Category Archives: Leadership

Communication Principles For Creating A Leadership Strategy


In the post, Do You Have a Leadership Strategy For Your Team?, I talked about the importance of having a leadership strategy: How do we pick captains? What characteristics should they have? How do we make sure the process is transparent and can be replicated from year to year?

So that’s what we’re going to focus on!

The following communication techniques are from this post and will keep us focused on our ultimate goal of creating an effective leadership strategy:

  • Formal communication:  I’m sure most of us do this whenever we’re in our captain-picking time of the year.  We say something like, “Hey, we’re going to be voting for captains in a couple of weeks (or whatever your time frame), here are some things we look for in captains.  These qualities should be present on and off the court.  Being a captain is a big deal, it’s an honor, so make sure you’re paying attention so that you can use your vote wisely.”
  • Informal communication: I use this in two ways.  The first being those players who I think will get voted captain.  I start talking to them about it at the end of our season…I want them prepared and I want them acting captain-ly so that they are seen as leaders.  The other way I use this type of communication is in weekly captains meetings where I ask the team leaders how things are going.  Early in the season, I may ask if any of the newbies are feeling homesick.  Later in the season, I’ll keep checking in to make sure there aren’t any interpersonal conflicts that need to be addressed or to find out if the behind-the-scenes tone is generally positive.
  • Communication related to the organization’s rituals and symbols. Older players, alumni, coaches who’ve been around for a long time are essential to helping paint a picture of “who we are” and give context to team culture.  This year, we brought back a championship team to be recognized during one of our matches and our players enjoyed hearing from the alums and seeing the fire that was still in their eyes about competing in our gym.  Those folks can give a fuller picture of the impact being a team leader has had on their life.
  • The messages that leaders send through their every action. I think we, as coaches, are pretty aware of this, but are our athletes?  I’m one of those fake it ‘til you make it kind of coaches.  I tell my team (at least) weekly that their enthusiasm for being at practice isn’t as important as everyone (the coaches, their teammates) thinking they’re enthusiastic about being at practice.  Didn’t do well on a test? I shouldn’t be able to tell by looking at them.  Got in a fight with their best friend?  They should be the loudest talkers in the gym.  A freshmen took a senior’s starting spot?  That senior should be screaming her face off in support.  Leaders/captains put the team first.  This could be the greatest gift we give our players: the ability to control their emotions and how they express them.

I like this strategy!  These are principles from the business world that can be easily adapted to the coaching world.

Helping Our Captains Lead With Integrity


“The most effective form of leadership is supportive. It is collaborative. It is never assigning a task, role or function to another that we ourselves would not be willing to perform. For all practical purposes, leading well is as simple as remembering to remain others-centered instead of self-centered.”—Great Leadership Isn’t About You

Teaching our athletes to lead is a big job.  Failing to set the ground rules for what you want leadership to look like can lead to hazing, “mean girl” tactics, cliques, and ultimately ineffective performances. We can’t expect our athletes to know what we want if we haven’t explicitly laid it out for them.  In the absence of a coach’s direction, the athletes are going to fill in the gap and I’m sure we can all agree that that probably won’t go well!

I believe our team leaders want to be taught and I know our teams want to be led by captains who make it easy to follow them.  What leaders are easy to follow? The author listed some characteristics in the quotation at the beginning…those are a good start:

