Developing Leadership Skills

Choosing a captain is one of the first and sometimes more difficult decisions you make at the beginning of the season. But once the appointment is made, your work has just begun. The process of developing leadership skills in your captains is ongoing. Every day, all season long. Don’t assume they will automatically be a good leader.

Developing leadership skills

Even if you believe they have the right personality, they’re a talented athlete, or have already demonstrated skills as a ‘natural leader’. A captain’s influence is powerful. If you spend the time to specifically help your captain develop into the type of leader you want, you will be able to make sure their influence is in line with your vision and direction for the team.


2 Keys to Developing Leadership Skills

First: Establish the relationship you want

It’s essential at the beginning of the season to have a meeting with your captains and set expectations. What do you expect from them? What are their roles and responsibilities? I recommend that you start by asking them what they think their role should be and what they want as responsibilities. Not every captain every season should have the same exact roles and responsibilities. Sometimes things should adjust based on talents and passions.

For example, one year I had a captain passionate about music, so she wanted to make sure we always had fresh playlists for warm-up and a great pre-competition pump-up playlist. So that was one of her responsibilities. She still had other more traditional roles, but because she had her own ‘passion project’ she was motivated to do her best in all of her roles as a captain. Another year, a captain was passionate about makeup so she researched new team lipsticks and did tutorials for the team.  Another captain was passionate about new and creative strength and conditioning drills to keep things interesting so she was always changing things up… you get the idea. Have a conversation so you know what your captains are passionate about and find a way to include that in their responsibilities.

Get together

Meetings like that first meeting should happen regularly. We used to meet weekly, but decide what works for you. For us, it was every Wednesday before practice. Sometimes it was 5 minutes. What’s going on this week? What do we have coming up that we need to be thinking about? Any concerns I need to know about? Sometimes it was 20-30 minutes if there was a big event coming up or they had a bigger concern we needed to discuss.

Communicate Your Coaching Style

Whatever your coaching style, communicate it to your captains. This is your chance to give them a little ‘behind the scenes’. Why do you make the decisions you make? What’s your driving force? What are your coaching values that you fall back on? Remember you are a role model first, then they are a role model for the team. If you let them into your world a little bit (but they don’t need to know EVERYTHING) it will help model for them what it’s like to be a leader. That will help them understand how to lead within your coaching philosophy so they are always supporting you rather than going against you.

Second: Developing Leadership Skills Through Feedback

Developing leadership skills

It’s all about the feedback! Giving feedback to your athletes is one of your biggest and most important jobs as a coach. Of course, it’s not that simple. There are different kinds of feedback with different consequences.

It’s important for you to understand how to give feedback so you can model it for your captains. You can teach them the right skills to give feedback to their teammates as well as model how to receive feedback.

Good Job Coach

The “Good Job” Coach is the one who is always positive and excited when the team finishes their performance. While it sounds good to be positive on a regular basis, research shows this actually hurts motivation. Let’s be honest, there are some performances, maybe a basketball game, or a fourth-quarter band dance that are just terrible.  Even the best teams don’t meet their own standards every time. You can’t just say ‘good job ladies’ and move on. We often get in a rush and don’t offer REAL feedback after a performance. Even the little performances deserve feedback. If you only say good job without ever offering real constructive criticism, they will stop listening.  So if that halftime performance was just ‘meh’ let them know. But make sure you say WHY it wasn’t their best and what you’re going to focus on in practice next time so it’s better in the future.

Negative Approach

Developing Leadership Skills

The second approach is the negative approach. This is when a coach only gives feedback about problems. If you only give feedback when they make a mistake or need to fix something but never when you notice improvement you create a culture where they are thirsty for any sort of compliment and nervous to make a mistake. If you want them to push themselves and continue to strive for improvement, you have to throw in the positive (but REAL) comments every once and a while. It’s all about balance.

Sandwich Approach

That leads me to the third approach. You have probably heard of the sandwich approach or positive approach. This is where you say something positive, give a constructive comment, then say something encouraging to close. Now, this isn’t necessary EVERY time you correct an athlete. That gets a little ridiculous. Sometimes you just give instructional feedback like “straighten your arms in your T” “tighten your core” etc. and move on. However, in a stressful or intense situation, the sandwich approach will give you the best results.

For example, what if one of your athletes make a big mistake on the practice floor at nationals? You are minutes away from taking the floor and now they are stressed… what do you say? Sandwich: positive, constructive, positive. You could try something like: “The energy that first time was amazing! When we take the floor in a few minutes think about your prep for the turn section. Breath out, and focus on the prep count so you don’t take off early. I believe in you let’s do it!” This provides your dancer with a constructive thing to think about when they are on the floor rather than “what if I mess this up?!” and it offers them positive encouragement to boost their confidence. Feedback at it’s best.

