Teaching Leadership to your Staff

This article was provided by Athletic Management

Along with knowing their X’s and O’s, coaches today have to be effective leaders. While some easily rise to the challenge, others will need mentoring.
By Dan Cardone

Dan Cardone is Athletic Director at North Hills High School in Pittsburgh, Pa., and a frequent contributor to Athletic Management and www.AthleticManagement.com. He can be reached at: cardoned@nhsd.net.

Whenever a new coach is brought into an athletic program, there are always some knowns and some unknowns. We’ll have a general idea of the person’s strengths and weaknesses. And we’ll be confident he or she is a good fit for the school.

But what is not always easy to know is how the person will develop as a leader. Will he or she become recognized as a motivating force behind the squad? Will he or she be able to inspire student-athletes? Will he or she get along with other coaches and communicate well with parents?

Today, it’s critical for coaches to be leaders, and the athletic director must take time to mentor his or her staff on how to do so. More than likely, a new coach arrives with a good grasp on the fundamentals of the sport and understands how to impart them to the participants. But these qualities do little to prepare someone to be the leader of a group of athletes, a coaching staff, and parents.

What is the difference between a coach who has strong leadership skills and one who does not? To start, a leader can motivate the staff and players toward a defined goal. He or she can assess what a team needs beyond the X’s and O’s, and then push the group toward achieving those intangibles. A leader sets high expectations, and then challenges everyone else around them to reach higher than they thought possible. That, of course, is what ultimately teaches student-athletes the lessons they take with them long after they graduate.

For many young people, coaches are the biggest influence in their life. They listen to their coaches before their teachers and maybe even their parents. When I was coaching, some parents would even say, “My son will not listen to me, and you are the only one he will listen to. Can you help me?”

Great coaches possess the ability to create new leaders out of their athletes. They understand the powerful impact leadership can have on team dynamics and work hard to bring it to the forefront. They find those athletes with leadership potential and mentor them.

Jenn Gustin, a highly successful Head Girls’ Lacrosse Coach at Franklin Regional High School in Pittsburgh, is a strong believer in using open communication to bring out her athletes’ leadership potential. “I try to provide the opportunity for all team members to be leaders by letting them know that I welcome their input,” she explains. “I do not always implement their suggestions, but I always let them be heard for discussion.”

There are other, more subtle, forms of leadership a coach needs in their arsenal. Knowing how to work with parents is a big one. Coaches today must walk a fine line of being confident while showing compassion. In addition, they have to get parents to buy into what they are preaching. All this takes very solid leadership know-how.

A head coach must also be very conscious of how to best mentor his or her assistant coaches. Say an assistant coach is not happy with having to coach the junior varsity squad. The head coach may have to give the assistant coach a pep talk: “I know if you are in charge, the team is in good hands.” Or “I cannot send just anyone to coach that team. This is the only chance these kids have of playing, and they will play for you.”

What may be most important is that a coach who is a leader can see problems before they become crises. They are able to assess what needs to be done and take prompt action to right the ship. They take care of turbulence before it becomes a storm that blows into the athletic director’s office.

If we want our coaches to possess leadership capabilities, we need to teach them. For many young coaches, it does not happen automatically. They need guidance and direction.

Here at North Hills High School, I start by imparting to the coaches the benchmarks that have been established over time. I tell them, “I did not set the high standards we have here. They were here when I arrived. I have realized that this community values hard work and effort–I have seen them give a standing ovation to both teams at the end of a football game we lost–and I have tried to make that part of our program at every level. There is an expectation that coaches will be program leaders and uphold a tradition of excellence.”

We talk a lot here about our pioneer coaches. They were not great leaders simply because they won. They demonstrated they were a cut above the rest because they won with class. They held great respect for the game and felt it was a privilege to coach. I make sure new coaches understand this history so they can emulate their predecessors.

Then, I mentor coaches on leadership in every way I can. One key area we talk about is decision making. I give them ideas for how to make sound decisions and tell them to always communicate up: “Keeping your superiors informed of a situation keeps them in the game. Working to find every viewpoint from those whose opinions you value brings clarity to a tough call.”

What I have discovered is that it often comes down to simply being supportive when coaches have to make tough decisions. Taking the time to listen to them, encourage their decision-making process, and praise them is sometimes all it takes. Having someone tell them they are making the right decision gives them the confidence to continue to make good choices.

I also try to provide them feedback on a daily basis. I constantly remind our new coaches of who we are and who we want them to become. And I offer instant positive reinforcement–even on small things. For example, I may say to a coach, “I like the way you addressed the unsportsmanslike conduct penalty your player received by pulling him from the game. You sent a great message that this is something you will not tolerate in your program.”