  • I rely on my captains to be a go-between. They work closely with the team as well as the coaching staff.  Ideally, they understand that they perform an important role in the team’s success.  They should be close enough to their teammates that they know when things are going a bit sideways and they need to tell the coaches.  But they should also know when not to tell the coaching staff.  My most effective team captains squashed issues before I even knew what was going on!
  • Our teams are faced with the conundrum of needing to be both collaborative and competitive.  If you’ve got two players who play the same position, they will both benefit from in-practice competition, but surely they know that once the whistle blows at game time, they’re expected to support the team…whether or not they’re on the court.  Collaboration should be built into our team cultures, our captains should always be looking to take advantage of opportunities to collaborate.  Asking the younger players questions and not creating a “captain clique” will help create those collaborative feelings on the team.
  • In the trenches. I don’t want captains who say, “Freshmen always do ________ (insert task here).” Freshmen (or newbies) shouldn’t always carry stuff, be expected to defer to upperclassmen, or be treated in a second-rate manner.  That kind of behavior signals insecurity in the leader.  It’s hard for players to follow a captain that lacks confidence and tries to raise themselves up by pushing their teammates down.  Everyone pitching in helps to create good feelings among the players, regardless of how long they’ve been with the team.
  • Other-centered. I’ve had captains who would stay after practice with a lesser skilled teammate and help them with skill work…that’s great.  I’ve had captains who’ve told me about a teammate who beyond-the-norm homesick…that type of concern is necessary.  And we’ve had captains who, after I’ve announced that perhaps an extended conditioning session would be more productive than working on skills, gather the team together to figuratively whip them into shape.

Of course I’ve had ineffective captains as well, but that’s not what this post is about!  It’s about giving our team leaders the necessary skills that make them easy for their teammates to follow.  If we set the standards high for our captains, they will rise to the challenge.

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Is Your Best Athlete Your Best Leader?

best leadersource

When your best players are your hardest workers, you have the chance to be very good.
—Tara VanDerveer

When your best players aren’t vocal leaders.  This is a common problem.  I don’t know how many times I’ve commiserated with another coach about a player who has out-of-this-world talent, but won’t speak up in practice or games.  I’ve tried telling the player that the team needs them to speak up, I’ve tried explaining that the burden of being the best is that their teammates look up to them, I’ve tried it all.  Usually it doesn’t work.  If that person gets picked as a captain (which they usually do), I try to pair them up with someone who will actually talk.

When your best players undermine you.  This one is rare…but it happens.  Your best player smiles in your face, “yes, Coach” and all that, but is tearing you down behind your back.  I’m not talking about the regular, “It sucks that Coach made us run today, that’s crap!”, all players say things like that.  I’m talking about the player who questions your coaching technique, coaching moves, or coaching decisions.  As annoying as it is for players to come to us with questions about those things, it’s catastrophic when they do all of those things in secret.  Even worse, we usually don’t find out about it until it’s too late.

When your best players are lazy.  This is the rarest of them all.  Can they really be your best player if they’re lazy?  Semantics.  Your best player (stats leader in important categories) doesn’t go hard in practice or games, but still manages to be better than her teammates.  You can try to guilt them into working harder by telling them their teammates look up to them.  You can try to force her into exertion through physical punishment, but if they’ve gotten this far by being lazy…they can trick you into thinking they’re working hard.  No matter what your captain policy is (you pick, the team picks, combo), this person most definitely can’t have a leadership position on your team.

When your best players are your hardest workers.  Heaven has opened up and shined on you and your team.  Effort is catchy.  Hard work is catchy.  Desire is catchy.  Belief is catchy.  These players, these high energy/hard working types, infect the rest of the team with their energy.  Their teammates may walk into the gym after a tough day of class wanting to slack off, but this player just won’t allow it.  The team may be losing late in the game, but this player won’t let their teammates stop believing.  These players earn their teammates’ respect by the way they carry themselves each and every day.

Your best players are leaders, no matter what.  They may lead negatively or they may lead positively…but they are ALWAYS leading.  Be sure to have high-quality players in leadership positions on your team.

How To Teach Leadership

peer leadershipsource

Leadership is really a form of temporary authority that others grant you, and they only follow you if they find you consistently credible. It’s all about perception—and if teammates find you the least bit inconsistent, moody, unpredictable, indecisive, or emotionally unreliable, then they balk and the whole team is destabilized.—Pat Summitt

I’ve written before about the magic of embracing followers.  After all, can you really be a leader if you have no followers?  Does it matter that the coach calls a player “captain” if their teammates roll their eyes every time the “captain” says something?

In the quotation above, Pat Summitt gives us a blueprint for teaching our leaders to be credible captains.

