Monday, January 28, 2008

Coaches as Leaders

Coaches as Leaders
by Robert E. Baker and Christopher Nunes
Leadership is a concept that is often discussed but frequently misunderstood. Literature in fields ranging from business to education to sport examines the concept of leadership, but often fails to provide a pragmatic outline or blueprint for those in leadership positions. This article describes leadership strategies that coaches can employ to improve their own as well as their team's effectiveness. The strategies examine leadership from both a personal and organizational perspective. It is only when coaches critically examine their own leadership styles that their individual skills and abilities improve, and result in enhanced team performance. While the strategies described were written with coaches in mind, they are relevant to other sport leaders, such as athletic directors and team captains.

Plato once noted, "The first and best victory is to conquer self" (in Maxwell, 1999), and as coaches we pursue victory. While one never completes the task of conquering self, the pursuit of one's own growth and development is key. Coaches can facilitate their own success by attending clinics or conferences, giving presentations, taking classes, reading professional literature, staying on top of current trends, pursuing certification programs, and learning from other top performers in the field.

Using Jerry Rice as a role model, Rick Pitino (1997) stated that "... what is important is that I take the essenceof what makes him successful and incorporate that into my philosophy." Coaches should look to individuals who have achieved high levels of competence and success. These role models can be found not only in the sport arena, but also in other professions. Ideal candidates have effective communication, decision-making and conflict management skills; they are able to appreciate the needs and goals of others. While adopting the strategies of successful leaders is effective and essential, each coach must determine what is consistent with his or her own personality and circumstances. Some techniques used by coaches at the professional level may not be applicable to coaches teaching in an academic environment.

Coaches should utilize their power to accomplish the goals and objectives they set for, or with, their team. They should have good interpersonal skills in order to foster relationships that go beyond name, rank and serial number. They can do so by employing an open door policy and being empathetic listeners. They will also need to strike a balance between personal and professional relationships. If balance is weighed too heavily on the personal, coaches may not be objective enough to critically evaluate a player's performance. Or, the coach who develops a friendship with a player's family may be conflicted when a disciplinary action is required. A player may also attempt to take advantage of the relationship to promote a personal agenda. Well-balanced relationships encourage players to work toward team goals consistent with the coach's intent.

While it is preferred that coaches consciously work to enhance their verbal skills, they communicate with others on less conscious levels. As humans, we all communicate by our personal appearance, actions, body language, pitch, tone, rate, inflection, emotion, volume, silences and pauses (Qordan, 1996). Communication is also multidimensional, so one must consider people, environment and circumstances in interpreting messages. An effective leader's messages "...are simple and direct and can serve as a battle cry of sorts for people across all organizational levels" (Carlzon, 1997). It involves sending clear, appropriate messages, reducing extraneous distractions, responding to feedback, selecting the correct channel, and actively listening. In order to ensure that messages are received as they are intended, coaches need to evaluate their own communication skills. This can be done by employing feedback from others (i.e., assistant coaches, supervisors) or by recording tapes of interactions with, players for objective viewing later. This kind of feedback helps to clarify goals and reduce the possibility of being misunderstood by others.

Sometimes it is necessary for coaches and team members to let go of old habits or preconceptions.

However, habits are often hard to break, and conflict may result when there is a breakdown in communication. Effective coaches can manage the conflict in ways that produce positive results. When conflicts arise over minor issues, they can usually be managed by talking it through with team members. When conflicts become more critical, they can be better managed through mediation or conflict resolution techniques. For example, if a serious issue such as racial bias or discrimination surfaces, formalized mediation through a counselor and/ or administrator would be appropriate. Through conflict, players can examine their own concepts, give evidence to support their position, stimulate creativity and devise resolutions that promote group identity and harmony (Qordan, 1996). Conflict is unavoidable, but "...conflict is healthy when dealt with in a mature, respectful, and open manner and ... it can enhance understanding and communication among team members and the coach" (Vernacchia, McGuire & Cook, 1996).
Just as internal conflict can yield positive outcomes, a variety of fresh ideas can be generated from both internal and external collaboration. Forming internal alliances takes place through team building, fostering open and honest communication, and clearly defining roles and responsibilities. Individuals are not always able to attain the same levels of achievement alone that they can when they are members of a team. For example, players who have limited talent but work cooperatively are often victorious over more talented players who do not cooperate. Such cooperation, then, generally results in an esprit de corps among all team members.

