December 16, 2016 • Coaching

Between the Lines: Senior leaders can build sustained success

Kevin Hoffman

Senior players are an asset to every team, and coaches who don’t take full advantage of their leadership and influence are missing an enormous opportunity.

Over the past decade, any time I’ve spoken with a coach whose team failed to meet expectations, their shortcomings can be traced back to a single cause — chemistry. Their teams included all-state talent or college-bound athletes, but once they took the floor or field a critical element was missing. They didn’t communicate, they didn’t fight for one another, and they certainly didn’t hold teammates accountable. That became their downfall.

A natural leader is a rare gem. And when those invaluable players spend a couple of years in your program, they gain the wisdom and confidence to put that leadership into full effect. That’s what makes seniors so vital to winning teams.

Not all seniors bring these qualities, but most have something to offer the next generation of leaders ascending through your program. It’s up to the coaching staff to create an environment where that development can take place.

Many coaches have these programs in place. It might be a “buddy system” where seniors pair up with newcomers, or a retreat where teammates can interact with one another away from the game. Young players tend to be timid and reserved, while the seniors are experienced and outgoing. The goal is putting your freshmen and sophomores on a path to becoming your next leadership group.


Frank Dixon, a coach at Carmel High School (Indiana), talked about this system at length when we once featured his program. Dixon’s soccer teams have won nine state championships, and he attributed part of his success to the interactions among his players and the relationships they develop.

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“I tell those senior leaders if we’re going to win, we need these (younger) kids,” Dixon said. “So you have to make these kids feel comfortable. Not just whoever might make the varsity team, but those following them who might make the varsity team somewhere down the road. They’ve got to feel at home, and they take to it.”

This is a system that builds over time as the protégés grow up, take the reins of the leadership program, and eventually pass the torch to those in waiting. But it can’t happen unless the coaching staff guides them.

There have been numerous stories in recent years about hazing rituals, where senior team members “welcome” newcomers with an embarrassing or dangerous prank. Athletes see this as a rite of passage, but the truth is it drives players apart, creating an atmosphere of distrust and resentment. Coaches who see hazing as an acceptable part of their program are sabotaging their chances of success.

Start by making it clear that hazing is not tolerated, and those who break the rules are off the team — no exceptions. Then, meet with the leaders and explain how if they really want to make a difference and leave their legacy, they can do it by mentoring younger players to one day fill their shoes.

Winning a conference, state or national championship is a great challenge, but establishing a solid leadership system is incredibly simple with the right approach. Never forget that the foundation of any great program is built outside of competition.

Kevin Hoffman is the editorial director of Coach & Athletic Director. He can be reached at [email protected].

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