.  Through a closer look at a number of franchises, it seems that a case study resembling Payton is rare – rather, the person to create such long-lasting change is a group of decision makers much higher up than a head coach. Whether it be Owner, President or General Manager, such newfound cultural change is most often effected by those near the top of the totem pole.

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The Buffalo Bills – The Bills as well have yet to find a way out of a perennial losing culture. Since their infamous playoff loss known as the “Music City Miracle” in 1999, the Bills have yet to return to the post-season. In a recent game against the New England Patriots, there was an informal Twitter poll during the game, with the Bills holding a lead, and about two-thirds of the people who responded expected them to lose. In some sense, their fans see the team as the ‘loveable losers’ moniker that holds for a certain Northside Chicago baseball team. The expectation has come to be expected and accepted by the fan-base. This most certainly has an effect on the team when public expectations are lowered. Compare this to, for example the Detroit Red Wings, who through constant player change have continued to succeed in differing competitive eras. There is an expectation among the fanbase and organization to succeed – and such a mentality likely is spread by osmosis through the players. New Bills coach Doug Marrone alluded to the culture within the organization remarking “I don’t think it’s just with the team; it’s with everyone in the organization. I know that [President and CEO] Russ Brandon has worked hard on that. We all have. It’s kind of like the, ‘Woe is me, here we go again’ situation. That’s not what we want.” In essence, players who played in that environment long enough have been beaten and dragged down for so long that they have come to expect failure. The Bills have brought on players from successful college programs who are not accustomed to the mentality. Yet the team continues to lag. While Ralph Wilson continues to own the team, he also owned the team during their run of 4 straight Super Bowl appearances. Whether Marrone can create a Payton-like change in Buffalo – well – only the test of time will tell.

Breaking the Cycle

Obviously the easy answer is that winning solves the cycle. But the process to get to winning seems to be the most challenging hurdle. Part of that involves doing the little things on a micro-level to win including effective game planning, maximum effort from players and yes, even talent. But on a macro-level, it is an organizational psychological hurdle. The winning that comes from players starts with bringing on board the right, note not the best, person to invoke this message within the organization. This person also has to have enough clout and support within the organization to make others follow his belief. That requires being in a position of relative authority. I highly doubt, for example, that the IT guy in the Cleveland Browns office could create such a widespread organizational change or belief through his own agenda. The concept of culture is best described by the terms “values” and “philosophy”. Again, those are mandated from those in charge at the top. Turnarounds also require a cognitive shift and the positive application of several mechanisms within the sports team to develop a new culture.

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An interesting study by Peter Schroeder defined these mechanisms as a hierarchical process including:

  • Defining desired team values – at this stage management and coaches must define desired relationship and behavioral values for what type of performance they expect at an organizational level. This must be a continual process so that it can manifest itself throughout the organization.
  • Creating an understanding and assumption of team values through education – the desired values can be best taught through role modeling, assignment or actual ownership. When players and coaches see how others are performing in the organization, they take ownership of staying the line and not letting the guy next to them down. Simply it creates trust and fosters a buy-in into the team culture.
  • Recruiting players who embody the desired values – specific criteria must be set to scout and attract players who fit the mold of a team culture. Immediately the San Antonio Spurs come to mind as a team who carry out this strategy to perfection, taking on players such as Danny Green, Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard and Cory Joseph, among others, who many other teams pass over on a talent-level, but the Spurs take on because their specific values fit the culture that the team has defined as leading to its success. Such characteristics include players who embody a macro-level buy-in, team-oriented mentality and a coachable, low-ego mindset that will lead to a process of winning. Such a process extends to creating a detailed scouting procedure to fit players within a defined culture.
  • Creating a rewards and punishment system to maintain commitment to desired values – this is quite obvious in a sports setting, and includes playing time and benching players to reinforce team values. It can also include rewards and punishments for incidents off the playing field. Obviously when players are educated about the culture, there is an interwoven link between actions and fit within a specific set of expectations. Rewards are perhaps the most vital element of cultural change as they create intrinsic motivation in the individuals most responsible for effecting that change.

So what we see is that breaking out of the culture of losing is fueled by bringing on the right people in charge to establish and permeate organizational values, and about bringing on the right players to carry out the desired values. The right person in both instances is he who creates faith and confidence in long-lasting organizational success. Carrying out the above mechanisms within the appropriate environment is often enough to overcome a lack of elite talent. What is quite apparent is that when teams and to an extent, their fans, become mentally accepting towards losing, this cycle will continue to perpetuate itself to future generations and be almost incapable of creating change.

For Hockeyland Canada,

RK, Esq.

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2 responses to “The Culture of Losing

  1. Hey there! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my previous room mate!
    He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post
    to him. Pretty sure he will have a good
    read. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Pingback: The Disgruntled Edmonton Oilers Fan | Hockeyland Canada·

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