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Empowering Leaders in Competitive High School Sports Programs

By Doug Phillips on March 16, 2017 Coaches

One of the biggest challenges that a new or young coach to interscholastic athletics must face is leadership development. It is a required skill that, if done correctly, is a 12-month job.

Coming into a new program, or maybe dealing with a struggling program, is a golden opportunity to perfect the craft. With an open mind, a good dose of humility, and some willingness to take risks, coaches may find it to be the most enjoyable aspect of coaching.

At Colts Neck (New Jersey) High School, developing a successful girls soccer program took years of hard work. For us, the determination to move in a new direction and achieve our potential began after suffering a few seasons of failure. After much self-reflection, we finally recognized our lack of success was due to weak student leadership and team drama. At that point in time, we had tried everything to select captains. We had the team choose captains, had the team vote on coaches’ nominees, and had the coaches select captains based on preseason performance and attitude. None of these methods seemed to work and left us scratching our heads as to what we were missing.

We proceeded to research and educate ourselves on leadership development. What we soon realized was that we were not really “developing leaders,” but rather “choosing captains.” After looking at a wide variety of sources, ranging from sports publications to corporate based articles, we began to realize this topic went deep to the core of our program. In a very humbling moment of realization, we concluded that we had no team identity.

We immediately devised an action plan to develop strong leaders, set strong boundaries, and to establish a simple team philosophy. It was agreed that once we committed to this, there was no wavering from these beliefs or the program would crumble. Lastly, we determined that our leaders were handicapped by the coaches naming them at the beginning of a season. It had proved very difficult to be thrown into a leadership position and command immediate respect from teammates. Our leaders needed to be empowered long before the start of the season so that the respect was already in place.

Prior to making any decision as captains, they must ask themselves, “What is best for the team?” Over the years since we have made our philosophical changes and implemented a leadership development game plan, and developed a team unity that is highly respected by the faculty, administration, and other coaches – some of whom have adopted our philosophies. Implementing this new philosophy and team mindset has helped us achieve many titles and, along the way, has empowered young women to become strong leaders.

The process starts the first day of freshman year. The coaching staff and current team captains are making observations and communicating from day one. We assess attitude, body language and how other players gravitate towards natural leaders.

In the early stages, we find it best to look for leaders by example. Most obvious are those players that are moved up a level as, naturally, they are viewed by teammates as “better” players. This immediately presents the coaching staff with an opportunity to watch how players react to the selection process. We observe the attitude of both the players that are moved up a level, as well as those that remain on the freshman team. We regularly communicate with the current captains about the climate in the locker room and on social media. The Colts Neck girls soccer program has a strict, zero-tolerance social media policy. The captains are empowered to monitor that this rule is respected by the younger players.

A big part of our leadership development process is carried out in annual “exit interviews” at the conclusion of the season. These interviews are geared towards the identification of weaknesses and areas of improvement. They also serve as the perfect opportunity to “plant the seed” for a potential future captain. In our experience, this step is critical at the end of sophomore year as those incoming juniors are the pool of leaders for next season. The coaches and current captains must closely monitor and communicate about to the juniors their attitude and potential.

The ultimate shift that changed everything was the switch to naming captains immediately at the end of the fall soccer season. The new captains are named by the coaching staff with input from captains in place. The new captains assume their responsibilities at a “Passing the Torch” ceremony that occurs at the end-of-season team meeting. This is an emotional experience as the captains and rest of the senior class are asked to leave the room while the new captains and returning players continue the meeting, ultimately culminating in a captains/coaches-only-meeting.

The new captains’ responsibilities begin immediately, varying from assisting in uniform collection and inventory, to attending freshman orientations, and helping organize the end-of-season banquet and fundraisers. Captains handle 100 percent of the communication with players through the coaching staff in the offseason. This helps to empower our captains over the next nine months and allows the rest of the team to see the captains in a leadership role.

The biggest payoff comes in the following preseason. Our young leaders can now confidently step on the soccer pitch having the respect of the team and our long-standing traditions behind them.

Colts Neck’s philosophy is simple: “No one person is greater than the team.” The primary duty of the Colts Neck captains is to ensure this pact is never broken. This requires total humility on behalf of the captains and an unwavering commitment to place team principles before individual personalities – specifically their own.