I watched a lot of really good basketball this weekend. I was in Atlanta, Augusta and Birmingham at different points watching Nike, Under Armour and Adidas tournaments with high level players and coaches. It was great competition and a great evaluation environment, with college coaches getting to see the best play against the best (why do we want less of this again???).

I was close to one huddle late in a tight game and I heard one coach repeatedly telling one player “Now is the time to step up and be a leader! We need you to be a leader!” I wondered immediately if the kid knew what that actually meant. I assume he took it as “go out and make the plays we need you to make to win the game.” Step up and be a good player. It was another scenario that made me think about how we define leadership for our players, if we do at all. Truth is this was a very well-coached team and I’m in no way criticizing this coach, and I have no idea if he has or has not defined what leadership means for his team. But I hope that he has, because undefined leadership is a very vague term that can mean a lot of different things to different people. To most I suspect it means “go be a good player.”

There are two questions you can ask yourself when trying to establish leadership on your team.

  1. What do I want my leaders to do?
  2. Who on my team can do those things the best?

The first question is something you really need to think about. It’s a lot deeper than just “be leaders” or “show leadership every day.” What are the specific behaviors you are looking for out of the leaders of your team? There are so many different answers to that question, but those behaviors have to fit in with the culture of your team and what is really important to you. And it helps to be specific when answering this question. There is a difference between “Speak up” and “Be willing to confront teammates bad behavior.”

The second question will help you figure out how to coach and develop those behaviors that are important to you. I really think it’s essential that you ask kids to do what they are capable of doing and then challenge them to do it better, as opposed to asking kids to step out of character to fit your own definitions. Some kids aren’t vocal leaders, or aren’t willing or capable of standing up to their teammates to confront bad behavior. Trying to make the leader you want out of a player who doesn’t want to do it, or isn’t really capable of it, is only going to make him worse. A lot of coaches fall into this trap, talking about leadership in general terms and then trying to demand it out of the wrong people. Being older, being louder, or being the best player doesn’t necessarily make you a leader.

So start to define what leadership means to you by asking those two questions. You’ll learn what’s important to you as a coach and who can help you deliver the message. And the good thing is it is always evolving, so you won’t find one black and white answer. As your team learns and grows, so will your leadership approach.

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