After a tough loss, I might listen in as the coach addresses the team. If I feel he or she did not come off as a leader in this situation, I will offer some tips for next time. I’ll give the coach some suggestions on what to say, such as, “Hey we all fell short tonight, including me. I feel I could have prepared you better as the leader of this team, and I promise that will happen next week.”

Another key to mentoring coaches is helping them bring out leadership in their own players. I ask coaches to identify student-athletes with leadership potential, then give them tips on how to engage these individuals in school away from their peers. I’ll suggest they call a player into the athletic offices during the school day and talk to them about the mental state of the team.

I encourage coaches to also identify the player on the fence–one who has potential but hangs delicately between choosing the wrong kids over the right ones in their social circles. I even offer my own help with these players. “Would it help if I spoke to them? I have a leadership opportunity coming up, would asking them to participate be a good idea?”

Along with continual feedback, annual coaches evaluations are a great time to talk about leadership. We have language in our rubric that points to head coaches being responsible for their entire program, grades 7-12. We evaluate them on how well they provide direction to the lower-level coaches and oversee the leadership aspects of the program.

The rubric also includes a line that reads “takes advantage of opportunities for professional growth.” If a coach has not started to do this in terms of furthering leadership, I will offer suggestions. For example, there is an American Sport Education Program (ASEP) course that provides leadership training, which I will point them to.

If a coach is struggling with certain leadership skills, we’ll discuss the problem thoroughly. Sometimes, we may need to come up with a new solution that works for that particular coach. For example, if he or she continues to do poorly with administrative duties, I might say, “You are at the top of the list among all of our head coaches when it comes to handling discipline, but when it comes to things such as turning in your eligibility sheet, ordering busses, and providing information to the office, you are dead last. Why not turn those duties over to your assistant coach? We do not care who does the paperwork, and if you need to delegate it to make that happen, then so be it.”

Another idea we use is to pair a new coach with a veteran coach preferably in a similar sport such as boys’ and girls’ basketball. I’ll tell the new coach, “If you have a problem, stop in before your practice and talk to the girls’ basketball coach. She can help you strategize about how to handle a variety of issues.”

One more avenue I’ve used to get coaches thinking about leadership is a preseason coaches course I developed. Included in the course is a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Coaches and Leadership.” It talks a lot about situational leadership–how a coach acts day-to-day–and why this can either further or diminish others’ perceptions of them.

To me, situational leadership is being able to foresee a potential conflict and bring it to a positive resolution before anyone else notices the problem. For example, do you start all the seniors on senior night, or do you go with the same lineup you have used throughout the season?

In the course, several examples of this type of day-to-day leadership are brought up. The goal is to get coaches thinking about scenarios and how to act in tricky situations. Some of the topics we cover include:

When a parent doesn’t agree with your coaching decisions: I believe that strong communications can ease relations with parents on many topics. When there are differences in opinion over things such as playing time, not being the “featured” running back or point guard, or why their child was not an all-conference selection, up-front discussion can solve many problems. The way to counter those differing opinions is to:

• Make “team over individual” part of your lingo. When the team is always more important than individual accomplishments, parents better understand the big picture.

• Have a high level of care for parental concerns. Instead of brushing a parent’s concerns aside, talk with them and make them feel good about their parenting. I used to say to parents, “I appreciate the fact you care a great deal about your child. A lot of parents do not.”

• Provide details on how things work. Explain that the all-conference team is chosen by a consensus of coaches in the conference, and not by the school’s coaches.

The process of tryouts: The way a coach runs tryouts can set the tone for an entire season, which is why it’s critical to think through the process thoroughly. We want parents and athletes impressed by the coaching style they see from the very start.

We ask coaches to explain tryouts in a meeting prior to their start. The key thing to get across is that coaches are taking their decisions very seriously with the best intentions in mind.

For example, coaches can say, “We are going to have a three- to five-day tryout, and we are going to select anywhere from 15 to 18 players to be on the squad.” This is very different than drawing lines such as, “We are taking 15 kids, and it will be done over a three-day period.” The message becomes, “This is going to be a difficult process, and we want to give it its due.”

I strongly encourage our coaches to meet with those athletes who do not make the team. They can thank them for having the courage to try out and encourage them to come out again next year. They can sometimes also offer alternatives, such as becoming a team manager who gets to practice with the team each day. Pulling kids in versus turning them away is a sign that the coach wants to be a leader and program builder.