5 qualities to teach team leaders

Consistent.  Imagine a captain who didn’t always work hard.  Yikes…that’s one bad captain!  The burden of being a leader means they have to give full effort every day.  Tough day in class? Gotta bring it in practice.  Best friend’s mad at them?  Still gotta bring it in practice.  Having an awful practice? Effort level has to remain high, gotta bring it!

Even-tempered.  Sport offers its participants a chance to practice moderating oneself.  In my opinion, athletes don’t get the chance to pout, complain, or give up.  We ask our athletes to embrace failure and not get too caught up in success.  That attitude requires a certain leveling off of emotions.

Predictable.  I coached a young lady long ago who was tremendously talented.  She was dynamic and athletic…a rare talent.  She was also full of surprises.  Sometimes she was the life of the proverbial party.  Other times she was withdrawn and sullen.  I never could figure her out.  Neither could her teammates.  This made her a poor leader.

Decisive.  There have been times in my career where I’ve pulled my captains aside and asked them a point-blank question.  It could be something like, “I think both Susie and Janie are about equal, who would you rather play with out there on the court?”  At that point, I don’t want any hemming and hawing, I need a decision.

Emotionally reliable.  Closely related to being a consistent teammate, the emotionally reliable player.  I actually looked up this phrase and landed on the Psychology Today webpage.  Emotionally reliable folks are able to self-regulate at a high level.  “Self-regulation is the ability to calm yourself down when you’re upset and cheer yourself up when you’re down.”  That sounds like a great leadership quality, right?  They don’t get too high, they don’t get too low.

These are all great lessons to teach our team captains as they navigate the murky waters of leading their peers.

5 Qualities That Make Every Team Great

great teamssource

“There are five fundamental qualities that make every team great: communication, trust, collective responsibility, caring and pride. I like to think of each as a separate finger on the fist. Any one individually is important. But all of them together are unbeatable.”—Mike Krzyzewski

Coach K has been tremendously successful on many levels: spanning decades, working with collegiate athletes, working with professional athletes during the Olympics…you name it, he’s done it.  So when someone with that sort of resume tells us what the fundamental qualities of effective teams are, we should listen!

5 traits of great teams

Communication.  We all know it’s great to encourage communication within our teams…I’m sure that is something you already know.  That’s not where it stops though.  Of course we need to have effective communication between coaches on staff and also between coach and player.

Trust.  Our athletes need to trust that we have their best interest at heart, that we’ll be fair—not equal—but fair.  We, as coaches, need to be able to trust that our athletes are working to the best of their ability.  That’s part of the coach-player agreement, right?  We’ll do our best to turn them into the best version of themselves (in terms of our sport) and they’ll do their best to believe in and follow our plan for them.

Collective responsibility.  This is the old “there’s no I in team” idea.  I believe one of the fundamental truths of team is that the individual has a responsibility to the team.  That responsibility is to put team first.  Putting team first can look like a lot of things: off-season workouts, excelling in the classroom, etc.

Caring.  About one another, about the team, about the program.

Pride.  In their personal effort, in their team, in the collective struggle to maintain excellence over a period of time.

The last sentence of the Coach K quote is interesting.  Is it hyperbole or is he saying it with conviction?  I’d lean toward the latter.  Whenever I’ve had a poorly functioning team, they have fallen short in one of these areas.

When Will You Feel Successful As A Coach?

successful coachsource

Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.—John Wooden

This will be a short one today, but (I think) a good one.

I was talking to a coaching friend the other day.  He told me that he knew he’d be a great coach once his current team made it to NCAA’s. Now this guy has won a national championship at another institution, so it’s not like he doesn’t know how to win.

His comment said a few things to me.

  • We coaches are way too hard on ourselves.
  • We coaches are internally driven to succeed.
  • We coaches like challenges.

As I said to him, clearly you’re a good coach because you’ve won a national championship.  But I get it, once you accomplish a goal as a coach, you’re on to the next one.  So what did he do after winning a national championship?  He took a job at a historically bad university with no history of success.

