Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Aug 1, 1997 – Dr. John F. Murray – Optimizing team performance requires skillful and effective leadership. Coaches at all levels of play from high school to national teams are appointed as leaders, but leadership is never automatically granted. It demands knowledge, insight, hard work, and the respect of team members. Often, players perform crucial leadership roles too. All teams need talented and experienced players, but good leadership can transform an average team into a great one. Let’s examine leadership more closely.

What is Leadership?

Leadership is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “action or influence necessary for the direction or organization of effort in a group undertaking.” In sports this translates into having a team vision and then translating that vision into reality. A distinction is sometimes made between managers and leaders. Whereas managers carry out team policy without thinking twice, leaders constantly monitor the team’s situation and develop policy for the future and beyond.
Where does leadership begin? It starts with a consistent emphasis on “team” and an attitude of “we.” This basic foundation allows for a challenging yet encouraging setting where individuals are rewarded for laying it all on the line for the group. Great leaders also empower their athletes to become personally responsible for setting and achieving goals which benefit everyone (See the May 1996 Mental Equipment: The Art of Goal Setting).

Common Pitfalls

Coaches sometimes become so controlling that they actually lose control by undermining players’ intrinsic motivation (See the September 1996 Mental Equipment: The Motivation to Achieve). Players fight much harder and longer when they believe that their goals come from within. Pride of ownership is invaluable! Mercenary soldiers are never as strong as those fighting for their own values and ideals. So while leaders provide team vision and direction, they must be sure that players understand and incorporate this vision into their own values.

Another problem arises when team members are treated exactly the same without regard to their individual backgrounds and needs. This usually happens when coaches set and enforce too many rules without respecting the diversity of individual players. No two players on a team are the same, so motivating them to great feats requires incredible flexibility. Basic rules should never be violated (e.g., giving a total effort, attending practices), but careful attention to diversity will help leaders extract the maximum effort from each player.

Qualities of Great Leaders

Here are some of the characteristics of effective leaders … spelling LEADERSHIP:

L ove of Knowledge …. Convinced that learning never ends,
study the sport continually
E mpathic…………… Genuinely focused on the
perspectives and needs of players
A warenss of Self……. Frequently examine own strengths
and weaknesses
D etermined…………. Competitive and persistent
E nergetic………….. Energized for success
R esponsible………… Assume responsibility for team
S elf-Confident …….. Strongly believe in own abilities
H ighly Flexible…….. Adapts to many situations
quickly and effectively
I nternally Controlled.. Strong sense of inner strength,
purpose, and self-control
P ersuasive…………. Ability to win others over with
great communication skills

Activities to Improve Leadership

Here are some specific tips to enhance leadership on your team:

Frequently elicit feedback from coaches and team members regarding team leadership, morale, needed changes, hopes, and goals. Encourage players to be honest and open. Let them show you what you can do to help them motivate themselves even more

Don’t be afraid to take an unpopular stand. Sticking by solid principles is not always easy, but the team will ultimately respect your inner strength.

Understand the previous administration before implementing your own agenda. Customs change very slowly, so it is wise to know what worked and did not work in the past.

Delegate leadership responsibilities to others. It is erroneous to monopolize leadership. Spread the power around and grant others the freedom to add their insight to the overall vision.

Meet with each member of your team regularly to allow them a private forum to communicate ideas that are less easily discussed in public.

Encourage your athletes to explore issues with a qualified Sport Psychologist, if available. Confidentiality is guaranteed and insight is often gained to deal with both athletic performance and other issues that might be impairing performance.