Fearless Leader

January 29, 2015
On the court and off, your student-athlete leaders are the heart and soul of your athletics program. Providing them with meaningful training will directly impact their success--and yours.
By Jeff Janssen

Jeff Janssen is Director of the Janssen Sports Leadership Center, in Cary, N.C., which directs leadership academies at North Carolina, Illinois, Pitt, Yale, Wake Forest, Baylor, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Nevada, and Winston-Salem State. A former athletic administrator at the University of Arizona, Janssen is the author of The Team Captain's Leadership Manual and can be reached at: www.teamcaptainsnetwork.com or www.jeffjanssen.com.

If you could boost the reputation of your athletic department, improve the conduct of student-athletes off the field, and increase the number of championships your teams bring home--all with one program--would you do it? Such a powerful program is based on a concept long familiar to athletic directors: teaching your student-athletes how to be leaders.

A survey of college and high school coaches and athletic administrators across America found that only 37 percent believe their leaders are ready and properly equipped to handle the responsibilities and challenges of team leadership. Yet, surveys also show that 73 percent of schools provide no leadership training for their student-athletes, with only 11 percent providing three or more hours of instruction.

Student-athlete leaders can have a big impact on the success and reputation of your athletic department. They set the tone for the work ethic, attitude, confidence, and chemistry of each of your teams, which in turn largely determines your school's success on the field.

As University of North Carolina Athletic Director Dick Baddour says, "Our coaches believe the single most important characteristic necessary to build a winning program is leadership among the student-athletes." North Carolina State University Head Women's Basketball Coach Kay Yow puts it more starkly: "The quality of your team leaders will make or break your season."

Research shows that captains also strongly influence team members' conduct on campus and in the community. In a recent study, Dr. Amber Warners, Head Volleyball Coach at Calvin College, found a significant relationship between captains' use of alcohol and the rest of the team's use. If the captains drank heavily, the rest of the team typically did as well. If the captains refrained from using or abusing alcohol, the team followed suit.

The traditional idea is that leaders are born, not made--some years you have good leaders and some years you don't. But more progressive thinking says leaders can be developed. And my staff and I have definitely found this to be the case in our work with both high school and college athletes across the country.

Leadership training does not take a lot of time, and it offers numerous rewards on many levels. In addition, it is quickly embraced by parents, coaches, administrators, and the student-athletes themselves.

One of the great things about a leadership training program is that it can be as limited or extensive as you like. You can start small by targeting a dozen or so student-athletes, such as one captain from each varsity squad. Invest time in this core group and each of them will in turn be able to positively influence five to 25 others.

For example, Portage (Mich.) Northern High School has 25 members on its Leadership Council. Each coach selects a member of his or her team to be a part of the council--typically a junior or senior. The group meets once a week in the morning before school starts.

Ideally, you can involve a broader spectrum of student-athletes. We often suggest a three-tiered approach so that leaders can advance their skills over all four years. The best way to view this is as a pyramid, where each successive level involves fewer athletes but more advanced levels of training.

At the base of the pyramid, you can include freshman athletes, offering them some basic life skills to assist with the transition into your school. The middle of the pyramid narrows the pool as you target promising sophomores and juniors who have demonstrated leadership potential. Interested participants can apply via a simple application form stating their reasons for wanting to get involved.

Finally, the top of the pyramid focuses on your captains and core team leaders, the people who exert the most influence on the rest of the school. Typically, coaches select participants for this level. The training here is more in-depth and offers practical approaches to dealing with the specific challenges these leaders face.

The University of North Carolina is one school that uses the three-tiered approach. Here is a look at its structure:

Freshman CREED Program: The primary focus for these freshmen is on self leadership and making a successful transition from high school to college. On a monthly basis, with the help of upperclass peer mentors, they are taught the life skills needed to succeed academically, athletically, and socially at the college level. The program uses the acronym CREED as a foundational model:

C = I will know and embrace the Culture of the university.
R = I will develop skills to Respect myself and others.
E = I will pursue Excellence in my academic work.
E = I will Excel athletically.
D = I will Develop the capacity to lead myself and others.

Rising Stars: This level is designed for student-athletes who aspire to be future team leaders. Participation is open to interested sophomores and juniors, and coaches are highly encouraged to get their best young leaders and athletes involved. The year-long program covers a variety of leadership topics including commitment, confidence, composure, character, team building, and conflict management.

Veteran Leaders: The third level targets captains and core team leaders. Its participants are selected by coaches based on who they are looking to for leadership that season. The primary emphasis at this level is application. Each participant gets detailed feedback on his or her leadership skills from teammates and coaches through a 360-degree Team Leadership Evaluation. With our guidance, each leader then uses this feedback to construct a personalized Leadership Development Plan.

This plan usually targets two specific areas they need to improve and creates a syllabus for doing so. The strategy for improvement might include training, readings, and studying those who best exemplify the skills they are working on. We also set them up with accountability partners on the team who provide ongoing feedback and support. The leaders are re-evaluated again later in the season to see if their scores have improved.

Veteran Leaders also meet throughout the season in small groups to assess and discuss their teams' challenges, chemistry, confidence, and commitment. The leaders share their breakthroughs and struggles and engage in facilitated peer learning.

