Every athlete can and should be trained for leadership

by Jeff Smith

For my first 18 years as a coach, I selected captains for my volleyball and basketball teams.

It wasn't until a few weeks before this club season that I realized I was making a big mistake.

By naming only one, two or at most three players to be team captains, I was neglecting leadership development for the other athletes on my teams. In essence I was letting the other players off the hook. They figured the team captains held all the leadership responsibilities, so they didn't have to learn to lead or share the load, even though I stressed to everyone the importance of receiving leadership from each player.

This club season I intentionally didn't name a team captain for the express purpose of leaving that leadership vacuum open for every athlete on the team to fill. Now, when I ask the players a question during a team huddle at a tournament or practice, they don't reflexively turn to the team captain or captains to provide an answer. And when we're in a rough patch during a match, they don't instinctively wait for the captains to speak up and take the lead in encouraging or challenging their teammates. This leadership-by-committee approach is producing excellent results, including a closer-knit squad where everyone feels they have equal ownership of the team.

Even if your team has a player captain, that doesn't mean the other players can't grow as leaders, too. In fact, as coaches we are doing the other athletes a disservice if we don't teach them leadership and give them opportunities to lead.

Here are some specific ideas to help coaches and athletes develop players' leadership qualities this season and beyond.

Coaches: Develop non-captain roles

Creating leadership responsibilities for some or all of your athletes will increase athlete engagement in the team, teach critical leadership traits, expand your players' volleyball IQ and build relationships and connectivity between teammates.

Here are some suggested roles. Note that you can have multiple athletes take turns filling these responsibilities for a week, a month or a half-season.

Net captain: communicate blocking responsibilities, opposing hitters to watch, types of hits and shots coming from opponents as they happen, hitter tendencies and other helpful information to their teammates

Back-row captain: makes sure the team's back-row defense is organized and players are in correct defensive positions. Covers the team's hitters and communicates open areas to hit to. Lets everyone know where the opponent's top hitters are for every rotation as well as where they tend to hit.

Bonding captain: promotes fun, relationship building and team bonding through team get-togethers before or after practices or on separate nights or weekends as well as team service projects and other team functions. Some examples include our Wheaton 13 Blue team having a sleepover at a player's house, our Wheaton 14 Smack team serving together at Feed My Starving Children and one of the athletes on Elgin 13 Smack inviting her teammates to her house on a Saturday afternoon to make blankets for a homeless shelter.

Serve receive captain: the team's libero or another player who is in serve receive for six rotations is in charge of reminding teammates of their serve receive formation for each rotation as well as seam management responsibilities and where and how specific opposing servers like to serve.

Encouragement captain: Have a player on your team who is adept at keeping teammates' spirits up and exudes a positive attitude? Put her in this role to ensure that teammates are communicating in positive ways, maintaining upbeat and confident body language and staying connected with each other and supporting one another on the court.

Game plan captain: makes sure everybody is striving to execute the team's offensive, defensive and overall game plan for that tournament. If the coach's theme for the day is to run an aggressive offense, this player keeps an eye on how things are going on the court and communicates when specific players are doing this and when the team as a whole needs to get back to the theme.

Parents and athletes: understand leadership and your personal leadership style

Most young athletes don't know what leadership is or entails nor are familiar with how their personality fits with a specific leadership style. To aid discovery in this area, parents or coaches can ask kids to answer the questions below and then discuss their answers. They can also have the athlete take the Myers Briggs Personality Assessment to gain a stronger understanding of their personality and how it impacts how they think, react to certain situations, make decisions and live their lives. Visit www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/take-the-mbti-instrument for more information.

Here are some leadership questions for your athlete or child to answer. Feel free to add or alter this list:

  • What is leadership?
  • Who are some leaders in your life or from history that you admire?
  • What are/were the traits or qualities of those leaders that make them good leaders?
  • Why does a team need good team leaders?
  • How do team leaders help their team's performance on the court?
  • How do team leaders help their team's commitment and unity on and off the court?
  • What are some of the temptations of leadership that can lead to being a poor team leader?
  • If your coach asked you to be a team leader, how could you best help the team as a leader?
  • What are some areas where you would want to help lead your team?
  • What are some areas where you would feel uncomfortable or ill equipped to lead your team?

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.