Chicago Cubs scout the Soft Skills.

The New Zealand All-Blacks Sweep the Sheds.

St. Louis Cardinals look for Servant Leadership.

Clemson Tigers sit in the Safe Seat.

Alabama Crimson Tide focus on The Process.

Massive Soccer uses the Ball of Fail.


I am obsessed with analyzing cultures of excellence. Although I don’t personally carry a sports psych degree, I have been working with organizations, teams, and individuals for many years in helping them develop environments that nurture success through purpose, authenticity, and life-transforming collaboration.

Yes, And mindsets. Yes, And cultures!

The best part of my job is getting to go into some of these organizations and see first hand how their mission and vision translates into practical application. And, when I am not working with teams, I am reading and researching how the best become the best.

Technology, nutrition, and science are helping athletes perform at their physical best. But is that all there is to it? Take the best athletes, give them the best physical care, and the results take care of themselves?

Is that it?

In fact, it doesn’t take much searching to find amazing examples of how some of the best teams in the world develop their success through culture.

What role does culture play in developing success? You know, those things often written off as “soft skills.”

When Theo Epstein took over the Chicago Cubs he was determined to change the culture of the “lovable losers.” Much has been written about how he attacked this issue head on, but the area that stands out most is how intentional the Cubs became scouting players and recruiting staff around these mental Soft Skills.

Back in late September (2016), as the big league team was beginning their historic World Series run, I was able to spend three days in Arizona working with the Instructional League players and coaches. I was told how the Cubs were very specific in looking for players who were open-minded and willing to learn. The same was true for the coaches. And when evaluating a potential player, team scouts needed to gather from each player three examples of how they dealt with adversity on the field, as well as three examples of dealing with adversity off the field.

I was amazed during my time in Arizona how tangible the culture felt just being in the building. Coaches were enthusiastic and eager for learning. The positive vibe in the building was palpable. And just as Joe Maddon’s mantra for the team of “Be present, not perfect” sounded great, it translated into mindfulness sessions which included meditation for the coaches and players.

(To hear more about the Cubs mindset, make sure to check out my podcast interview with Chicago Cubs Mental Skills Director, Josh Lifrak…coming at the end of February.)

From the current baseball World Champions, to the most successful sports organization in the world, let’s look at the culture of the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team. In his awesome book Legacy, author James Kerr shares how the All-Blacks went back to their roots in order to strengthen the overall values and ethos of the Club.

The whole book is a must-read, but one principle stands out to me more than others. It’s called Sweep the Sheds. Basically, when the team has finished a match, and the showers are done, and all the interviews have been conducted, a few of the veteran players wait for everyone to leave the locker room, and they sweep the sheds. Literally. They break out the brooms, sweep up the mess, and leave the locker room better than how the team found it.

Why? Because unlike how most leadership and seniority works in western society, the All-Blacks know that when the leaders and veterans set the example of what it means to care for the team, then all who follow them will keep the standard. And it also means that they allow the younger players to focus on the thing most important to them, and this is learning and gaining the expertise to perform at a high level. Instead of hazing the younger players, or making them carry the equipment and clean up the mess – they serve them!

Kind of sounds like Servant Leadership because it is. And there are few leaders in professional sports who model servant leadership better than Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals. More impressive than his 17 year professional career is the fact that Mike has grown an already successful culture in St. Louis with a focus on servant leadership. In a recent podcast interview with the inspiring John O’Leary, Mike describes how they look for players who understand the impact of being selfless. To have a group of guys competing at an elite level, yet knowing that the strength of the team comes from the belief and faith they have and give to one another. Build that culture, and then stand back and see what is possible.

And what is possible is championships! Ask the Clemson Tigers and Head Coach  Dabo Swinney about the power of cultivating trust, vulnerability, and empathy in the locker room. Author and speaker Jon Gordon shares the story Dabo told him this past August about the Safe Seat in the Clemson locker room. Dabo was given this seat from a friend who found the stool in a remote fishing village where men would sit around, fish, and talk about life. Dabo had an idea. After each practice, as the team returned to the locker room, Dabo would ask a player to sit in the seat and the whole team would gather around. Dabo would ask the player about life, family, hobbies, and anything else. Then other players would ask questions. The one rule: what ever was shared in the seat stayed in the locker room. The impact of the Safe Seat was amazing. Players began to feel understood, more connected, and trusting of one another. In fact, Dabo feels it was an integral part in creating the tight connection that helped lead to their success.

