Your Winning Identity


Every March, college basketball in the US takes center stage with a series of conference, regional, and finally national championship tournaments. Typically, following each game there is a quick interview with the winning coach and a player who performed exceptionally well. The interviews generally offer an opportunity to share the joy of the victor and hear some well worn post game cliches.


Sometimes it feels like the players have been watching each others’ interviews as certain terminology begins to be used over and over. My assumption is the players are often repeating what the coaches said in the locker rooms would be keys to winning. In recent years I have noticed the comments “we were our ourselves” or “we were true to ourselves” more commonly used. Like most sports cliches it can sound a bit trite and raise the question, “Did you have a choice to be someone different?”


However, there is some real depth when you explore the importance of identity to a team and their performance. One commentator opined on a team’s disappointing season by saying they never seemed to find their identity. Successful teams tend to be known for certain aspects of the game or a particular style in which they excel. In basketball, this may mean a fast breaking explosive offense, a stingy tough defense or controlling the ball and not making mistakes. Some teams consistently win because of their seasoned composure while others thrive on emotions. When teams know their identity, their players also tend to better understand their individual roles and how they can contribute the most.


Identity also appears to fuel trust on a team. This is another often post game cliché that has gained in popularity. We now frequently see successful players attribute their performances to their teammates trusting them. This can also seem a bit mysterious when teams get to the end of the season and commentators talk about sensing a lack of trust among the players. In basketball this can result in players not sharing the ball or helping each other on defense. Without trust, the players don’t stay connected. While trust can be eroded through personal interactions both on and off the court, poor performance often causes teams to question the abilities and motivations of others.


With a clear identity, everyone on the team has a core or foundation to rally around to rebuild trust. After a poor performance or disappointing loss, coaches can reestablish everyone’s connection to each other and the team through the team’s identity.


One commentator went even further to highlight the importance of identity. He emphasized that success is not just having identity, but it is imposing your identity on the other team. In other words, in a competitive environment the winning team is still able to execute their plan based on their identity despite the other team’s attempt to disrupt it by playing the game according to theirs.


Identity is not just aspirational but is rooted in how the team can excel based on their strengths. As every coach knows, hope is not a strategy. Successful coaches and organizational leaders don’t just wait and hope an identity emerges as the season progresses. They either proactively recruit the types of players that will excel in the desired identity or they determine a desired identity as soon as they can accurately assess their roster.


Tony Bennett has built one of the most successful college basketball programs at the University of Virginia. His teams play a distinctive style around tough defense and ball control. While he may need to tweak his strategy depending on the specifics of his roster, his teams maintain a similar identity year to year. He specifically recruits players that will fit his system leading to great clarity about expectations and roles and high levels of trust.


While sports teams may differ from a typical work team in some respects, the importance of establishing and implementing identity can be a key determinant of success. The presence or absence of a strong identity may not be evident in the short term. But as your team continues to work together it will surely either be a part of your success or part of your failure. As the leader, you can either wait and hope your team finds their identity as they work together, or you can actively begin shaping that identity from the beginning.