Winning Together: The Foundation of Leadership in Sports!

We all lead in some aspect of our lives. Whether that’s looking after our younger siblings, organizing a group event for you and your friends, or simply creating energy, inspiration, and motivation for others to follow.

Leadership is defined as the art of motivating a group of people to achieve a common goal. A leader is a person who possesses the combination of personality and leadership skills that make others want to follow in their direction.

Many athletes often feel that to be a leader you need to be born a leader, be drawn to leadership, or be appointed to a leadership position. We think of leadership as a title that has to be earned.

But leaders are rarely, if ever, born. In fact, leadership is a skill set that is to be continually worked at to get better at. Just like the work that any athlete puts into their sports craft, leadership gets better with practice.

A common misconception is that you need to be a stand-out athlete or an appointed leader in your craft to lead. This could not be further from the truth. Leadership doesn’t care how athletically gifted you are. Leadership is a combination of circumstance and persistence.

“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is They are the one who gets the people to do the greatest things.” – Ronald Reagan


In this article we are going to look at 5 Foundational Pillars of Great Leadership:

1. Communication:

Effective communication in sports is an absolutely essential trait that quality teams and leaders must have to be successful.  A leader’s ability to relay the right message in the right way to their team or to the individual athlete goes a long way in equating to sports success. The fact of the matter is – everybody must be on the same page when it comes to winning.

A leader in any sports environment is an extension of the coach. Leaders who learn to communicate effectively with their teammates and peers can deliver positive feedback and constructive criticism in ways that actually influence and get the best out of players’ performance.

According to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, 55 percent of human communication is non-verbal. In some sports, this number is even higher. Many times, hand signals and a series of signs are used to indicate what a player is supposed to do in performance.

So, more often than not a great leader not only leads through verbal communication but through their physical actions and body language.

Duke Basketball and U.S.A. 3×3 Women’s Inaugural winning coach Kara Lawson talks about one of the biggest misconceptions of great teams is that they never have any problems. Even in the most perfect of relationships, there is conflict. Conflict is actually a pivotal part of success.

The coaches are going to be mad at you sometimes. You’re going to be mad at the coaches sometimes. You’re going to be mad at each other sometimes. The danger is in that conflict lingering.

The teams that have success are the teams that don’t allow the pettiness to fester.  When trying to mix different personalities together it’s normal to have a difference with somebody. But great teams speak up, speak on it, work through it, and squash it.

The teams that can overcome adversity are the teams that build resilience and ultimately create more success.


2. Passion & Commitment:

Developing leadership qualities requires strong passion and commitment.  Commitment raises Performance and Passion inspires buy-in to the vision, standards, and values.

The reason why passion and commitment are such a vital part of leadership is because there will be times when your athletes won’t always love the game.  There will be times when the process of mastering skills becomes uncomfortable.  And that feeling of discomfort can trigger anxiety, stress, overwhelm, or as we like to call it in the sports world “pressure”.  This can affect the confidence, focus, and actions of these athletes which can result in individuals and teams underperforming.

Development requires growth and growth is never a smooth process. And this is exactly why elite athletes will not always have love for their sport 24/7.

Their character will be tested and so it is important that leaders build that character up. In order to do that, leaders must pay particular attention to learning how to best motivate each individual athlete to get the best out of them and to create buy-in.


3. Positivity:

As humans and as athletes we are created with a negative bias. A negative event always seeks to have a longer-lasting more impactful effect on us than positive ones. We remember them more vividly and they play a larger role in shaping our lives. This is because on a human level, we feel pain, but not the absence of pain.

Now there have been hundreds of scientific studies from around the world confirming our negativity bias.  A negative remark always stands out and seems more authentic than a positive one. Socially we invest in avoiding a bad reputation more so than building a good one. And even babies as young as six months old – are quick to spot an angry face in a crowd, but slower to pick out a happy one. In fact, no matter how many smiles we see in that crowd, we will always spot the angry face first.

We are created this way and the reason for this works into the factor of fear. We analyze the potential dangers or risks much quicker in order to keep us safe.  In sports, the biggest fear is the fear of failure.

Safe is fine if you’re deciding whether or not to walk down a dark alleyway at night, touch a boiling pot on a stove, or swim in shark-infested waters – But research has shown that there is an undeniable strong link between positive psychology and high-performing teams.

So, from an athlete’s perspective. That negative bias will always keep us from taking risks.  And risks are an essential ingredient for success.  Without risks, we can’t won’t improve, grow, or achieve our athletic goals.  As the saying goes – “You have to risk it for the biscuit.”

Creating a positive a positive culture allows athletes to take controlled risks with more confidence.  The more confident they feel, the more competent they can perform the risk.

So, how do we develop confidence in others? By building teammates up, motivating, and encouraging athletes.

