Three different ways to look at leadership that will help every single athlete on your team

written by Erica Quam


One thing I hear from coaches all the time is that their team is struggling because of a 'lack of leadership'.

I ask them what they mean by that phrase 'lack of leadership'.

They often talk about team captains who aren't doing their job "because they're afraid to hold people accountable" or a few of their seniors have "checked out...just biding their time until their done."

"Okay," I respond..."so, what about the rest of your team? What's the leadership like on the rest of your team?

This question usually stumps them. Because most coaches are only thinking about their team captains or seniors when they think about leadership.

And's a legitimate place to start. If you define a leader as someone who has influence...your team captains and your senior class probably have a lot of influence on your team. And as all coaches know...their influence isn't always going to be positive!

Before you throw in the towel and chalk it up to a 'lack of leadership', let's look at leadership from a different angle.

Here's my challenge to you:

Start asking yourself this question: How can I help every single member of my team become a better leader? (And you may have a lot of people on your how can you and your staff divide and conquer.)

Great leaders influence others through the role they play, the skills they develop, and their own personal style. Take a look at each one of these a little more closely.

1. Your athletes can be leaders from a variety of different roles:

  1. Designated leader
  2. Active follower
  3. Peer leader
  4. Self leader

Designated leader may technically be "in charge". This leader may have a title or seniority - like a coach, a captain, or the senior.

[Note: This is where leadership starts and stops on most teams. Once you're a captain or a senior...then you're a leader. Read on about the other three roles to see the leadership potential you can tap into!]

Active followers support the leadership within the designated leaders. They provide data, observations, they question when appropriate, offer constructive feedback, and a different perspective. Active followers are also leaders...leading from behind.

Peer leaders look around and lead one another. Your freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors are all peers with one another. Who are the leaders who emerge amongst these groups? 

Self leadership is asking yourself what you can do - within your own personal sphere of influence - for the good of the team? Great self leaders are organized, on time, model excellent self care, and help others without doing their share of the work.

Once you can get more of your athletes "trying on" these different leadership roles, it's time to help them focus on developing their skills. 

2. Your athletes can work on a variety of leadership skills:

  • Self awareness
  • Communication
  • Teambuilding
  • Competency
  • Vision and action
  • Judgement & decision-making
  • Tolerance for adversity & uncertainty

Let's look at some general examples of what these skills might look like when they're done and done well:

Leaders with a great sense of self awareness can look what's going on inside themselves as they are leading others. They have their own thoughts, feelings, wants, and sensations going on and manage that as they work with others.

Leaders who communicate well do a lot of listening. They show respect, they are clear, and their non-verbal messages are consistent with what they say.

Leaders who are good at team-building are willing to give up something they want for the good for the team. They take initiative while remaining respectful and inclusive of teammates.

Leaders who are competent understand how easy it is to become complacent if they aren't mindful and begin to backslide. Competent leaders can share their what they know with novices. This helps them to sharpen their own skills.

Leaders who have great vision and action are able to see the bigger picture. Then, they break down the journey into smaller steps and to continue making progress towards the bigger goal. 

Leaders who are skilled at judgement and decision-making have likely learned from personal experience. They reflect on past decisions and apply this knowledge to future opportunities. They find ways to make even small improvements.

Leaders who have great tolerance for adversity and uncertainty are able to keep a cool head during difficult times. They may even bring some humor to the situation as a way to lighten the mood. They're resilient, able to bounce back, and get people refocused on the very next step to take.

Help your athletes focus in on one or two leadership skills each semester. Where can they grow that would make the biggest difference for them and your team?

3. Your athletes can develop their own style of leading

  • Are they more direct or indirect when talking with other people?
  • Are they faster paced or slower paced?
  • Are they more task focused or relationship focused?

When one of your athletes steps into the role of team captain, they may think they have to lead a certain way. They may try and model one of the captains from last year. That style might not work for them. What works for one person might not be a great fit for someone else.

Your team needs leaders from different styles. Great leaders adapt their behavior to build trust and rapport. You can help your athletes discover their own signature style of leading. Have them take a DiSC, do a strengths inventory, or a variety of other tools that will help them understand themselves at a deeper level.

Every single person you coach has the opportunity to become a better leader - every single day. Are you tired of the leadership from your captains or senior class? Put your focus somewhere else.

Expand the way you think and talk about leadership. Give every single athlete permission to step up and lead. Point out leadership when you see it. You may start to notice your team expanding - because they now recognize how they can be a positive influence and contribute to your team at a deeper level.

Now, it's your turn. Share any ah-ha's or insights you had from reading this in the comments below and one action step you can take with your team.