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How To Build A Peak Performance Culture From A Championship Coach Who Built One From Scratch

UMass hockey coach Greg Carvel on the Walker Webcast

Leading a team to victory is no small task, regardless of the team or what that victory may be. It could be landing a major client, hitting an important fiscal goal or simply having a strong week. For Greg Carvel, leading a team to victory looks like taking a last-place hockey team and turning it into a national champion. 

Carvel is a former NCAA ice hockey player who served as head coach at St. Lawrence University and as an assistant coach in the National Hockey League with both the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators. He is currently the head coach of the University of Massachusetts Minutemen, who won the national hockey championship in April. 

Getting the team there was no small task, since when Carvel joined the Minutemen five years ago, they had finished in last place in the conference four years in a row. He kept that streak going his first year before building the team up to a national championship — going from the lowest-ranked to the top dogs in the span of an average student’s college career.

Carvel attributes this success to something he calls peak performance culture. On Wednesday's Walker Webcast, Carvel walked through his philosophy on how to create and lead a peak performance culture. 

A Focus On People 

Carvel is known for focusing on the character of a player over skill, and that is because he believes that character builds a peak performance culture, he said. He said that he does whatever he can to fight to bring the right people into his program, and he fights even harder to keep them because he is the custodian of his team’s culture and it is his job to preserve it. 

“We don't recruit the best hockey players. We recruit the best people we can find,” Carvel said. “Cumulative character is the backbone of championship teams.” 

He explained that he ranks his players as either a one, a two or a three. Ones are high-performance players who are mature, excel at school and require minimal maintenance. Threes are low-performance, immature players who aren't going to last on the team. The twos, however, are the most interesting segment: These are the players who need some work and are on the cusp of becoming ones or threes, and Carvel pushes them and tests their character to get them where they need to be. 

Willy Walker on the Walker Webcast

Core Values 

Carvel said that leaders need to have clarity of vision. Not only do they need to have a strong vision for their team, they also need to be able to clearly articulate it to their team members in a way that will make them understand it and believe in it too. One of the ways he does this is by having a core set of values that he spells out for each new member of the team. Those values are integrity, commitment, compete, connection and unity. 

He said that out of all these values, connection is the most important. He works to create a unique relationship with everyone on the team so they will feel uniquely seen. This is why each year, when he gives his players a copy of Legacy by James Kerr, a book he has all his players read, he writes a unique inscription to the individual player in each one. 

Carvel said that there are a lot of messages in Legacy that resonate with him, one of which is about the importance of words. When he came to UMass, the school had a hard-partying reputation that earned it the nickname Zoo Mass. 

“I really struggled with hearing that,” Carvel said. “We actually lost a recruit because his mother didn't want her son going to Zoo Mass. So I walked into the locker room one day and I said, ‘Gentlemen, that's it.’” 

He told his players that from here on out, he would refer to the school as New Mass whenever they did anything at an elevated standard. Now the school is copyrighting the term. 

Legacy also discusses the power of ritual, which is something else Carvel said he deeply believes in. At the beginning of every school year, he has his players link arms in a circle on the ice to feel the power of unity, a practice he calls “linking up.” They are only allowed to do this again when they win a playoff round or a championship. 

“You have to earn the right to link up, so when you go through an entire season and you win and you get to link up, that has amazing power. It's my favorite ritual,” Carvel said. “I think we linked up five or six times this year, we won so many playoff games and championships, so it's very special.”

Finally, Carvel stressed the importance of creating a common purpose within a team. When he first joined UMass, the purpose was to gain respect as a team. Then, that goal shifted to making hockey the gold standard team at the school by earning the highest GPA, doing the most community service and playing in a national championship game. Finally, the goal became to become the gold standard for college hockey and win a national championship. This year, the Minutemen accomplished that. 

On July 21, Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker will host Suffolk Construction Co. Chairman and CEO John Fish. Register here for the event.

This article was produced in collaboration between Walker & Dunlop and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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