Feedback at Practice

Practice situations are different. During practice, your feedback should focus on instructions. So constructive helpful comments alone are very effective. They don’t take a lot of time and you can offer individual feedback quickly. After working a section, throw out as many constructive corrections as you can remember and move on. I used to type while watching or talk into a voice recorder app to help me note more constructive comments. Also, it became part of our culture that when you receive constructive feedback, you say ‘Thank you” and that’s it. So there’s no explanation for why they missed the count that time or long diatribe about why there was a big mistake. You just take the feedback and move forward. (Don’t you hate it when you give a comment and they start going off about why it was a weird fluke or it was because so-and-so did this… ugh just fix it and let’s move on!) Captains should model the ‘thank you’ the most, and also say thank you when a peer gives them a constructive correction.

Not Just Verbal Feedback

Feedback is not just verbal. Part of developing leadership skills is to help your captains understand that their non-verbal feedback is just as, if not more important than their verbal feedback. It’s essential that they are a role model for positive body language as well as how to give and receive good feedback. This takes practice and instruction on your part, don’t assume they know how to do it properly.

Developing Leadership Skills

Are You Willing to Take the Feedback Challenge With Your Captains?

If you really want to grow as a coach and develop leadership skills in your captains I challenge you to audio record a practice and then listen to it with your captains. Track the comments that you make and classify them into categories. (If you go off on a silly tangent story you can ignore that, or stop tracking when you’re talking about what to do at the game tomorrow. This is for active coaching during practice when you are teaching skills, cleaning routines, etc. A 30-60 minute sample is great.)

Categories are: Instructional, Positive Feedback, and Praise, Restructuring or Scolding WITH instruction, Encouraging intensity and motivation.

Here’s the break down of the IDEAL percentages:

70% Instructional

10% Positive feedback and praise

5% Restructuring or scolding with instruction

15% Encouraging intensity and motivation

See where you fall. Do you really offer instructional feedback 70% of the time? Or are you a little bit of a “good job” coach and your positive feedback is closer to 30% and instructional more like 50%?

Developing Leadership Skills in your Captains

After modeling for your captains, record a practice where they are primarily teaching and talk to them about the results as well. However, research shows that peer leadership should look a little different than coach leadership. To maintain a positive motivational climate where athletes respect their captains and appreciate their leadership, captain percentages should be a little heavier on the positive encouragement and a little less instructional. You’ll probably notice that different captains have very different balances.

Challenge in Action

One year I had two captains who were very different and balanced each other, but we made a clear effort to help each of them achieve a better balance within their own leadership style. Elle was about 50% encouraging and intensity. That was her passion and her role! She was always encouraging, yelling throughout a routine or strength drill to keep everyone pumped. The team needed her and always asked her to make she kept doing it. When we met, we talked about how that should stay, but she could add in individualized positive feedback. Not taking away the level of intensity and encouragement, but if she added in small bits of instruction here and there, the team would eat it up and appreciate the feedback.

Then there was her counterpart Tristan. She could get very serious. She had such a passion for dance and a competitive heart that she would be very serious when we were practicing. When we talked she realized she doesn’t say much that’s positive. She was surprised actually, because she always FELT positive about what was going on around her, but didn’t realize she rarely SAID anything positive. She was all instructional, and she was so talented the girls listened, but she hated that she was the ‘bad cop’ captain to Elle’s positive encouragement. Listening to a practice helped her realize how serious she sounds and helped her learn to add in more positive encouragement which the team loved because they knew if Tristan liked it, it must have been good!

Believe me, sitting down and actually calculating what you say can be a very eye-opening experience. You may think you have a great balance, but I bet you’d be surprised at the actual numbers. For even better results, sample a few different days. Are you or your captains a different type of leader if you’re working on game material vs. two days before a competition? It shouldn’t be different, but it probably is!

A Genuine Leader is the Best Leader

Developing Leadership Skills

Remember that you are actively developing the leadership skills of your captain. Her own skills, not creating a coach’s mini-me. Captains are a different kind of leader! They are not your assistant coach and they shouldn’t have the same roles and expectations as a coach. A captain’s role is to be inclusive and be a supporter. Teaching your captains to model the positive feedback approach and find a balance in their own leadership style with constant check-ins between you all season will go a long way in achieving your goals this season. What happens when you have a great captain? One of the big differences is more team cohesion. With more cohesion, more unity, your team will be unstoppable this year.


Related Posts by Passionate Coach

The 3 Most Important Leadership Qualities to Look for in a Captain

How to Coach for Monumental Success: Challenge them with Deliberate Practice

Learn What Happens When You Teach Accountability


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