Coaches love challenges.  We love setting goals and meeting them.  It’s what drives us.

Whether your goal is to rebuild a team culture or rebuild a player’s confidence, go out and do it to the best of your ability.  Like the Wooden quote above says, success is the satisfaction of knowing you did your best.  Let’s be our best selves for our teams!

John Wooden’s TEDtalk:  The difference between winning and succeeding

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The John Wooden series:

John Wooden TEDtalk
Leading With Integrity
Wooden’s Three Team Rules
The Pressure Of Winning

Leading With Integrity


Your reputation is what you are perceived to be; your character is what you really are.—John Wooden

In a perfect world, our reputation and our character would be the same thing…or at least similar.  I’m sure we can all agree that we’re not as great as some folks think we are and we’re not as awful as others may believe about us.  The truth, as they say, is somewhere in the middle.  But speaking in generalities, I think we’d all like our reputation and character to be aligned.

I’ve heard integrity described as who you are when no one is looking.  What will you do when you can’t take credit for it?  Will you do that thing because you know you won’t get caught?

Obviously, we all make mistakes.  That’s not what I’m talking about…I’m talking about decisions.  Let’s think about a few scenarios that could put integrity into question:

  • You’ve got a team rule that if a player misses practice, they miss the next game.  Your best player missed a practice before the conference championship.  She’s not supposed to play.  Will you play her?
  • You’ve found out some negative information about an opposing coach, will you share it with a common recruit?
  • You’re heading out of town for a conference.  Will you leave a couple of days early and charge your institution?

What you decide to do in each of these instances will reveal your character.  I believe that we owe it to our teams, in fact, I’d say it’s our responsibility to our teams to do the right thing.

John Wooden’s TEDtalk:  The difference between winning and succeeding

The John Wooden series:

John Wooden TEDtalk
Wooden’s Three Team Rules
The Pressure Of Winning
When Will You Feel Successful As A Coach?

How To Have A Difficult Conversation With A Player


Whether you’ve got a player who has been slacking off in the weight room, not getting it done and about to lose their starting spot, or who is being an awful human being toward a teammate, sometimes coaching requires us to have tough conversations.

Reading Tackle Conflicts with Conversation showed me that it’s at least possible to have these conversations without things a) resulting in tears, b) completely falling apart irreparably, or c) feeling super awkward post-talk.

That a thing is possible doesn’t make it probable.  Here are a few steps from the article that would increase our chances of having a productive, rather than destructive, conversation:

  • Clarify the conflict.  This one is almost like going to Starbucks.  “It seems like you have a personal conflict with Susie that you are uncomfortable addressing with her directly.”  “Yes coach, I have a personal conflict with Susie that I am uncomfortable addressing with her directly.”  I suppose this gives both player and coach a common ground.
  • Consult a neutral friend or coach.  I do this one all the time.  Hopefully you’ve all got a trusted coaching friend who can tell you when you’re off base or if you’re right on track.
  • Reframe, refocus, and redirect the conversation.  If you’ve ever had a difficult conversation with a player, you know they can divulge into rehashing the past.  No fun and not necessary.  When you feel the chat going down that road, that’s when it’s time to refocus on what should happen in the future, not what has gone on in the past.

Well, it’s worth a shot!  While most of us would rather avoid these uncomfortable conversations, I think they are a part of the coaching profession.

What Does It Mean To Play To Win?

play to winsource

I’m not only a coach at my college, but also an administrator.  Because of that, I end up on a lot of search committees.  I’m not complaining though, because it’s an excuse for me to hear different coach’s philosophies and ideas on coaching.

It was at one of these interviews, sitting at a breakfast meeting, that I heard this Play To Win philosophy.  It’s more than that though…more like a curriculum.  The gentleman started explaining what he did with his current team and I started grilling him about what went into his program.  It’s great and I told him I was going to steal it and I have.

Playing to win sounds so cliché and so obvious.  But how many of us really think our student-athletes are always behaving with the team’s best interests at heart?  So let’s talk about the Play To Win curriculum.  I tweaked what he talked about (his included leadership training, study tables, etc.) to fit what would work with my team.

