Leadership: A Skill that can be Taught

January 30, 2013

By Jed Blanton
MSU Institute for the Study of Youth Sports

At the MHSAA and the ISYS, in the milieu of work we conduct centered on understanding and developing leadership in young athletes, there is one definition that seems to govern our approach and serve as a foundation for the research questions and training clinics that follow it.

Penned by Peter Northouse, that definition states “leadership is a process, whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.”

Choosing to frame ‘leadership’ as a process, rather than as some personality characteristic destined only for those naturally-born leaders, allows the concept of leadership to be utilized and taught as a skill, or set of skills. If a coach can agree with the philosophy that leadership can be learned, we can begin to design a series of strategies to enhance leadership in our young athletes.  

First, I’m going to discuss what most coaches already know about teaching skills. Teaching skills is essentially an effort of behavior modification. A coach sometimes is able to choose athletes who already possess a certain level of competency within the skills necessary for their sport; sometimes coaches must work with whoever shows up on the first day of practice.

In either case, coaches tend to conduct a subconscious assessment of skills that must be learned (that they must teach), whether complex strategies or mere fundamentals. When teaching athletic skills to young people, coaches must break down the multitude of steps involved.

Think about a lay-up in basketball or the high jump in track & field. Either skill itself is actually a combination of several skills, and the ability to pay attention to very specific cues in the environment. Coaches teach the approach, the proper hand/arm placement, the essential cues to focus on, and the follow-through. Coaches can devote segments or entire practices to particular skills – breaking down all the steps, creating drills to practice the steps, and offering the full practice of the skill in a competition-like environment.

During this episode of developing a skill in our athletes, to get them to perform in a very specific way, our interactions often mirror what behavioral psychology has known for decades: People respond to reinforcements and punishments. Coaches positively reinforce their athletes with compliments, clapping hands, and congratulations. Our words and actions shape how the individual learning the skill makes adjustments to receive more praise.

These shifts of their body and miniscule changes in their actions to get to the desired behavior of their instructor are “learning.” Similarly, coaches often threaten punishment of extra sprints or difficult drills to give athletes a clue as to what behaviors they should avoid. Often, something as simple as a disapproving glance can be reinforcing enough to change whatever behavior the athlete shouldn’t be practicing. The simple “good job” or the threat of sprints essentially shapes how our athletes behave athletically.

This same approach can work toward leadership development.

What would it look like for a coach to reinforce and punish athletes toward leadership development in the same vein they develop athletic skills? If coaches could determine what three or four behaviors they’d like their athlete leaders to showcase, and then positively reinforce those skills with compliments and thanks, and potentially punish athletes with disapproving glances or even lectures after practice, leadership can be learned like any other athletic skill.

Phil Jackson, the multiple championship-winning NBA coach, has been quoted saying he would try to give two compliments for every criticism with his professional teams. The Positive Coaching Alliance – a national nonprofit organization that strives to educate coaches on ways to enhance the youth sport experience – suggests a ratio of five positive comments to every negative criticism. Research has consistently shown that people respond better and more rapidly to positive reinforcement than to punishment.

All too often, coaches wait for leaders to emerge, rather than teach the leadership they desire. Imagine if coaches waited for players to figure out the offensive plays and strategies instead of teaching players where to move, how to move, and why they are moving there. Adopting a similar approach with your athlete has the potential to expedite the behaviors you’d most ideally want them to possess. Using tactics of positive reinforcement can help these young players to become excellent leaders in a shorter period of time than merely hoping someone steps up.

I’ll leave you with a simple list of suggestions of how coaches can teach leadership, just like they teach any other necessary athletic skill.