Handling a tough situation: How will you handle a parent confronting you after a contest about why their child did not get in the game? This is a matter of choosing what I call fight or flight. I tell coaches that the parent wants a public confrontation, and it is a no-win situation. We encourage the coaches to impart to parents in the initial meeting that there will be a 24-hour rule. This provides a “cooling down period” and makes an attempt at getting the emotions out and pulling reason in.

Ethics in leadership: Ethics should have a strong presence in the leadership component, and I ask coaches to think deeply about the right and wrong of every decision. Recruiting student-athletes to join your school because you lost your starting quarterback is not ethical behavior. I do not understand how coaches can sell the youth programs on growing up to be part of their community team, then encourage a player to move into the district and take a starting spot away from a hard-working senior.

How to inspire athletes: I believe that you have to first inspire yourself before you can inspire others. If you are not motivated, how can you possibly convince others to get on board?

I often offer the story of Oscar Pistorius, born in South Africa in 1986 with no fibulas. This double amputee is the world record holder and a Paralympics runner in the 100, 200, and 400 meters, and he wanted to compete in the 2008 Olympics. The International Association of Athletics Federations first banned him for having an unfair advantage over those he competed against. This was eventually overruled, and Pistorius was declared eligible for the games that year in China, although he narrowly missed qualifying. This was a man who never looked back because he had a sense of urgency and an extreme desire to succeed. What if we all approached each day the same way? Great leaders find inspiration for themselves and pass the inspiration on to others.

Developing coaches into leaders is crucial for any effective athletic department. Each head coach needs realize that the success of their team is directly related to their leadership capability. Each head coach must seize the reins of their team.

Napoleon Bonaparte said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” How appropriate a quotation for coaches, who must sell athletes on their need to focus on a common goal every time they set foot on the field. They need to convince the players that the harder they work, the more success they will have.

And, every day, the head coach has to convince him or herself that the countless hours of preparation will translate into something worthwhile. The wonderful thing is that we’ve all seen it happen–with a little mentoring.

Sidebar: THE “IT” FACTOR

A few years ago, Michigan State University involved its team captains in the selection of a new head coach for its football team. The captains developed criteria that they thought would capture what a head coach should be, and one of those was persona.

During a search, it’s easy to get caught up in tangible items like experience and education and overlook things like persona, which boils down to someone having “it.” But what does that really mean? When I look at a leader-coach, I see someone who:

• Commands respect when they walk into a room.
• Has the ability to relate to a variety of people and personalities.
• Makes those in their presence feel as if they are the most important people in the world.
• Is comfortable with him or herself and never tries to be who they are not.
• Motivates everyone to row in the same direction.
• Sets high expectations for those around them.
• Has a clear understanding of what it takes to be successful.

What do coaches feel are the most important leadership skills in today’s athletics culture? We asked that question of Lou Cerro, Head Football Coach at Montour High School in McKees Rocks, Pa., who played football for article author Dan Cardone in the early 1980s. Shortly after being hired as Head Coach at Montour in January 2005, Cerro faced a unique leadership situation when NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus was installed as Head Coach of his Montour team as part of a reality TV show.

AM: What do you believe makes a coach a great leader?
Cerro: You need to treat your players with respect. If you respect them, then they’ll respect you. The first thing I tell my kids is that their coaches will never lie to them, and we will be with them through thick and thin. I’ve been doing this for 16 years, and I’ve found respect needs to go both ways.

You also need to be able to communicate with your athletes about a lot of different issues. I talk to our kids about their interests outside football, what they want to do after they graduate, and the things they do in their spare time.

How was your leadership tested by the TV show?
It was tested daily. Butkus was the head coach, and I had no say in the day-to-day practice routine. Our coaches had to change their philosophies and change their style to reflect Butkus’. The kids didn’t know how to handle that, so they came to me for direction, and I had to do the best I could to mesh the styles together.

We handled it by focusing on respect. All the coaches respected what we were trying to do and knew that the show and resulting publicity was going to help jump-start a program that had been struggling.

How did your leadership play a role in turning Butkus’ 1-7 team into the WPIAL Class AAA runner-up in just two years?
We stayed consistent. We didn’t change anything from week to week or year to year. We had mostly the same kids, and even though the TV show set us back a year, the kids started buying into everything we were trying to do as a staff.

What would you tell a coach who wants to develop good leadership skills?
Put your stamp on the program right away. You have to show everyone, from the players to the parents, that you’re in charge. Make sure they get on board with you and that no outside influences can ruin your program. At the same time, don’t be afraid to ask other coaches for suggestions. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride to make yourself and your team better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *