Follow the leader
Posted by Dean Holden at February 11th, 2013
Long-time hockey coach Kevin Hartzell explains how coaches can nurture leadership among their players
By Kevin Hartzell, 20 December 2012
In the first of this two-part series on leadership, we looked briefly at some basics of what aspiring leaders should understand. Our sports teams are a natural training ground for nurturing and teaching leadership skills.
The basics of leadership include an understanding that leadership is a value needed to be embraced by all. Whether we want to believe it or not, we are all in leadership positions daily. Leadership is principally an influence of one person at a time, which is why “leading by example” is at the very basic nature of leadership. What one does each and every day will be observed and followed.
To be an effective leader, one needs to seek knowledge. One cannot lead if one does not have knowledge as to how or why they or the team might want to go in a specific direction. All of us need to allow our knowledge time to evolve.
And finally in part 1, the concept of there is no leadership fundamental more important than an understanding of “why,” the moral conviction of why we find our effort important in the first place. This is the motivation that ties our effort together.
A question I would like to address is how do we as coaches and teachers allow our students the opportunity to learn and develop their own leadership skills? So let’s get started in that pursuit. First let’s look at what we should expect as an understanding of what our leaders should be able to do.
Effective leadership includes, in my opinion, a few things:
1. The ability to think for one’s self.
2. The ability to act on one’s moral convictions.
3. The ability to use one’s knowledge to be able to direct/re-direct an effort.
I am convinced we as a society are doing anything but nurturing leadership. Often our highest achievers are being conditioned to getting things done at a relatively high rate of efficiency. That is great, but it’s not necessarily leadership.
Our young talent is accepted at a school and/or makes a team, maybe a college team which also puts them into an academic machine and encourages timeliness and efficiency on how to get things done; not necessarily how to lead. So we give a player a task like “pick up the pucks” and s/he gets that task done on time, but again that is not necessarily leadership.
So how do we coaches nurture leadership? We first have to encourage our players’ involvement in team functions and we have to encourage knowledge. Not for passing the test or only getting the task done on time, but for the sake of understanding. Once one acquires knowledge, and I cannot stress this enough, then that knowledge can be put to work in a sincere effort to help and in the direction of the effort.
For us in Sioux Falls, that meant coaches sharing information with players, asking for input and making sure our captains knew and the team knew, that they needed to have a say in what happened both on the ice and off.
After our challenge weekend, which was talked about in part 1, we selected captains for the first quarter of the season. The leaders of this process were, in part, selected by the previous season’s outgoing captains.
After seeing which returning players shined in the Challenge Weekend, we met with them and came to a consensus as to who are captains were. These captains remained in place for the first 15 games, at which time the current group of captains would consult with us on who should be the next set of captains.
At times, they would suggest a hold-over from the first group, and at times, there was a whole new set of captains named, rewarded for their outstanding service and leadership to the team. A ceremony would take place in the locker room where current captains would present the new captains with their jerseys with freshly sewn-on captain’s letters. Often a first-year player would be rewarded with this honor and always this first-year player would be surprised that his efforts were so quickly recognized by his new teammates.
For the last quarter of the season, we took a vote to see where the team was at with identifying our best leaders, and these captains led us throughout the final stages and playoffs. The process gave more the opportunity to lead and be recognized, though the bigger message was always that everyone needed to lead and each in their own way.
We met with our captains regularly. We would ask what kinds of issues they were experiencing, how we could help them, how we could do things better as a staff and so on. They brought us valuable input from the perspective of the team, and together, we made the experience better for all.
We need to encourage leaders to ask questions, look, observe and seek knowledge. Often it is the team members that hold the best ideas and knowledge of what needs to be done.
A leader can assess dynamics within his/her team and help influence a positive change of direction. For example, it could be an opinion shared by some teammates or an observation that too many teammates are not engaged with each other in the locker room as they are too often on their cell phones or distracted by social media. This could mean suggestions by the captains and the implementation of new policies such as cell phones not being allowed in the locker room, or specific times for cell use.
We coaches need to encourage our leaders to tackle problems and come up with solutions that can be implemented within the team. We have to be sure that our players know that we coaches will LISTEN to their ideas to better our teams.
Leaders don’t just help meet established goals, THEY HELP SET GOALS! Our players consistently helped us identify areas that needed our attention and help to set new paths and goals along the way.
All that said, we need to encourage leadership by all of our team members. We need to preach that each teammate needs to take leadership positions within the team. Each teammate is equally responsible for the positive function of the team. If team members have the information needed, they should be held accountable to the positive use of that information.
For example, if we coaches saw a player perform a drill incorrectly and we knew the players knew the drill, we would watch to see if team members would “self-correct.” That means we would allow the players (if they have the information needed-like knowledge of the drill) to get each other back on track with positive support and reminders of the purpose of a drill.
This is what they need to do during the course of a game when they are out and involved in the game. They need to take charge and lead each other. If they did not self-correct, then this would be the time when we coaches would blow the whistle and have everyone do some reminder push-ups as the correction was within their knowledge and abilities.
A coach should expect that team members speak up and help one another. Bottom line is that during the game in the heat of battle, it is the team members who need to help one another with positive direction and leadership. This value will also be the coaches’/parents’ biggest ally with off-ice situations where coaches and/or parents are not there to supervise.
We see problems reported in the media all too often where adults or young people behave badly, where if someone or many had spoken up, the bad things that resulted could have been avoided. Having our young people armed with the knowledge and confidence that they can affect change, is an important skill on many levels.
The problem with us not producing more leaders is not a problem of the kids; it is a problem created by us adults. Too often we talk at our students. We expect obedience and efficiency in the tasks we demand of them. But if we agree in the value of leadership skills, and not just because of the goals of our current team or current task, but in the future of our young people’s lives, from marriage to corporate board rooms and our society as a whole, we need to encourage their participation.
We have the perfect place to focus on the development of leaders with our sports teams. With leadership development, we will have better teams and be helping to better develop our future leaders. There is no better classroom than our athletic teams.
I learned long ago, the better job I did as a coach, the less I had to do. As my players became ever more self-sufficient and self-reliant, the more attention to detail I saw out of our players both on the ice and off.
If done well, a coach can help each of their student-players come to an understanding, that no matter their role within the team, that their sincere and honest efforts to improve their organization/team, both on and off the ice, are an important part of the team’s successful path forward.