Leadership Development

Facilitate opportunities for athletes to develop and practice leadership skills.

WHY: Sports are generally perceived as fertile ground for leadership development; however, research indicates coaches need to intentionally focus on leadership to maximize outcomes for athletes. Coach facilitation of team-wide leadership development ultimately contributes to increased athlete ownership of team culture, training outcomes, and competitive performance. Athletes who lead themselves and their peers take accountability for their own growth and improvement and support others to do the same. Similarly, athlete-leaders share the load of social-emotional support for and with each other.

HOW: The coach designs strategies for athletes to take on formal and informal leadership roles within the team as appropriate. The coach identifies the “natural” (positional/formal) leaders who are in those roles because of seniority, age, or skill and supports them to utilize that position in service of team aims and values. 

The coach also helps identify opportunities for younger or less assured athletes to cultivate their leadership skills throughout a season or throughout their time in the program. Leadership development is at the core of the holistic approach to coaching, therefore it can be facilitated through athlete-centered coaching behaviors such as incorporating athlete input (shared decision-making), allowing space for independent thinking and problem-solving, and building relationships. More specifically opportunities for leadership may include selecting and training team captains and preparing athletes to lead meetings, debriefings, practice sessions, drills, and warm-up and recovery routines. Off the field activities may include but are not limited to mentoring and coaching other athletes, assisting with practice planning and aspects of competition management, and engaging with the community.

Video Resources

One of the foundations of the leadership development process is a gradual development and practice of the ancillary capacities of your athletes (the knowledge base of an athlete and specific techniques related to warm-up, cool-down, nutrition/hydration, recovery, tapering and peaking, and mental preparation). In this video from the University of Washington volleyball practice (a top-ranked Division I program - Go Dawgs!), athletes are in charge of the warm-up routine, while the coach spends time setting up for practice. It is evident that the athletes are familiar with the routine and competent in the execution, which allows us to assume that the coach at some point spent time with them explaining the importance of this routine, providing examples, discussing any issues, and then allowing athletes to execute. 

Notice the athletes are involved in fairly complex, self-led, sport-specific drills, as well as highly individual exercises. In this way, each athlete is in charge of or showing leadership capacity with regard to her own development. This exercise might look different with younger athletes but some element of self-led activity is paramount to leadership development. The sound is muted because the important element of the video is the way the athletes are interacting with each other and the activity.



In this video from a middle school cross-country practice, the head coach challenges one of the older athletes to name all the students in the circle. By creating this leadership development opportunity, the head coach clearly demonstrates her knowledge of the middle school athletics landscape (a large number of athletes, differences in age, relative anonymity, etc.), and facilitates a much needed relationship-building process among the athletes in a fun and engaging fashion.

Research shows that coaches need to be explicit when facilitating the development and transfer of life skills through sports participation - leadership being an important life skill. One of the key roles of both formal and informal leaders is their ability to lead/coach/mentor their teammates during practice and competition, as well as off the field. In this video, a rowing coach is teaching an athlete how to communicate with her teammates in the boat in order to achieve common goals. The coach also identifies important characteristics of effective leaders, such as self-awareness, the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives, and framing communications.



NBA - Creating Leadership Development Opportunities During Competition

This video resource, featuring Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr, illustrates an athlete-centered approach to coaching and leadership development and application. Instead of a typical competition routine of calling a timeout and using the drawing board to go over the game strategies and tactics with his athletes, Coach Kerr designates one of the players to lead the team huddle.

Coaches as Educators - Developing Leadership

This video from Harvard Athletics offers insights on the importance of incorporating the objective of leadership development on and off the field into the values of the organization as a whole, as well as into the coaching philosophies of a variety of individual and team sports. Harvard coaches stress the importance of developing formal and informal leaders through shared decision-making, problem-solving, and other strategies that facilitate athlete empowerment. Think about how these principles and strategies can inform your sports program.

Enhancing Youth Leadership Through Sport and Physical Education

This article is a great resource for athlete-centered leadership development strategies in youth sports. One of the focal points highlights the need for coaches to relinquish a certain amount of control in order to empower the athletes and let them lead - of course, this environment must be safe and age-appropriate. A key asset of this publication is the discussion of key principles (intentionality, for example) and practical strategies (captain meetings, for example) that can be studied by coaches, administrators, and parents interested in leadership development in youth sports. Great article and fairly short for an academic publication.