On a recent trip to Seattle, if you asked my hosts, Steve Fassino and Phoebe Wright, what the major topic of conversation was for the weekend, they’d likely answer cults.

It started with two documentaries. One, called Holy Hell, that documented an actual cult. With 20 years of video footage, we saw firsthand the indoctrination and manipulation of individuals by a psychotic, narcissistic and abusive cult leader. The amount of abuse these people put up with for years without saying a word was mind-blowing.

We followed that up with the documentary, I am not your Guru, which is about self-help sensation Tony Robbins. While Robbins is not the leader of a cult, the rock concert-like production values and the speaking in tongues-esque savior moments were so strong that it was hard to not connect them back to what we see in Holy Hell. Now, Robbins creates an environment for good, hoping to change lives for the better, but the fervor of his followers made comparisons to a cult inevitable.

In one situation, you have a cult being entirely negative, and on the other a self-help phenomenon designed to create change by enchanting his followers. The commonality between both groups was the fanatical devotion. In Holy Hell, the cult (called the Buddha field) followers were at their leader’s beck and call. They gave up their families, cut off communication, moved across the country; all in the name of their leader’s teachings. Even worse, they withstood unimaginable abuse, both physical and psychological, only to come back to their leader’s teachings with the same fervor. They turned off their minds, handing over the keys to a delusional man.

On the other hand, Robbins followers looked as if they were at a pseudo-rock concert pleading to meet the band in hopes that they might be saved. They were 100% drawn into the process, committed to changing their lives and following the path that Tony laid out. Perhaps they had to be in order to change, and Robbins is doing this for the greater good (or to force them out of their patterns, as he says).

Obviously, there are distinct and very real differences between the two. Robbins is changing people with noble intentions, while cult leaders enact horrible damage to their followers. But it got Phoebe and I thinking about the difference between cults and culture, in particular, team culture. Is this kind of commitment what we all dream of as coaches or is it a nightmare situation where we are abusing the system and minds of our athletes? Can you reach the top without fanatical commitment and belief or is the absolute certainty that comes with such fanaticism a requirement for success?

Developing a Cult:

There’s a fine line between a cult and a team. On both sides, you are asking for near complete buy-in to a mission. You sacrifice your individual desires or needs for those of the group. And often times, you develop in-group vs. out-group dynamics, believing that what your team is doing is better than all of your competitors. In many circumstances, we push for artificial “hatred” of rivals, or of those who doubt our mission.

Let’s first look at how some of these ideas are exploited, by coaches or staff who create a “cult”, instead of culture.

  • A push towards dependence: Control can be exploited to artificially create a group sensation. An athlete slowly gives away his autonomy, replacing it with whatever the “leader” of the group dictates. This is often accomplished by micromanaging athletes lives, dictating the world outside of their time at the track. As one runner I know stated, “With these coaches, you have to constantly remind yourself that they are only in charge of what goes on at the track.” When athletes worry about making even tiny decisions without their coaches input, that’s a red flag.
  • I have the secret: Another common tactic that goes along with dependency is the idea that the coach is the only one who has the answer. They will convince athletes that they alone have the magic formula. Often, they take credit for making the athlete. These behaviors are all intentional. By cementing the idea that they alone have the answers, it creates a fear that if the athlete leaves, there is no way they will improve or even recapture their glory. If someone proclaims they have the secret to training, they are utilizing their own insecurity to create dependency in the athlete.
  • Divide: Information and thinking are the bane to any cult coach. One of the clearest ways to combat this is to isolate and divide. Humans have a natural tendency to divide into tribes, separating out those who are similar and those who are on the outside looking in. If a coach, or authority, can create a simple us versus them divide, then they can control the information flow. In today’s political landscape, you see this phenomenon take place in political parties. One side declares the other is fake news, so that now anything that a non-approved news agency says, can be immediately dismissed. They’ve constrained information and thinking. No matter how accurate the information is, it came from the other side, so it can easily be dismissed.
  • Isolate: Similar to dividing, in cult coaching, isolation is a common tactic. Whether that means making rules that you cannot communicate to other teams at track meets like some college programs have done, or in intentionally isolating their group from others at meets, these tactics push group members inwards. Making it where they think that they can only depend on each other.
  • Exploitation of Vulnerabilities. In a coaching environment, we see athletes at their highest highs and lowest lows. In a cult-coaching environment, those in power will exploit the inadequacies they learn about each individual. This can take many forms, but I’ve often seen it in utilizing athletes issues with weight or body image and exploiting that for brief performance gains. Similarly, at the highest level, there have been instances of coaches using athletes soon to be expiring contracts as means of obtaining compliance.

Developing a Team:

The aforementioned tactics that are often used to create a team that has negative cult-like tendencies often start from a place of creating culture. The coach is looking for a way to get all of his athletes on the same page, to get them all working towards a goal. But where a cult coach makes a mistake, is in turning towards the negative, creating a controlling environment that may create a group, but also stagnates individual’s development and growth.

True culture reaches many of the same desired outcomes of team unity, belief, and buy-in from a positive path. Instead of control, we have trust. Instead of isolation to create a team, we have a shared purpose that is bigger than ourselves. Instead of exploiting vulnerabilities, we create an environment that acknowledges and accepts all of our issues.

True culture comes out of satisfying our basic psychological needs; to feel authentic, to have a sense of control, and to belong. It’s through satisfying these needs in a positive and empowering way that we create an environment that allows individuals to be who they truly are and to learn and grow along the way.

Phoebe and I often debate whether you could create the same fanatical belief in performing and your team in a positive environment as a cult one. A cult is powerful, but it is also short-lived. The match burns quickly and often scorch the hands of those who held it. Creating true culture is a more long-lasting, slow burn, that ignites an individual and a team for a lifetime. Its impact is often seen during the playing days, but doesn’t reach full fruition until reflecting on the lessons learned years down the line.

 Much like fear can create momentarily great performances, love and caring drives performance for much longer. A cult-like culture might work temporarily, but it wreaks havoc over the long term.

The point of this blog isn’t to delineate the best way to create a team culture, as there are many excellent books and resources to point the way. Instead, it’s a reminder to young (and old) coaches to resist taking the fear-based route. Don’t fall trap for the short term trappings of power. And athletes, look for the signs, as Phoebe told me following the watching of the original documentary on cults, “People underestimate their ability to be brainwashed.”

To receive regular updates on blog posts, interviews, and podcasts about coaching, sign up for the newsletter below! Also, check out our latest weekly series Coaching with Craft.

Get My New Guide on: The Science of Creating Workouts


    1. Launching The Run Express – Run Expression on February 5, 2019 at 6:20 pm

      […] athletics. Coach Steve Magness, distance coach at the University of Houston, likes to talk about how important a focus on culture can be. He explains it like this: “True culture reaches many of the same desired outcomes of team unity, […]

    Leave a Reply