  1. Develop goals with your athletes regarding leadership. What kinds of things do your athletes value or feel would help the team? How can they practice leading their teammates in that way?
  2. Develop your own goals toward teaching leadership. What would it look like if a coach made it a goal to compliment three players on specific leadership behaviors each practice? Think about the ultimate team captain for your team, and develop strategies to teach your players how to be that captain.
  3. Break down leadership skills into smaller and easier to practice chunks, just like an athletic skill. Then create an environment where the athletes can practice these skills. By organizing your team into smaller groups, or even partners, you can assign leadership roles within each group. Asking certain players to lead various parts of practice (stretches, lay-ups, circuit training), you are giving them a sense of ownership over their athletic experiences and responsibility over their teammates.
  4. Positively reinforce the desired behaviors. How would it make a player feel if their coach pulled them aside and thanked them for their specific leadership behavior after a practice or game? A “job well done” or an approving thank you can go a long way in making a young athlete feel they are developing into the leader you desire them to be.

Blanton is a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University in the department of Kinesiology, specializing in the PsychoSocial Aspects of Sport and Physical Activity, and a research assistant for MSU's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. He has served as a facilitator at MHSAA Captains Clinics the last three years and currently is assisting the association with its student leadership programs.

This Week in High School Sports: 3/20/24

By Jon Ross
MHSAA Director of Broadcast Properties

March 20, 2024

This week's edition reviews the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals and awards Game Balls to high achievers in Girls Basketball Regionals.

MI Student AidThe 5-minute program each week includes feature stories from MHSAA.com or network affiliates, along with "Be the Referee," a 60-second look at the fine art of officiating.

"This Week in High School Sports" is powered by MI Student Aid, a division within the Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential (MiLEAP).

Listen to this week's show by Clicking Here.

Previous Editions

March 13: Hockey, Gymnastics, Boys Swim & Dive Finals review, Tyrone Wheatley - Listen
March 6:
Individual Wrestling, Competitive Cheer & Bowling Finals review - Listen
Feb. 28:
Team Wrestling, Girls & Boys Skiing Finals review - Listen
Feb. 21:
Boys Basketball Tournament preview, Upper Peninsula Swimming & Diving Finals review - Listen
Feb. 14:
Saginaw High/Arthur Hill boys basketball rivalry, Student Advisory Council - Listen
Feb. 7:
MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Awards, Charles E. Forsythe Award honoree - Listen
Jan. 31:
Girls sports participation, MHSAA Wrestling Tournament schedule - Listen
Jan. 24:
MHSAA Women in Sports Leadership Conference, Hillman basketball's Trenton Taratuta - Listen
Jan. 10:
Doug Towler's ice hockey coaching record, 2023-24 officials registration news - Listen
Jan. 3: 
MHSAA Girls & Boys Basketball Tournament schedules, Finals dates for all winter sports - Listen
Nov. 22: 
MHSAA Girls Volleyball, 8-Player Football and Lower Peninsula Girls Swimming & Diving Finals reviews - Listen
Nov. 15: Football record breakers, 2022-23 MHSAA postseason attendance - Listen
Nov. 8:
MHSAA Boys Soccer, Lower Peninsula Cross Country Finals reviews - Listen
Nov. 1:
MHSAA Girls Volleyball Tournament schedule, Football Playoffs first-round review - Listen
Oct. 26:
Lower Peninsula Girls Golf Finals, Boys Tennis Finals review - Listen
Oct. 18:
MHSAA Football Playoff selection, Bear Lake football coach Sam Mullet - Listen
Oct. 11:
Upper Peninsula soccer, MHSAA sports participation excels nationally - Listen
Oct. 4:
Jackson Lumen Christi's Herb Brogan, MHSAA Sportsmanship Summits - Listen
Sept. 24:
All-woman football officiating crew, Powers North Central's record winning streak ends - Listen
Sept. 21:
35th MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Awards, Grass Lake QB Brayden Lape - Listen
Sept. 14:
Athletic director education, MHSAA video library - Listen
Sept. 7:
Adjustments to 11-player football, boys soccer Finals schedules - Listen
Aug. 31:
New out-of-state opponents rules, football record book updates - Listen
Aug. 24:
MHSAA.com coverage ramps up, "Made in Michigan" tells us where they are now - Listen