Ashu Saxena is an experienced soccer coach currently based in North Carolina. A past USYSA & USOC National Coach of the Year, he holds the NSCAA Master Coach Diploma, and he is also an Associate Staff Coach. Ashu has written articles for the NSCAA Soccer Journal, and he recently authored an NSCAA-endorsed book, Soccer- Strategies for Sustained Coaching Success (Meyer & Meyer Sport, 2012). All thoughts and opinions in this article are those of Ashu and not necessarily reflective of the NSCAA. You can find out more about Ashu’s new book at www.letsgogetem-ashus.com.
In a past NSCAA Soccer Journal article, Creating a Team Culture for Player Development (2006), I wrote about several dynamics to foster a positive environment that leads to lasting successes on and off the field. In fact, it was that article that inspired me to write Soccer-Strategies for Sustained Coaching Success, as many coaches have asked me about various facets of leading teams successfully. It is no secret that a path to enduring player development must include a healthy environment for players fostered by opportunities to lead effectively. Thus, in my book, team culture gets its own section in Chapter 2, and leadership is discussed in Chapter 3.
Every coach should find opportunities to develop each player’s leadership potential. By doing so, players will take greater ownership of the team, demonstrate responsibility for the team’s results, and unite for complete buy-in of the team’s activities on and off the field. Though results are important, they are clearly not the only focus for any team. As a coach in any sport, we also care about teaching values to our athletes that will last a life-time. By teaching leadership, we also are imparting important life skills that include communication, decision-making, delegation, responsibility, and problem-solving.
Note: this article is not focused on the role-model aspect that a coach must be aware of. It is rather obvious that what a coach communicates orally or in writing to the team has an impact on player development. In addition, a coach’s communication through verbal and non-verbal words and actions also affects players collectively and individually. However, this article suggests some practical examples of ways to foster leadership in players that are perhaps more explicit and direct than simply role modeling as a coach.
To begin, consider what steps you take in developing leadership with your teams: do you make all of the decisions or do you allow player-input? If you have captains on your team, do you simply meet with them to tell them what you’d like done and how, or do you empower them to make decisions to carry out necessary actions? Why do you have captains and how are they selected? Does one need to have a title in order to have leadership qualities? Does having a title automatically make one a leader?
These are important questions to reflect upon to have a better understanding of how you identify leadership roles on your team, why you choose to have or not have captains, and how you determine the best path to educating players about leadership. Player-expression and player-input are two powerful ideas that lay the foundation to develop leadership qualities. Whether on the field, in team meetings, or for “homework,” a coach can teach players what leadership is and how to be aware of one’s own leadership potential. By engaging in such activities, a coach will indirectly build team culture, as each player feels important and connected to the bigger picture—the team, its vision, and its mission. As I describe in chapter two of Strategies, get players involved in processes of team culture:
When we have team issues to discuss (e.g., attendance, community service choices, team goals and standards, role identification) or new players tryout for our team, we find a way to involve all team members. Depending on your situation, you may or may not always have that luxury. However, I think it is a mistake in that so many decisions are left out of the very players whose input would actually help various situations and help teach players to make decisions, listen to each other’s opinions, and ultimately become stronger individuals and teammates by both sharing their own voice and listening to what other team members are thinking.
Team meetings are excellent ways to listen to players’ voices so everyone is used to hearing them on the field, too. Team meetings are also terrific opportunities to show video clips, read articles, share quotes, group-think, and more. Such meetings also proved powerful for several athletes who were far ahead of their peers when it came to participating in other environments such as ODP, high school, college, and/or regional/national events because they had a leg up on ideas such as communication, leadership, decision-making, team chemistry and problem-solving.
In the past, I’ve had teams that have opted not to have captains, while with other teams, the players wanted to have captains. Regardless of any titles, I have always believed in helping each player to understand that positive leadership is infectious and it is each player’s responsibility to carry out their specific leadership role as best as they can. Depending on the age and maturity of the team, a coach will need to help player’s identify roles on and off the field.
On the field, it is easy to identify roles on the team, some by position, and some by qualities for each player. A good exercise is to have players describe necessary skills for positions and help identify players on the team who possess those skills (a by-product of this exercise is that it not only does it identify areas of strength, but also areas to improve in for each player). As players understand their roles for the various positions they play, they take ownership and ultimately are intrinsically motivated to lead by position.
Restarts provide excellent cues toward qualities that players can embrace in leadership roles. As examples, one must identify good ball strikers of primary and secondary range, ball winners, strong headers of the ball, players with smarts to decide what play is on or off, technically and physically quick players, players who can execute appropriate runs, players with physical presence, players with a knack for anticipating and being the right position at the right time, and so on. Of course, we work hard to develop all of these qualities in all of our players, but there are simply going to be variations in talent and skills amongst players.
As I describe in chapter 3 of Strategies, leadership roles abound in athletics on and off the field:
To teach leadership to players, it is important to give them a problem-solving model and real issues to work on. A standard problem-solving model involves the following steps: identify the problem, devise possible solutions, take action to solve the problem, and evaluate how effective the process was in order to make adjustments for future problem-solving situations. Such a model is useful in a variety of situations, whether solving a mathematics problem or trying to navigate through an issue on a team. Examples of situations on a team could be a problem in communication between two players, promptness in beginning training on time, or letting doubt creep in as to whether or not players are giving it their all for the team all of the time. A coach with good leadership skills will use these situations as teachable moments through discussion, writing, team or small-group meetings, and/or individual conferences. Helping players solve problems effectively will ultimately strengthen their leadership skills.
Regardless of a designated captain position, players should be educated actively with intention on the types of leadership roles they can fulfill. Such roles include:
- Lead by example/role model
- Lead by action
- Lead by communication verbally (speech and/or writing)
- Lead at the front, back, or middle
- Lead on the field and/or off the field
- Lead by bringing people together
- Lead by coachability
- Lead by smarts, tactical skills and/or creativity
- Lead by fitness and/or strength
- Lead by technical skills
- Lead by caring and/or empathy
- Lead by effort/work ethic
- Lead by attitude
- Lead by perspective
As a coach I encourage you to consider active development of leadership in all of your players. If you consistently involve players in several team aspects, offer feedback as to how they’re progressing in their leadership roles beyond just soccer skills, and set ongoing goals for leadership components, then you are likely to see an improved team culture along with lasting results on and off the field. Also in Strategies, I offer several other ideas regarding leadership and player development, along with practical worksheets and helpful forms to develop leadership in players.
Enjoy the resource, and I wish you well.