August 23, 2023 

Cheryl Reeve on building culture, success and The Bubble

Reeve sits down with The Next to discuss her approach to coaching and winning

The first name that likely comes to mind when trying to define success in women’s basketball is Cheryl Reeve. She’s a four-time WNBA champion, third in league history with 297 wins and counting, and currently serves as the head coach of the U.S. women’s national team.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today. Join today

Reeve recently spoke with The Next about the impact of team culture on success, the Minnesota Lynx‘s unique approach within The Bubble, and much more. The following conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Next: I want to chat a little bit about group and team dynamics, cohesion, that kind of stuff. The first one’s pretty broad here, but do you feel like team climate, or how the team interacts with each other, plays a role in team success at the WNBA level?

Reeve: I do. I think it’s vital, whether it’s WNBA or any at any level. To win at a high level, I think that’s a key component to it. And to sustain success. That’s a key component to sustained success.

The Next: How do you, from a leadership standpoint, not only being the head coach but the President of Basketball Operations, how do you create that climate? What are some specific ways that you create that climate with the Lynx?

Reeve: I think it starts with the selection of people. We’ve often said that the single most important thing that people in our position, that do the hiring, the attracting of players to be in the organization, that you make sure you get it right with regard to the values of the player. If you want to have a great rebounding team, then you better make sure you sign rebounders. It would be true with the culture piece as well. And we don’t always get it right and sometimes you deviate outside of what you know to be your principles, your norms. [For example], I’ve got 10 or 11 players that I know are going to do it right, and maybe they’ll kind of bring the maybe questionable player along. That’s what we do occasionally. I’d say most times it has happened, it’s not it’s not worked out for the best. 

So, we always come back to the single most important thing that we do: selection of people. If you want your values, if that’s important to you, if you believe that’s a part of success—and I do—you win with good people. I think that’s long been our mantra.

That was the beauty of a team that was so successful with [Lindsay Whalen], [Seimone Augustus], [Maya Moore], [Rebekkah Brunson], and [Sylvia Fowles], and back when we had Taj McWilliams-Franklin, [Janel McCarville]. A lot was talked about their talent and that anybody could coach them to championships. What was special about that group was the way that we did it. The culture that they had great pride in. They didn’t care who got the credit. They genuinely were interested in their teammate’s success. And that’s the culture that we say we stand on today.

The Next: Your comments are kind of making me think about what happens when that sense of culture is compromised for, say, an increase in talent. I think back to the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, where they prioritize the talent to win the championship rather than the culture surrounding the team. What do you think happens around the team when that is compromised?

Reeve: Well, there are far more distractions. There’s far more behavior that leadership has to pay attention to. The maintenance of a team goes much higher. You’re putting out fires all the time. Maybe the behaviors create a dynamic for other players. I’d say it’s not an easy life that you have to try to manage and have the culture that you know it takes to be successful. It’s really hard to change people. You try to point out behaviors. It’s something we talked about frequently. Almost without fail, the start of every training camp, we talk about how we want to do things; what it means to us; and what are actionable items that show that you care more about your teammates than you do yourself. We call out behaviors that we think are contrary to that.

If you have somebody that has a really, really poor record as it pertains to culture, then you’re not going to win. You’re not going to be able to smooth it over. There’s no conversations, there’s no meetings, that sort of thing. It’s not going to change and it’s very difficult to be successful. I think we’ve seen in the NBA a real push for culture and away from those guys that are problem guys, known to be problem guys. I think people have learned that over the long run, it’s just a poor decision to make.

The Next: You can probably speak to this better than most coaches because you went from having a team where you won all those championships and you had legends in the game, to all of them basically retiring at the same time and having to start all over again. When you have that big of a change in personnel, what kind of strategies do you employ to kind of help those individuals come together as a team? Do you do activities outside of business hours? Do you do special things in practice? What kind of strategies did you employ during that transition?

Reeve: Well, I would say that we talk about it a lot. When we circle as a team, we highlight behaviors that we think are really positive for our culture, and we celebrate those. Your leadership is vital in these cases. [There’s] kind of a pecking order how this team has run. That’s always been important to us. It’s those leaders that, day to day, execute the things that you want beyond basketball.

It’s a lot of conversations. It’s a lot of meetings. It’s a lot of storytelling. I’ll kind of reach into the past a little bit. I have many, many years of being in the WNBA. Many seasons where it went really well, maybe when people didn’t expect it to. I’ve been a part of those teams that overachieve. So, you go back and you story tell. You also spent a lot of time trying to get to know the players as people so that you can understand what methods do they learn the best, can relate to the best.

We were very pointed in our bubble season where we said we are not going to bring anybody we think it’s going to be a problem for us. It was a fascinating exercise if you will. It was not about winning. It was about going there and being able to survive an experience in a way that not [impact us] adversely personally because they sacrificed a lot to be there. It was a difficult environment. But we said we’re going there, we’re gonna make the best of it that we possibly can, and we planned some things at the end of the bubble.

[Once in the bubble], we were given an opportunity through a lottery. All teams were going to have a space that could be defined however you wanted to define it. A film room was kind of the mindset. Like, a place where a team to go meet and take care of basketball things. And so there was this facility that was on the soccer field. I want to say it was two levels, and they had locker rooms. So, maybe it was like a possibility of four teams. And other spaces were classrooms.