And who as it that Clemson beat in the National Championship…but probably the most successful college football program in the history of the sport. Even though they lost the title game, Nick Saban has built a dynasty in Tuscaloosa. Year after year, with new talent replacing proven winners, Saban has built a program and culture based on doing your job and doing things right. I am privileged to be friends with the man who has helped build this culture at Alabama for the last 10 years, and he has helped some of the other top schools and top athletes in the world do the same. Trevor Moawad of Moawad Consulting helps teams and athletes reach their full potential. At Alabama, they call it The Process. The focus is not on winning. It’s not on the outcome. It’s on doing the things that lead to success. Eating the right foods. Getting good sleep. Developing the right mindset. Executing each play. It’s the process that leads to winning, not the other way around. In fact, they take the mindset and culture so seriously, players are fined if they are heard voicing negativity.

And when it comes to focusing on the process of winning, there will be failure along the way. It is the nature of improvement that we try, fail, learn from our mistakes, make adjustments, try again, and repeat. This is how all of us have learned anything in our life. Yet it is also one of the toughest processes to embrace. Why? Because who wants to fail?

Does failing make you a failure? No, it makes you a learner! A few years ago I learned about the Church of Fail from a man who has become a good friend. His name is Matt Matheson and he delivered this process while working in the corporate world. I took it and tweaked it while working at IMG Academy, and now I have tweaked it again as the Ball of Fail with my performance work with Massive Soccer. I work with 19 different youth teams each month on the skills, tools, and mindset for performing at a high level on and off the field. Each session, before we do anything else, I ask the team if anyone has a “Massive Fail?” This is their opportunity to come forward, share a recent fail in a game or training, talk about what happened, what they learned, what they will do better next time, and how they will try again. Nothing makes me happier than to see these young athletes embracing the power of learning through failing, instead of hiding in their comfort zones.

What do all of these examples have in common?

There is no mention of strategy, tactics, and X’s and O’s. Nor is there talk of “acting tough,” or “Being a man!”

In fact, just the opposite. All of these examples further prove the power of culture, connection, and mindset. I love these examples because they support the three pillars of the “yes, and” mindset and culture. Those pillars are Purpose, Authenticity, and Life-Transforming Collaboration.

In order to be a high-performing organization, team, or individual you need to have a clear understanding of purpose. Your purpose is your WHY – your reason for being!

Your purpose is your compass. And when you know what direction you are heading, and there is shared understanding amongst the group, you are inviting people to be authentic. Like the examples above, you are trying to create environments that cultivate safety, trust, and respect. When you have that in place people you free people to be authentic. And when people express their authenticity you also get their full engagement.

And once you have purpose and authenticity in place, you now have the foundation for a mindset and culture of life-transforming collaboration. In fact, the mantra of improvisors when they take the stage is this…

My goal is to make my partner look brilliant!

What does that sound like? Servant Leadership. Sweeping the Sheds. Safe Seats. Soft Skills. The Process. The Ball of Fail. 

Can you see how all of these examples represent cultures based on purpose, authenticity, and collaboration?

I have a friend I used to improvise with in Boston over 10 years ago. She recently posted on Facebook a story from her improv group that epitomizes teams built on these principles. This is what she posted, and I am sharing with her permission:

“I did an improv show tonight in which one of us three actors split their pants in the most spectacular way possible. The damage could only have been greater if the pants had exploded and caught fire. At intermission, it was decided that ‘Pantsy McSplitson’ wear a tablecloth around their waist like a kilt to hide the split. Then someone (Lizzz) suggested we ALL tie tablecloths around our waists because in improv, we’re supposed to have each others’ backs. So we did.

That choice, as silly as it may sound, is what I love most about improv. I cannot succeed if my fellow performers do not succeed. I am not protected if my fellow performers are not protected. We are all in this together, audience included. It’s not just what I love about improv. It’s kind of what I love about America.

In short: I’ve got your back. Always.”

Live Yes, And is built on the improv principles of having your team’s back. There are too many inspiring stories like those shared above that prove the power of connection, mindset, and positivity. I call it the “special” sauce because it is focusing on these areas that make our organizations, teams, and relationships special.

What else could possibly be more important?

Be special!



Travis Thomas is the author, speaker, and creator of Live Yes, And. His first book 3 Words for Getting Unstuck: Live Yes, And is available on Amazon. He still performs monthly on stage with The JOVE Improv.