From a logistics standpoint, try to find a meeting time and location that will work for as many of your teams as possible. Monday evenings are popular with many college athletes while early mornings, homeroom times, and lunch periods are often workable for high schools. Most groups meet once every other week.

The program will obviously need a director to implement the training, keep people informed, handle logistics, and evaluate its success. This can be yourself as athletic director, an assistant athletic director, or one of your coaches who has interest and initiative.

At Portage Northern, Athletic Director Carl Latora chose to run the group himself. "I want to remain in touch with our student-athletes and this is a great way to do so," he says. "I very much enjoy providing our student-athletes with character development and leadership training."

Regardless of the scope of your leadership program and who oversees it, the next step is to gather ideas on what the training should entail. We suggest doing a needs assessment, in which you ask coaches and student-athletes for their ideas. This allows them to fully buy into the program and for you to get their insights.

While exact needs may vary, most schools will share some common concerns. Having the privilege of working with student-athlete leaders for many years, my staff and I have discovered four primary areas they struggle with the most and want help with:

• Having the courage and skills to confront teammates when they do not uphold the standards of the team.

• Knowing what to say and how to effectively refocus teammates when they are frustrated, struggling, and discouraged.

• Understanding how to build a group of people into a unified team.

• Maintaining their composure and leadership when they are not playing well or things are not going their way.

But it's definitely worth the time to explore and select the topics that will be most pertinent and beneficial to your program, with its particular structure and nuances. Here are some areas that North Carolina focuses on:

• Responsibilities, risks, and rewards of leadership
• Leading by example
• Building commitment
• Strengthening confidence
• Maintaining composure
• Character and decision making
• Vocal leadership
• Servant leadership
• Leading during adversity
• Team building
• Conflict management.

Corunna (Mich.) High School has roughly 50 student-athletes in its leadership program. Like North Carolina, it uses a three-tiered format. Each of the three groups meets once a month during homeroom time. Typical topics include:

• Dealing with athletes who violate rules
• Dealing with ninth and 10th graders on a varsity squad
• What to do as a j.v. athlete if your best player is called up to varsity
• How to handle things when you or your teammate makes a mistake
• Motivating teammates who aren't motivated
• Dealing with tough coaches.

Portage Northern High School's topics include:
• Qualities of a leader
• Attitude
• Responsibility
• Self-image
• Character
• Goal setting
• Mental training
• Servant leadership
• Problem solving and decision making
• Becoming a change agent.

What might a training session look like? To start, we usually introduce the theme of the meeting and show its relevance to becoming an effective leader. We then ask participants to engage in a hands-on activity associated with that theme. Next, we discuss how the elements of the exercise relate to their roles as leaders. We also often have student-athletes assess themselves relative to the theme so they can personalize the information. We finish by giving them a simple assignment they can do with a partner that emphasizes what they've just discussed.

For example, a training session on composure might entail:

• Beginning with a story highlighting the importance of composure

• Sharing quotes from athletes and coaches about how much they need composure from their leaders

• A self-leadership exercise where participants must find a sequence of numbers on a grid while being distracted by a teammate

• A discussion on how the exercise relates to real challenges of leadership on their teams

• Asking participants to assess how well they have been maintaining their composure in recent practices and competition

• Sharing practical strategies on how to maintain composure under pressure

• Sending them off with an assignment to monitor a fellow participant's composure over the next two weeks and report their findings back to the facilitator.

It can sometimes work well for different sessions to be run by different people. Guidance counselors and other helping professionals on your campus can provide a team approach. You might also consider asking alumni, business leaders, and local elected officials to provide occasional real world perspectives on leadership. Another option is to delegate topics to different coaches.

If you plan to run most of the sessions yourself, there are a wealth of resources you can use. Several of them provide solid, ready-made, and easy-to-use leadership curriculums. (See "Resources" below.)

Along with training your leaders, you might consider providing incentives for student-athletes to improve their leadership skills. There's a popular saying in the business world: That which gets measured, gets done. It's equally applicable to the sports world and certainly to developing better leaders.

One tool we use is called the Team Leadership Evaluation. Using a scale from one to five, it asks the leader's teammates and coaches to rate them in 24 different areas, from confidence to team builder to enforcer. (You can find a Web link to it in the "Resources" box, below.)

We do this evaluation before the athletes begin the program and as they go through it. Along with allowing the participants to understand what areas they need to work on, it measures their progress. They can see how their efforts are reaping rewards and what areas they need to work harder on.

At North Carolina, we also honor those student-athletes who achieve a score of 105 (out of 120) or higher on the Team Leadership Evaluation from their teammates, coaches, and their own self-evaluation. Because this person has earned respect across three dimensions--teammates, coaches, and self--we call them Three Dimensional Leaders, or 3DLs for short. The 105 average score to reach the 3DL level is challenging yet attainable--typically around 15 percent of the leaders achieve it.

We then honor these individuals in a few different ways. Much like posting school records in the gym or the weightroom, we have created a special wall of fame called the Tar Heel Leaders of Distinction. After seeing the pictures of past great leaders on the Tar Heel Leaders of Distinction Wall, many younger leaders tell us one of their biggest goals at UNC is to achieve 3DL status before their college career is over.

