In 1995, we interviewed NCAA SAAC President Erik Nedeau for a cover story on student-athlete leadership. This anniversary year, we asked him to revisit the topic from his perspective as a coach.
By Erik Nedeau
Erik Nedeau is the Head Men's Track and Field and Cross Country Coach at Amherst College, where he has worked since 1996. He can be reached at
Like most coaches, I look back on my experience as a student-athlete fondly. As a track and field mid-distance runner at Northeastern University, I earned All-American honors three times and was an Academic All-American. I had a great coach and loved my teammates.
But the best part of my experience took place off the track. From 1993-96, I served as a regional representative to the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). This was a great opportunity in so many ways. I got to share ideas with a diverse group that was looking to establish its voice in the world of college athletics, and the responsibility to represent fellow student-athletes was awesome.
During that time, I was interviewed for an article in this magazine titled "Flexing Their Vocal Muscles" that ran as the August/September 1995 cover story. It examined the growing desire of student-athletes to have a say in the policies and decisions made regarding college athletics. The article also relayed how empowering it was for me, as a 23-year old, to address assembled administrators and presidents at the NCAA convention.
Those experiences set me on my career track, as I earned my Master's Degree in Sport Management two years after graduating from Northeastern, and then became a head coach at a top NCAA Division III institution. They also helped me formulate a student-centered coaching philosophy. I believe strongly that allowing student-athletes ownership of their team and their experience is critical in athletics. It's something I try to do continually with my student-athletes in a number of ways.
Ownership = Responsibility
During my time with the SAAC, I developed a much deeper appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes in college athletics. I was able to better understand why certain decisions were made and the reasons behind various rules and regulations. This helped change the way I viewed my team and my role as a student-athlete.
I also realized that understanding these inner workings can help student-athletes make the most of their experience. Instead of disregarding or disrespecting a rule, you buy into it. You might disagree with it or even fight it (which can even be a positive). But most importantly, you work through it and it becomes part of the learning experience.
That's why, as a coach today, I give my student-athletes ownership of their team. I have a good idea of how I want to run my program but will always ask for input from my athletes about topics such as meet schedules, competition venues, and some workout choices. I encourage them to come in with questions and I listen to any and all ideas my student-athletes have.
Involving them in these conversations helps create a sense of ownership of what we are trying to accomplish. Taking ownership then fosters a sense of responsibility. When someone's ideas are incorporated, that person will work harder to make them successful.
The culture becomes one of going the extra mile because everyone buys in, and athletes start leading by example. Whether that means going on an early morning run, lifting on your own, or acting with respect and responsibility towards everyone else, any of these actions show others the required dedication and commitment.
Everyone Can Be a Leader
I also work hard to bring out every athlete's leadership abilities. Some are born leaders, but the majority need coaxing.
Helping each individual find their voice is one of the biggest ways I unlock leadership potential. When people have new ideas, I work with them to incorporate the plan into what we are doing. However, I insist that the athlete is the point person and help them develop strategies to get everyone's support.
To truly lead, you can't be afraid to say what needs to be said. I love to see an underclassman who doesn't worry about stepping on veterans' toes. I try to develop a culture where it's okay for one team member to call others out. Too often kids don't want to criticize their friends for fear of backlash.
For example, at the end of practices, we will huddle up and do a quick recap. I will randomly call out someone within the huddle to say a few words. While it puts that person on the spot, I am impressed with what gets said and how their teammates react.
In addition to what I do within my team, our school has a three-tiered program for student-athletes that focuses on developing leadership abilities--Amherst LEADS. Tier one, called First Years, involves every new student-athlete and is introductory in nature. It encourages the students to be engaged in their sport, school, and community, teaches the history of Amherst, and discusses what it means to be a student-athlete at our school.
The next tier, Futures, is for sophomores and juniors who apply, and promotes the many concepts of leadership and responsibility. The Captains program is for the respective captains of each team and is designed to challenge them to become leaders in all aspects of their lives.
Each tier holds six programs a semester. Some feature speakers, including CEOs, coaches, and athletes (Greg Louganis, Julius Achon, and Ruthie Bolton to name a few). Others provide community service opportunities. The athletes learn about everything from sports psychology to how to be more effective communicators.
The Captains program also includes a two-day symposium just prior to the start of school in the fall, where a variety of exercises instill the importance of teamwork, leadership, and communication. It is highlighted by the athletes' participation in "The Program"--a leadership development company comes to campus and puts our captains through a range of grueling mental and physical challenges that require teamwork to succeed.
At the biggest companies, leaders look to the consumer for feedback about their product. Likewise, college athletics should be seeking the voice of its student-athletes when making decisions. I feel strongly that both coaches and administrators should do all they can to incorporate student-athletes' ideas into their operations. It will lead to better decisions, more involved and responsible participants, and camaraderie throughout the team and department. And best of all, you will also be developing the next generation of leaders.