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How One Leader Can Change Everything

Leadership is one of the most important factors in team success. In addition to the leadership provided by coaches and managers, it's equally...

Leadership is one of the most important factors in team success.  In addition to the leadership provided by coaches and managers, it’s equally important to have great player leadership.  Like many coaches, I work hard at recruiting student leaders, and oversee a diligent selection process for team captains.  However, I had no formal training in place to better develop leaders.  It wasn’t until after our 2000 season that I decided to create a leadership training program.

Our 1999 team was one of the best teams in the history of collegiate women’s soccer.  Our consecutive minutes without a goal and our plus-98 goal differential are still benchmarks.  We were undefeated, untied, and ranked No. 1 the entire season.
Halfway through the following season, our record was barely over 500 and we were struggling. The second half of that season we righted the ship, made the NCAA tournament and defeated Cal Poly SLO, Cal, and BYU on the road.  Eventually, we lost in sudden death, double overtime at Notre Dame in the quarterfinals.  After that season, I tried to understand why we had such a roller coaster ride from the high of 1999, to the low of 2000 midseason, back to the high of the 2000 NCAA tournament.  
The answer was student leadership. Danielle Slaton was one of our team captains from 1999-2001.  However, Danielle missed the first half of our 2000 season while she was winning a silver medal with our U.S. Women’s National Team at the Olympic Games in Sydney.  Shortly after her return, things started to turn around.  Danielle’s presence was felt in the locker room, on the training field, on game day, in film sessions, and meetings and in the hotel. While Danielle was certainly an outstanding player, it was her leadership, more that her ability, that our team was missing during the first half of the 2000 season.
while there are varying degrees of leadership aptitude, leadership was trainable
I didn’t want our success to rely so heavily on my ability to recruit a great leader, so I started to research leadership development.  What I discovered was that while there are varying degrees of leadership aptitude, leadership was trainable. I needed to heavily invest in the development of our student leaders. In January 2001, I started a leadership training program.
Although January is in the middle of the academic year, it’s at the beginning of our soccer year as we build toward the national championship each December.  We decided the size of the leadership group would be four to six for a team of 24-30 players.  We gathered evaluations from players, coaches, trainers, managers, tutors, and others to increase the likelihood of selecting the students with leadership aptitude.  We defined leadership as the ability to influence others, as opposed to someone who simply did the right thing.  
Once the leadership team is selected we begin once-a-week meetings, which last the rest of the year.  In the first meeting, we talk about the importance of confidentiality.  Without confidentiality, we cannot have frank and forthright conversation about topics that may include misconduct, disrespect, accountability, and playing time. We also covered the importance of earning the respect of the rest of the group through genuine servant leadership: putting the needs of the team above our own.  Finally, we discuss and begin to define our short- and long-term leadership goals.
One of the most important responsibilities for the leadership group is to run player-only meetings.  We discuss the importance of timing, organization, tone, content, participation, objectives, and outcomes.  We spend time reviewing and evaluating the effectiveness of these meetings to make sure they continue to improve.  
it pays to invest in your team's leadership
This model for leadership played a major role in winning the 2001 National Championship and remains an integral part of our program today. The bigger lesson though, is that it pays to invest in your team's leadership. The outcome is invaluable, including helping to create a culture of success that will greater insure program success going forward on and off the field.  The return on this investment is immeasurable when you think of the number of people that are potentially impacted by your leaders, your leader's leaders, and so on.
Athletics, Leadership
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