Essential Leadership Skills for Sports Teams

Designing and delivering leadership development programs for athletic teams has become an absolute passion of mine. There are so many parallels between what it takes to be successful in sport, both as an individual and as a team, to what it takes to be successful when participating in experiential adventure challenges. The skills learned through participation in experiential adventure trainings and in athletics also carry legitimate weight in the “real-world”.

As a boy growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, much of my time outside of school was spent playing sports with my brothers and parents, with neighborhood friends, and in competitive settings. Whether it was in backyard whiffle ball games, 2 on 2 games of touch football, or full-fledged pick-up basketball games; I loved to compete and loved team sports. There was always something that connected with me about those informal games – we all tried our best, were very focused and serious, spent countless hours strategizing with friends, and competed for all the “glory” associated with winning a neighborhood game. There were no trophies, cash awards, or prizes – just the visceral feeling of knowing that you competed to the best of your ability! Winning made me feel like I couldn’t be stopped in anything I did while losing pushed me to try a little harder and be a little better for the next game. As an almost 40 year old “retired athlete” – I look back on those backyard competitions and smile while reflecting about how lucky I am to have had so many of those competitive play experiences. I didn’t realize it then, but there was so much learning involved – how to compete, how to work with others to achieve a shared goal (WIN!), how to resolve conflicts (there were PLENTY of those), and how to give your absolute best when you knew that there would be moments that your best wouldn’t be good enough.

Since helping to start Empower Leadership in 2009, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many coaches of competitive sports teams – from middle school travel teams to high school and college teams, and even with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. Regardless of the type of team or level of competition, there have been recurring themes in my conversations with coaches when discussing the challenges their teams face and their desired outcomes for their upcoming training with Empower. Those themes include:

  • Weathering and overcoming adversity, conflict, and challenge as a unified team
  • Increasing the level of focus on controllable team processes while eliminating outside distractions
  • Appreciating and understanding the importance of intense and challenging preparation
  • Understanding that competitive team sports are NOT about individual accolades – buying in to the concept of athletes doing their absolute best in their role for the benefit of the team
  • Not shying away from challenges due to fear of being embarrassed

After talking to coach after coach, I came to the realization that NOT ONE coach mentioned “lack of physical ability” as a challenge her or his team must overcome to be successful. Each coach spent time talking about “the intangibles” – those skills that aren’t measured by the bench press, 3 cone drill, or 40 yard dash. I will never discount the importance of physical and tactical training when it comes to success in sport; however, I feel that the strategic training of athletes’ intangible “soft-skills” (i.e. Leadership, Accountability, Focused Preparation, Perseverance, etc.) are forgotten about.

How do you train athletes and teams to succeed?

  • Be best prepared to face adversity without wavering and overcome fear of failure and embarrassment?
  • Eliminate outside distractions and focus purely on putting out their “best brand” in every training, practice, and competition?
  • Develop a standard for communication that ensures team accountability while continuing to foster the sense of TEAM?
  • Understand that TEAM success is predicated on committed role performance from all teammates – not individual achievements?

The answer is simple – intentionally designed training experiences that require those skills more so than sport-specific technical skills! Empower Sports Leadership and Team Development training programs are designed to mimic what an athlete and team will face over the course of a competitive athletic season; highlighting the importance of:

  • Collaboration amongst and communication between teammates
  • The willingness to compete to the absolute best of their ability in any setting
  • Personal and team accountability to set team standards
  • Eliminating distractions and dedicating all focus to “the controllables” (i.e. effort, commitment, preparation, etc.)

Empower Sports Leadership and Team Development programs include the perfect blend of collaborative team building initiatives, competitive team building challenges, and adventure-based activities that will push each athlete out of their comfort zone and into their stretch zone – introducing appropriate stressors to lead athletes into moments of uncertainty while providing the leadership and feedback to help them realize what it takes to emerge from those moments together and BETTER THAN EVER!