For coaches, having reliable leadership on a team can mean the difference between a championship or an also-ran. However, if you ask coaches what leadership looks like on their teams, you will get a full spectrum of responses involving a host of various traits. Some of those traits can be unique to the sport, while some can be applied in many settings. The challenge coaches face building leadership from within and maintaining a team environment that supports its growth. If coaches make leadership a priority, then the leadership pipeline will always have the next person ready to fill leadership roles. Here are a few things coaches should consider when trying to develop leaders.
CREATE OPPORTUNITY FOR LEADERS
We have seen the coaches that control all the aspects of the team. They plan everything from the team t-shirt to the awards and all points in between. These coaches can be successful, and many are through sheer force of personality. However, leadership on the team requires the coach to let go of some of that control. The coach needs to be willing to let the team make some choices and allow for input. Potential leaders will not speak up when they are not given an opportunity. Potential leaders will also stop speaking up if there is no feedback on what they are expressing. This platform to develop goes beyond just having “Captains”. Even if the team elects them, they need a voice and an ear if leadership is the end goal.
Not all leaders are vocal. Some leaders will role-model the expectations of the team with not a single spoken word. A returning athlete that shows up on time is ready to practice, well packed for travel, and shows confidence in their actions can be just as effective as the vocal leader. Teammates will watch them, and there is a good chance they will begin to emulate the athlete. Sometimes the athlete is just doing what they think is correct and is not seeking a role, but the role finds them. All kinds of leaders can help the team and coach if they are given a chance.
If you look around on teams with strong leadership, you will see that it is not an accident. The culture of the team is designed to foster leadership. Good coaches will admit, and bad coaches will deny that a coach (or even mentor) ‘s job is to become progressively unnecessary. This does not mean the coach is unwanted, but rather the athlete will gain a greater understanding of what and why things are done over time. The coach will not need to be as involved and can count on the team leader to do some of the work maintaining or even developing the team’s culture. If a coach is willing to facilitate and allow this of their athletes, then leadership can develop.
Coaches can use early season practices to foster leadership. Allowing leaders to take roll or start warm-ups. Having quick meetings with the team to hear feedback from leaders that other team members can see and feel like their questions, which they may not be confident enough to ask, are being answered. Being in charge of the team camp set-up/breakdown or even sweeping the bus can all be actions that unearth leaders. Young athletes tend to bond better with peers than adults as they flow into the teen years. Having a leadership voice from teammates sometimes can be the voice of the coach. Coaches can use that voice as part of the culture while not giving up the coach’s role and responsibility.
SUPPORT THE BEHAVIOR
Coaches can develop a long list of values they want from leaders, but what about the behaviors? Behaviors are observable actions that all can see. When coaches see these behaviors, they should praise them. A list of core team values can be nice handouts at pre-season meetings, but praising desirable behaviors is more effective. When athletes are praising teammates, going above and beyond, or influencing teammates in the direction of team goals, the coach should make sure everyone knows these are some of the behaviors that demonstrate leadership. These are the behaviors that make the team better. It is also possible that the leaders you find are not the most senior or experienced on your team. In my article about Horizontal Leadership we discuss how leaders can emerge from any group.
As a youth coach hoping to develop leadership, you must support the behaviors that develop your program’s leaders in the upcoming seasons. Try to avoid the false belief that only veterans of your program are wired to lead or capable of leadership. Veteran coaches will tell you that sometimes the most senior athletes are the ones that have started to cut corners. If their behavior is not in line with the team’s goals, let them know before it creeps into the team. With strong leaders, the coach may not even have to be the one that has the conversation.
Leadership in all aspects of society is very fluid. Leaders from the past followed simple guidelines. These guidelines still apply today, but they need to be tweaked to fit a changing society and much different youth sports world. Fifty years ago, the word of the coach was absolute. Coaching sometimes lined up with drill sergeant tendencies. While old-school is not a bad thing by default, today, there are multiple year-round sports programs, trainers, specialty coaches, and significant financial investments in youth sports. A lone coach’s voice can sometimes be drowned out.
Having a team culture supporting and nurturing leadership from all areas means the coach does not have to be the only voice for the team. A supportive culture ultimately helps everyone on the team. The coach can coach, the team is supportive of itself, and no question or concern is missed. Find the leaders on your team and help them develop the leadership style best suited to them. Coaches who foster leadership will get leadership and ultimately wonder how they coached effectively without it.