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High Level, Action Points to Teach Leadership to Athletes

Complied by Coach Brian Williams


I have collected the following bullet points over a period of 15 years from the best leadership student and educator that I know–Dr. Cory Dobbs.  


I encourage you to not just read this as a quick skim, but to take some time to think deeply about each of bullets below and how you can apply them in your program for the benefits of the student athletes that you lead.


If you are interested in contacting Cory to learn more, I have his contact information at the bottom of this article.  Enjoy!


  • As a leadership educator your main task is to create a psychologically safe environment in which your players want to learn how to become team leaders.

  • You have more to do with a team leader’s learning to lead—or not learning—than you probably realize that you do.


  • A learning climate characterized by trust and openness is critical to encourage young people to respect and appreciate their teammates, coaches and the learning process.


  • The process of navigating life’s challenges should be the over-arching goal of learning to lead.


  • Student-athletes need permission to make mistakes.  Healthy relationships transform conflict into cooperation.


  • Ultimately, you have more to do with a team leader’s learning to lead—or not learning—than you probably thought you did.


  • Student-athletes should have a sense of purpose as it relates to leadership.  They need to have an answer to the question “Why lead?”


  • Characteristics of some coaches that hurt their ability to teach leadership, (and are CAREER KILLERS)

    • We’re pretty good at directing our players to change, but not so great at changing ourselves.
    • Is overly demanding
    • Doesn’t listen
    • Is intolerant of dissent
    • Takes the credit for success
    • Blames others for mistakes
    • Is untrustworthy—doesn’t do what he says he’ll do
    • Is aloof—seen as arrogant
    • Has a dictatorial style
    • Is abrasive
    • Uses a transactional style of conversation that focuses on exchanging information, facts, or opinions, without much attention to the emotional or relational aspects of the interaction
    • Avoiding accountability to stakeholders
    • Need to be right in all situations


  • Student-athletes should begin to develop an awareness of their individual strengths and weaknesses as leaders.  They need feedback.


  • Studies have shown that, extroverts have no special advantage in leadership over introverts. Extroverts tend to be more visible, and assertive, but those are only situational advantages.


  • Introverts tend to process more information and do so more accurately as they are able to mitigate the influence of emotion. Introverts seldom need the emotional stimuli that an extrovert requires.

  • Knowing who the team’s introverts and extroverts are can go a long way in building deep and durable interpersonal relationships.


  • Every leadership act and the reception of those acts involve trust.  It is expressed in every encounter.


  • Cognitive Trust is knowledge-driven. It emerges from one’s knowledge of the situation and expressed by alignment of a coach’s words and actions. This allows a player to predict whether or not a coach is to be trusted in certain situations.
  • Affective Trust is the emotion-driven element of trust that can create either great depth of relationship, or shallow transactional interactions. Affective trust arises from one’s feelings generated by the level of care and concern demonstrated by the coach.
  • Procedural Trust:  The process-driven component to leadership trust.  To achieve objectives every team has a wide range of systems or procedures—ways of doing things. Your offensive/defensive style and philosophy are bounded by procedures. Coaches are seemingly always “selling” their system and looking for “buy in” by the student-athlete.
  • Purposive Trust:  This is the mission-driven component. Shared values and shared goals, as they relate to the growth and development of the student-athlete, form the foundation of purposive trust. This type of trust refers to your actions having or serving a purpose that benefits all today and tomorrow.
  • If we are unwilling or unable to get beyond the fixation on linear cause-effect chains (A caused B which Caused C)–sequential thinking that cause and effect are closely related in time and space–we’ll be unprepared to deal with complexity (team building and interpersonal relationships) and adversity (conflict and chaos) when it strikes.
  • In order to fully understand relationship problems, to get a glimpse of the underlying reasons why unhealthy relationships emerge, we have to have the skills and patience to “go upstream” and find the formative experiences. 
  • Your credibility is at stake daily.  You need to re-earn it every day.
  • If you’re not growing team leaders, then it’s likely the problem is not the seed, it’s the soil (the program culture).

  • When a student-athlete takes on a leadership role it’s important to understand that he or she will learn primarily through trial and error (which is why I firmly believe in deliberate practice—scrimmage—as a way to reduce perceived risks). 
  • Learning to lead teammates requires learning in front of one’s peers, and this is intimidating.  The peer learning environment brings a perceived risk of appearing ignorant and incompetent in front of one’s peers.
  • Because most student-athletes have little experience at leading, which includes making mistakes in front of teammates, such fears as embarrassment and rejection are always present.  Many student-athletes are reluctant to take action or to speak up or speak out for fear that their actions will be held against them by teammates.  And this discourages young men and women from taking leadership actions.
  • To neutralize such fears, it’s in every one’s best interest to create a psychologically safe environment.  Psychological safety is the shared understanding that the team is an environment where members will not embarrass, disrespect, disregard, or punish a teammate for taking action.  All members understand that a supportive learning environment is necessary to building a psychologically safe team context.
  • Always keep in mind that the team leader is engaging in learning a new mindset as well as a new skill-set.
  • Leadership is a social influence process of motivating team members to achieve individual and team goals and the team’s mission.  As such, the norms that emerge from team member interactions will create team dynamics that build a team’s culture.
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  • If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Cory Dobbs’ work, you can contact him at (623) 330-3831 or email
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