A Successful Coach
· Has good interpersonal skills
· Strikes a balance between personal and professional relationships
· Manages conflicts in ways that produce positive results
· Defines team roles and responsibilities
· Collaborates with others to enhance his/her sports programs
· Helps players establish their personal goals
· Develops a consensus on team goals Strives for excellence rather than perfection
· Trusts team members to achieve goals
· Attends professional professional seminars and workshops

Partnerships, coalitions, and alliances with organizations that have similar missions can enhance sports programs. The collaboration can be formal or informal, and depends upon the needs of those involved. Benefits of collaboration include streamlining services, increasing credibility and visibility of all parties, and developing networking opportunities (Yoder & Ham, 1999). For instance, coaches from a specific region might work to develop and implement a summer fitness program or competitive developmental league to enhance the skills of their players and to better understand the methods of their opponents. Coaches should conduct an assessment of their program before they consider an alliance. Assessment should include measuring the knowledge, skills, and abilities of team members to identify specific areas in which players as individuals or a team can benefit. Coaches should then work to develop strategies that focus on sharing the team's vision, thinking conceptually, facilitating opportunities for growth and development of team members and building trust and respect.

To be successful, coaches and players must share the same goals, with personal goals synonymous with team goals. Success is not always possible, but failure does not have to be devastating. Coaches work best when they provide a non-threatening environment that allows for failure, but encourages the creativity and risks that lead to fresh, new strategies and techniques. Fresh ideas help teams reduce the possibility of stagnation. What others may perceive as failure, cooperative teams view as stepping stones to success. Teams and individuals operate best when challenged; the coach's role is to clearly communicate the ends to which the challenges are directed.

When a team or individuals strives for perfection, they limit creativity by playing it safe. Excellence, on the other hand, is not perfection, and is a process, not an end. It is what every player and team should strive for. When coaches demand perfection, they limit team knowledge, skills and abilities. The best the team can do is meet the coach's expectation, never exceed it. The pursuit of excellence involves going beyond expectations, not simply staying within the established confines of perfection.

Coaches can foster excellence and satisfaction when they encourage motivation. To motivate team members, coaches must first recognize their individual needs. Needs such as achievement, power, affiliation, autonomy, esteem, safety, security and equity can serve as motivators for individuals (Berryman-Fink & Fink, 1996). Coaches should have a professional relationship with each player in order to identify and meet those needs, and do so within the context of the team's operational goals. Methods include assisting players in establishing their goals, developing consensus on team goals with the players, then clarifying the connection between the two. Coaches who attend to each player's progress through feedback and recognition produce higher levels of individual and team performance required to achieve goals.

A coach must have the confidence and trust that team members will achieve the defined goals. Confidence means s/he puts the team in a position of authority and imbues the players with the power to accomplish specific tasks. By delegating authority, the coach assigns responsibility and accountability. For instance, if a coach assigns an assistant coach to conduct summer workouts, the assistant should be held accountable for the success of the workouts provided s/he had the authority to conduct them as supported by the coach. Similarly, the coach must supply the assistant with the tactical, mental and physical preparatory support necessary for success. The concept also applies to the coach's relationship with the team. The coach offers the support and guidance, and makes the appropriate decisions-but the game is largely in the hands of the players, who must be trusted to pursue and achieve individual and team goals.

The blueprint for effective sport leadership includes, but is not limited to, the strategies described above. A thorough understanding of these strategies will allow coaches to be more effective leaders on and off the playing field.

Berryman-Fink, C. & Fink, C. (1996). Manager's desk reference (2"' ed.). New York: American Management Association.
Carlzon, J. (1987). Moments of truth. New York: Harper Perennial.
Jordan, D. J. (1996). Leadership in leisure services: Making a difference. State College, PA: Venture.
Jordan, M. (1994).1 can't accept not tn,ing. San Francisco, CA: Harper.
Maxwell, J. C. (1999). The 21 indispensable qualities of a leader. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Pitino, R. (1997). Success is a choice. New York: Broadway.
Vernacchia, R., McGuire, R. & Cook, D., (1996). Coaching mental excellence. Portola Valley, CA: 4farde Publishers.
Yoder, D. G., and Ham, L.L. (1999). Partnerships. In B. Van der Smissen, M. Moiseichik, V. J. Hartenburg, and L. F. Twardski (Eds.). Management of park and recreation agencies. (pp. 75-97). Ashburn, VA: National Recreation and Park Association.

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