By Jeff Arbogast
The Six Traits of Team Leaders
Although there is no exact science for what makes a winning team in high school sports, having a team leader may have as much of an impact as recruiting, talent, or training and skill development.
What constitutes a leader is even more difficult to specify, but certain traits tend to be more common than others. Regardless, after the qualities of a leader are identified, one overriding question remains: Is it possible to coach, encourage or foster these traits for the betterment of the team?
What constitutes team leadership? This concept has differences that depend upon the sport, gender, size of team and dominant traits desired or present in athletes who excel in that sport. In all cases, coaches are interested in the qualities of individual team member leadership, not any type of coaching leadership that an adult portrays. Among other concepts, a team leader must . . .
- Inspire his or her teammates.
- Earn respect of fellow team members through word and deed.
- Make appropriate choices on and off the athletic field.
- Follow coaching instruction in letter and spirit.
- Act as a communication liaison between coach and athletes and athletes themselves.
- React at his or her best under stress.
These can be called the “Six Traits of Athletic Leadership.”
This type of leadership is different from that displayed by the athlete with the most blocks, forehand winners or pins, although at times the athlete with the best stats may also be your best leader. The effort required to inspire others and earn their respect does not come easily though, and the leader who emerges is usually one who has established some history over time, not someone who displays an overt act during tryouts in the hopes of upstaging others.
Recognition of Leadership Potential
Coaches should take what time to develop background knowledge of their team members. In many team sports, coaches may have some awareness of the “farm system” and the reputation certain kids have as “clutch” performers – and they may have the respect and ability to lead.
Listen to the locker room chat – the tone of conversation when kids are discussed . . . the nuances of relationships, families and friendships. Coaches should use every piece of available data to help identify the potential leaders on their teams. Once coaches can monitor the developing leaders, they can control the amount of responsibility the leaders have in order to allow them to mature predictably.
Leadership traits can be coached, but leadership itself is a difficult concept for high school athletes to understand. Usually, it is easier for a coach to focus on instructing athletes in the “Six Traits.” These individual concepts are much easier for a high school competitor to grasp than a theoretical idea of “leadership” of a team of peers.
However, focusing on setting a positive example, earning respect of teammates and always performing properly on and off the field are small bites of leadership that an adolescent can comprehend. In time, with a coach directing, leaders from the underclass may be groomed to take charge as they mature, just by presenting the “Six Traits” and allowing the best qualities of the team’s natural leaders to come forward.
One of the more challenging tasks for coaches is stepping back and allowing the team’s natural leaders to come forward. Most of the time, a positive leader will step forward, although parental pressures, outside influences and relationships, and changing priorities may impact leadership development.
Athletes will be more likely to follow a leader they feel has developed naturally than one that the coach “anoints” or selects, regardless of how fair and unbiased the selection process. If the coach has been monitoring the junior varsity and younger competitors, he or she should have adequate knowledge about upcoming leadership talent (or the lack thereof) and should be able to direct development.
In order to help the natural leaders emerge, coaches should provide opportunities for them to exercise some initiative and appear in front of their teammates. This may take the form of a varsity and junior varsity captain, at times working together to develop continuity, and directing social and motivational events, team gatherings, as well as assignments of menial tasks within the team, or meting out team rewards. The smaller opportunities will develop the foundation of leadership, but the real goal is the attention that will be paid to the team leader during “crunch time.”
Coaches can establish a step-by-step process to develop the principles of leadership outlined in the “Six Traits,” but what they are really after is the exercising of leadership when the team needs it most. So, smaller, non-competitive projects will lead to a sense of trust and respect forming within the team and centered around the leader or captain. That can be exploited as necessary when the outcome of a contest is on the line and someone on the team needs to step up, driven by the leader.
The Lack of a Leader
Occasionally, a leader may not emerge, or the leadership does not reflect the “Six Traits” or other qualities a coach would like to see. It is usually preferable to suppress the desire to force leadership on the “best available” candidate. Student-athletes are difficult to fool, so if they do not hold respect for a team leader, “manufacturing” one is usually counterproductive. If no leader is present on the team, coaches should consider the following:
- Distribute tasks, assignments and responsibilities evenly to those who show the most maturity on the team, regardless of year in school.
- Match these responsibilities and assignments according to individual qualities, i.e., stats to a good math whiz, or team party invitations to the socially adept athlete.
- Accent parents and community help to make up for lack of student-athlete initiative.
- Pay more attention to jump-starting communication with each athlete.
It is possible for the season to continue a season without an obvious team leader, but the diversification of tasks and responsibilities will help any team progress and feel ownership of team destiny.
The Coach-Leader Interaction
Formulate a productive coach-leader relationship with two main precepts: discipline and consistency. In order for the team leader(s) to help direct and encourage, the basic team rules and consequences should be clear and followed on a consistent basis. The team leader will be able to direct and support good conduct both on and off the field or court as long as he or she knows what is expected.
This might necessitate a coach-leader or coach-captain meeting early in the season, perhaps followed up by regular opportunities for a team leader to continue communication throughout the season. To maximize this communication, the coach should actively listen to the feedback from the team leader.
A good relationship between coach and team leader will also allow for growth in leadership by the team captain and others in line to help direct the team. This opportunity to lead will also require a building of trust in the team leader, closely observed by the coach. Trust and communication build upon each other.
Building for the Future
Coaches will be able to solidify strong team bonds, good communication and positive relationships between team members by encouraging potential team leaders to follow the “Six Traits.” Development of these traits within team leaders will have a strong impact on potential championships and keep the team on top!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Arbogast has been the boys and girls cross country coach at Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah, for the past 31 years and the boys and girls track teams for 29 years. He has led his teams to 10 state championships and annually has one of the nation’s top cross country programs. He has served on the NFHS Coaches Publications Committee since 2003 and currently serves as chair.