When Sir Alex Ferguson, had his successful run with Manchester United Football Club for so many years his philosophy was simple. “The two most important words for a player, or for any human being, there is nothing better than hearing – Well Done”.


4. Consistency:

Consistency is what builds trust between coaches, athletes, and teammates.  Consistency is vital to leadership success because it eliminates the uncertainty in elevating high-performing teams.

The most consistent athlete may not always be the most talented.  Consistency is developed through understanding and controlling the elements of performance that athletes have 100% control over.

In sports, there is undoubtedly a huge focus on results  – Winning or losing, making or missing, performance statistics, etc. But it is the uncertainty of results that makes sport so appealing.  To get the desired result there needs to be a focus on the process of performance.

Without a process, we scramble into a fear state triggering negative emotions. Like a computer, we basically go into data overload. Having a process to reach a desired outcome is like having a game plan for your mind.

“Focusing on what you control” is a common piece of advice given to athletes throughout many years in virtually every sport invented.  But what does that really mean? 

Dr. Stephen E. Walker defines these controllable factors as the P – E – A of sport. Preparation. Effort. And Attitude.  When you consistently maximize your ability in these 3 components of performance – more often than not, you will see consistent results.

Consistency is a vital part of leadership because it builds trust, inspiration, and motivation through action. And action as we all know, speaks a whole lot louder than words.

“Leaders become great, not because of their power, but for their ability to inspire and elicit commitment, passion, consistent action, and follow-through from others.” – Ty Howard


5. Awareness:

If you’ve ever wondered how the top athletes and top leaders of the world can just switch themselves on to create amazing performances with incredible consistency… Well, a big part of this comes down to their Self and Social awareness. Both of which are the cornerstones of EQ (Emotional Intelligence).

Joshua Freedman (Educator at UCLA) describes Emotional Intelligence as a way of recognizing, understanding, and choosing how we think, feel, and act. It shapes our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with others. Research suggests that it is responsible for as much as 80% of the success in our lives.

Self-awareness is the foundation for all further EQ development in sports. It is the degree to which you understand yourself. This involves the knowledge of your strengths, and limitations, what motivates and drives you, and the knowledge of how your emotions and behaviors trigger your sporting results. When we develop self-awareness, we give ourselves the best opportunity to choose the types of behaviours that create peak performance.

Self-awareness is also the basis of effective communication and managing relationships, as well as developing empathy for others.  A huge part of athletic and team success is derived from how you relate to your teammates and coaches.

So how can you become a better leader?


  • Talk.

When athletes are committed, making good decisions, putting the team first, and consistently leading by example, they have “earned the right” to verbally support, encourage, and “talk” to their teammates.

Anyone can offer positive words but when that positive reinforcement is coming from team leaders who are confident, composed and have completely bought into team values, standards, and systems – it just hits differently!! 

It also has a flow-on effect too. Great leaders inspire others to encourage, support, and empower their teammates and coaches.  This is how ‘culture’ is created.


  • Support.

A strong leader is the link between the coach and the team. Leaders must be willing to adopt the role of “team spokesperson.” A good “support it” leader must understand the vibe of the team and be willing to talk to coaches on behalf of the team as well.

Great team leaders support their teammates and become a strong, positive voice for their team. To add to that, leaders must be willing to “take a stand” for their coaches in terms of supporting what their coaches are promoting. It is a difficult task but great team leaders are able to support their teammates and coaches.

“Leaders must be close enough to relate to others. But far enough ahead to motivate them.” – John C. Maxwell


  • Embody.

The best leaders aren’t just accountable for their own actions but for the team’s too. Not only do they place high attention to detail in their preparation, effort, attitude, values, and standards but they inspire others to do the same.

Great leaders “embody it” by taking control of what happens in practices, how their team performs in competition, team meetings, and even team social events, etc.

The best leaders take responsibility for how the team is performing as well as how they prepare for the future as well.


  • Embrace.

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; to be kind, but not weak; to be humble but not timid.” – Jim Rohn

One of the most difficult team leader roles is to enforce an agreed-upon team value or standard and hold teammates accountable for their performances. Nobody likes to be told they are not giving 100% effort, their attitude is bad, or their body language is bringing the team down.

However, accountability is a non-negotiable when it comes to high-performing leaders and high-performing teams. The best leaders are willing to say what needs to be said… no matter the situation or person involved.

Great need leaders are willing to accept the challenge of imposing higher standards and demanding “extra” from teammates, even if it means teammates sometimes getting angry or resentful.

While this part of the role is difficult, leaders who are willing to “embrace the walk” and hold strong to their team standards and values often launch their teammates toward greater success.

– 𝒞ℴ𝒶𝒸𝒽 𝒞𝒶𝓁. 

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