5 simple questions to ask your athletes about leadership

written by Erica Quam

Leadership is such a hot topic for coaches and teams....especially at the beginning of the season when teams are at the forming stage of group development - all new and nice! 

There are tons of different books, many different views, and some strong opinions about 'how one should lead' and 'be led'.

It's not easy to be a leader!  Everyone has a different style.  Are you born with it? 

Leaders need to be adaptable to who they are leading and take into account the specific situation they are in. With all of this information, how do you figure out what to do? It seems so elusive! There's so much to say, where do you even start?

As a coach, you are a leader. Whether you consciously think about it or not, you teach your athletes about leadership every single day. Take some time to talk about it and be prepared to coach your athletes on how to develop into better leaders.

In leadership - as with your sport - there are skills that can be learned and developed to improve.

Here are 5 simple questions to start that conversation:

  1. Who are the leaders that you admire?
  2. What qualities make them (or made them) a great leader, in your opinion?
  3. What can you do to support leadership on this team - in your coaches, in your captains, in your peers?
  4. Where do you see yourself playing an active leadership role on this team? 
  5. What can you do to lead yourself?

You can facilitate this discussion in many different ways. I'll share one way - then get creative! Change and adapt it to fit your unique team.

I'm a thinker. I process a little more slowly. I also learn by writing things down. You may have a few athletes like me on your team. Give them a little more time.

Write these questions up on the board, give your athletes a piece of paper, and allow them to have a few minutes to think and write.

Next, I'm a big believer in getting your athletes talking to each other - in pairs or groups of 3 - before you get them talking in a big group. This is where the real magic happens! This is where they share things they wouldn't share right away (or ever...) in a bigger group. You could have them go through all of the questions with one person or you could do a little "speed dating" and switch partners - so they talk with more than one teammate.

Whatever way you decide to go, give them some ground rules! These athletes are used to texting...instead of talking.

  • Have one person do the talking and the other do the listening.
  • When they are listening, they are ONLY listening. They aren't responding - or adding to the story. 
  • They aren't trying to come up with the next thing to say. (Because they've already written it down!) 
  • They are making eye contact. (This can freak people out AND it's good!)
  • You can tell them who goes first (like earliest birthday in the year or whatever...) and then tell them when to switch roles.

This piece alone will help build trust. If they follow the guidelines...they will leave the conversation feeling listened to and heard - which is something every person ultimately wants. That is one of our basic needs as humans. Depending on how well they know the other person, listening to their teammate's answers may even bring about a better understanding of that person - and their beliefs and background.

SUPER! Right? Who doesn't want that on their team? It may even be worth 15 or 30 minutes of your practice time!

Okay, so back on track. These conversations can reveal some valuable information.

Bring them back to discuss these 5 questions as a big group.

  1. Who were some of the leaders you talked to your partner about?
  2. What were some qualities that stood out?

Ask a few more questions to draw from their experience of talking with their partner...and tie that back into the group. (I know, I know...that's more than the 5 questions I promised you in the title...but I want you to get your money's worth!)

  • What did you learn from talking to your partner?
  • Did anything they say resonate with you?
  • Did you identify with it?
  • Did you have any ah-ha's?

3. Now, what about supporting leadership on the team? What did you think about that???

This gets into a discussion about active followership - which is one of the 4 leadership roles. We often think of leadership as only designated leaders - like the coach or the captains. But really, all leaders need followers. The best leaders have active followers - who are engaged in the process, who share information and opinions, and provide insight and feedback. They aren't just blindly following. Sheep follow blindly. 

So, what will your team bring up and talk about? This could get juicy!

The conversation could go back to past examples...of where things didn't go so well. It could move them forward to how to do things differently. When this discussion comes from them instead of you telling them what they SHOULD do...it can be so much more powerful.

Be ready to help facilitate here: draw out the good points and ask questions to bring out the best points.

4. Here you can ask them to talk about their role on the team. Where can they contribute? What area will they engage?

This introduces the next leadership role: peer leadership. I love this role because it lets freshmen step up. It gets sophomores involved. Instead of waiting two long years until they are upperclassmen...these athletes practice leadership and get involved from the start. From the very moment you have this discussion.

Leading peers can be the tricky! There is some give and take, there is some compromise. What are you wiling to give up for the good of the group and what do you feel strongly about that you will stand up for? 

Finally...the last question applies to everyone. It's all about self leadership.

5. What are you going to do - within your own personal sphere of influence - to lead and take care of yourself?

This is where we all begin as a leader - by leading ourself. We all have a multitude of choices to make everyday. We choose where to go, what to do, who to do it with, and how to do it. What decisions are you going to make to lead yourself? 

Ask your team these 5 questions. Engage in a discussion about leadership. And get back to me. I'd love to hear what you learn.