In addition, at the end-of-year recognition dinner, a teammate talks about what the 3DL's leadership meant to the team. These special tributes can become emotional as teammates tell their captains how priceless their leadership has been. Finally, 3DL honorees receive a trophy and are also recognized at halftime of a men's basketball game.

The 3DL honorees have told us the award is often a main topic of discussion during graduate school or job interviews. Earning the award sends a clear signal to graduate schools and employers that this person is highly respected by their peers and coaches, and it makes them a highly attractive candidate.

There are many other ways to inspire and honor your leaders. You can post photos of everyone in your Captains Council on a bulletin board and your Web site. You can create an award that honors one exemplary leader on your teams every season or every year. You can create recognition for former student-athlete leaders from your department. Any idea that works well for your particular school and the resources you have is a good one.

As you implement your program, be sure to solicit continual feedback from both the participants and facilitators. Find out what is connecting, what needs improvement, and what's missing. The feedback will help your ideas evolve into a polished program that achieves real results and student-athletes look forward to being a part of.

Finally, be sure to acknowledge and celebrate the dedication and contributions of your emerging and existing leaders whenever possible. Simple words of thanks, certificates of participation, T-shirts, pizza parties, and recognition dinners are all ways to let your leaders know how much you appreciate them and their service to your school.

Along with department-wide programs to train student-athlete leaders, coaches can work with their team captains individually to further their leadership skills. The key here is for coaches to understand that developing captains is a two-way street.

I often hear coaches lament, "Kids today don't understand what it means to be a leader." At the same time, I hear student-athletes complain that their coaches need to do a better job working with them. Rather than blaming each other, they both must make the effort to work together and forge a strong coach-captain partnership. I like to think of it as a leadership team.

Step one is for coaches to clarify expectations of their captains. It can help to create a job description of eight to 10 priorities the captains will be expected to handle.

Next, coaches should start an ongoing discussion on leadership. They can ask their captains to describe what they think it means to be an effective leader, who they think are effective leaders, and what they see as the risks and challenges of leadership. These discussions will give the coach insight into the athlete's model of leadership and can get the two on the same page.

While talking is important, captains need continual opportunities to make real leadership decisions. It often works well to start small and build up to more complicated tasks. To begin, coaches should let captains run warmups before practice and make any team announcements. Coaches should then work toward seeking the captain's advice on team decisions. The more responsibility and input coaches allow the student-athletes, the more these leaders will develop.

Working together on a specific leadership skill is another great way for coaches to build up their captains. For example, the two can participate together in this drill: Each identifies two people on the team who, for whatever reason, they have not yet developed a good connection or working relationship with. Once they identify these two people, the coach and captain each make an effort over the next two weeks to begin building a better relationship with them. This can mean taking the initiative to talk with them, work out with them, have lunch with them, and so forth.

After two weeks, the coach and captain should meet to discuss how each is doing with the challenge. This teaches captains that the strength of their leadership depends on the quantity and quality of connections they have with all teammates. It also shows that the coach is committed to learning alongside them.

Because being a captain is an extremely challenging job, especially for teenagers and young adults, it is critical that the coach is always there for the captain. Team leaders will have internal and external struggles throughout the season. They will be torn between meeting the coach's expectations and their desire to be liked and accepted by their teammates. Coaches must understand this and be ready to help their leaders work through it.

The following resources can help you teach and reinforce the subjects of leadership:

The Team Captain's Leadership Manual, by Jeff Janssen, provides a 10-module leadership development curriculum that focuses on both leading by example and vocal leadership. The book includes leadership assessments, team activities, and short exercises that provide great material for discussion.

A direct link to the Team Leadership Evaluation form is at:

Janssen has also developed an online leadership development and support Web site called the TeamCaptainsNetwork.com specifically geared toward college and high school student-athletes. The site includes a five-part leadership e-course, leadership advice from top athletes and coaches, team building activities, a Captain's FAQ section, and a discussion forum.

The Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) has taken this site a step further by creating a customized version for their student-athletes called the CHSAATeamCaptainsNetwork.com. Over 700 leaders representing 50 high schools across the state use the site on a regular basis for ongoing online leadership development and support.

"Leader of the Pack," an article in our sister publication, Coaching Management, on how coaches can develop the leadership skills of their individual captains, can be found at:

Playing Beyond the Scoreboard, by Craig Hillier, is a practical book that provides great tips and ideas for developing team leaders.

The Leadership Challenge, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, is geared toward students in general, not student-athletes, but provides a nice five-part framework to teach leadership: 1. Model the Way, 2. Inspire a Shared Vision, 3. Challenge the Process, 4. Enable Others to Act, 5. Encourage the Heart.

Prolific leadership expert John Maxwell has written dozens of books on a variety of aspects of leadership including a short handbook called Leading Your Sports Team. While most of Maxwell's books are not written specifically for student-athletes, his books Developing the Leader Within You, Becoming a People Person, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, and Leadership 101 are easy-to-read resources that contain memorable stories and tips.
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