“Who are your leaders?”
I like asking the players on a team who their leaders are. Inevitably they start by naming the captains, and maybe they’ll throw in another veteran guy who isn’t a captain but is well respected, or just someone they like. Usually their answers are about who they’ve been told – either by the coaches, by the veterans, or by some sort of team vote – the leaders are. The structure of leadership dictates the leadership, as opposed to those with the necessary ability to lead. So many losing teams realize during or after a difficult season that the wrong people were anointed as the leaders.
“Who are the guys we can trust to do everything right?”
The answer to that question is usually different than the answer to the first question. I find that a lot of teams have guys on them who are well-respected, who work extremely hard and do everything they are asked. They are great teammates and the guys that everyone in the locker room knows they can count on. But they aren’t necessarily the leaders.
Why not? Because we too often treat leadership as a rank, not a skill. We assign leadership to players who fall into three categories – older, better, and louder. If you asked who the captains were on every team in the country, I’d better a strong majority of those captains would be players who were older, who were good players, and who weren’t afraid to speak up. But those three things don’t make them great leaders. I’ve coached a lot of all-league players who when they were juniors and seniors still wanted no part of the leadership responsibilities. It wasn’t comfortable to them. They wanted to be good players, but by asking them to lead I was putting them in place where they weren’t comfortable.
As coaches, shouldn’t we make sure that the guys who lead our team are the guys that do everything right?
I give Jay Wright a ton of credit for naming Ryan Arcidiacono as one of his captains when he was a freshmen. Not something you see very often, but clearly Wright saw the leadership ability he wanted and disregarded age and ability – no way Archie was going to be one of his best players as a freshmen. But he was his best leader.
We need to do a better job of defining leadership for our players and making sure they understand what we expect out of them as leaders. And not just a few of them – all of them. There is no reason to delegate leadership to a select few. What if your best point guard is a freshman? You might have some great leaders who are a little bit younger or don’t necessarily speak up as much, and you won’t discover them if you assign leadership to just a couple of guys. Define what leadership is, keep it simple, and ask everyone to lead and you’ll get the most out of your team.
When I ask players who their leaders are, and then I ask them why the players who do everything right aren’t their leaders, I usually get similar answers. They tell me “Well, it really isn’t my place to lead because I’m new here,” or “I’m not really a starter, I don’t play that much, so I don’t really feel comfortable.” Well, as a player, if you are saying those words, you are accepting losing. There’s no other way to put it. You have an ability to help your team, but you aren’t using that ability because you don’t think it’s your place. You aren’t comfortable. That’s a cop-out. Do everything in your power to help your team, and don’t stand by flimsy excuses. The path to winning championships is uncomfortable, so get used to it.
I’ll also hear a lot, “He doesn’t listen to the coaches, so there’s no way he’s going to listen to me.” That’s just plain not true. Another cop-out. Internal accountability within a team, amongst the players, is essential to elite success. It’s one thing if a kid is late to a class and he has to run as punishment or the coaches are going to give him a hard time. It’s another thing if he knows by being late to a class that he’s letting his teammates down. That his teammates feel like they can’t count on him. Violating a rule put forth by the coach is an issue, but it’s considered somewhat common amongst teams – everyone makes mistakes, “my bad,” you serve your penalty and move on. But continuing to cross his teammates when he knows that behavior is unacceptable to them? The pressure to live up to your internal standards with your teammates is greater than the pressure to abide by team rules.
Players can have a huge impact on the accountability level in their own locker room, yet too often the wrong players are leading that room. So as a player, if you care about winning, you want that accountability to come from you. Don’t make those standard excuses.
As a coach, it’s my job to make sure my players are comfortable doing so. I want the guys who do everything right, who care a great deal, who take the right approach, who are trustworthy and reliable, to be leading my locker room. I want their voices to be heard. And if that’s the case, I have to make sure that I empower them to do that. If they are making excuses or not comfortable stepping up, it’s my job to change that environment.
If the wrong people are leading that room when I’m not in there, that’s on me.