Inside Pitch Magazine, May/June 2021

Coaches' Corner: Developing Program Leadership 

By Cameron McMullen, Ph. D., Chapman University recruiting coordinator
Cameron McMullen coaching third base for Chapman University with one of his players standing on the bag Attempting to manage the fluid nature of leadership development can seem like a daunting task. A coach will routinely encounter challenges ranging from interpersonal communication to behavioral infractions. As beneficial as it might be, there is not a comprehensive text that can thoroughly prepare a coach for the challenges of leadership. This paper attempts to create some order, as minimal as it might be, to the evolving landscape of leadership development. For the purposes of this discussion, four broad ideas will be discussed: differentiate between a leader and a captain, play an active role in the development, build relationships, and share responsibility. These ideas are not new or revolutionary. In fact, most coaches will quickly associate countless examples to each idea. The difference for this discussion will be how each idea specifically relates to developing both formal and informal team leadership.
To build a foundation for this discussion, it will be helpful to differentiate between formal and informal leadership. A formal leader is generally selected by the head coach, coaching staff, or teammates. An informal leader develops over time from interactions with teammates and the coaching staff. While formal leadership roles are generally given to select athletes, informal roles can be assumed by a larger number of team members. A player’s acceptance of a leadership role, either formal or informal, is significantly influenced by his/her position, status, and responsibilities within the team. A formal leadership position does not automatically make someone an effective leader. In fact, the captain is rarely viewed as the only leader on a given team.

Differentiate Between a Leader and a Captain

To build a framework for leadership development, a coach should communicate the differences between formal and informal leadership. Informal leadership roles provide each player an opportunity to develop their unique leadership skills. Allocating time to identify and develop informal leaders can help coaches create a more effective team environment. Helping a player identify his/her unique leadership style is a great starting point. Teaching a player to use individual personality strengths can make a daunting task more manageable. For example, a player with great organizational skills could help schedule a practice plan, plan a team banquet, or compile team travel itineraries. A socially confident player could help communicate the overall vision of the program to alumni or boosters, speak at community fundraisers, or interact with the media, should the player be at a level with media responsibilities.

While informal leadership roles allow a player to gradually develop their leadership skills, formal leadership requires a more advanced skillset. The evolving nature of leadership can help explain why an athlete in his/her first season with a team should rarely serve as a captain. A first-year player needs to learn the overall team operations, program culture, and gradually earn their leadership responsibilities. A team captain is often viewed as a reflection of the coaching staff. Identifying a team captain who aligns with the belief system of the coaching staff ensures that the captain/coach relationship is built on a strong foundation.

The specific personality traits that make an effective captain will vary from coach to coach. A team captain has three broad responsibilities: act as a bridge between the coaching staff and players, lead team activities, and represent the team in the community. An effective team captain should constantly relay information between the coaching staff and players, set the behavioral standard for the program and conduct themselves in a professional manner as it relates to opponents, teachers, support staff and officials. Identifying a captain who can balance the abundance of additional responsibilities remains one of the biggest challenges for any coach.

Play an Active Role in Development

A coach should play a proactive role within the framework of leadership development. Leadership coaching creates an environment for players to discuss their experiences, leadership challenges, and strategies for development. These discussions provide an ideal setting for players to reflect on leadership, both individually and collectively, while also learning specific leadership styles, personality characteristics, and interpersonal communication strategies. The coach should provide accountability and direction but allow the player the freedom to conceptualize their development in a specific way. Leadership coaching can take place in an individual setting, such as an office, or team setting, such as a classroom.

Build Relationships

Building a strong relationship with each player can heavily influence how quickly and effectively team leadership will develop. Leadership desire is an overlooked component of the development process. Certain leadership roles are associated with varying levels of pressure. This pressure will elicit specific emotions, such as fear, doubt, and excitement, in each team leader. Quantifiable performance metrics can be a valuable tool to assess if leadership responsibilities are weighing too heavily on an athlete. After thorough communication with each player, evaluating specific leadership needs allows a coach to specialize instruction based on where each leader is in their development. Some specific needs could be, but are not limited to, the frustrations of change, the challenges of making every player feel recognized, and as mentioned previously, finding a specific leadership style. Despite the numerous questions that arise from the leadership development process, most answers become clear from regular communication with each player.

A team captain should serve as a bridge between the players and the coaching staff. Allowing players to elect their team captain can provide a comfort in knowing they are properly represented by their desired candidate. Depending on the level, it is common for players to simply elect the best player as the team captain. If the best player does not fulfill the requisite formal leadership requirements, it becomes the responsibility of the coaching staff to identify the player who can handle the demands of the role. This can be achieved by interpersonal communication, experience in the program, and assessment of past performances. 
Share Responsibility
Sharing responsibility can empower a player to develop the necessary decision-making skills required for leadership effectiveness. A symbol that can help illustrate this dynamic is the hourglass. A team captain is positioned in the middle of the hourglass. When the players have thoughts to discuss with the coaching staff, they communicate those thoughts with the team captain, and he/she will “flip the hourglass” and relay the information to the coaching staff. Giving a team captain the ability to communicate messages in their own way allows autonomy in determining how his/her teammates will best process the information. Another example could be allowing the players to create their own behavioral standards to cultivate a collective accountability and belief that they are in control of their own environment.


While many coaches understand the theoretical importance of leadership development, the practical applications seem to be another matter. This discussion does not aim to debate what is right and wrong when it comes to building a competitive program. Rather, this discussion attempts to provide some direction towards a misunderstood characteristic of great teams. This is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas that will instantly result in effective leadership.  If given the time and energy required, the following ideas will provide a strong foundation to build and develop both formal and informal leadership. The dynamic nature of leadership demands that coaches prepare for a variety of complex situations. When solving a complex problem, simple solutions are often most effective.  Simply put: effective leadership will help coaches solve problems. 

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