Ten Ways to Transform Athletes into Team Leaders

10_ways_to_transform_athletes_into_leadersIn addition to teaching the X’s and O’s of their sport, every basketball coach is tasked with finding a way to transform at least a few of their athletes into leaders.  Below, I share ten ways that you can do that, and I would argue that this job, if you are a coach or leader in any arena, is even more important than the teaching of techniques or strategy.

Without peer leadership, a team that is facing adversity will often lean on a crutch of excuses or finger pointing and will either lose focus or begin listening to negative voices on the periphery of your team.

Often, the most valuable voice a team can have is that of an athlete who is committed to success who helps to keep his or her teammates on the same page, working together with intensity toward the same goal.

A great coach or leader in any field is first and foremost interested in developing the people around him.  As Tom Peters has said, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.”

But Leaders are not created in a classroom…

You must give them time and provide them with the tools and opportunities to grow into that role.

And, as a coach or leader, before you start reading the ten ways for you to transform your athletes into the leaders you desire, I think it is first necessary to define what a good leader is or does in your organization.

The more specific you are in your definition, the easier it will be for your athletes to live up to those expectations.  And be careful not just to list adjectives.  A quality and thorough definition of good leadership should also include a list of behaviors that would be evidence of those traits.


Once you have your detailed definition ready, then you can share it with the individuals you want to develop into leaders and begin working through the following ten ways to transform your athletes:

1. Have them keep a journal. This can be a journal for recording their thoughts over the course of a season or one that records specific measurable’s from past performances.  Numbers never lie – and it helps to have a record to identify reasons for strong growth or a performance plateau.  There is tremendous value in maintaining a diary of knowledge which has been collected through many experiences.  If they do not have time for reflection, they do not have time for improvement!

2. Increase their opportunities for skill building. Basketball players need to work on individual skills – and you want leaders to lead with actions as well as with words.  There must be a consistent and required time for focusing on building the skills which will be essential to ensuring their success.  This discipline will lead not only to better individual performance, but will act as an example to others of positive and successful behaviors.

3. Create a plan for their future. Jeremiah 29:11 says “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Every athlete (or teammate) wants to know that the skills and experience they are gaining will be useful in the future, and will benefit tremendously from the considering where exactly their path may lead and what their daily behaviors are doing to contribute to that future.

4. Encourage them to make (and own) their mistakes. They realize that making mistakes is how we learn (and wise leaders learn from other people’s mistakes).  As Coach Dean Smith of the UNC Tar Heels said, you should “admit it, learn from it, and then not repeat it.”  Great leaders take responsibility for their actions and decisions – and it is their positive response to mistakes and adversity that makes great leaders such a powerful example to their teammates.

5. Assign a younger person for them to mentor. John Maxwell has famously said that “Leadership is influence.”   Putting your athlete in a position where he or she has the opportunity to shape and impact positively the live and perceptions and visions of others is a powerful tool… and once he / she discovers how much influence their efforts and advice can have on a younger person, they will likely recognize and take advantage of more chances to speak up and lead your team.

6. Have them research your organization’s past.  There is nothing like the feeling of being a significant and contributing part of something bigger than yourself.  Giving your athlete a perspective of who has come before and the foundation that their efforts have helped to build can provide a valuable sense of belonging to something larger. All great athletes or achievers recognize and respect the adversity and accomplishments of those who came before, and learn from the lessons and examples they offer.

7. Request their advice and ideas. One of the greatest compliments you can give another person is to sincerely ask for and act upon their advice.  If you are grooming someone for a position of leadership, then having them feel that their opinion and insights are valued and will impact your program are key ingredients to their increasing sense of ownership and influence.

8. Share important big-picture information with them. The more information you share with your athletes, the more involved and invested they will usually become.  Some coaches still take the position that most things are on a “need to know” basis, and their players job is just to show up and play.  This leads to an employee mentality among your athletes instead of encouraging them to take ownership and feel included in the process.  The more they know about the big picture plans of strategy, the why behind your practice planning, the need for fundraising, or the importance of defining team roles and responsibilities, the more they will likely feel a necessary part of making sure those things happen.

9. Give them a “shield” of confidence.   For Romans to lose or throw away their shields was a crime punishable by death, because of the value of those body-length shields.  If you’ve ever seen Gladiator, you know how big those things were.  In Ephesians 6.16, Paul references the “shield of faith…”   Even in difficult times, a leader should remember to NEVER “throw away/lose” their confidence/faith.  Poor leaders allow circumstances to affect their commitment… but great leaders are determined to have their commitment impact their circumstances!

10. Expose them to other leaders.  The ugly duckling only felt ugly because he was a swan surrounded by ducks.  Often, one of the greatest gifts you can give an athlete with a potential for leadership is to send them into situations where they will “see other swans” and see that they are not alone in having greater abilities or aspirations than some of the people that may surround them in day to day situations.  Whether it is a camp, a conference, or simply a visit to observe successful athletes at the “next level” of competition, all leaders need examples to emulate and will benefit from feeling that they are not alone in their commitment to excel.


There are a number of team leadership books and CDs that can help to provide the information and encouragement your athletes need – but nothing is more powerful than personal experiences.

Experiential learning and reflection are the keys to internalizing and applying any idea or insight.
If your team needs better leadership or is struggling to work successfully together, and you would like to discuss how a team development event can improve their communication and leadership skills,  contact Sean and share a short summary of your situation.

You can also follow Sean on Twitter or take a moment to connect with Sean on LinkedIn to receive additional information and teamwork resources in the future!

2 thoughts on “Ten Ways to Transform Athletes into Team Leaders

  1. David says:

    I think creating a plan for their future is critical. Empower them to set a grand goal. Break it down into mini goals so they can see how they connect with one another bring them closer to their mission.

    • Sean Glaze says:

      Thanks for the comment, David –
      Helping them to see what they could become (or do) and then sharing the bite-size steps to achieve that are powerful motivators!

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