Through the lottery, we were a team that was one of four to be in what I deemed as the better space; we avoided the classroom. What we decided to do was to not make it a basketball space. We used it occasionally for a coach’s meeting area, but we made it what the players called “Club Lynx.” It was their space. It was a way to get away from the gym, go to eat together. It was a space that they knew they could go to and it was theirs.

I think that was so beneficial to them. We had a fog machine and music and we brought in furniture like cocktail tables, sofas and we piped in drapes so you couldn’t see the lockers. It just didn’t feel like you were in this locker room space and we just wanted to give them that ability to be together and make the most opportunity to have fun. [As a result], I remember at practices feeling this incredible vibe. They talked about it. They felt it. So we just felt like we had the right people as we went through that experience. As you know, it was a group that people thought we would be a non-playoff team and we finished fourth and we’re in the semi-finals of the playoffs. Well, that’s a great example of it wasn’t necessarily the talent. We were just close-knit. We believed we had each other’s back.


Add Locked On Women’s Basketball to your daily routine

Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.


The Next: How do you communicate all of that? How do you kind of communicate that decision to say like, “Okay, we’re looking for this specific type of person,” both to your front office staff, but then also do you communicate that with the team captains? Do you involve players in some of those decisions as well? Or is it, this is just a front office decision kind of thing?

Reeve: No, we almost always, I can’t think of very many times that we’ve gotten involved our leadership. It varies by the year, how many are involved in the leadership, whether you’re named a captain, or whether you’re somebody we value your opinion. The amount of work and time that we spend learning about a player—and we got really far back—we try to learn everything. Certainly, a player grows; a person grows in the course of their career. If you go back far enough, you can kind of see what that growth is. What are the areas that maybe they didn’t grow that could potentially be a problem for our team?

We rely heavily on the intel from our players with regard to prospective free agents that are outside of our organization that maybe we don’t have knowledge of. We will go to that. And rarely do we say, “Hey, do you think they’re good in the pick-and-roll game? Rarely do we talk about, “Hey, do they play great defense?” The first thing we ask them is what kind of teammate was she. They don’t want to hurt someone else’s opportunity, but they also know that if it was somebody who wasn’t a great teammate, it’s probably not something that neither one of us should do, either the player or us. It does happen. I mean, I can count on one hand in my time here, but it does happen.

Here’s a mistake we make. We think you can change people. Coaches do it all the time. We can change their talent level, we can change their drive, we can change their selfishness, you know, that sort of thing. There are some things you can change through hard work and passion. You can go from being an average 3-point shooter to a very good 3-point shooter. You don’t really change who you are as a person.

We deeply vet situations, talk to a lot of people, and rely heavily on our connections, those that understand what we mean when we when we talk about culture. The players are crucial in that process.

There are players outside the organization who say, “I know that Minnesota has chemistry and culture.” That’s important. We have a reputation for that. Then there are other teams that maybe would say the opposite. They don’t spend a lot of time considering that and some players gravitate towards the Minnesota culture and there’s some that gravitate towards another culture and that’s okay. There’s more than one way to be successful. It’s just the way that we have found we enjoy being successful, not only what they do on the court, but I want people to walk out of our arena and say, “I’m so proud of how they do it.”

Written by Lucas Seehafer

Lucas Seehafer is a general reporter for The Next. He is also a physical therapist and professor at the undergraduate level. His work has previously appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Forbes, FanSided, and various other websites.

1 Comment

  1. RM Williams on August 23, 2023 at 8:26 pm

    “If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected .”
    ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

    It could easily be called The Art of Basketball.

    In my years as a season ticket holder for the Lynx, this is perhaps the most mercurial version of the team that I have seen. Coach Reeve wants people to walk out of the arena saying “I’m so proud of how they do it.” Do what? Perhaps the coach should walk amongst the crowd to get a real idea of how they feel. I’m not sure pride is what she would garner from that journey. Of course, as fans, we have no say in anything. The only thing we can do is show up or not, renew or not renew, spread the word, or remain silent.
    Coach talks about the most important thing being the selection of people. I completely agree. However, in creating a culture, are you looking for a culture of kumbaya or winning? Ideally, both, but I suspect that it would be an Herculean task to find that. Unless that bubbly, warm personality off the court translates into points and great defense on the court, then what have you really created? At some point, when productivity has fallen (or never really risen) it is then time to put personality aside and get back to business. Like the stock market, sometimes the best move is to cut your losses and re-invest somewhere else. That’s just good business. No matter how good your research is, it doesn’t always pay off. In the meantime, you lose money, or in this case, you lose games. Perhaps building a culture is like building a portfolio; a group of components that, together, create a profitable future.
    Winning requires not only talent and dedication, but also hunger, a constant thirst to improve and triumph. Right now, from where I sit, the only consistency is inconsistency. That is perhaps the single most baffling thing. How does a team have an impressive win one night and then almost collapse two days later? As fans, we often never know which iteration of the team is going to show up. It is frustrating as a fan, and also disheartening.
    It is my hope that the coach and the staff take a good hard look at what needs to be done, who needs to be replaced and who stays. We all want to be proud of this team, the culture, the history, and the future. I have faith in the wisdom and experience of Coach Reeve. I am also renewing my season ticket.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.