Leadership is Hard!

written by Erica Quam

Leadership. It's harder than it sounds.

As a young head coach, I definitely had an incorrect assumption my first year - that athletes would arrive to the team, know how to lead, and be the spark to bring the group together. 

I quickly learned as a coach, I had to be the leader first. It was my role to get everyone on the same page and get everyone speaking the same language.

Team-building wouldn't just happen automatically - at least until a stronger culture of leadership was established on the team.

Here are three key elements I used to teach leadership to my team: 


Introduce a discussion on leadership by asking your team a series of open-ended questions. Make leadership come alive for them! 

Start with the what - what is leadership? Which usually stumps people. It's a little hard to define - from that question alone. This question gets them thinking.

Next, ask - what does it mean to be a good leader? This question usually generates a little more discussion. People start talking about more specific leadership qualities. 

You could add in - can you think of an example of poor leadership? What did that look like? Things begin to flow!

Have them write down the 3 most influential leaders they have learned from in life. This begins to connect them - at a personal level - to the idea of leadership.

Once they have 3 names written down, ask them, what specifically about each person did you most admire? They begin to get effective leadership - at a more intuitive level. 

The discussion moves them from the heads to their hearts - it gets them connected with the emotions and feelings generated by the impact of leadership.

It's fascinating to see who they come up with and and even more interesting to hear what qualities they admire about each person. Encourage them to come up with 5 to 10 qualities.

I found if you ask them to list their own strengths as a leader, they may struggle...and stare blankly back at you and not write anything down. It can be hard to recognize and acknowledge these qualities in yourself!

So, instead, I would tell my athletes, "The things you admire in other people are usually things you already possess within yourself." It's the upside to the phrase, 'you spot it, you've got it.'  

Have them go back to their list and have a partner (someone they trust) point out the qualities they see. This can help your team begin to recognize leadership qualities within one another.


First, leadership takes practice. Don't expect them to become better leaders if it's a one and done concept for you as a coach.

Next, leadership is something for every athlete on your team to talk about, practice, and improve upon. Don't limit your team's potential by only talking to your captains about leadership! 

There are always a few athletes who want to be captain to be in charge of the social activities of the team - life outside the athletic arena. Which in college can mean all kinds of things. This is always bad news! Your team captains need to be stronger than your social directors.

When I started as head coach, I actually found that most athletes did NOT want to be in a leadership role: they didn't want to bring issues to the coach; they didn't want to hold teammates accountable and risk people not liking them; they wanted to fly under the radar and just do their own thing.

The culture of the team began to shift when athletes realized they each had a leadership role. 

There are four different leadership roles on a team: 1. the designated leaders - the coach(es) and the team captain(s) 2. active followers 3. peer leaders and 4. self leaders. All are important!

We often think of leadership only in terms of the designated leaders. The real power of teaching leadership to your entire team is getting everyone involved and showing them how much influence they can have on the direction and momentum of the group.

If you can get your athletes to be more active followers, they then have a voice. They begin to contribute their input to decisions being made - not just accepting OR complaining. There's more commitment and buy-in.

Next, give your athletes opportunities to lead their peers. There are many leaders that can arise from peer leadership. For me, this meant getting freshmen to step up to lead one another - instead of sitting back and having the upper classmen tell them everything.

Finally, teach the concept of self leadership. Each person is responsible for taking care of the things that are within their own sphere of influence and control. Here are examples if self leadership: get good sleep, eat healthy, fuel your body for peak performance, speak up to let people know what you need or when you are struggling, etc. If athletes can learn to better lead themselves, they will be able to contribute more to the good of the team.


This is a crucial piece to helping your athletes become better leaders. I believe leadership is about practice, not perfection. A lot of people don't want to be leaders because they think won't be good at it. Or they have done it and it didn't go well. It's all about practice!

The debrief helps that transference to take place. Otherwise, things may happen - that could be amazing teachable moments - but if you don't pause to talk about it, the lesson gets lost.

Put your athletes in different leadership situations where they can make decisions and then come back and talk about it. What went well? What didn't go well? What could be done differently next time?

The debrief is a key part of experiential learning: connecting an experience with a lesson that can be taken and applied to other areas of life. And as a coach, that's an important part of our role - teaching our athletes important skills - through sports - that can then help them be stronger leaders out in the world.

Thanks for reading! I hope this post helps you think a little more about leadership and how you model it, teach it, and talk about it with your athletes. Share your thoughts with this community in the comments below.