Leadership of Self in Sport

One must first be able to effectively lead her/himself before effectively leading others; however, if you were to ask a group of athletes to define leadership, the answer often focuses on leading others. So often, athletes dedicate much of their time and energy on leading others that it hinders the development of their own self-leadership skills. An athlete’s ability to (1) coach her/himself through challenge, adversity, fear, and temptation, (2) set goals and a path to achievement, and (3) hold her/himself accountable to set standards is the most critical element of leadership – serving as the foundation for both individual and team success in sport and in life.

Case Study – Leadership of Self in Sport

The Amherst LEADS Captain’s Symposium event has been a staple on the Empower Leadership schedule each August since 2014 (the program was a no-go in 2020 due to COVID-19). Each August, around 75 student-athletes from Amherst College, all captains of their respective teams, visit us for the 24-Hour “Rangers Lead the Way” Sports Leadership Program. The Ranger Program is our most intense leadership development training – many liken it to the TV show, Survivor – as it includes the perfect blend of fun and uplifting adventure experiences, physical team building challenges, adventure races, and much more. The Ranger Program is a true test of each athlete’s ability to lead. 

After our 2018 event with the captains from Amherst College, I received an email from one of the attendees. Kyra. Kyra was one of the captains representing the Amherst College Softball team. Here is the email we received from Kyra:

“I recently came to Empower Leadership with the Amherst LEADS group. I want to express my sincere gratitude for all that you did for us. I took away so many lessons about myself and about leadership, and I grew closer to my co-captains and platoon mates. It was a long and hot day, and it is easy to forget that all the Empower workers were out there in it just like we were, and I am in awe of their energy through the whole event.”

“Fun anecdote: seeing other groups do the single line bridge climbing challenge, I thought to myself, ‘wow, I’m not even sure if I can get all the way to the top of the climb’. My first time, I was surprised to complete the climb. Then, I realized I had to go again and thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do another one’. I thought that the third time and fourth time too, but every single time I made it up the line to the tree, even as it grew increasingly tiring and tough. I walked away from that event with increased confidence in myself and my ability to push through adversity, and I know that is something I will carry with me through my season and my life.”

Leadership of Self Skill Development

Kyra’s leadership of self “ah-ha” moment was not an accident. The Ranger Program is very intentional in its design, intent, and delivery; challenge athletes physically, mentally, and socially while being sure to provide just the right amount of coaching, support, and enthusiasm to help each athlete realize their potential. 

Here are some helpful pointers for Coaches who are interested in helping their athletes develop the grit and toughness required to become a tremendous leader of self?

Strategies for Coaches

  1. Experiences are Key: Don’t just talk about being tough, put your athletes in situations in which challenge and failure are both inevitable. I like to use the phrase “let the water boil” – design an experience that has just the right amount of challenge and adversity for your athletes! You know you have designed the right experience when you can feel doubt rear its ugly head. Set up a drill in which either the offense or defense is heavily disadvantaged (set parameters). Evaluate how your athletes respond to the drill in which victory is a long-shot – do your athletes work their tails off to minimize the advantage in the drill?
  2. Don’t Let the Water Boil Over: Be sure to constantly observe your athletes throughout the leadership of self challenge. Doubt, uncertainty, and failure should be a part of the experience, not the whole experience. Be sure to step in and provide bits of encouragement, support, and coaching so that the water doesn’t boil over and you don’t lose your athletes!
  3. Connect the Dots: A good “debrief” for such an experience is key in maximizing its value. Ask your athletes what they felt, heard, saw, or witnessed that represented doubt, fear, or any other negative emotions. Then ask your athletes to talk about the internal strategies (leadership of self) they deployed to continue with their best effort despite facing what feels like an “unwinnable” situation. 
  4. The Delayed Reward: Before presenting your athletes with the next leadership of self challenge, ask them to reflect on their previous experience and share if they have had any changes to their self-confidence – I would bet that you will receive similar responses to the response I received from Kyra!

Sports Leadership and Team Building the Empower Way!

Visit our Sports Leadership webpage to learn more about Sports Leadership and Team Building with Empower Leadership.