Leadership in Sports

From high school stadiums to professional arenas, sports today are played in a very competitive environment.  Coaches and players feel the pressure to succeed, and the measure of success is found in the win / loss column.  That's why, as a coach and a player, leadership in sports is getting so much attention.

The same concepts that apply to the workplace are very much the same as those found in sports.  Coaches and managers try to motivate their "players" to reach their full potential.  When everyone on the team understands the direction and strategy the manager or coach has developed, then success is much easier to obtain.

Head Coaches as Leaders

Since they're determining the starting lineup, head coaches have position power over all players.  But the role of a head coach needs to be more than just a good judge of a player's abilities.  To maximize the team's chances of winning, it's necessary to apply the same leadership theories that exist in today's workplace.

That means treating players with the respect they deserve.  That also means understanding that the same leadership techniques do not apply to all players.  As is the case with workers of varying strengths and weaknesses, sports coaches also need to flex their leadership style and practice the teachings of conditional leadership.

Examples of Leadership at Work in Sports

There are many examples of team owners or general managers demonstrating an understanding of the dynamics of leadership in professional sports.  Since we're based out of the New York metropolitan area, here's an example coming from the New York Giants.

Jim Fassel was the head coach of the N.Y. Giants from 1997 through 2003.  In his first year as the head coach of the Giants he was 10-5.  In 2000, he led the team to a 12-4 record and a trip to the Super Bowl.  Just three years later, the Giants finished up 4-12, and it was time for a change.

According to all accounts, the players liked Coach Fassel.  In fact, he is well known for his "playoff guarantee" during the 2000 season in which he led the Giants to what was thought to be an improbable Super Bowl run.

But with a 4-14 record in 2003, the Giants decided to replace Jim Fassel with Tom Coughlin to start the 2004 season.  It was certainly no accident that Tom's leadership style was much different than Jim's.  Coach Fassel had become a friend of the players, and Tom Coughlin was a no-nonsense guy with a firm hand.

In 2003, Fassel was demonstrating the coaching leadership style; he was still the leader of the team, but he sought advice from players in a participative manner.  The team's management realized it was time for a change so they brought in Tom Coughlin.

Tom's leadership style was to give much more direction; he was even autocratic at times.  He was brought in to instill a sense of discipline back into the team.  It is no accident Tom was selected; he demonstrates the leadership style that is most effective when a turnaround is needed; whether that be in a company or a sports franchise.

Getting the Most Out of Players

The great head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi once said "Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile."  It's not easy to be an effective leader, it takes hard work to gain the confidence of the team and understand the motivational dynamics of each player.

Fortunately, there are some simple rules that apply to all leadership situations, including sports:

  • Treat players with respect to earn their respect.
  • Try to understand each player on the team well enough to be able to identify their specific strengths and weaknesses.
  • Lead by example; coaches that expect players to be on time should never be late for a meeting.
  • Share strategy with players; it is much easier for players to support a strategy if they understand it.
  • Remain decisive and confident.  A coach's confidence can be contagious.  If the players know a coach believes in them, they might start believing in themselves too.
  • Finally, instruct players in a positive manner.

This last point is often missed by inexperienced coaches and leaders alike, and this rule applies to all sports.  For example, at a critical point in a baseball game, don't tell the pitcher:

"Whatever you do, don't throw one high and inside, this guy will hit it over the fence."

Instead, say:

"I want you to strike this guy out with a fast one, low and outside."

Suggested Reading

The same formula in the workplace applies to sports.  Our suggested reading list includes two articles that outline the fundamentals of leadership theory:

Even Vince Lombardi recognized that worthwhile goals take effort to achieve.  Coaches that want to be leaders or players that want to step up into a leadership position, such as team captain, need to learn how effective leaders in the workplace accomplish above average results.  Those above average results in the workplace can translate into victories on the playing field.


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