Wouldn’t it be great if your captains set a positive tone in practice, anticipated problems before the team’s morale sunk, and didn’t have to be asked to pick up the balls and cones, or be reminded about leaving times for away games?
If you invest time in your practices to develop leadership skills in all of your players, you could discover the energy you need to attend clinics, organize a great fundraiser, or reacquaint yourself with your health club.
• Leadership skills can be cultivated in all athletes if they receive the right guidance and opportunity. Research shows that leadership behaviors don’t manifest themselves in young athletes until the age of 9 or 10. Youth sport coaches have an opportunity to help young athletes develop effective leadership behaviors.
• How do you want your athletes to lead? Coaches need to identify the types of leadership behaviors that are necessary to build their programs. Athletes must be involved in identifying the leadership behaviors that are important to their team’s success.
• Be a role model. If you want your athletes to speak to each other on and off the field in constructive, non-threatening ways, the coaching staff needs to give feedback and direction that is instructive and encouraging. Demonstrating these behaviors will speak volumes. Modeling effective leadership behaviors is more effective than preaching.
• The power of knowing. Coaches should build team-bonding activities into their seasons. Instead of having double practice sessions during pre-season, coaches can give their athletes time to recover and get to know each other off the field by: planning a trip to a water park, having the veterans cook a team dinner for the rookies, participating in a community service project, etc. Building relationships between team members, between the team members and the coaching staff, and between coaches are key to establishing effective leadership behaviors and team cohesion.
• Communicate great expectations. Expect every athlete to contribute to team leadership. Have the expectation that every team member will be a leader in some capacity, not just the captains. During your one-on-one meetings with your athletes, have them talk about what they can contribute and what they need to work on to be a better leader.
• Make it more than a popularity contest. Before electing captains, review what their roles should be. Remind them about the qualities and behaviors that coaches and athletes have identified as being important. Talk about the qualities that strong captains have had in the past and be sure that they know that it doesn’t have to be the oldest, a high scorer, or even a starter on the team.
Making it Stick
Once you have the mindset to cultivate leadership skills, where should you begin? To be an effective leader on an athletic team, it takes a strong desire to improve as an athlete and to be respected by teammates and coaches.
One of the most important roles of a coach is to teach life lessons that are the building blocks of effective leadership.
• Teach the concept of locus of control and performance goal-setting. The fact that athletes can control the effort and attention to instruction from the coach is something every athlete must know. If athletes also realize that they have little or no control over officiating, the talent of the opponent, the weather, or injuries, it will also become obvious that they don’t have total control over the outcome of the game. Taking time to teach this locus of control concept will help athletes select goals that are performance-based. Athletes should be coached to focus on the parts of the game they can control: the techniques they use, the fitness that they develop, their ability to execute a play properly, etc. They should be coached to avoid focusing on the margin of victory, being undefeated, or winning a championship.
• Build the importance of integrity. A good start would be a team goal of good sportspersonship. Make it clear that it is the coaches’ role to question an official about a call. The coach should also be sure to question the official with respect. Coaches should give athletes direction about treating the athletes and coaches of other teams with respect — having the starters shake hands during the announcements of the starting lineup, congratulating a player of the opposing team after scoring a 1000th point, offering assistance to someone who is trying to get up, shaking hands after a game, etc.
• Have your team write a mission statement that communicates how they will develop team togetherness and display a win-win attitude. Have them write about the importance of performance goals and integrity. Post the team mission statement and have them keep a copy in their team notebooks.
• Structure interactive and cooperative drills for practices and pre-game warm-ups. Give them challenges to work on together. Periodically, work in small groups to design a play, create a drill, and problem solve about a team weakness. Get them talking with each other and have them take on the thinker’s role. Coaches don’t always have to provide the answers and the athletes can come up with great ideas that can help the team.
• Give something back. The concept of giving something back is a great life lesson. Giving something back through community service is a great introduction to “service to others” for young athletes. Sponsoring a toy drive, and organizing a sports clinic are all great ways for athletes to think beyond their personal needs and feel what it is like to help someone else.
• Teach persistence. “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.” Make sure that athletes realize that missing on the first try is not a fatal. Michael Jordan missed the cut for his high school JV basketball team. Dan Jansen didn’t win a gold medal until his fourth Olympics and it was in his very last Olympic event.
A popular notion is that sport does not build character… it reveals it. But instinctively, good coaches know that there are lessons that can be taught in sport that can make a difference in how athletes make choices and take responsibility, both on and off the field.
Having a game plan that recognizes, teaches, and reinforces the behaviors of good leadership can be the most important investment that a youth sport coach can make… and the payoff can be more than a cohesive team that makes the most of its talent. These leadership behaviors can produce solid citizens who will contribute to the greater good.
Dr. Susan Langlois has more than 20 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently the Dean of Sports Science at Endicott College. Her undergraduate education was at the University of New Hampshire in physical education. She earned her Master’s and doctoral degrees from Springfield College. She is active in several professional organizations including NASSM, AAHPERD, ISCHPER, AAUP and NACWAA.
Sharman Hayward has directed sports camps at every developmental level, and has coached intercollegiate field hockey and lacrosse for 11 years. Sharman earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Business from Colby-Sawyer College and has a Master of Science Degree in Athletic Administration from Springfield College. Sharman currently serves as Associate Director of Athletics at Endicott College.