Thoughts on Leadership in the Youth Sports World

Good “leadership” manifests itself in many ways. Some leaders are quiet and lead by example.  Others are excellent mentors. Others still are great motivators and inspire those around them.

There are leaders in business.  Thought leaders.  Political leaders.  Religious leaders. Leaders in ensuring the world is a more understanding, inclusive place.

Some people are considered leaders because of their position or title.  The best kind of leadership, though, is evident through actions as well as the individual’s expression of values and not simply by virtue of their position.

In the youth sports world, “leadership” is also required—at the Club level, for example.  Most youngsters play at their local Club and their youth sports experience is molded in that environment.

Clubs are typically made up of a Board along with experienced staff, including technical staff, in positions of leadership.  Coaches play a crucial role.  Volunteers usually play a significant role as well. Parents are also a key part of the equation, as they are looking for the best environment for learning, growth and development for their children.

So when we speak about what leadership means in youth sports, I reflect on my experience over the past thirty plus years working with people not only in sports  but in the business world and many walks of life. There are a number of qualities that stand out for me about good leaders. At a recent talk for Technical Directors in the youth soccer community, I highlighted some of those traits:

  • They accept responsibility and do not blame others
  • They acknowledge mistakes
  • They build relationships
  • They create a sense of trust
  • They follow up

Accepting responsibility and not creating a blame mentality

It’s easy sometimes to say, “I accept responsibility….” for a given situation or outcome. However, it’s much more difficult to truly take ownership for things that fall under your area of responsibility. But those in a position of leadership do need to "own" their decisions and actions as well as those of the organization they represent.

Part of the challenge here is not creating a blame mentality.  Good leaders sometimes have to explain things, and certainly have to put things in proper perspective.  That said, blaming others while doing so sends a poor message—and sets a bad example for all.

Acknowledging mistakes

For some reason, those in a position of leadership are sometimes afraid to acknowledge when mistakes have been made.  Perhaps they have been encouraged by others to never “admit” anything.  They may think acknowledging a mistake, either personally or as an organization, will be seen as weakness.

My belief is that real leaders acknowledge when things have gone off the rails for some reason—and then explain what they or their organization will do to make things better going forward. To not do so risks losing credibility.

Sticking your head in the sand and hoping an issue goes away without dealing with it in a straightforward, credible manner is rarely, if ever, a good idea.

Building relationships

A key aspect of being a leader is the ability to bring people together and be a unifying force for positive change.  People often resist change.  The way things have always been done seems to provide us with a kind of security blanket. 

Regardless of whether you are leading change or not, being able to communicate with and work with people in a way that builds positive relationships is almost always a crucial step in being a really good leader.

Trust

Perhaps it should go without saying, but tied into building strong relationships is the notion of trust.  Is anything more important in a leader than their ability to show trust, build trust and inspire trust?

I often say (and I’m not alone) that it takes years to build a reputation, to build our credibility. Yet it only takes a second—a lapse in our words or actions—to see that reputation and credibility evaporate.

It is the same with trust. 

Still, a good leader can indeed earn, build, show and inspire trust by their actions and through their interaction with others.  That trust can be earned over time by the way an individual works with a young athlete, parents, a fellow coach, staff or groups in the community. When a real sense of trust is developed, everyone feels good about what they are doing and tend to pull in the same direction—and achieve more.

Follow up

Great intentions sometimes get lost because people simply neglect to take that next crucial step: following up.

In the youth sports world, it may be a matter of following up with a player or a parent after a meeting. Whether it’s as simple as a follow up email or phone call, or following up on a promise to do something, we are judged by our ability—and willingness—to do what we said we were going to do.

Good leaders don’t forget this step.

Final thoughts

There is a lot more to being a leader in business, in life and in youth sports than what I’ve just touched on.  Among other things, it includes the ability—and willingness—to look in the mirror and recognize how we need to improve. And is also includes the ability (and again, the willingness) to put ourselves in the shoes of others, to better understand what they are going through.

Nonetheless, the points above give anyone who aspires to become a leader—or an even better leader—a worthwhile starting point.