How does a high school or college coach develop leadership on his team using today’s young players? In this world of organized youth sports, kids are chauffeured around from practice to practice, team to team, season to season, by parents and adults who lead every step of the way. Where a generational ago, kids organized their own games and activities in neighborhood groups, today’s kids have their teams selected for them by parent drafts. Instead of making decisions themselves about strategy, play-calling, and disputes, kids now have adult coaches who do all of that for them. Thus, when young athletes get to high school and college, they haven’t yet acquired the ability to lead, motivate, or make strategic decisions.
How do you get athletes to be leaders when all the decisions are already made for them? If the football coach calls all the plays for the quarterback, the baseball coach calls all the pitches through the catcher, and the basketball coach signals every play in the half court set, how can we expect to have leaders on our teams?
Some coaches select captains and assume this will be the position of leadership. They often choose their captain as a reward position rather than an earned position. But naming a player “captain” does not necessarily make him a good leader. Coaches need to develop leaders who help make decisions and it should be done at every level including youth sports.
If organized activities and sports have left our youth with too much dependence on adult direction, how can coaches develop leadership from within the team? Past history suggests that the older members of a society are the wiser and have experienced the most, so they are natural leaders of the younger members. In a team setting, this would be the seniors on a high school or college team. Start with this subset and observe if a senior player or two has the natural leadership skills and qualities you desire for your program. These qualities could include: solid citizen, good student, hard worker in practice, and/or well-respected by peers. But a Captain should also show concern for others, a willingness to inspire teammates, all while displaying the traits you, as coach, want in your leader.
Consider the position a potential leader plays on the team. In basketball, point guard is a position of natural leadership because he calls plays, handles the ball a lot, and is usually the first one back on defense. But your best point guard just might not be quite what you want for a captain. Maybe he is young and not yet comfortable leading his older teammates. Another position player might be a better fit as captain and even a natural at leading his teammates. It doesn’t really matter what position your leader plays, but hopefully he is someone who is on the floor a lot during the game.
Personally, I like having a captain at both the guard and the post position on my teams. That way I develop two leaders and it gives us more leadership available when one or the other is out of the game. Since I have daily breakdown drills involving the posts at one end of the floor and guards at the other, I also have a leader for both drill stations. I actually like having three captains for the meeting at the start of a game. Generally, this includes the post and guard leaders (captains) and a third representative that can rotate through the team. The third spot is where I will consider a senior who has shown good leadership skills during the season, or quite often, I rotate in a lower class player who I believe will be a leader on the team next season. With this system, I have the flexibility to reward more leaders or develop leadership for future teams.
As coach, you must be patient when choosing your captains. Get to know the players well before settling in with one or two leaders for your team. Remember, whoever your leaders are, the rest of the team will follow. You don’t want them following in the wrong direction, so choose wisely.
10 Suggestions for Developing Leadership on Your Team
- Meet with potential leaders (the returning juniors in most cases) as soon as you intend to start workouts for the next season. This could be in the Spring before Spring or Summer League workouts, and then again in the Fall, before Fall conditioning starts.
- In these pre-season meetings, discuss the goals and objectives for the upcoming season. Don’t lecture, dictate or intimidate in this meeting, but rather, make it an open discussion where the players express to you their thoughts. Listen carefully and get as much input from them as you can in the off-season. This will allow the players to practice leadership skills and also help you evaluate their goals for the upcoming season.
- Leaders should be responsible for setting up your practice court. They can assign players to sweep the floor, get out the basketballs, and set up other training equipment. This creates a “shared responsibility” for everyone involved in the program.
- Observe your players over the spring and summer to see if anyone is stepping up as a legitimate leader. You can encourage those who seem to be “naturals” as your off-season program progresses. Teach them to use “on-court” huddles during tense times to communicate with each other.
5. Have potential leaders direct the stretching and warm-ups before a practice session or summer game. As coach, you don’t need to be the only voice heard in practice every day.
- Let the leaders teach the newer members of the team your drills and skills at the beginning of the season. They will help get the new players up to speed much faster than you can alone. Besides, what could be a better way to reinforce what they have learned then having the players teach it to someone else?
- When practice is not going well, have the Captains huddle up the team (or sub-groups) and talk to the group about the importance of giving a better effort. Rather than you getting upset at the team’s efforts, put the responsibility on them and let them work it out. This will lead to great communication on the court during games, and often save you a timeout which would otherwise be wasted on a prep talk. Leaders need to learn how to motivate too.
- Your Captains should be responsible for the pre game locker room atmosphere. They should set the mood before the game with the focus and attitude you desire. Then you can step out of the way and let them bond and prepare together.
- Captains are responsible for the condition of the locker room after practice and games. They make sure everyone cleans up after themselves.
- Captains meet with you periodically during the season to discuss problems, changes, new ideas, and other subjects that might come up. When they are comfortable coming to you with concerns, then you know you have developed some good leaders.