Play To Win

  • What does it mean to win? This is where I talked to my team about the different ways of winning.  A high team GPA is a win.  Players who go to study abroad are a win.  And, of course, winning games is a win.
  • Requirements of being on a team.  A lot of times, folks want to be on a team, but they don’t want to put in the work.  That work could be hitting the weight room or it can be figuring out how to be happy with whatever role you have on the team.
  • Leadership/captains.  The main point of this bullet is their role in squashing “girl drama”.  I don’t believe a leader should be involved in “girl drama” and they should be active in shooting it down if they see it.  And of course the typical captain stuff: liason between coach and team, hold teammates accountable, etc.
  • Off-season.  At my level, we don’t get much of an off-season because it’s against NCAA rules.  And my team is from all across the country, so getting together in the summer for pick up games isn’t a realistic solution.  So I talked to the players about being accountable for their workouts.  We’re only in season for three months…the rest of the time is on them.

I also addressed recruiting, our non-traditional season, and having high standards in the classroom.  It all culminated with my asking them to begin with the end in mind.  I asked them what they wanted to say about our season in November, when it’s all over.

To think winning happens in the small amount of time we have with them during the season is hopeful at best, delusional at worst.

If you decide to come up with your own Play to Win curriculum, shoot me an email so that I can check it out!

8 Qualities Of Great Team Leaders

follow the leadersource

Captains are important and serve a unique function on our teams, so I enjoyed this article from Leadership Freak, The Three Power-People You Need On Your Team.  I don’t want to get into whether you choose captains or you let the team, or whether or not your captains are always seniors, or whether you don’t have captains at all.  I want to focus on what qualities we should look for, and what we should coach the team to look for, in our team leaders.

What we should look for in team leaders:

  • Hard working. I don’t know about you, but my best captains have been the hardest workers.  When they asked the team to run through a wall, their teammates knew the captain would be right there with them…leading the way.
  • Strong opinions and emotions. They should be passionate about the sport, about the team, and about their teammates.  Ideally they’re able to harness that emotion into motivating their teammates.
  • Unflinching alignment with organizational values.  What is it you value as a coach?  Does your team know?  Do your team leaders/captains?  Is it being on time?  Is it extra film study?  Is it supporting teammates who play a second sport?  Whatever it is, make sure you make it known.
  • Comfort saying no. Good manners are nice but not essential.  I had a young lady who was a natural born leader.  She was strong and she spoke her mind.  One preseason, she came in and it was like a quiet, mousy alien had abducted her.  She was worried that she was too strong and was scaring the team.  I did my best to tell her the qualities she was trying to hide were her best qualities.  And not only that, they were assets our team was in dire need of.
  • Dedication to serve the organization before serving themselves.  There’s that servant leader concept.  Team before self.  The teams I’ve had who have suffered through lack of success were always lacking that team-first leader.
  • Strength to confront brutal facts.  What if your star player is out all night long making a fool of herself (however you deem it) before a big game?  Will your team leaders address it?  My best leaders squash problems before I even realize it’s going on.
  • Openness to change.  Let’s say you’ve got a team captain.  She’s pretty good, but you see with a couple of tweaks in her personality or how she communicates with the team, she could be amazing.  Hopefully, she’s open to getting better…not just on the court, but off of it as well.
  • Loyalty.  To the program, of course, but more importantly, to their best selves.  That may come across as kind of cheesy, but sometimes our team leaders are put in tough positions where they’ve got to make a decision that may be unpopular.  I’d hope they believe in the type of leader they are and can stand by it.

Once we’ve found these folks and they’ve been identified as team leaders, it’s our job to train them to lead.  So often we assume our players know how to lead, but they only know what they’ve been exposed to.  What if you showed them leadership videos on Ted or youtube?  What if you read them great leadership quotes and asked them what they meant to each one of them?  What if you picked a leadership book and read it with them?

Training our leaders may be just as important as training our sport skills.