Tips for Inspiring and Building up Leaders on Teams

Coaching sports may be hard, but it’s also very rewarding. Whenever I ask coaches what they enjoy most about coaching, most of them reply by highlighting the athletes. They love the team they have. They love their team’s hard work and gritty attitudes. They love the way their team works together. They love the way their team competes. They love helping the athletes.

They don’t usually say they love winning, although I know they do. Why do most think of the players first? It’s because the players make all the difference in the world.

Many coaches are good at fostering leadership on their teams. A lot of factors go into inspiring young minds to take on leadership roles, both in and away from sports.

Sometimes, though, coaches get so busy with the next game, practice, or crisis that fostering leaders is last on their minds.

Tips For Inspiring Leadership

There are many ways to inspire leadership, but here are some quick tips to help you think about it as it relates to your team.

Never Stop Learning About Your Team

As the year goes on and you get to know your team fairly well, it takes a commitment to stay engaged and continue to learn about them. What are they passionate about? They may not always know. By asking questions, it helps them think about themselves and may increase self-awareness.

Here are some questions to spark communication

  • What motivates and inspires you?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What have you been working on in school?
  • What is your favorite class?
  • What do you love about playing sports?
  • What did you think about the last competition?
  • Do you think our team is working well together?

These questions, and others, will assist you in learning more about your players as both people and athletes. You may also get valuable feedback from them as you go.

Soccer team in red and white uniforms holding soccer ball and smiling for photo

Give Them a Voice

It can be difficult to give your team a voice. It may feel too risky. Understandable. Sometimes it is risky, but, by giving up some control, you inspire others to use their voices. It also demonstrates to them that you are open to hearing what they have to say.

That does not mean they will “get their way” with everything, but it does mean that you want to hear their feedback.

When players feel like they have a voice, there is usually more ownership and investment in the team and coaches. They feel confident and empowered to make a difference.

Understand Where They Are Coming From 

There are going to be times when students say something that makes no sense or even makes you angry as a coach. Understanding where they are coming from with their communication will help you formulate a helpful response.

Today’s youth are more uptight, stressed, and depressed than past generations. COVID hit hard, and many are still feeling the effects. Mental health issues are very prevalent. As a coach, taking this into consideration and being aware of changing behaviors might help you understand why they are communicating and/or acting the way they are.

Knowing the parents in this situation is also helpful. It pays to know the parents as much as knowing each individual on the team. Many young people imitate what they hear from their parents. Knowing the parents, consequently, can potentially bring a lot of clarity when it comes to the words and actions of your student-athletes.

This leads to the next tip.

Have Open and Honest Dialogue

Open dialogue between parents, coaches, and athletes keeps everyone on the same page. It’s not always easy, but open communication helps alleviate assumptions. Assumptions have a tendency to creep up on teams. Without being addressed, assumptions build walls and communication stops.

Allowing open communication, within the limits of team and coach policies, allows for honest information to move between the team and families. This takes work from all parties, but most of it relies on how the coach can bring people together.

Strength coach working with athlete using kettle bell

Provide Useful Feedback

Most coaches have some form of feedback built into their coaching styles. However, it’s easy to direct that feedback to the team only or to those who have the largest roles on the team. Feedback is critical for all participants, even those who don’t receive as much playing time and who don’t hold the most important roles. In fact, those players crave it. 

Feedback can inspire a player who is struggling, or who has limited playing time, to continue to work hard. Without the feedback, that same athlete may just quit trying.

When coaches can provide feedback that is honest and mixed with both positive attributes and things that could be improved, athletes will most likely use it for motivation and continue to try to get better.

Student-athletes rely on coach feedback to steer them toward playing time or a different role on the team.

Another powerful use of feedback is to ask for it from your players. Feedback doesn’t have to be reserved for the end of the season. You can ask for real-time feedback from each player. Ask how you could help each player achieve whatever goals she has set and then take action to help her.

Build in Responsibility Channels

As you evaluate your team, you know which student-athletes demonstrate leadership ability already. Giving them more responsibility is key to leadership development.  

Develop responsibility channels. In other words, choose the leaders, give them a goal, and help them set up the responsible teammates to help accomplish the goal. Those teammates report to the leader, and the leader reports back to the coach.

There are many creative ways to organize your responsibility channels. You can also engage the other coaches in these challenges. For example, maybe the goal is to create a mentorship program where your seniors mentor the younger players on your team. The coach gives one senior the responsibility of organizing which seniors will mentor which younger players and how they will keep track of these interactions. The other seniors report to the senior in charge, and the senior in charge gives feedback to the coach.

This is an oversimplified example, but you can find many more in the book entitled, “Beyond the Talent: Profile of a Winning Team.” In this book, we demonstrate all the characteristics that make up teams, all related to leadership, and how they work together to create high performing teams.

Have a Plan

Just like you have plans for practice and game strategies, it is important to have a plan for leadership development. What your athletes learn from you goes well beyond the sport they play. They will likely learn how to deal with obstacles and setbacks, winning and losing, and how to handle adversity. Your role, as a coach, is large and will have lasting effects.

With a plan on how to improve leadership on your teams, as opposed to it happening by chance, you create the opportunity for each athlete to try on leadership. You assist them in understanding more fully what their strengths are and how they can be better leaders.

The plan can be simple. Identify the good leaders you already have. Give them challenges to test their leadership. Help them engage others in the process. Then identify the next best leaders and give them challenges as well. The better leaders will get the more difficult challenges and so on down the list.

If you need help with a good plan, don’t hesitate to reach out to Find My Team at

Coach holding an Ipad with an athlete about to sprint on a track

Be Their Runway

If you think about an airplane taking off and landing, in both situations, there is a critical need for a runway. It’s not different with your team. Sometimes they need a lift, and sometimes they need a landing place.

When they need a lift, it comes in the way of encouraging words to lighten their load. They may also need a listening ear or a shoulder to lean on. Their life is heavy. They have school, family, and sports putting pressure on them and weighing them down. You can provide that lift so they can soar.

On the other hand, they may need a landing place. They may think they know better than most or that the rules don’t apply to them. They are so high above everyone else that it’s affecting their decision-making, their ability to be an effective leader, let alone a good teammate. This is when you can provide the landing runway. Help them come down, take a pause, and recalibrate before they take off again. They may need more communication, a reflection exercise, or a meeting with parents.

In both situations, a coach can find a way to help navigate the struggles and the issues. Without the coach, student-athletes will continue to struggle or just get through their day-to-day activities.

Final Thoughts

Coaches have so much power and influence, both of which have been tested profusely in the last few years. You are making an impactful difference in every life you touch. Though at times you may not feel like it, or you may not always see it, know that opportunity exists each and every day.

Inspiring and building up leadership on your teams not only promotes a healthy culture, but also gives each individual on your team the opportunity to use those skills as their education and sports career continue beyond high school.

You do make a difference.

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